Written by Julia Tregaskis-Allen
22 September 2017
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
Last month’s blog looked at a range of different smartphone apps for navigation, fitness and performance logging that can help you track activities and monitor your training progress. Most of us these days have smartphones and they can be a handy entry point into discovering the utility of digital devices in the outdoors. The utility of smartphones is such that they travel with us almost everywhere: as such, taking them on a run or a hike hardly appears a burden. Indeed, for safety’s sake it’s a good idea to have a phone with you in case of an emergency, or simply to contact others to let them know of your progress or changes to an itinerary. While many great apps indeed exist to aid your exploration and discovery of the mountains, once you’ve discovered their advantages you may find yourself looking to upgrade to a dedicated device designed for the backcountry.
Those new to the delights of mountain sports such as trail running, cross country skiing and trekking often find that feedback can prove a crucial motivating factor in spurring their development and progression in their chosen sport. Important then is both the frequency and quality of the information you can collect to provide that all important guidance; this is where dedicated fitness trackers and GPS-enabled smartwatches come to the fore. A crucial benefit of these specially developed devices is their reliability and durability when it comes to performing in the challenging outdoor environment: those who’ve struggled with the irritation of retrieving data from a waterlogged iPhone will testify to the limitations of a tracking tool that wasn’t conceived with Mother Nature and the mountains in mind!
If you’re serious about keeping a record of your outdoor exploits and gauging your performance, you’ll want to keep your smartphone firmly sealed in a Ziplock and instead rely upon one of the many new custom gadgets developed for fitness enthusiasts. But, with the plethora of choices choosing the right one for your needs can seem just a little daunting! Fret not, as we’ll guide you through the process of selecting the most suitable device, based upon an assessment of their different functionalities and the actual usefulness of the seemingly endless array of bells and whistles these little technological miracles now possess.
Of course one consideration when choosing a tracker is style. Don’t worry — you’re not alone in thinking that looks matter! After all, if you’re to faithfully wear your new acquisition 24/7 you’ll want it to look the part. Fashion is, of course, a very individual affair. Many devices have replaceable straps, which offers the opportunity to change appearance depending on your mood — or the colour of whichever of the many pairs of running shoes you’ve chosen to step out in for your daily dose of exercise! While many of the devices have a fairly standard sporty/utilitarian look, some of the newer models definitely exhibit a more nuanced, sophisticated look. Some devices, such as the Apple Watch Series 3, have been designed with finesse; and as a result have sleeker, more refined bodies. These higher end watches feature swappable bands (including leather options) that increase their versatility, meaning that they won’t look out of place when the occasion calls for more a little more polish and elegance.
Rather than attempt an overview of every single device out on the market — there are simply dozens! — we thought to make the process for our blog readers a little simpler by focusing on the two main categories of tracking tools that have evolved to date: fitness trackers and GPS/smartwatches. It’s important to note that beyond monitoring your outdoor exploits, most of the devices that fall into these two groups increasingly incorporate other useful health-related capabilities such as sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring, etc. Before you make a purchase, then, take time to think about all the different functions you might wish to make use of. You’ll probably be surprised by just how many are not just intriguing, but really rather helpful — providing insight into aspects of your lifestyle that can help identify how best to improve your wellness.
The basic features that a runner should look for in a tracker are the ability to accurately track total running time, heart rate, distance and pace.
The Fitbit Charge 2 is a basic exercise tracker with built-in heart rate monitoring. It’s an improvement on the original model with more stylish looks and the option of replaceable bands. The Fitbit Charge 2 features multi-sport modes and guided breathing sessions. Whilst it does’t have its own dedicated GPS, the device does have the capability to connect to your smartphone, which allows you to see real-time stats such as pace and distance and record a map of your route. The price tag of £140 (cheaper if you shop around!) it’s good value and provides just about the right quantity of information without overloading you with data. Price: £140
The Garmin Vivofit 3 is a simple device that, well, won’t win any design awards! However, if you’re looking for a tracker that’s simple to use and is fuss-free, this could be the one for you. The Vivofit 3 has all the features you’ll need to start out monitoring your fitness level, and has the added bonus of being charger-free (it sports a 1-year battery life). The backlit display is easy to read and shows steps taken, calories consumed, distance travelled and also monitors sleep. The Garmin software that supports this device isn’t as intuitive as might be hoped for, but once you’ve learnt its foibles it’s easy enough to use. At a pretty good price point for an entry-level model, the Garmin Vivofit 3 is well worth considering for those looking to start monitoring their fitness level regularly and benefit from a more structured approach to their training programme. Price: £90
Initially it was only the much higher end devices that incorporated GPS tracking, which works on the basis of determining your position via the triangulation of satellite signals. However, competition between device manufacturers is fierce and even the cheaper models now feature this functionality built in. With GPS your watch can determine your location and calculate the speed of your movement with much more accuracy than a basic fitness tracker, and also allows for the provision of location-specific information such as altitude: very handy of course for trail runners and hikers! Having GPS is also useful for post-activity analysis: you can download the data and view the route of your run and share it with others.
This Garmin watch is a higher end tracker that features lots of nifty extras — reflected in the price! Garmin have developed additional functionality for triathletes that measures the contact time of your stride, stride length, and even the estimated recovery time after a workout. Coupled with Garmin’s dedicated chest strap it can even provide an estimate of your VO2 max and lactate threshold. This watch is obviously aimed at the most serious of athletes and provides a great deal of very advanced information — before splurging check whether one of the simpler devices might not be a better solution, based on the value of the core data that the more basic trackers all provide. Price: £400
The Polar M400 is a great mid-range option for trail runners and hikers looking for a GPS-enabled fitness tracker. The watch is well designed, built to withstand shocks and waterproof to boot. The M400 also boast great battery life (easily charged via a standard micro USB cable) and can be synched with both Android and iPhones to allow for push notifications. Being a cheaper GPS watch it doesn’t feature a built-in heart rate monitor and its display is standard monochrome. If fashion matters as much as form, you’ll have to decide whether the tracker’s chunkiness is a badge of honour as a dedicated runner — or whether you need search for something a little more charm in the looks department! Price: £200
The Apple Watch is now in its third iteration after some hefty design tweaks. The watch is certainly much more than a timepiece, or even a tracker, for that matter: whilst the Apple Watch is expensive, you’re buying into a whole ecosystem of apps and additional functionality that the device supports. From a design perspective it looks just the same as the last generation (and is still waterproof to a depth of 50 metres), but under the hood the clever folks at Cupertino have been hard at work. As a higher end device the watch features GPS, and its Retina display makes it easy to view details of your location even in challenging lighting conditions in the outdoors. The watch’s heart rate monitor, which monitors your pulse by analysing changes in your skin colour, has been significantly improved with greater accuracy. Where Apple’s offering differs from those of its competitors is in the health and wellness apps it features: the latest watchOS allows you to monitor many different kinds of workouts with smart coaching messages that encourage you to reach activity targets. A more advanced model, GPS + cellular, also allows phone calls to be routed to the tracker… but that’s not something we really feel’s essential to a running device! Still, you might wish to check out Apple’s comparison site to determine which model is best for you: as the watch is a considerable purchase, it’s worth figuring out which represents the best investment for your longer term needs. Price: from £329
It’s important, however, to remember that while digital devices are great facilitative tools and can provide a source of motivation to get out and train (especially when challenging weather may attempt to persuade us otherwise!), the information they provide should be ingested with a healthy dose of appreciation for all that’s unmeasurable in the great outdoors!
There’s no device or tracking tool (as yet!) that can quantify just how much fun you’re having while trekking/trail running/skiing or snowshoeing: in the end, enjoyment of the experience is what it’s all about. There’s certainly a case for donning whatever footwear’s needed, throwing on a fleece (or whatever layers are required to stay warm) and then inadvertently ‘losing’ your fitness band or GPS watch… thus heading out carefree in the knowledge that every once in a while it’s good to forget about the metrics and take the opportunity to really marvel at the beauty that’s all around us as we venture through the wilderness. There’s not an app, device or tracker that scientists in a lab will ever quite devise to accurately capture that!