There are many reasons why one would want a GPS watch. They can really help you monitor your workouts and improve your fitness. However, it is important that you know they are giving you accurate measurements, which is why you might be concerned about whether they are accurate on a track.
GPS watches are usually not accurate when running around a track due to interpolation and measurement errors. There are things that you can do to minimize the error, including calibrating your watch properly and getting a watch that records your location more frequently.
If you are the owner of a GPS watch, and this issue concerns you, you might be interested in learning more about it. Read on to learn about how exactly GPS watches work and how you can minimize the error as much as possible.
How Do GPS Watches Work?
In case you didn’t know, GPS stands for “global positioning system.” There are several satellites that circle the Earth in very precise orbits, which are all coordinated with one another to put out unique signals at the same time.
GPS receiver units in different types of devices can calculate their own positions with respect to these satellites. They will be capable of calculating your longitude, latitude, altitude, and speed with impressive precision, usually within a few feet or meters, if they can pick up signals from at least three or four satellites.
These receiver units were once a lot bigger than the ones you see today. Nowadays, they can be very small, even fitting inside the face of a wristwatch. Sporting goods companies have designed tools that use GPS in a way that can benefit athletes and exercise enthusiasts.
The majority of GPS watches have many other abilities, in addition to being able to track your location. There are also pedometers, heart rate monitors, and bike computers in many GPS watches. The watch owner can enter his or her basic information, such as age, weight, and height, to have a specific tool for his or her fitness endeavors.
One advantage of a GPS watch is that you always have some way of knowing your location. This can be very helpful if you are going somewhere where you might get lost, such as hiking or hunting in the woods. In addition, a GPS watch can measure your performance while you are engaging in a variety of athletic activities, including running, biking, and kayaking.
For example, it can only tell you how long it took for you to run a certain distance, but it can also tell you at which points you were running your fastest and slowest. Being able to observe these trends in your performance will help you see what you need to work on.
If you know how to use all of the features of a GPS watch, you can precisely tackle what you need to improve during every point of your exercise session.
Why GPS Watches are Not Accurate on a Track
Most of the time, a GPS watch is not going to be entirely accurate. There are a few factors that can cause this error.
GPS devices do not track your movement continuously. Your watch will keep a record that is essentially a sequence of GPS positions. It will frequently mark your location at a specific time, and then it will measure the distance between each of these points. This can lead to two primary types of errors.
The first one is referred to as an interpolation error. If your watch is not recording your location frequently enough, it will tend to underestimate your overall distance. This can be particularly applicable if you are running around a track.
If your GPS only records three or four positions as you are running around a circular or oval track, it will look like you have been running around a triangle or square instead. The device will interpret this as you have run a shorter distance than you actually did.
The second common type of error is measurement error. Because your location, as recorded by satellites, could be off by a few feet or meters each time, the distance between two points as recorded by your GPS watch will be somewhat inaccurate. This may not be a big deal between two points, but these errors will add up if you run a long distance.
Between interpolation error and measurement error, most GPS watches cannot be expected to give you accuracy when you are running around a track.
Related article: Do Garmin GPS Watches Lose Accuracy?
How to Make Your GPS Watch More Accurate
GPS watches do have their limitations, but there are things that you can do to make them as accurate as possible.
Get the Newest Model Available
Most manufacturers will tell you that the newer the model is, the more accurate it will be. Companies are consistently working to improve the accuracy of GPS watches.
Some of the newer models allow you to choose how much time the GPS will use to interact with the satellite, which will make the recordings more accurate. However, it would be best if you also kept in mind that this setting is likely to consume more battery power.
Input Accurate Information
When you first get your GPS watch, make sure that you put in the correct information for yourself. This includes your height, weight, and age. If you don’t put in the right information, it is less likely that your tracker is properly going to record your calories, steps, and distance.
Be Consistent in Wearing It
You are normally going to wear a watch around your wrist, but try to make sure that you wear it in exactly the same place on your body every time you exercise. This will minimize the probability of error.
You also want to make sure that you tighten the strap enough so that it can continuously track data from the same place without moving down your arm, but you don’t want it to be so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
Provide Enough Information
When you are about to perform an activity, tell your tracker about exactly what you are going to do. This is important because your watch will use a specific algorithm for any given activity. Some of the new trackers can figure out what you are doing automatically, but it’s always good to give it the information anyway.
Many of these devices will give you the option to enter additional information as well. For example, if you are taking products that contain caffeine before you do your workout, you should enter this into your device; it will affect your heart rate, changing the meaning of the heart rate that is recorded by your watch.
Keep Your Watch Up-to-Date
Electronic devices typically have frequent software updates available. It is a good idea to update your watch every time you can. The algorithms change and improve over time, and these updates can actually make your watch more accurate.
Exercise in GPS-Friendly Areas
If you want your watch to give you the most accurate recordings possible, it’s a good idea to do your exercise in an open area, without many tall buildings, bridges, or trees to interfere with the signal.
You should also minimize the number of turns if possible; because of interpolation error as already described, this will likely compromise the accuracy of the distance recorded by your watch. Of course, if you are running around a track, this may not be something you can do.
GPS watches are great for many different uses. Unfortunately, they do have some pretty major limitations when it comes to recording the distance you are running around a track. This can be very frustrating since many people use tracks to make progress in their running abilities.
Tracks are a great way to gauge your progress since they provide an easy way to ensure that your conditions are consistent. If you want a GPS watch that helps you track your progress accurately here, you will probably want to get a new one and be thorough as you are setting it up.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.
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