In the picture above, you can see a group of friends hiking with GPS watches on their wrists. A GPS watch costs from $250 up to $600, and goes beyond popular activity trackers.
A GPS watch is expensive, heavy and interrupts us from the core experience. Instead of appreciating nature with a full mind-body connection, a GPS watch encourages us to obsess on artificial numbers.
In a world full of gadgets, do we still need yet another stressful electronic device?
Yet, I am using a Garmin Fenix 3. I will try to explain how I got to use this GPS sport watch and what you can do with GPS sport watches. I have included also a guide of the best GPS sport watches below, which I will update regularly.
An encouragement to go run
Before getting a GPS sport watch, I was commuting by bike and running at most 5km every week. I did casually and I didn’t know how far or how fast I was doing.
Now, I am running from 30 to 40km a week as well as biking, hiking, and many other outdoor and cardiovascular activities.
I have a group of friends and we encourage each other on Facebook to go train. But the increase in weekly mileage is in big part due to the GPS sport watch I have on my wrist 24/7.
Like others in the market such as Polar or Suunto, Garmin offers training plans. I use the 10k training plan. It schedules on average 4 workouts every week, from high intensity interval training, cross training or long slow runs.
The workouts are available on the watch, anywhere. No excuse to bail from a workout! In my mind, the watch is like a virtual coach, and that’s a good thing.
The training plan also highlights your rest days.
Training plans are not available on activity trackers such as Fitbits or Apple Watch. This is a good reason to get a GPS sports watch.
Besides training plans, Garmin also logs your daily activity : steps, sleep, calories. Your friends can then check and compare online. This motivates me on weekends to go take a walk, even though I might have run a half-marathon the day before.
The watch also tracks your PR (personal records), such as best time for 5k or longest distance. Good metrics to send to friends !
Overall, a GPS sports watch pushes you to the next level. I feel much better now. It even encouraged me to pay attention to what I eat, cook more, and have good sleep.
An accurate instrument
For those who are running frequently, a GPS sports watch can also tell you how far and how fast you are running.
You can freely start and end an activity anywhere, which means you can have your own race whenever you like. No need to have a racing staff to put a starting and finishing line!
An iPhone, mobile apps, or an activity tracker can of course offer the same feature. But a dedicated watch will be more precise and will also display it better.
The Garmin Fenix 3, like other GPS running watches, displays pace for instance. Reaching your desired pace is a priority if you want to reach a distance or time goal. For example, I find running 30 seconds faster than my optimal pace will exhaust me quickly, and I will not be able to continue. Having a consistent pace is easy with a GPS watch.
In the same manner, if you are aiming for a time goal, a GPS watch can tell you if you need to speed up or ease off.
Besides pace, another key metric is heart rate. This can be from a chest heart rate monitor (best for accuracy) or from the wrist. There are optimal heart rate ranges for endurance, others for maximum speed and power, or other heart rate ranges for best fat burning. A sports watch will let you know if you are there.
Back at home, you can review in detail your workouts in the online platforms offered by Garmin, Suunto or Polar. See how your performance is improving : further, faster, more often, or better running dynamics. I can see for example where and when I slowed down. I replay in my head what I could have done better. I compare and share with friends. If you have a goal, such as running a race in a few months, or reaching a personal best, the online platforms can help you reach them.
Most GPS sports watches offer extras such as measuring your VO2max, altitude, compass, or if there is going to be a nasty storm soon. It also tracks resting heart rate.
More advanced GPS sports watches can even have third-party apps.
Most of the features are oriented towards encouraging to go outdoors. The Garmin Fenix 3 traces a route for instance when you go hiking in the woods. It will then help you go back to your original starting point. If you feel like walking randomly in new forest, now you can. Now that’s freedom!
Those are very nice features. Compare to a watch like the Apple Watch 2 which offers Uber of Starbuck apps. I much prefer a Garmin !
GPS Sports Watch guide
If you are looking for a GPS sports watch, you are lucky! There are lots to choose from, from various manufacturers. I have recommendations below. Keep in mind I also look into the health benefits of the watch.
Less than $250
If your budget is less than $250, the best choice is a Garmin Vivoactive HR.
With an optical heart rate monitor, it will track your heart rate 24/7. Tracking this vital sign will let you know about your current fitness state.
It is also an good lightweight running, cycling and swimming sports watch.
There are many other tempting sports watch on the market. For $50 less, you can get a Garmin Forerunner 35 or last year’s top of the line Garmin Fenix 2 on eBay. These can be good choices solely for running but lacks in terms of 24/7 heart rate monitoring.
The TomTom Spark has one of the best, if not the best GPS tracking. It is also the only GPS sports watch offering 2GB music storage, and connects to bluetooth earphones.
It’s a must for those who train with music. Music can help finish a workout and reach best performance
This watch also offers one of the most accurate wrist optical heart rate monitor. If it had 24/7 activity tracking, the TomTom Spark would be a top choice!
Best GPS sports watch
If budget is not an issue, I would recommend a Garmin Fenix 3 HR.
Its wrist optical heart rate will let you track your heart rate 24/7. It’s also a sturdy watch that will be a reliable companion, for years to come. I love the fact that its battery lasts for weeks, unlike mobile phones or Android wear phones.
There are competing offers from Suunto (GPS issues), Polar (poor health features), TomTom (no 24/7 health tracking), Samsung (battery only lasts a few days). I find the Garmin Fenix 3 best in its class.
Now, what makes it stand out from the Garmin Vivoactive HR is its outdoor features. It’s built to track your walk in the forests, your trail running. You can download courses, check out the weather, see the elevation. For most of us, we don’t spend enough time outdoors.
In addition, the Fenix 3 will also calculate your stress and your recovery time. I pay attention and do active recovery. Having the Garmin Fenix 3 allows me to follow a sustainable training plan, without overtraining and crashes. This alone is worth the price of the Garmin Fenix 3 HR.
Feel free to ask below for any questions or feedback! I will update this article frequently, depending on what’s available on the market.