Five Reasons Why You Need a GPS Watch vs. Your Phone for Workout Tracking

During the Rock N Roll San Diego Marathon a few weeks ago, I noticed a large percentage of athletes that are using their smart phone to track their runs. Although, it isn’t vital to have a GPS watch to start getting into running, it is possible that you will miss the advantages they provide over using a phone (or worse, nothing at all).

1. Accuracy: GPS and Elevation

Outdoor run tracking isn’t as simple as just a GPS sensor picking up a satellite signal. You might be thinking to yourself, isn’t it just a signal that each device picks up? Well, it is slightly more complicated than that and involves a combination of software and algorithms working simultaneously to read and process the signal. The major factor is not just our device picking up the signal, but it’s how the device interacts with it, which is what we will be talking about below.

What if we run through the forest with big trees? How about going through a tunnel on a mountain road? Or running between blocks in New York City in a cloudy day? If you’re wondering why it takes your phone a while to lock onto a signal, you might want to move closer to a cell phone tower. Or better yet, consider looking into a GPS watch.

For most of the GPS watches, it will still count your steps even when the GPS signal is weak, so you have a better estimated running data when you are in those blind spots. In contrast, you might have noticed after tracking your run with a phone that the route could be off for hundreds of feet or become a straight line with blank data between two effective GPS points. At COROS, we have a particular algorithm to learn your regular running matrix while the GPS signal is good, including step length, how hard you swing your arms, and your step cadence. In essence, the more you run, the better COROS will get to know you. And when you put yourself in a complex running environment, PACE will give you better tracking accuracy than any phone in the world.

On the flip side of things, GPS is only about +/- 100 feet (~30m) accurate when it comes to elevation change measurement. It will give you an initial calibration as your starting elevation but won’t be able to tell you exactly how much elevation you have gained in the past hour. I can’t tell you how many times when I came back to the starting point, and my phone told me I was now below sea level. Cue, the Barometric Altimeter. Some premium GPS watches, including the COROS PACE, uses an Altimeter to measure the air pressure change using the Earth’s atmospheric pressure. The algorithms will then take this, along with the GPS data, to give you the best measurement for elevation gain/loss.

2. Heart Rate Monitoring

Your heart rate data is, without question, one of the most important personal data metrics in your workouts (well, maybe after GPS if you count that). It tells you the intensity of how your run was, which zone you were in, and eventually evaluate which type of run you should do for your next training session. Good luck having your phone telling you that.

On the other hand, some people opt for chest straps as it gives the most accurate heart rate measurement. Which is perfectly fine, but do you really want to wear a chest strap for each activity? Nowadays, the wrist-based optical heart rate sensor has advanced to become much closer to the performance of chest straps. We have done countless testing on our heart rate sensor, comparing to that of chest straps, and they are a lot closer than expected.

What really makes the difference here is our algorithm. While the sensor is making its blood readings, our algorithm is simultaneously working by cleaning out the surrounding noise which can affect the data accuracy.

3. Use for swimming

So far, I have not seen a phone equipped with swimming capability in the market. Sure, you may see advertisements of a phone being dropped in water, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are water proof. They are not designed to be submerged in water past 3 feet of pressure, which if you think about it, can be much less than 3 feet. If you factor in movement, creating pressure around it. So, the only way to track your pool swim (without GPS) or open water swim (with GPS) is to use a GPS multisport watch. Most premium multisport watches are 50 meters (150 feet) water resistance, meaning it is capable to manage your swimming or snorkeling. They will also detect your stroke types, as well as pool laps and stroke count in a pool mode. One of the nice things for the PACE watch is that it enables you to read your real time heart rate data during a swim, while some other watches don’t offer the data until you complete it and view it on the app.

One important note I would like to remind you of is that GPS doesn’t work underwater, even in very shallow water. That means if your strokes don’t require your arms to be raised above water, there is a chance that you will not receive signal on the watch.

4. Much more durable battery

Let’s face it, we are a lost soul without our phones (even other devices too). I can’t tell you how many times my running buddy bailed out on me, because he forgot to charge his watch overnight. Battery life is precious and using the power-consuming GPS on the phone is too demanding on the battery performance. Even worse, most of the phone batteries are not optimized for GPS tracking, so it drinks the juice rather quickly.

Nearly all the GPS watch manufacturers tell you how long their estimated battery life is. Although, it varies between different use cases, it at least gives you an idea of how long your watch will last during normal tracking. The best phone can’t actively track your run for more than a few hours, while most of the triathletes and trail runners requires much longer than that. The COROS PACE will offer you up to 30 days in standard mode or up to 25 hours in a continuous activity mode using GPS.

5. Easy to access during the run or cold weather

Lastly, you want to know your stats during the workout, including pace, distance, heart rate etc. Can you imagine trying to take your phone out of your pocket and attempting numerous times to unlock it because of failed attempts while running? Neither can we. Having a watch on your wrist is your best option to give you instant feedback. Placing your mind where it should be, on the task at hand.

Don’t Overlook These Benefits

As mentioned previously, having a GPS watch isn’t going to make any faster or give you added strength to PR that hill climb. But it certainly will make things a whole lot easier, giving you the essential tools to do so. If you haven’t worn a GPS watch before, you will be surprised how much data you can get out of your activities. You might be looking at your post-workout screen wondering what in the world is SWOLF? 1) It’s a measure of your swimming efficiency using stroke count and time. 2) It might be time to start analyzing your workouts a little more closely. We hope that these reasons are enough for you to consider using a GPS watch instead of a phone to track your activities.