Ode to the GPS Running Watch

April 27, 2017
GPS running watch
Marc ChalufourThe Garmin Forerunner 230 GPS running watch.

My favorite piece of running gear isn’t a perfectly fitting pair of shoes or a well-worn race T-shirt. It’s my running watch. My first running watch was the Timex Ironman: cheap, beautiful in its simplicity, and ubiquitous. A survey of wrists at an early 1990s high school cross-country meet would’ve revealed a lot of trademark black-and-orange wrist straps. The Ironman performed every task we needed: It told the time of day, kept time on a stopwatch, and recorded splits at the tap of a button. I wore mine religiously, recording every run then transferring that data by hand into a running journal each night. The Ironman was the trusty training partner who never missed an early morning jog or a dark, damp evening run.

But times change, and technology has come a long way in the past 25 years. Timex still makes the Ironman (a dizzying array of them, actually) but also faces competition from tech companies like Garmin, Apple, and FitBit. Each produces its own version of a slick wrist-top computer. These next-generation GPS running watches perform a dizzying range of tasks, including streaming music, podcasts, audiobooks, text messages, weather reports, maps, and the list goes on. And if that’s not enough competition, some wired-in runners eschew a watch entirely and just carry a smart phone. For those who choose to make the most of technology, the loneliness of the long-distance runner is long gone. (Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another topic entirely.)

My watch of choice today is the Garmin Forerunner 230, which combines the simplicity I loved about the Ironman with the running-specific features I enjoy about the internet age—but without some of the extra bells and whistles unessential to a nice run. Once the watch picks up a satellite signal, it provides constant feedback on my pace, splits every mile, and, post-run, lets me compare my performance to other runs along the same route. All I need to do is hit start and stop.

Beyond those standard features, here are a few other reasons I love the Garmin:

  • Customizable watch faces (you can select from a variety of designs on the Garmin Connect app). I’ve opted for a watch face with big white numbers that gradually turn blue, as though filling with water, as I take more steps throughout the day. 
  • Bluetooth communication with my phone eliminates the need for cords or dongles when syncing data. Within a few seconds of finishing a run, the info is uploaded and ready for review. 
  • Strava compatibility. Although the Connect app provides many tools, I prefer Strava, a popular social network and run/bike-logging app. Once your accounts are linked, Garmin will push your data automatically to Strava when you sync. (Check out a screen shot of a run mapped on Strava below.) Then you can look at maps, view your training log, analyze your pace and heart rate (the Forerunner 230 is compatible with Garmin chest straps), and more.

Turns out that the sort of person accustomed to meticulously recording every fraction of a mile of every run by hand also really likes all this extra data.

(For a thorough review of the Forerunner 230, and many other devices, check out the DC Rainmaker blog.)

Strava Trail Run Map
A run in Connecticut’s Penwood State Park, as mapped on Strava.


Read AMC Outdoors’ recent feature “Run for the Hills” for details on nine of the Northeast’s best trail runs.

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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour, a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors, contributes to the trail-running blog Running Wild.