I’ve recently built a ConnectIQ watch data field that shows information about checkpoints during an activity. It is built for the Fenix 3 for use on a single field screen of an activity and shows the name of the next checkpoint, distance to go, time until cut-off and average pace required to get there within that time.
Here’s a screen grab from the simulator:
This came about after experiencing that in the middle of the night, many hours into a race, it’s quite easy to get mixed up, especially if you’ve been lost previously so you need to keep a delta in your head of distance on watch versus distance on course to compare with the checkpoint distances you have written down.
The operation is very basic. It holds the lat/lon of every checkpoint, distance between them and their cut-off times. It has no idea of the course you are following, just the expected distance to the next checkpoint. It checks if you are within 200m of the checkpoint, and if you are then switches to the following one, resetting the accumulated distance to zero and comparing this against the distance to the next CP. Additionally it looks one checkpoint further in case you happen to miss one. Also, as it’s not aware of the actual course it can go wrong, e.g. if you get lost and add on a few extra miles then it’ll misreport the distance to the next CP until you get there, after which it’ll get back in sync.
The other major problem is that I currently have no way of setting up the checkpoints other than by modifying the code and loading the updated data field to the watch. I’m yet to find a way of getting this kind of data onto the watch in a user-friendly way. Of course this is fine for me as I’m the only user but clearly means that the data field is of no use to anyone else unless they are comfortable with Eclipse and the ConnectIQ SDK.
The source is available on GitHub if you wish to customise this field for your own race:
I was asked recently to help out someone with a few features on their Garmin training watch and it made me realise that a lot of the features that I regularly use on my watch aren’t that obvious meaning that people often don’t get the most of a very capable device. Here are a few things that your watch is really good at.
Workouts allow your watch to direct you such that you are achieving your goals during a training session. By goals we mean things such a speed, pace or heart rate over a time or distance. For example you can have your watch warn you if you are not staying within a pace goal of 7:00 – 8:00 min/mile over a distance of 800 metres, warning you if you are going too fast or too slow, similarly you can set goals for your heart rate to be within a range of 70% to 80% for 10 minutes. Workouts can be structured meaning that they are a series of goals that you follow one after the other, a classic example is an interval session with a warm-up and cool down:
When you complete a workout the watch plays a little tune and then stops the activity. That’s fine if you are on a treadmill but chances are you’ve still got a way to go before you are really done. It’s possible to continue the workout but you will lose a few seconds; instead add an extra “no target” step to the end of every workout and just stop the watch normally when you have reached the end.
The watch can get pretty annoying with pace alerts if you’ve set a fairly narrow desired range, especially if GPS accuracy isn’t great. It’s therefore better to have a wider range and treat it is a “always go faster than” (have a really fast upper bound) or “always go slower than” (have a really slow lower bound)
A training plan is a calendar where you define particular workouts that you should complete on a given date. This is a great benefit when you head out first thing in the morning and can just fire up your watch and say “do today’s run”. The watch will then tell you when to speed up, slow down, work harder, ease off, etc.
It’s quite a lot of effort to set all this up in Garmin Connect but once it’s done it can be a great motivator – you just do what the watch is telling you with no deciding what you feel like at the crack of dawn!
The easy way
Plot a route on Garmin Connect, clicking your way round the map.
In Garmin Connect go to Courses and click the plus button to create a new course. Next:
Type in a place name close to the start to centre the map on that and zoom in until you find the right spot
Click once on the start point and this will drop a green marker
For a road route leave the “stay on roads” option checked as this will allow you to click infrequently with Connect figuring out the route between two points; for trail you are better off switching this off and clicking points more frequently (Connect will just draw a straight line between each point)
Type in a speed or pace on the right hand side – this govern the speed of a “virtual partner” you can compare yourself when following the course.
Give the course and name and hit Save.
Click “send to device” and connect your watch
On the watch go to Navigation | Courses and find the newly uploaded course and hit Start and Do Course.
Select the type of workout (run, bike, etc), wait for a GPS lock and then his start
You’ll now have a map screen as one of the screens you can scroll to where you can see the path ahead and a track of where you’ve been. the watch will give you alerts if you deviate from the course and again when you rejoin it.
A better way
Garmin Connect’s interface is quite limiting and there are better alternatives for creating routes (RideWithGps, Mapometer, Ordnance Survey, etc). Connect also doesn’t have a way to import routes from other sites or sources, which often will allow you to download a route as a GPX file, for example from a race website or in an email from a friend. In these cases you need a way to transfer a route that is saved in a GPX file onto your watch and this can be tricky; it also differs depending on the model of Garmin you have.
With the newer Garmin watches after connecting the watch it should appear as a folder on your desktop. Open this folder, inside there should be a Garmin folder and in there a NEWFILES folder; this is where we need to copy the GPX file. By default the NEWFILES folder is hidden so you’ll need to enable display of hidden files and folders to see it.
Copy the GPX file from your PC to the NEWFILES folder above and then “eject” the watch. After doing this the watch should display “Updating” for a few seconds and then return to the regular screen. The new route should now be visible in the list of courses in the Navigation menu.
NOTE: For this to work you need a “GPX track” as opposed to a “GPX route” the wrong type of GPX file results in the watch ignoring the new file,so look for an option for a track rather than route when downloading.
The more recent Garmin devices also offer turn-by-turn navigation. This is very much like a car satnav that alerts you shortly before a junction that a turn is coming up and displays information about the new direction and a description, such as a street name.
Auto-zoom automatically zooms the map display on the watch in or out such that you can see the track even if you’ve moved some distance away from it. This sounds good in principle but in practice when briefly looking at the display you can’t see how far the next feature is without scrutinising the scale. I therefore recommend leaving this off and zooming manually when required.
Circular routes can sometimes confuse the watch as it thinks you’ve already reached the end before you’ve even started. Onesolution here is to start the watch a little way after the start.
The watch can alert you that you’ve left the course even when you haven’t, this can be as a result of poor GPS accuracy (see under thick tree cover or in a city) or from inaccuracies in the route loaded onto the watch from either an inaccurate set of route points or points taken from poor map data.There isn’t an infallible solution here beyond building up experience of how much to trust the watch.
Very long routes can also be problematic and take a long time for the watch to load. One solution here is to split a very long route into a number of smaller segments, switching from one to the next during the activity. This is a bit of a faff both in creation and during the activity so I’d recommend putting both the long route and the shorter ones onto the watch and using the shorter ones as a backup if you encounter problems.
Charging on the go
For very long workouts the battery life of your watch might not be sufficient for the duration of the workout. In such cases you have a few choices:
Switch off all unnecessary features on the watch, such as smartphone integration, to save power
Change to “ultratrac” mode
Charge the watch whilst using it
I prefer the latter as I like the watch to be accurate and full-featured during a race. To charge the watch you need a portable power pack such as the Anker PowerCore mini, which has sufficient power to change the watch multiple times. Note however that not all power packs work, some I’ve tried don’t recognise the very small current draw of the watch and switch off rather than continue charging. In addition to this you also need to switch the watch’s USB mode to “Garmin” so that it can continue with the workout when a charger is connected.
The Centurion NDW100 was my second 100 mile race, having successfully finished SDW100 just a few months earlier. That first hundred had gone remarkably well so I was confident that I could repeat this on the North Downs. Aware that the NDW typically took an hour or two longer to complete I naively thought that I could push a bit harder than I had on my first hundred and so a sub-25 should be achievable and maybe even another sub-24, also this time I wasn’t going solo the whole way but had a pacer (my brother) to keep me motivated for the last 25 miles (the night section). A lot of the route is also familiar territory for me as the majority of my long training runs take place in the Box Hill area leading to more overconfidence.
As the SDW had been so successful I tried to keep everything the same: fuelling, hydration and kit. I did however have a new watch, a Garmin Fenix 3. I’d been training with the watch for about a month and was sure that I had it setup just right for navigation and pacing, but disaster struck just a mile into the race: the watch kept locking up so I wasn’t getting any info or notifications. After a lot of messing about it seemed that course navigation was the issue. With nav disabled the watch was back to giving me useful data again bar guidance for the route, which was only really a concern after Knockholt Pound as I didn’t know the second half. I just hoped that Centurion had done a good job of marking the course.
With that problem out of the way I could start running at relaxed pace and enjoy the course. It was a beautiful sunny day and fortunately I don’t suffer in the heat so I was making steady progress, sending regular updates to my family who were going to be at the top of Box Hill to cheer me on. I was really looking forward to seeing them 25 miles in and those 5 hours just flew by, reaching Box Hill about 10 minutes ahead of schedule and feeling great. A few minutes at the top chatting and then it was time to get going again so I departed shouting “see you in 50 miles!” to my brother. Not long after that my mood took a turn for the worse. This was down to me fixating on just how far that next 50 miles was. Reaching the aid station at Reigate was a big lift and suddenly the race didn’t seem quite so intimidating and I was once again able to break the race down and focus on getting to the next aid station.
The section from Reigate to Knockholt is a bit of a blur but I remember reaching Knockholt feeling good and appreciating fresh clothes from the drop bag and some hot food. The volunteers there were brilliant, taking care of your every need so I set off on the second half of the race feeling refreshed and strong. Things were still going well until darkness fell at around the 65 mile mark. At this point I was on a wide straight track so I took the opportunity to send a quick text message to my brother to tell him I was about 10 miles away from Bluebell Hill so he could start making his way to meet me there. Five minutes later I’m still on the same track but can’t remember the last time I saw any marker tape. Yep, I’d missed a turn, most likely whilst sending the text. Backtrack and eventually find my way up to the aid station on Holly Hill. Cue another downer – 10 miles in the dark until I saw my brother suddenly felt like a very long way. It was at this point that I started to struggle mentally – my pace was slowing and every time I calculated how long until Bluebell Hill it seemed it was even more time to go. Eventually the ETA did start getting closer and before long I was hiking up Bluebell Hill reaching the top a little after midnight.
I expected the final section to be quite straightforward, a pacer to keep me motivated, a course that looked easier – this was meant to be a doddle! Once we’d got past the climb out of Detling I was expecting a nice flat trail to the end but instead it felt like we were doing repeats up and down the stairs at Box Hill, so once again I was struggling as things were so much harder than expected. We battled on and finally made it to Lenham. By now the sky was starting to brighten and my mood lifted – not long to go now! The last 10 miles or so passed without incident and being flat I found it easy to have my brother to set a pace and just focus on following his heels. The final miles ticked away, so no walk breaks now, we’d almost done it. Into Wye and superb efficiency from the volunteers at the end supplying drop bags and bacon rolls made for a happy finish.
The race was so much harder than I’d expected and left me questioning whether I wanted to do any further races of this length. Just a couple of weeks later and I’m already planning the calendar for 2016 and naturally it’s got an even tougher 100 in it. This ultra lark is addictive, isn’t it?
Discussions around Garmin versus Suunto as training aids often seem to highlight very little other than folks saying “I’ve bought X and it’s the best” with very little to back up the statements. Having used devices from both manufacturers I consider myself to have a fairly unbiased view of the strengths and weaknesses of each and was asked recently which one I’d recommend, which led to a conversation about the particular needs of this runner and me thinking more broadly about who is best served by each device.
I’ll start with a bit of history about the watches I’ve used and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
My first running watch was a very basicPolar HRM that was little more than a stopwatch with heart rate display. It did the job but only because I was unaware of just what a watch could really do as a training aid. Buying a Garmin Forerunner 305 changed all that!
Since then I’ve become somewhat reliant on a watch as a training aid, navigational aid and motivator. This is generally good but can also be a problem if the watch lets you down and you are too dependent upon it.
Garmin Forerunner 305
The FR305 was my first proper training watch. I bought it in 2007 it revolutionised my training. At the time I was training for half marathons and training runs were transformed from what was often a chore into something much more challenging. For the first time I was able to have instant feedback on pace and distance and have a watch that could give alerts when outside the desired parameters.
Garmin Forerunner 310XT
I didn’t actually own this watch, I bought one for my wife as she was getting into triathlons but did on occasion use it if I needed more battery life. It was really a very small step up from the 305 with longer battery life and some triathlon features. It also used ANT to communicate with the PC rather than a wired connection but this was quite flakey. That combined with the fact that you still needed to plug it in to charge it meant that there really wasn’t that much benefit to being wireless. It certainly didn’t offer me any new features versus the 305 and had some bugs when displaying routes on the map screen (sometimes you saw nothing). I preferred the 305 apart from the fact that the battery wasn’t up to the duration required for the kinds of events I was now entering.
Suunto Ambit 2
Eventually the 305 started to become unreliable. It had stopped being waterproof a while back and now flooded if I was out in the rain. I think that eventually got to it so it needed replacing and the Ambit 2 looked to fit the bill.
The Suunto was a big change for me coming from Garmin but not terribly difficult to understand. The device itself was much smaller than the brick-like Garmins such that it could be worn as a regular day-to-day watch, albeit a somewhat bulky one. I was also attracted to the ability to create your own apps and very quickly knocked-up a run-walk app that gave me alerts such that I could stick to a 5:1 cycle in ultras; later on I added further alerts for eating and electrolytes.
I was however disappointed by a number of things. First off navigation. The “map” display was really very basic with just the planned route and your current location. Missing were a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, display of any saved locations nearby (only waypoints created as part of the route are shown) and no ability to zoom manually. There were also no alerts if you went off track. The Garmins had had all of these features so I had expected this or something similar. What this meant for me was that I could head off track without realising, look down at the watch and potentially not know which part of the visible track I should head for. In one race I managed to get lost in woods, lose my sense of direction and use the watch to navigate back to the route only to find this was a place I’d been a couple of miles earlier. The lack of zoom and breadcrumb trail was the problem here. Admittedly a paper map would have been a better option but I’d got used to the Garmin giving me enough to not really ever need a map.
The other big disappointment was the lack of training features. The “revolution” in my training mentioned above in part came about because I could plan my training months in advance with all kinds of different workouts with different pace goals. On the day I would just head out and ask the watch for today’s workout and get going. The Suunto seemed to have nothing. Intervals were ridiculously basic – just a single one where you set the durations but no goal pace or limits that could be set. Gone were the days where one day I’d run 8x400m and another day 4x1600m with different pace goals. I ended up just running mile intervals week in, week out and without the watch “moaning” that I was going too slow I just couldn’t keep focused enough to put out enough effort for a full mile. I definitely got slower in the year or two that I trained with the Suunto.
Another minor issue was the lack of alerts for low battery. There is a tiny indicator at the bottom of the screen but it was hard to distinguish if it was on 20% or 2%. In one race I let it get too low before connecting the charger and got an alert which gave a few seconds before switching off. Very annoying as once the charger was connected and the watch got going again the activity was logged as a brand new one. At least the old one was saved though.
You might get the impression that I didn’t like the Ambit but that’s not true. It was a rock-solid watch with did what it was designed to do very well it just didn’t quite live up to my expectations. At the time I was looking to buy it I also looked at the Garmin Fenix 2 but the reviews made it clear that it also wasn’t the watch for me as it wasn’t really designed as a running watch, it was more like a wrist-mounted Garmin outdoor device and so lacking all training features (or at least that’s how I understood the reviews).
The Ambit is rock-solid but the Suunto website (Movescount) had some extended periods where it was unavailable. This is a big deal with the Ambit as you can’t do route creation or change any of the configuration without using the web-based app.
Garmin Fenix 3
When the Fenix 3 was announced it sounded like exactly the watch I was after. Everything good found in the Ambit 2 plus all the features I’d been missing from the old Forerunners. The only problem was I couldn’t possibly justify spending all that money so soon. There was nothing wrong with the Ambit really, was there?
In the end I decided that I’d use the Fenix as a “carrot” to get me through my first hundred and set it as a reward if I could go sub-24. I succeeded and so ordered one within a couple of weeks of finishing the race. I wasn’t disappointed – this was a big step up: colour screen, smart phone integration, wireless connectivity (that worked), all the bells and whistles.
Returning to a Garmin device was great. Back to proper structured workouts with pace goals and navigation screens that really helped navigation. The colour screen helps here too as the display is really clear. There is also a ridiculous level of configurability of screens shown during workouts, even better these can be changed whilst out running so you can adapt the screens when you realise what you need rather than try and remember just what you wanted when you get home. This really came into it’s own during the night section of a race when I wanted a big single field display that was easy to read – easy, just did it then and there.
The Fenix is also smaller and lighter than the Ambit, not by much but enough that it’s more comfortable to run with for long periods), it also feels more comfortable as a daily watch so I now wear it all the time rather than just when out running.
There’s been a lot of noise in the forums about the Fenix 3’s accuracy. For general trail use it’s spot on, even under tree cover, however in the city surrounded by tall buildings it is quite a lot worse than all previous watches I’ve owned. This can be seen in the tracks from the 3 watches and shown here (taken years apart so not a scientific comparison but representative as this is a route I run frequently and day-on-day each watch performs much the same with very similar errors):
The Fenix 3 looks to be the worst of the lot here and the Ambit is the best. Fortunately for me I’m not too bothered about GPS accuracy in built-up areas and I don’t for example, see problems of this nature when running trail, even under heavy tree cover, so really this is a minor annoyance for me, the only real downside is that I end up with ridiculously fast stats for the final mile of my run to the office.
Uploading routes to the Fenix 3 isn’t terribly easy. You can plan routes on the Garmin Connect site and send them to the watch but I prefer to use other sites for route creation which result in a GPX file that you then want to send to the watch. The watch also supports turn-by-turn navigation (much like you get from a car Sat Nav) although that requires files of a very specific format that need custom tools to create (Running Badger’s converter). In terms of getting a GPX onto the watch there are a number of approaches but the only one I’ve found to work reliably is to import the GPX into Garmin Training Center and then upload to the watch from there. A bit of a faff though. Garmin really need to allow GPX uploads for route creation in Garmin Connect just like you can in Suunto’s Movescount.
The Fenix 3 has had some pretty shoddy software updates over the last year. v4.0 of the firmware was really, really bad and resulted in the watch letting me down during the NDW100. I’m pleased to say that v6.5 and v6.8 have been very good so hopefully those days are behind us.
One big benefit of the Fenix 3 is that you can do pretty much everything on the watch, even reconfigure screens during a workout. You therefore aren’t reliant on Garmin Connect being available to work with the watch.
The Garmin is a more feature-rich watch but is not without its problems. It also requires a bit more technical ability to use all the features. For me it is the stand-out winner. I was recently asked by a runner which one to get, and after a long discussion about their requirements and how comfortable they were with technology in general in ended up recommending the Suunto so it really does depend on what the key features are for you.
Of course the comparison here isn’t really fair as I’m comparing Garmin’s latest offering with the previous Suunto one and should really be looking at the Ambit 3. The Ambit 3 does have smartphone integration but from what I’ve seen it has no real improvements in the navigation and training areas that I found so lacking.