Suunto Core vs Garmin 910XT

Using GPS Watches and Smart Phones in Mountain Marathons

Mountain Marathons are a true test of a runner’s fitness, campcraft and navigation skills.

Only those who have trained to run in mountainous terrain, practised carrying and using a minimal amount of equipment and honed their map and compass skills can hope to do well.  Mountain Marathons have traditionally been regarded as “map & compass” events with rules stating that GPS devices must not be used and runners have generally accepted this.

In the past this has not really been contentious as the term “GPS devices” meant dedicated units designed solely for the purpose of aiding navigation.

a traditional GPS device

a traditional GPS device

However, advances in technology have meant that running watches and smart phones now have GPS capability and can be used as aids to navigation, even if the user does not intend to use them as such. It is now common for runners to record their training and load the data onto programmes such as Strava and understandably a Mountain Marathoner will want to know how far they ran during the event. Whilst in all likelihood most competitors would never attempt to gain an advantage by using their watch or phone as a navigation aid, it is impossible to disprove that they haven’t and this puts the race organiser in a difficult position.

Why is a GPS watch or Smart Phone a navigation aid?

Some runners will claim that their Garmin watch or iPhone isn’t a navigation tool because it doesn’t have maps loaded onto it. Regardless of maps these devices can be used to help navigate in a number of ways, most noteably:

1 – Displaying Location:

Many modern GPS watches such as Garmin’s 910XT have the function to display a very accurate grid reference.
Imagine the situation – a competitor in poor visibility finds themselves disorientated, the lake they were expecting to appear out of the fog doesn’t do so and they realise that somehow they aren’t where they thought they were. How tempting would it be to press a couple of buttons on the watch to gain a grid reference accurate to within 1 metre!?

GPS watch showing 10 figure grid reference

GPS watch showing 10 figure grid reference

There are also several free apps that can be loaded onto smartphones that give accurate grid references even when there is no mobile signal. So even if a runner only wants to “map their run” or take photos using the phone the capability and therefore the temptation to get an accurate position fix is there.

smartphone grid reference app

smartphone grid reference app

2 – Measuring Distance:

The ability to record distance travelled is a huge navigational aid and even basic GPS enabled sports watches have this as a function.  A simple press of a button will begin recording a lap distance allowing the wearer to measure distance travelled over the ground.  Devices without inbuilt GPS but using foot pods still give the user this function.

GPS watch displaying lap distance

GPS watch displaying lap distance

Here’s a scenario:

mountain marathon map

locate control number 52

Competitors trying to locate the re-entrant at control number 52 could use the bridleway and path to the east and find where it meets the change in angle of the boundary wall or fence (the solid red line) and use this as an attack point. If they then ran on a bearing of 250 degrees for 300 metres they would be at the control.  The ability to accurately measure 300 metres over rough and in this case marshy ground gives a runner a huge advantage over someone who is trying to estimate the distance by timing or pacing.

What about altimeter watches?

The use of altitude to assist with navigation is allowed, as long as the watch or the device is not a GPS device that could also be used to give location or measure distance.  These such devices use barometric pressure rather than satellite to measure the altitude.

Suunto Core vs Garmin 910XT

barometric & GPS altimeter watches

Altimeter watches such as the Suunto Core are similar in size and appearance to more sophisticated GPS watches and it is difficult for a race organiser or fellow competitor to see at a glance if a runner is wearing a GPS watch.

What if you want to use your phone or watch in an emergency?

The policy at events where GPS is not allowed is usually to allow a competitor to place the device in a sealed bag which must be intact at kit check at the end of the race. This means that the phone or watch can be accessed in an emergency situation but if the seal remains unbroken then it is clear that the device hasn’t been used.

How to use your GPS watch as a training tool:

The great thing about GPS watches is that they make it easier to develop your navigation skills. If you have such a watch but don’t know how to use the functions mentioned above then you’ve got an expensive device that you are not making the most of!

For example if you set the pace function to minutes per kilometre you can soon get used to how quickly you run over a variety of terrain. Set the lap function and run uphill for a kilometre, then turn round and go back down noting the time taken for both laps. Run on the rough stuff, on the boggy stuff, with and without a rucksack, walk up the very steep hills and all the time keep an eye on your pace. Make a note of your pace over all the different types of terrain you encounter.

Use the GPS to measure 100 metres and count how many steps it takes to run it. Again do this both up and downhill on a variety of terrain. You’ll be surprised how this changes with only a small change in slope angle or type of terrain. Over time you’ll be able to get an idea of your paces per 100 metres and so be able to apply this to scenarios such as in the previous example.

Use the altimeter and compare your time over a certain distance on the flat with the same distance that includes a few hundred metres of climb (use metres not feet as that is what the contours are shown in on the map).

With practice you’ll get the hang of estimating distance covered and the time it takes to do so over all different sorts of terrain.

If you’re not a confident navigator (you might already be scratching your head about re entrants and attack points) or want tuition to learn further skills then it’s a good idea to book some running specific navigation training.

A solution?

It is understandable that runners want to see and analyse their track after an event but unfortunately battery life on GPS watches isn’t sufficient that they last the whole of a 2 day Mountain Marathon and so the option of turning it on before the race and leaving it running for the 2 days isn’t viable. The logistics of overseeing and allowing competitors to turn on their devices, get a satellite fix then bag them up on the start line then do the reverse at the end of the day is just too time consuming for a race organiser who will have enough on his or her plate dealing with downloads, retirements, broken or lost dibbers, emergencies, results etc etc.

Using a tracking system that collects satellite data and records the route of the competitor may be an option. This would allow runners to analyse their own (and other runners’) route choices after the event but inevitably there would be a cost involved that would be passed on through the event entry fees.

So please try to understand it from a race organiser’s point of view. They know you wouldn’t dream of gaining an unfair advantage over your fellow competitors but it has to be a level playing field. If you are allowed to carry your smartphone or wear your GPS watch there is no way of anyone knowing if you pushed that little button a couple of times when you were lost in the fog!

fell running in bad visibility

“It would be handy to know our grid reference right now!”

fell running guide

Get the Best from your GPS

Tips for using your GPS watch to help with navigation.

Whilst teaching navigation skills to runners I often notice that they wear an “all singing” GPS watch but rarely use the functions to get the most out of it.  Here are a few of the features that I use that you might want to consider.  (I use the Garmin Forerunner 305 and 910XT but the following is relevant to most GPS Devices)

  • Go Metric

The Ordnance Survey or Harvey’s map that you are using has gridlines every kilometre and contour lines showing height above sea level measured in metres (unless you’re using your Grandad’s old 1 inch to the mile map which you shouldn’t be!)  So set your watch to kilometres and metres rather than miles and feet.  If you’re a runner who likes to know your min per mile pace you can always change it back for the road but a wild, wet & windy hillside is no place to be trying to convert miles to kilometres to work out how far you’ve covered on the map.

O.S. map; distance in kilometres height in metres

O.S. map; grid squares in kilometres height in metres

  • Read the Elevation

Lots of people like to look at how much climb they’ve done on a run.  This is interesting but you can also use the elevation feature to show your current height.  This is useful for working out your position on a hillside or knowing how far is left to the top of a climb.  Again this should be metric to match the contours on the map.

  • Know Your Pace

It pays to get to know how fast you cover various different types of terrain.  I set my watch to show how long it takes me to cover a kilometre (rather than kilometres per hour)  Over time I have come to know that I cover 1 kilometre in around 5 minutes on even ground.  This is invaluable for working out how far you have covered and so pinpointing your position on the map.

  • What’s the Time

By knowing how long you have been running you should be able to make a rough calculation of how far you’ve gone, especially if you know your pace (see above)

  • Add a Lap

Your watch should have a lap function, useful for recording your 400m splits in training but also very good for navigating.  If you are leaving a known feature such as a summit or stream crossing, press the lap button, then later when you need to identify your location you will know how far past the last feature you have gone.  As long as you’ve not been running round in circles this will give you a good idea of where you are on the map. (you need to know which direction you’ve been running in for this to work!)

  • Multiple Display

Some watches allow you to display several pieces of information on the same screen rather than having to scroll through (the ungainly 305 excels here allowing 4 bits of data per screen and scrolling through 3 screens so 12 bits of info at your fingertips!)  I prefer Pace, Elevation, Lap Time and Lap Distance on my main screen with Total Time, Total Distance, Heart Rate and Average Pace on screen 2.

4 bits of data per screen

4 bits of data per screen

The picture shows that I am running at a pace of 4 mins 27 seconds per kilometre, am at an altitude of 350 metres, and am 18 mins 33 seconds and 2.37 kilometres past the point where I last pressed the lap button.

  • Be a Map Geek

Your GPS will allow you to download your run data onto map software such as Anquet or Memory Map or onto Google Earth.  I spend hours after my runs with a glass of sarsaparilla (or similar) poring over the map to see exactly where I’ve been.  The extract below shows one such adventure into the less visited parts of the Peak District.

Anquet software

Anquet software

As with any skill the key is to practise.  These tips are just a suggestion to help you improve your navigation knowledge and you should learn to navigate without relying on GPS.  Always take a map & compass; batteries run out, watches break and remember that in navigation events GPS devices are not allowed!

So dig out the instruction manual to your fancy GPS, (spend half the day learning to reset it!)  get a map & compass, then get out, practise and explore – you’ve got nothing to lose but yourself!

For more information on navigation training visit:
http://fellrunningguide.co.uk/navigation-training/

fell running guide