A short time back, on a cold but clear Sunday morning, I set out to do a long run. For all sorts of reasons, I’d decided I wanted to run for somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t overly concerned how fast I went, but I was interested to see what sort of pace I could sustain, and how long I could sustain it for.
I eventually settled on a route that followed the river path of the Thames from my home in Richmond-upon-Thames (well, technically I live in Ham, but Richmond-upon-Thames always sounds posher…) down through Kingston-upon-Thames to Hampton Court, where I’d cross the river, and headed up through Teddington and Twickenham to Richmond. At which point I’d cross back across the Thames and head back down the other side of it to my house.
About one hour and ten minutes into my run I was about halfway through my route, on the Thames path between Hampton Court Palace and Teddington, busily trying not to make a fool of myself downing an energy gel while running, when my Garmin GPS running watch beeped. And it wasn’t the good sort of beep, either – the beep that comes when you’ve reached whatever ‘lap’ you’ve set it to (normally one kilometre or mile, depending what sort of race/training I’m doing). No, this was the prolonged loud annoying beep that’s accompanied by a big box popping up on the display bearing the dreaded words: LOW BATTERY.
Now, this certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve been out running when my Garmin has started beeping battery warnings. It’s happened a few time, and it’s always quite annoying. Firstly, because that big ‘LOW BATTERY’ box stays on your screen until you press a button to make it disappear – but when you’re running, it’s actually quite tricky making sure you press the right button, and not accidentally stop timing, turn the light on or make your watch do some other crazy thing you didn’t previously know it could do.
It’s also annoying because you never really know how long you’ve got until the low battery becomes no battery, and the watch just stops working. It’s like when the fuel light comes on in your car, and you have to sort of guesstimate how long you’ve got before you run out of petrol. But while running, obviously.
Previously, I’ve been fortunate enough that my watch has only ever started beeping low battery warnings on relatively short training runs – the sort where it doesn’t really matter if it stops working or not. But on this occasion I was just over halfway into a long training run, where I was absolutely interested in how long I’d run for and how far I’d travelled. If my watch battery completely ran out, I wouldn’t know for sure. And, worse, I’d probably lose the data for the run so far.
So what to do? Well, there were two options. I could have detoured from my route and headed home sooner, which would have ruined my running distance goal, but would have at least allowed me to pretty much guaranteed I could finish the run before the battery was finished.
That option didn’t really appeal though: so option two it was. And that meant gamely pressing on, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d make it to the end of my planned run with enough battery for my GPS watch to keep working.
So that’s what I did, although it was somewhat distracting – not only because the LOW BATTERY warning screen and accompanying beep kept popping up on the screen at regular intervals, but also because I found myself gazing at my watch more intently than usual, trying to remember the finer details of my time, distance and pace, just in case the screen suddenly went blank. Like searching for a petrol station when your fuel light has been on for a good 30 miles or so, it was genuinely quite nerve wrecking.
But I made it though: just. When I went to plug my Garmin in to charge after the run, the display said it had 1% battery remaining. Close!
Of course, there’s a third reason that being distracted by my GPS running watch being low on battery is really very annoying – and that’s because the only person I’ve got to blame is myself, for forgetting to charge the thing before setting out on a long run…
Part of the problem is that my Garmin is now three years old or so, and as with many electronic devices the battery life just isn’t as good as it used to be. But that’s no real excuse for just forgetting to charge the thing.
Still, it could be worse: I could have forgotten to put it on altogether. Which is exactly what happened to me for a 10k race recently. More of which soon…
In the last few days, my Fitbit has developed a problem. The battery, which should last around a week, is draining flat in about 30 minutes. It pretty much renders the thing useless.
This isn’t a complaint about Fitbit: the firm’s customer service has (so far) been brilliant, and they’re working to solve the problem. But it has meant that, for the best part of a week, I don’t know how many steps I’ve taken.
This might not seem a huge thing, and it probably shouldn’t be. But for the past two-and-a-half years, my Fitbit (first a Flex, more recently a Charge HR) has kept me updated on useful information such as how many steps I’ve taken and how many calories I’ve burned. As well as inadvertently sparking my running in the first place, that information was vital in helping me lose five stone. My Fitbit told me how many calories I was using, so all I needed to do was consumer fewer.
For the last few days I’ve been devoid of that information. Which has been interesting, and perhaps made me reflect a bit. I’ve developed a fairly good sense of how far I need to walk or run to do a certain amount of steps, and how much running or other exercise I do to burn. It’s not like I’ve changed any of my routine through not having my Fitbit working – so you could argue I don’t really need my Fitbit any more.
This could be force of habit. Certainly, it’s a useful comfort blanket: a glance at my Fitbit gives me a useful guide as to how active I’ve been on any given day. By doing that, I know if I can afford to treat myself to, say, one of those nice-looking but calorific biscuits a colleague has brought into the office.
But it’s also useful to be able to turn my fitness into numbers and data. And that’s not just with my Fitbit.
When I’m running I use a Garmin Forerunner 220 GPS watch, which is hugely useful (if, ahem, also randomly annoying). When I’m running, that allows me to check split times, my average place and plenty of other useful info. When I’ve finished running, I can sync my watch with my smartphone or computer and take that data to the next level.
Seriously, it’s all there. I can see my run on a satellite map:
And yes, I have chosen to demonstrate this with my London Marathon data. Because… well, because.
My Garmin also produces stats:
And split times (see if you can spot the point in the marathon when I start struggling…):
It will show my – in graph form! – the elevation change of my run, my pace and my running cadence:
If I really want, I can overlay those last three on one big graph for deeper analysis:
In short… data. Lots of data. So… much… data.
I’ve spent a fair amount of my time working as a journalist in motorsport, and I was always amazed by how many data the telemetry in racing cars could produce, and how deeply that could be analysed. It amazed me, but didn’t surprise me: racing cars are complicated machines, so it’s no surprise they produce all sorts of technical data.
Running, by contrast, is a fairly simple pursuit. Put some shoes on, and run. That’s, essentially, all there is to it. And yet, my Garmin allows me to analyse my running like I’m a racing car. Frankly, there’s almost too much information: I don’t spend hours analysing my running in the way I could. I’d rather just run (you know, because running is a fairly simple pursuit).
Still, when I need it, it’s there. And it’s fascinating. I’m producing data. I’m producing statistical information that allows me to analyse how efficiently (or not) my running is, and how well my body is working. It’s… fascinating.
Of course, it’s not just fascinating to me. In an age when people are being increasingly monitored, what else is happening to my data? Certainly, some fitness tracker companies are using the huge amount of data their devices are producing from millions of people to spot trends and gain information about general health. Some companies are giving their staff fitness trackers in order to try and boost their health (and, by extension, productivity). It even seems that some of the big sports clothing firms are doing uniform and equipment deals in part to gain access to the data of athletes.
Is this sinister in a ‘Big Brother is watching you’ sort of way? Should we be worried? Possibly… although it doesn’t seem that someone knowing how many steps I did yesterday is as open to abuse as half the information some people happily stick up on their Facebook page.
Besides, thanks to loyalty cards supermarkets such as Sainsburys and Tesco seem to know an awful lot about how I shop. And the sinister return for that is… personalised discount vouchers for stuff I actually buy. Creepily bargain-tastic.
Still, interesting questions. As is this: after a few days without my Fitbit, I’ve coped fine. So do I really need all these devices producing data?
Ultimately, my Fitbit wasn’t the reason I lost five stone. That was hard work and stubborn determination.
My Garmin wasn’t the reason I ran a sub-3h 30m marathon. That was, well, hard work and stubborn determination.
But, in both cases, the devices really helped. They allowed me to apply science and information to something that I would otherwise have to use ‘feel’ and educated guesswork.
So do I really need my Fitbit? Well, no – but I’d really like to have it working again…
I love my Garmin Forerunner 220. I couldn’t really imagine doing a race without it. If it broke, I’d pretty much go straight out and buy another one.
Other GPS running watches are, of course, available. And they’re an absolutely brilliant tool for runners. For the first few months I entered races, I used my £7.99 Casio F-91W digital watch. It had a stopwatch function. When I started the race I pressed start. When I finished, I pressed stop. The stopwatch told me how long I’d been running. And… well, that was pretty much it.
When I finally invested in my Garmin, the amount of data it generated was pretty overwhelming. I still barely use a fraction of it, if I’m honest. Average pace, lap splits, cadence, elevation, stride length, calories burnt, and the ability to plot my run on mapping services such as Google Earth… So much information.
So, in short, GPS running watches are good.
And yet, they can be immensely annoying, in a slightly temperamental and frustrating way.
For a start, my Garmin Forerunner 220 is really simple to use – until you want to change the unit measurement. When I’m doing 5k and 10k races I like to have my watch do the timing and splits in kilometres. When I’m doing 10-mile races, half-marathons or marathons, I like to have my watch do the timing and splits in miles. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Except switching it over isn’t the work of a moment. Basically you have to open the menu, scroll down to ‘settings’. Then you have to scroll down to ‘system’. Then you have to scroll down to ‘units’. Then you have to select ‘distance’ and change it from kilometres to miles (or vice versa). And then you have to go down to pace/speed and change that from kilometres to miles (or vice versa) as well.
Why would you want the distance in miles and the pace/speed in kilometres? No idea. So that already seems an unnecessary extra action. And we’re not done yet. Because we still need to set the auto lap settings. So you have to go back up into the ‘settings’ menu, and then scroll down to ‘activity settings’. Then you have to select ‘auto lap’. The auto lap distance will be shown in the unit you’ve just selected. So if you had it set to 1km and have you watch in miles, the lap will be 0.64 miles. So you have to select it and change it manually to one mile.
Granted, once you’ve got your head round it, doing that doesn’t take all that long. But it seems quite daft you need to essentially do three separate processes in order to simply convert the watch from working in kilometres to miles.
But there’s something else that’s even more annoying about GPS watches…
…when they can’t lock onto the GPS signal.
GPS, as I’m sure you’re aware, stands for Global Positioning System, and essentially the watch uses signals from a network of satellites in orbit to work out your exact location. It then uses that data to derive most of the date when you run.
It’s pretty cool. And, usually, it’s pretty quick to lock onto the GPS network. But just occasionally, it isn’t quick. Very occasionally, it can take a really long time. Which is really annoying when you’ve got changed, warmed up, are ready to go – and then find your watch isn’t.
Normally, this annoying wait only lasts a minute or two. But sometimes it takes longer, especially if you’re in a built-up or covered area (obviously, the more objects there are in the way of the satellites, the harder it is to lock in the signal). Which is when, instead of running, you end up walking around trying to find an open space with your arm stuck out, looking just a little bit daft while you’re doing so.
On a very small number of occasions, the watch just can’t seem to find a signal before my patience runs out and I decide just to go running. You can still use the watch for timing, and get most of the info, but you don’t get the full range of data. Although you do get an amusingly random map showing you running through some random buildings.
To sum up then. GPS watches great. Except when they’re being annoying. But there’s something even more annoying. I’m actually annoyed with myself for being annoyed with my watch.
Eh? Here’s the thing. GPS watches are awesome. They’re amazing. Think about it: it’s a running watch that locks onto a satellite network and knows where you are. That’s awesome. Totally awesome!
It’s clearly not the sort of thing that’s easy, and it’s not the sort of thing I should ever really take for granted. I certainly shouldn’t get annoyed that it might my watch might take a minute or two to lock onto a global satellite network before I can go running.
I’ll try to remember that the next time I get annoyed by it. I almost certainly won’t.
To sum up further then. GPS watches can be annoying. But not as annoying as impatient runners…
For more random running annoyances, click here.