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7 Things to Know About GPS Watches

A guide to finding the right high-tech watch for you.

Much has changed in the GPS running watch world in the past couple years. Run-focused watches have dramatically upped their game, largely driven by the appearance of the Apple Watch, a non-GPS watch requiring an iPhone for GPS. Although your older watch can still track the basics of GPS distance and pace just fine, here is what you can expect from an upgrade.

1. Heart rate on the wrist

No one really likes those chest straps, despite the valuable guidance they provide training and racing. Many GPS watches now offer wrist-based heart rate monitoring through optical light sensors on the back of the watch. Increasingly, they also provide 24/7 heart rate monitoring, a key to determining your overall status and stress. They rapidly approach, and in some conditions surpass, chest straps in run reliability and accuracy. But they have yet to provide all the data of the chest approach such as heart rate variability.

2. Sleep, activity and physiology

Many modern GPS watches track not only your workout, but through accelerometers can also track your sleep quality. And they can track your total daily activity—those “steps and stairs.” When used with heart rate monitoring, many can analyze the intensity of your workout and advise on recovery time until the next hard effort. Although none we know of so far takes the entirety of a day’s heart and activity data to fine-tune recovery time.

3. More sensors

GPS watches are essentially a collection of sensors. It starts with a GPS sensor, which, when connected to the app, updates the location of satellites for faster acquisition and greater accuracy at workout go time. Higher-end multisport watches can include altimeter, barometer, compass and even a thermometer. For mountain runners, data such as percent grade, vertical speed, altitude and ascent decent can be displayed live. The same accelerometers that capture activity and sleep also capture cadence. Many watches can also read, display and store data from external sensors such as heart rate chest straps and wrist bands, bike sensors and even run power sensors. Be aware that external sensors can operate on one or both of two
frequencies, ANT+ and Bluetooth, and that your watch must be able to hear the frequency of the sensor used. Garmin only hears ANT+ sensors.

4. Music

Some of us train with music but would prefer to leave the phone behind. There are GPS watches available with 500-song music players and use Bluetooth wireless earpieces. Most new watches also allow basic control of music playing on a nearby phone.

5. Phone notifications and control

Many watches can optionally display phone app notifications, texts and incoming phone call numbers. Some even let you answer the phone to an earpiece.

6. Enhanced apps, web sites and
third-party connections

The apps and websites receiving all your data continue to improve in functionality and reliability. No longer is it necessary to “plug” the watch into a computer to upload workout data. It now streams via Bluetooth to the watch’s phone app and website, where you can review your workouts in far greater detail than just overall time, pace and distance. Then, if you choose, your data can flow automatically to third-party training and social sites.

7. Shapes, sizes, colors and battery life

Don’t like the serious gray look all the time? GPS watches now come in different colors, shapes, interchangeable bands and fashionable bezels. Screens are crisper with overall size, thickness and weight shrinking. As all those sensors get smaller and more efficient, and as communications protocols and software continue to be tuned, battery life, even with wrist heart rate, will likely be better than your old clunker.

RELATED: 9 Tips and Tricks for Your GPS and Heart Rate Monitor