As a former triathlete, I've done my share of running over the last 25 years. From 5Ks to marathons to the Hawaii Ironman, I've done a little bit of everything. Back when I ran much more often, I used to pride myself on knowing my current pace per mile within 15 to 20 seconds. I could tell this based on perceived exertion and verified it on marked trails and courses.
Today when I head out for a run, especially on trails, I always think I'm running faster than I am. At times, I'm off by as much as a minute on perceived current pace per mile. Whether I'm just kidding myself or getting older and slower is obviously up for debate.
But one thing is certain: Technology has changed everything. Who would've thought that a GPS (Global Positioning System) device worn on your wrist could deliver accurate results on current pace per mile, distance covered and all the heart rate data you'd ever want?
For the last couple months, I've been playing around with the Garmin Forerunner 301. For those unfamiliar, Garmin has been quietly dominating the portable GPS industry with its wrist-mounted lightweight units that track your outdoor movements via satellite. The 301 is the upgrade version of the old 201 with the added heart rate function.
What I love about the Garmin is its simplicity in getting started. There's no worse buzz kill than to open your new toy and find out you have to read a 50-page manual before you can use the product. Garmin's quick start instruction sheet showed me everything I needed to know in less than a minute and—being the geek that I am—I rushed outside to have the satellites pick up my position.
The first time you use this product, it takes about 10 minutes to get synched with the tracking satellites. This is because there's a memory that lets the unit know what part of the country it's tracking from. My first start by my home in San Diego took just under eight minutes. After that, it's averaged less than a minute. I usually just turn the unit on and lay it in my driveway a couple minutes before I head out so that I don't have to wait there a minute while it locks onto the satellites.
Verifying Distance Accuracy
First and foremost, I wanted to see how accurate the Garmin was compared to my cycling computers. Since I have a few bikes and the computers are calibrated within a few tenths of a mile over 50-plus-mile courses, cycling would be a great indicator of accuracy.
I've ridden a little over 900 miles wearing the Garmin 301 and found remarkable consistency and accuracy for distance and elevation. My rides, especially similar courses, were within just a few tenths of a mile of my calibrated cycling computers and the elevation was consistent over the same exact rides.
But here's the catch. The gained elevation was always more than it really was because I verified this with other riders who were using altimeters that measure based on barometric air pressure. Since the Garmin is only using GPS, it's not that accurate on determining the elevation changes and average gradient.
One of the really cool things about the Garmin units is they'll let you know current percent grade of a climb. The problem, however, is it's not that accurate but it's consistently inaccurate. What I mean by that is if you know it's always giving you about 30 to 40 percent more elevation gain, then you can subtract that from your total and be assured you're fairly close.