Friday, June 21, 2013

The best watch for ultra trail running may not be a GPS

When new GPS watches with 50-hour potential battery life came out in 2012, ultra trail runners were fooled into thinking those would be ideal for their races.

However Suunto or Garmin owners eventually realized that in challenging mountain trail conditions, their GPS measurements were inaccurate and/or the battery life was limited to under 20 hours.

My typical races will last over 20 hours. While it might be possible to recharge GPS batteries on the run, it would add a lot of hassle to the race experience.

Finally it occurred to me that in races that I'm usually interested in participating the courses are well-marked. There is no real need for a GPS. A simple printout of the course information should be sufficient in most cases.

You still need some sort of a watch to make sure you're on planned schedule. While I occasionally use Ambit when training in previously unmeasured routes, I don't use it for long mountain races anymore.

Ambit has been mostly replaced by Suunto Core, a GPS-free watch lasting months instead of hours on a single standard 3-volt CR2032 battery. You can change the battery yourself.
Suunto Core Green Crush, one of the new 2013 Core models. A GPS killer?
Suunto Core provides an impressive list of useful features:
  • altimeter
  • barometer
  • compass
  • temperature
  • storm alarm
  • sunrise/sunset
  • depth meter for snorkeling
  • dual time
  • snooze alarm
  • stopwatch
  • countdown timer
  • total ascent/descent
  • light.
Core is 49.1mm wide and 14.5mm thick. The weight is 64-79g depending on model. It's only slightly smaller than Ambit.

Timex IRONMAN Traditional 30-Lap.

Sometimes I choose my trusty old Timex IRONMAN Traditional 30-lap. It is smaller than Core and thus more convenient to wear. It's the best option for flat courses where an altimeter would be unnecessary.

The final option is to run without a watch. In most of my races a mobile phone is required anyway, so it's possible to rely on it for basic timing. Back to basics!


Nathan Lehman said...

I agree! I have been using the new Garmin Fēnix and I'm not too impressed. The ultra trax mode boast up to a 50 hour life span but you won't see that. Who needs all that data anyway...I have all the good stuff up in my head!

Trail Plodder said...

Right! To measure the movements of a trail runner accurately the GPS has to operate on 1-second intervals, which kills the battery fast. Although Fenix offers other longer interval options (Ambit also has a 60s option), those won't be accurate for a zigzagging runner. You can run a long curve in just a few seconds seconds in a downhill, but if the GPS were off during that time to save the battery, it would have to assume you took a straight line and the distance measurement would be way too short. Back to basics!

Will said...

I can't keep up with all my gadgets. I'm starting to go back to basics now an then too. I just estimate my milage based on time. anyway, being ultra runners, its not so much about the miles as it is time on foot. thanks for the post.

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks for comments Will! Yeah time, and possibly elevation gain too, where relevant. I try to spend lots of time on my feet, and not sit down all the time. A mile in the mountains is not the same as a mile in the city.

Halman Freud said...
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Gaël Le Coq said...

I use Runtastic Pro and it provides you with a live tracking so your friends or family can know how you're doing and where you are.

Thomas Stitz said...

I have planed to run Swissalpine K78 this summer, and looking for a GPS watch that last all the way. I´m currently using Garmin 610 fore my roadrunning. Can anyone help me here. I have been looking into Garmin Taxtic or Fenix2.

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