GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

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GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby HCcD » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:24 am

As has been discussed many a times on RM ... fyi .... :shifty: :wink: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/20/health/nutrition/gps-watches-may-not-track-runs-accurately.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner
By GINA KOLATA

I used to run with a GPS watch, and at the time it seemed like a technological marvel.

Made by Polar, Garmin, Nike and Timex, global positioning system watches track the distance you have run and your pace, including your average pace and your instantaneous pace. They beep at intervals, like every mile, if you want to train by doing some segments of your course at a faster pace. And when you are finished running, you can download all your data onto your computer.

But after a while, I noticed something disconcerting. My watch might record my run as, say, six miles, but according to Google Maps, the actual distance was more like 6.5 miles.

That kind of discrepancy, of course, plays havoc with your training. The pace calculated by the watch is much too slow, and the run becomes an exercise in frustration.

So I got another watch, from a different maker. It was just as bad, maybe worse. I returned it and got a third one, but that one seemed to be absolutely accurate only once, when I was running along the lakefront in Chicago, under a clear sky with no tall buildings and few trees nearby.

On Sunday, I tried a little experiment with friends who also have GPS watches. I started from my house, and Jen Davis and Martin Strauss started from her house; we met up along the way.

My route was 15.96 miles, according to Google Maps. My watch said it was 15.54. Jen’s watch, an older model, did much better. Her route was 19.1 miles. Her watch said 19.02.

Race organizers know this problem all too well. Douglas Thurston, operations director for the Competitor Group, which organizes Rock ’n’ Roll Marathons, a series of races across the country, braces himself for complaints with every race.

Runners who wore GPS watches start e-mailing him or posting comments on Facebook or Twitter afterward. The course was measured incorrectly, they will say. According to their GPS devices, it was too short.

Mr. Thurston has gotten so used to the complaints that he actually has a generic e-mail reply. No, it says, the course was not wrong. Your GPS device was.

“If someone wants to go to mat on it, I ask them to go to a 400-meter track and run on the inside lane for 12.5 laps. That’s 5,000 meters,” he said in an interview. Then, he tells the runner, check the distance on your GPS device. He guarantees it will not be 5,000 meters.

Martin illustrated this for me recently by running five times around a track at the University of Michigan, where he is a professor of mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. When he downloaded the GPS data onto his computer, every loop around the track was a little different, and none were oval.

In fact, not one of his paths was even curved — they were short segments of lines connected to resemble an oval. Yet he had run in the same lane.

It seems clear enough that a GPS watch is not very accurate, yet online runners’ forums, like one at the Web site of Runners World, are filled with comments from confused athletes who rely on the devices. One poster, for example, ran a half marathon and wore a GPS watch that said the distance was 12.8 miles instead of 13.1.

“Many people are posting on the race’s Web site that theirs came up just as short,” the runner wrote. “I got a pretty stellar PR” — personal record — “and would hate to have a question mark hanging over it.”

Another wrote, “I did an out-and-back run on a rail trail: 5.25 miles out and 5.02 miles back. According to the GPS, I was running 40 m.p.h. for over two minutes.”

What’s wrong with those GPS devices? The problem, say their makers, is that people expect too much. The watches are very much a work in progress. “We all use pretty much the same technology,” said Corey Cornaccio, director of marketing at Polar. The technology is improving, but some inaccuracy remains. “People don’t understand that,” he said.

Trees or clouds or tall buildings can block the satellite signals needed for the devices to track distances. Routes with lots of turns throw them off, too; if you lose the signal as you go around a curve, your device will draw a straight line from where it last saw you to where it found you again. The distance around the curve will not be tracked.

Also, says Martin, there is an accuracy problem caused by something called multipath. “If a satellite signal arrives directly and also bounces off a mountain or nearby building to the receiver, the receiver may be confused as to which signal to use,” he said.

Then again, we had perfect conditions on Sunday — a sunny day, a route with few turns on country roads lined mostly with fields. And my GPS watch still was wrong.

And even though the technologies — and sources of error — are pretty much the same across different devices, they can give sometimes wildly different results, as one runner, 21-year-old Allen Helton, of Richardson, Tex., discovered. Mr. Helton, a college student who works at a running store, recently decided to test GPS watches sold by different makers, older and newer models, on a variety of courses.

All got distances wrong, and none agreed with the others on any of Mr. Helton’s tests. But their worst performance was, as Mr. Helton expected, on a trail run, with trees and twists and turns.

The actual distance was 6.6 miles, and his actual pace was 7 minutes, 37 seconds a mile. The watch that did best said he ran 6.45 miles at a 7:47 pace. The one that did worst said he ran just 5.5 miles at a 9:08 pace.

But Mr. Helton is not throwing his watches away. He has three GPS watches and uses one nearly every time he runs. Then again, unlike most areas where I run, his routes do not have large trees, winding roads and poor satellite reception. On his routes, Mr. Helton said, his GPS device is accurate to within 10 feet of where he actually is.

“To me, that is a very, very accurate watch,” he said.


Last edited by HCcD on Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:33 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby FishHog » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:31 am

I don't know how anyone can expect running laps around a track to be accurate on a gps watch. Most of us run fairly straight lines and when doing that they are fairly accurate.

When I leave my house and hit start, I do an out and back run and after years of doing so at various distances from 5 to 34km I always am within 20' of where I started when it says I've hit my distance. Pretty good if you ask me.

Obviously if I did a very twisty run it wouldn't be so accurate, but still close enough for me.

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby HCcD » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:38 am

FishHog wrote:When I leave my house and hit start, I do an out and back run and after years of doing so at various distances from 5 to 34km I always am within 20' of where I started when it says I've hit my distance. Pretty good if you ask me.


I have various routes that I run regularly and, for me, it is always pretty consistent, from one run to the next ... Sorta kinda like the weight / body fat scale ... where you establish a training baseline and expect consistency ... which is where official races tend to come in to play for personal bests / personal records, vs those in training runs ..

eta: As mentioned before, there is one annual race, that has been held for years, and every year, either at the start line or finish line, most of the top runners would comment on how this is a training run, as the course is too long, or rather inaccurate ... The RD swears that he measured it, way-back-when and sticks to his guns, while everyone would compare their GPS results, to prove otherwise ... So, yes, the GPS may or may not b accurate, but at least they are all consistent ... :shifty: :wink:
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby purdy65 » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:59 am

You know, I actually find my garmin pretty accurate! I run the same loops of the local cemetary on a regular basis, and each time they are within meters of each other, and I always give that to running different tangents on each loop.

When I wear it for a race, it almost always measures a bit long, which makes sense when you consider how courses are measured.

I do have specific areas where I KNOW my garmin messes up (right outside my building, and on the long tunnel under the 401), but for the most part mapmyrun, and my garmin are quite close! Close enough for me. I also know that running with a Garmin downtown can be frustrating.

I can also tell by the consistency of my kilometer lap data, that it measures pretty well.

Still the perfect training tool for me.
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby La » Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:28 am

This is why I don't get hung up on the exact distance shown on the watch, because I know it's not 100% accurate. What's the point of running an extra block just so that it can tick over to an even number (say, 10.00K) when that number isn't even accurate? :?
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby mas_runner » Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:46 am

What makes them think Google maps is so accurate? Best way is to run side by side with the same model of Garmin, my neighbour and I did this and she reached 13km 100 meters before me.

I find my Garmin to be really accurate, especially on out and backs, it's not perfect, but serves as a tool to make me train better.

I don't get these folks who e-mail race organizers about the distance, do they think they ran along the perfect apex the whole race? Crazy stuff, you use the Garmin to pace yourself and you can gauge by the km markers if you need to speed up a bit to get your PB (i.e. you are measuring longer than the course), then when you hit the line, the official time is what they give you. I have seen folks saying, "well sportstats says 1:56, but my Garmin had me at 1:54 for 21.1 so that is my PB" or "if you extrapolate..." NO NO NO NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby run mom run » Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:49 am

What troubles me about the article is her certainty that Google Maps is accurate, and that that is her baseline to say the watches are the problem. Admit my experience is completely anecdotal, but so is the article to a great degree. Of course trail runs and concrete canyons are going to wreak havoc with your satellite signals.

My running partner and I both have Garmin 305s. We have certain routes that we've done so often that we are relatively certain of the distance by the landmarks. Our Garmins are often out by less than 100m and we chalk that up to one of us having more of the outside turns.

So my Garmin isn't perfect, but it does help me become a stronger runner. To me that's what really matters.

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby LadyVo2 » Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:51 am

For my training, the accuracy is good enough for me. I don't think that it makes a big difference, even if I want to train at a specific pace
But I have learned from experience not to rely on it to follow a particular pace during a race - if I am dead on with my target pace (according to my GPS), I come up short at the finish line.
I finally figured out that it is always best to run a race by feel only - when I do, I usually get better race times. I check my GPS every once in a while during a race - just to see if I am way off or not -, but I won't totally rely on it to decide how fast I should run.
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GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby Jwolf » Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:54 am

There are lots of reasons why GPS watches aren't perfect, but that article is pretty bad. As others have said, the author is comparing to an even less accurate standard (google maps). And trying to compare to a track is probably the worst way to show its accuracy.

For my training my Garmin 305 is good enough and the best I've used. I always expect it to be about 2% long from "real" distance in races (but sometimes there is signal loss which serves to "average out" the error, or make it worse).

I feel bad for race directors that get the sea of complaints from runners, especially those that are trying for a BQ time or something similar. You'd think people would have figured out the issues by now. I had to listen to an older guy complaining to me after the Scotiabank half about how the course was measured wrong because his Garmin is "always perfectly right." And I was just another runner- I don't know if he eventually complained to the RD.
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby fingerboy » Tue Dec 20, 2011 11:13 am

This is just a conspiracy by the guys who certify the courses. They don't want to be held responsible for a lazy job...same with the guys who built tracks - terrible construction companies. No sense of perfection.

Anyways we all know that you're supposed to use the greater of the two distances. It's well established rule (107.1.b.ii) under the UTIAAF (un-talented International Association of Athletics Federations).

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby phorunner » Tue Dec 20, 2011 11:39 am

Maybe I'm nuts, but I ALWAYS expected GPS to just be a good APPROXIMATION, and nothing more...

more than anything - I used it to run freestyle - I don't like to plan out routes, so I can approximate how to add mileage as I go to reach my target distance (+/- my margin of error)... It's nice to be able to switch it up on the fly, or to not wait for a light to change, etc....

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby canalrunner » Tue Dec 20, 2011 11:58 am

Simon Whitfield talks about 'ish' runs and I like the concept. The GPS watch is a guide and provides good but not perfect reports on whole bunch of cool things. Great for training. In a race, the only thing that matters is the finish line and the time on the clock. It is debatable whether a watch, pace band and splits at the k markers is a better approach for a race than a Garmin.

I now do a lot of my runs without a Garmin or watch and feel quite freed by it.

I feel like people who obsess about the accuracy of the GPS watch could find better things to obsess about that would help their training and races more.
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby turd ferguson » Tue Dec 20, 2011 12:07 pm

canalrunner wrote:I feel like people who obsess about the accuracy of the GPS watch could find better things to obsess about that would help their training and races more.


I know exactly what you mean. When I'm bugged by something (GPS, iPod, weather, clothing, whatever) I ask myself if I'm obsessing about it because I'm trying to avoid serious training? Or is it something that's actually important?
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby HCcD » Tue Dec 20, 2011 12:09 pm

phorunner wrote:Maybe I'm nuts, but I ALWAYS expected GPS to just be a good APPROXIMATION, and nothing more...


One could also argue the same thing about treadmill running / training, I suppose ... :think: :think: :think:
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby HCcD » Tue Dec 20, 2011 12:23 pm

canalrunner wrote:I feel like people who obsess about the accuracy of the GPS watch could find better things to obsess about that would help their training and races more.


We do, we do ... like obsessing about the weather and/or the % grade of the course ... :shock: :lol: :lol: :wink: :shifty:
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby Lazagna » Tue Dec 20, 2011 2:47 pm

Also nice to know, is the fact that if you follow a straight line running, it will show you veering off track for a bit, then suddenly snap back to where you actually were running, and then slowly veer off again.

Plus, ever leave your Garmin on while on the treadmill and find that is shows you ran a couple hundred meters? I have, and I know it's going to be that way.

But really, expecting Google Maps to be perfect... crazy..
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby cbaker1 » Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:06 pm

Try being a marathon pacer where Garmins get screwed up. People get upset thinking I am running too fast. Although I wear a Garmin, I usually try to use the mile markers in the race. I have paced a 4:30 marathon several times (different courses) and the pace should be about 6:24/min but usually my Garmin will read avg 6:15-6:17 at the end and I have hit the finish line within a minute of my goal time.

In training I typically dont run with a Garmin... Usually map something out on gmaps and then once I am near finish I decide if I want to tack on a bit more as I usually try to run for a set amount of time, not distance.

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby fingerboy » Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:18 pm

Manual lap pacing is the best. That's what the lap button is for. When I do track stuff, I just draw a line in the sand and mark the laps myself as I go 'round and 'round.

The rest is just bonus. I remember where I ran. I think the more useful aspect of GPS is something we're just getting into - where you can create courses. If you map out the race course and set the correct mile markers, it will do the rest. It might mean you have to do the event more than one year and manually mark the kms, then create a course. Hopefully this will one day be provided.

But its actually pretty fun and useful running on the trail (okay more open trails where it can pick you up) when you map it out and let it remind you where to turn. Hmm this tree looks like where I left it vs (turn left in 20m....turn approaching). In Dundas on the Sulphur Springs area I thought it worked rather well.

*edit* you can also create workouts - warmup, sprints etc, which I have yet to use, but there's some value in that too - should it work. I will say that while the map on the track is spectacularly awful, it is pretty consistent - ie .20 to .21 km on each lap on a supposed 200m track.

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby phorunner » Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:40 pm

Sidebar: I have a semantic issue with "GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner". For the most part, my GPS is there every run, it doesn't spontaneously bail, and it rarely says "no".

this should probably say "GPS Watch can sometimes be an inaccurate measuring tool" :P

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby HCcD » Tue Dec 20, 2011 5:40 pm

Lazagna wrote:Also nice to know, is the fact that if you follow a straight line running, it will show you veering off track for a bit, then suddenly snap back to where you actually were running, and then slowly veer off again.

Plus, ever leave your Garmin on while on the treadmill and find that is shows you ran a couple hundred meters? I have, and I know it's going to be that way.

But really, expecting Google Maps to be perfect... crazy..


Not surprised, as if I recall, doesn't the earth and/or satellites move all the time ??? :shifty: :think: :think:
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby canalrunner » Tue Dec 20, 2011 5:58 pm

cbaker1 wrote:Try being a marathon pacer where Garmins get screwed up. People get upset thinking I am running too fast. Although I wear a Garmin, I usually try to use the mile markers in the race. I have paced a 4:30 marathon several times (different courses) and the pace should be about 6:24/min but usually my Garmin will read avg 6:15-6:17 at the end and I have hit the finish line within a minute of my goal time.

In training I typically dont run with a Garmin... Usually map something out on gmaps and then once I am near finish I decide if I want to tack on a bit more as I usually try to run for a set amount of time, not distance.


You are right. But if they hated you early, they loved you when you came close to your goal. Hard to be a good pacer(within a minute of your time) and follow your Garmin religiously since you will ultimately run farther than the measured distance and following the average pace time on your Garmin will mean you are late to the finish line. Even more meaningful to get it right now that BQ times have no 59 seconds of grace. Frustating when the kilometer markers aren't accurate but I would rather rely on them and my watch as a pacer than my Garmin average pace to get me to the goal.

We may have become over reliant on the GPS and not running enough by feel (tempo run, slow run, intervals).
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby Spirit Unleashed » Tue Dec 20, 2011 6:03 pm

What I don't like about my garmin is if I look at it and instant pace says 16 min/mile. What???? Of course not. Not even close!!! (I know the explanation for this but it always makes me think the garmin is lost.)

Then, I always put a wide circle at the turn around of an out and back because sometimes the garmin doesn't pick up the right turn around point.
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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby dgrant » Tue Dec 20, 2011 6:22 pm

It's worth noting that even when a course as a whole is certified, the kilometre markings usually aren't. Those will usually be set by a race director marking them off with a GPS or odometer. So even with a GPS working at a very good 3% margin of error, those might be off by 30m or 10s at a 5:00/km race pace. GPS km alerts or race markers... damned if you do, damned if you don't. Probably not worth fussing over either way.

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Re: GPS Watch Can Be an Unreliable Running Partner

Postby LadyVo2 » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:59 pm

Sidebar: i have a LOT of respect for Pace Bunnies :X!

The only time I BQ'd was with the help of them bunnies
That particular guy, that time, was totally "in tune" with pacing - he never used a GPS

I am totally impressed by runners who have an "inner feel" for pace...
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