With GPS devices available for your wrist, bike, car, R.V. and boat, we live in the golden age of tracking everything. In addition to their function as timekeeping devices, GPS tools can accurately track data on speed, pace, heart rate, power, time, cadence, vertical oscillation, stride length, personal records, elevation, grade and temperature as well as dissect these metrics in every manner conceivable. Pairing a heart rate monitor with your GPS device helps prevent you from going so hard as to impair your training and race performance. While it’s easy to slip into the trap of relying entirely on your GPS for both workout metrics and motivation, it can be a critical tool in your training toolbox to help you train smarter and achieve your race goals.
Choosing your GPS device.
With nearly a dozen brands competing for your data-crunching dollar, it’s hard to know which one to buy. Garmin, Polar and Suunto seem to dominate the multi-sport market with other brands also offering features and metrics important to endurance athletes. Check with your coach or other athletes for their recommendations. Wander into your local triathlon, bike or run store to see what is in stock and to ask what devices are most popular. If you work with a coach, find out what metrics s/he needs from you to obtain optimal coaching data. The choice of GPS devices can be quite daunting. Here are some important considerations:

  • Buy for function over fashion. Make sure you can actually see the display.
  • If it is a watch, how does it feel on your wrist? Some men’s models are too large for women’s wrists.
  • If it is a bike computer, does it mount in a place you can see it easily in all weather and during a full speed descent?
  • Does it have the features you want? Many running-only watches won’t read power meters. Some entry level watches don’t have GPS; others don’t have bluetooth.
  • How easy is it to use? Do you have to press multiple buttons and dive through layers of screens to get to what you want?
  • Does it upload easily to Training Peaks, Strava or whatever platform you (and your coach) use to review data? 
  • Will it support your other devices, like your heart rate monitor, power meter or speed sensor?

In addition to a wrist based device, a good bike computer can make your cycling safer and more rewarding. Looking at your wrist while descending a mountain at over 60k an hour can be a real challenge. A bike computer mounted on your bars will make it faster and safer to check your riding metrics.
Choosing your GPS Displays.
Once you have purchased your GPS, how should you set the displays? This can vary from swim to bike to run to triathlon and from training to racing.
Everyone will have different preferences, but personally I like to see the following data:

  • Swim mode: Distance and time
  • Bike mode: Power, heart rate, speed and elapsed time
  • Run mode: Heart rate, elapsed time, average pace and distance

I also set “lap” to every five miles on the bike and every mile on the run. 
If you are trying to improve your running technique, you may want to display cadence, vertical oscillation and stride length. For a better understanding of power output on the bike, you may choose to display Lap-Average and 3-second Average to track both your average power for each part of the set as well as your current output. 

Mark Shorter LifeSport Coach, Ironman Certified Coach,  Ironman AWA Athlete, has completed 41 Ironman races (including 8 Ironman Hawaii World Championships) and 94 marathons (including two Boston Marathons).
Thank you to Juliet Hochman for contributing to this article.