Matt Fitzgerald discusses the differences between the various speed and distance devices available, and helps you find the one that will work for you.
Before you can train with a speed and distance device, you have to own one. The purchase of a speed and distance device is one you’ll want to make carefully. These tools are not cheap, so it’s important that you know as much as possible about the model you favor before you take it home, lest you suffer from $150 or more worth of buyer’s remorse. There are significant differences between models, and none of them is every runner’s favorite. You will greatly increase the odds of purchasing a device you’re happy with if you first educate yourself about all of the major brands.
There are five important factors to consider before making your purchase. Let’s take a quick look at each.
GPS or Accelerometer
Some speed and distance devices use global positioning system (GPS) technology to generate pace and distance data. Others use accelerometer technology. GPS-based devices are more convenient because they do not require calibration, as accelerometer-based devices do. In addition, GPS-based devices allow you to map your routes, whereas accelerometer-based devices do not.
Accelerometer-based devices have advantages too. They tend to be significantly more accurate than GPS-based devices on running tracks. Also, unlike GPS-based devices, accelerometer-based devices can be used both indoors (on treadmills) and outdoors.
A select few units can be converted from GPS-based to accelerometer-based and vice versa. For example, the Garmin Forerunner 305 is sold as a GPS-based device but you can purchase an optional foot pod that converts the unit to an accelerometer for use on tracks and treadmills.
Integrated Heart Rate Monitor
Some speed and distance devices are sold with integrated heart rate monitors and some are not. If you’re not interested in monitoring your heart rate along with your pace and distance, you can save a few bucks by purchasing a device without an integrated heart rate monitor. Note that, true to its heritage as a heart rate monitor manufacturer, Polar only sells speed and distance devices with a built-in heart rate monitor.
Special Functions and Features
There’s a basic set of functions and features that are found on all speed and distance devices. For example, all units offer some capacity to preprogram workouts onto the device. But there are some special features and functions that are specific to certain products. Be sure to learn about these features before you buy.
Only Garmin devices allow the user to program 10 separate pace zones, making these devices easy to use with the Pace Zone Index. Polar’s RS800 speed and distance device has a feature called Running Index that scores every run you perform by quantifying your fitness level with calculations based on the relationship between your pace and heart rate. The software that comes with the Timex Ironman Bodylink features a unique “Course Statistics” page that allows you to inspect the gradient of hill climbs and so forth.
There are many other examples of special features that are only found in particular speed and distance device models. Which ones are most important to you?
If you’re a triathlete, you might be interested in buying a run speed and distance device that you can also use on the bike-and perhaps even in the pool. Such models do exist.
Polar’s high-end “multisport computer” is a GPS-based speed and distance device with integrated heart rate monitor that can also be linked up with power sensors, allowing you to truly do it all with a single device. Some Garmin and Timex speed and distance devices can be mounted on a bike handlebar and used as a cycling computer. Suunto sells packages for triathletes as well. Along with a heart rate monitor strap and foot pod they include a pedaling cadence sensor and a spoke-mounted sensor that delivers bike speed and distance data to the display watch, which is worn during both cycling and running. This setup allows you to easily capture data for a complete “brick” workout or triathlon event.
The best possible way to pick a speed and distance device would be to wear-test all of them and go with your favorite. That’s not a realistic possibility, so the best alternative is to wear-test by proxy-in other words, to gather reviews from the owners of the various devices. Google a phrase such as “Garmin Forerunner reviews” and you will be led to product evaluations from commercial websites, bloggers and others. This research should help lead you to the device that is most ideal for your needs.