If you have a marathon in your sights, one of the best investments you can make is in a great GPS running watch.
In order to train effectively, you have to be able to track your runs.
A GPS running watch will tell you your running speed and distance while you run. Then, later on, you can track and compare all your runs via your smartphone or computer, using a service like Strava.
Nowadays, running GPS watches often come with a bunch of additional features. These include: estimating your VO2 max, measuring your heart rate, and also tracking your daily activity. Some GPS watches are suited for all kinds of workouts, including swimming. Others – like the Apple Watch – can even make and receive phone calls – if that’s what you’re looking for.
A GPS running watch is particularly important when you’re training for an event like a marathon. You want to be able to log all your run distances, and track your pace, in order to quantify your progress.
Then of course, come marathon day, you want to keep track of how you’re performing on the big event!
These days, I always wear my GPS watch when running – it’s a simple way of recording every run I make, and means I’ve got a library of my training and progress I can check on at any time.
Different GPS watches are suited to different situations – for example, I’ve got a simple Garmin which is great for regular training runs, but it’s battery only lasts around four or five hours. So when I go and run ultras, I take the spruced-up version.
Can’t I Just Use My Phone?
Yes, of course! All smartphones on the market have GPS capabilities.
However, the devil is in the detail. Smartphone GPS technology is not always optimised for outdoors exercise like a GPS running watch is.
Manufacturers like Suunto and Garmin realise that their users primarily use their devices outdoors to track activity, so they prioritise metrics like pace and distance. They also spend a lot of R&D in developing algorithms which work with the raw GPS data to ‘smooth’ it, so it resembles your actual run as closely as it can.
If you’ve ever recorded a workout with your phone that looks spikey and erratic, now you know why!
For accuracy, and for ease of checking my progress, I always reach for my GPS running watch.
What I Look For In A Marathon GPS Watch
Battery life is important when you’re selecting a GPS running watch for your marathon training. The good news is that most GPS watches on the market these days are good for 8 – 10 hours on active GPS tracking mode. Remember to check the specs (all watches I’ve recommended below have 6+ hrs of active GPS tracking mode battery life. Ample for marathon training).
Having an accurate read-out of your metrics is obviously important – there’s nothing worse than trying to check your pace during a run and seeing that your watch thinks you’re running faster than Usain Bolt! So a reliable data read-out is important. All the watches I recommend below pass this test.
In other words, these are things the watch tracks which gives you information about your performance. A watch with a heart-rate monitor is useful, especially if you have been tracking your HR in training runs, or are training based on HR zones.
Altitude is also useful, as you can pace your efforts dependent on the difficulty of the gradients.
Finally, some navigational features can be useful (dependent on the nature of where you run, or your race). I once ran a self-navigated trail race where the race director sent my the trail route as a data file before the race began.
Good Software Platform
Modern technology gives us the ability to go back through the data of our running GPS watches and analyse every aspect of our run.
Most watch manufacturers, such as Garmin and Suunto, have developed their own proprietary platforms. Moreover, apps like Strava are super-popular – and it’s easy to set up your device to export to an app like this.
Comfort and Durability
A good GPS watch should also be comfortable for wearing while running for hours on end, and durable enough to withstand the hours of knocking and sweating they’ll inevitably be exposed to. All the watches I recommend below fall into these camps.
Added bonuses like the ability to sync over wifi, play music, etc. all come down to personal preference and budget.
Best GPS Running Watches for Marathon Training
Here’s my run-down of some of the best GPS running watch options for marathon training.
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great all-rounder watch for marathon training and general activity tracking. Garmin are well-respected for their best-in-class GPS device performance and smart algorithms which accurately map your runs.
The Forerunner 235 has a wrist-based heart rate monitor, a nice big screen, a GPS battery life of up to 11 hrs, and happily shares all kinds of metrics and analysis. The aerobic-zone training feature is a good one – at a glance you can register how hard you’re pushing yourself.
There’s no denying it – these days, the Apple Watch can seriously compete as a GPS sports tracking watch. Apple like to push the Nike Run Club app, but for tracking runs you can equally use Apple’s own platform or install your own – I use Strava with my Apple Watch and it syncs seamlessly. With it’s built-in heart-rate sensor and smart activity monitoring features, the Apple Watch is a good bet if you want a device that tracks your overall wellbeing. I use my Apple Watch as my everyday smartwatch – it’s useful for checking messages and task management.
The main downside of the Apple Watch is that it requires an iPhone to sync to and really take advantage of all the features.
Garmin Forerunner 25 (The Budget Option)
While the rest of the world keeps adding bells and whistles, the Forerunner 25 embraces digital minimalism. This watch hasn’t been changed much in a few years – and that makes me super happy. This watch tells the time, your distance, and pace. That’s it.
(OK it also estimates steps and calories, but those are by-the-by).
You can still connect the watch to a computer and upload / analyse your runs.
If all you’re looking for is a reliable device for monitoring your pace and distance during training, this is the one for you. It usually retails around $100.
Suunto are well-regarded for their devices built for athletes, by athletes, and the Spartan Sport live up to this reputation.
With a GPS battery life of up to 12hrs, the watch is well-suited to distancing running, or other activities. The Suunto Spartan Sport includes GPS navigation, a wrist-based heart-rate monitor, and on-screen route tracking. With over 80 sports modes pre-installed, the watch is perfect for cross-training – or practically any activity you can think of!
The Withings / Nokia Steel HR Hybrid sportswatch offers something a bit different. It looks like a traditional watch – no rugged body or bright, digital display. The Steel wouldn’t look out of place in meetings or formal events.
And at the same time, it has a built-in heart rate monitor, a battery that lasts over 7 hours in GPS mode, and all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from our sports smartwatches!
Which features are important to you when choosing a new GPS watch for marathon training?
Which model are you currently running in?
Anything to recommend to me?
Leave a comment below!