Running outdoors is just not always feasible. Extreme heat or extreme cold can keep even the hardiest of runners indoors and looking for a treadmill to get their daily mileage in. If you use a GPS watch to track your runs, you have probably wondered – “Do GPS watches even work on treadmills?”
GPS watches are built to track outdoor running movement. So, they won’t offer accurate metrics when tracking movement indoors on a treadmill. To make the reading more accurate on treadmills at home or the gym, you’ll ultimately need to get a Foot Pod that links up to your GPS watch or use a pedometer.
There is also the most obvious option which is to simply use the treadmills built in distance recording and then manually input your stats into the fitness app of your choice like Strava. This post will address the litany of questions, frustration, and comments from fitness enthusiasts who are dead set on recording all their workouts on a GPS watch.
We will also look at the tips and tricks to give you the best bet for treadmill accuracy.
The Accuracy of GPS Watches on Treadmills
Studies indicate that stride length and frequency tend to differ when running on the treadmill than when running outdoors. Some fitness trackers and apps can measure up to eight miles short or far. But is it possible to measure how far you have run on a treadmill with a GPS watch?
Thankfully, GPS watches are more accurate than apps as they work with trilateration when outdoors. They pick up signals from several satellites to work out your exact position. However, they can be fixed by atmospheric conditions or tall buildings.
Below are tips and tricks to help minimize the discrepancy between your GPS watch and the treadmill and get the most of your indoor run.
Focus on Your Form
If your GPS watch’s indoor mode and your treadmill read significant differences, your form may also differ on the treadmill than when outdoors. Keep in mind when you’re on a treadmill, you’re not moving forward but on the same spot.
When running on the treadmill, many people tend to hold the handrail or the machine’s console. The purpose of the handle is to help you get on and off the mill safely. Make sure that you move your arms for more accurate readings.
When you hold the rails, you reduce the load and distort the GPS metrics. If you’re concerned about falling, you could be running too fast of a pace or too steep of an incline.
Although the mill does some work for you by feeding the conveyer belt on your feet, run at the front of the belt to avoid overstriking. Safety and form are crucial.
Additionally, shorten your stride and minimize the arm swing. Your arms make a massive difference in your stride and performance on the treadmill. Keep them at the waist level to avoid tightness and tension in your shoulders and neck.
Also, rotate your arms from the shoulder when running so that they swing back and forth from the shoulder joint and not the elbow. Your hand must graze your hip as your arm comes back in front of you.
If you run in the middle on the belt, ensure you have enough room for your stride and arm swing. Also, run straight and avoid hunched shoulders, and don’t be obsessive about checking your watch.
When you bring your wrist forward and crane your head, you throw off your form, negatively impacting the readings.
Change Your Metric From Distance to Duration
Another trick is changing and focusing on your metric from distance to duration to help keep your mind at ease. For instance, if you want to want to run 5 miles for 40 minutes, if your GPS watch reads short or long, it doesn’t matter as you’ll have achieved your goal.
If you want to get more accurate results for your runs on the treadmill, try and mark the treadmill distance after running 1.5 km. A different method is to use a different treadmill to mark the treadmill distance after every run.
For speed work, you can apply time-based interval workouts rather than distance-based intervals. Besides, treadmills are not created equal, and the form differences are exaggerated for faster paces, so your GPS watch will give an inaccurate reading during interval runs.
Also, when using the time interval function on your watch, it aligns with the time-based intervals and the time readout data on the treadmill. You may want to try out a fartlek workout to help you run for time instead of distance.
For the best accuracy, you can run at a pace that is natural and feels comfortable. To improve the accuracy of speed and distance measured, your GPS watch will offset calibration.
Mix Up Your Runs With Speed, Cadence and AMRAP Work
Another tip that will help minimize the discrepancy between your GPS watch and the treadmill is mixing up your runs with speed, cadence, AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible) training, etc. The data will be more reliable to calibrate accurately. Setting small goals can motivate you to keep going.
AMRAP training focuses on completing a set of workouts; you move to the next and begin again. Your aim should be on performing as many reps and rounds as possible within a given time. There are many benefits of tackling exercise AMRAP style.
You can pick a set of exercises, for instance, ten squats, ten push-ups, ten pull-ups, and repeat the course as many times as possible.
Your GPS watch will track the metrics and workout the summary. To improve the metrics’ accuracy, accumulate at least 20 minutes of one set of your AMRAP training to calibrate the GPS watch.
Conversely, training at high cadence makes your workouts more effective and eliminates your stroke’s mechanical inefficiencies. Cadence training includes; cycling, specific strength exercises, speedwork, and resistance training.
Integrate a Pedometer
Pedometers are a popular way that fitness enthusiasts track if they have reached the recommended 10,000 daily steps. They are small beep-sized devices that you wear on your waist to count the number of steps you take.
There is a wide range of pedometers that you can find in the market that cost anywhere $20- $70 that offer step counter gym, fitness, exercise app, among other features. Studies indicate that pedometers’ accuracy can exceed 96 percent when the speed is more than three mph.
Also, dozens of running apps are available for smartphones, but not all of them offer indoor distance tracking. While using GPS to measure the distance covered outdoors, calculating an imaginary distance can be a little tricky.
Fitbit is a popular choice with most athletes, which offers tight accuracy for fitness devices. The app logs step counting, heart monitoring, and sleep tracking with in-built algorithms. You can change the settings to ensure you get accurate results when training on a treadmill.
Set a manual stride length to ensure that you are not underestimating or overestimating when running on the mill. To calculate your stride’s length, walk on the treadmill for a short distance, and divide the total steps by multiplying by two.
When doing AMRAP, cadence, or speeds, you can calibrate exercise detection through the Fitbit SmartTrack. Your workout will be automatically detected, including squats, cycling, pull-ups, or push-ups.
You can tweak how long your Fitbit will wait to kick in tracking when it automatically detects a workout is happening. If you find the auto-tracking accuracy is not working right, you can turn it off and use it for each exercise individually.
Accurate pedometers are those with less than ten percent step-count errors. If you walk 100 steps, the pedometer should not count more than 110 or fewer than 90.
Get a Foot Pod that Links to your GPS Watch
A foot pod that links to your GPS watch could be your best bet for treadmill accuracy. Unlike a pedometer, the foot pod uses an advanced MEMS inertial sensor technology to analyze your movements. It is also responsive to stride length changes for precise accuracy.
Some suggestions include a Garmin, which you can watch in the video below, or Nike+ SportWatch:
A contemporary foot pod is a small device that gives you the pace and distance when running. The foot pod sends metrics through ANT and Protocol features to several devices.
Since it’s impossible to get running cadence data from your treadmill or GPS, the foot pod will tell your cadence, which is critical when you want to improve or increase your workout. To use your foot pod, snap onto your shoe, and despite thousands of miles of running, it cannot fall off.
Pairing a foot pod is relatively easy. It comes with a unique ID that connects with your GPS watch such that there is no interference with others, especially in a gym. Once enabled, calibrate it for the highest levels of accuracy. If you’re indoors, you can calibrate it using GPS.
When running indoors on a treadmill, you should set the foot pod into the indoor mode by turning off the satellite. When you want to improve the accuracy, the satellite track record should be zero since you’re not moving.
Let’s assume that you forget to reset it, what’s the worst that can happen? Don’t worry as the GPS watch still records your pace, speed, and distance using the foot pod. Once you are done running, you will see two sets of graphs on your smartphone application, as you’d typically see when outdoors.
Conversely, you will notice how incredibly smooth the paces look because treadmills allow you to run at a set speed as part of the intervals. You will also see your running cadence after running on the mill.
Therefore, linking your GPS watch with a foot pod increases the accuracy of pace, distance, and cadence metrics when running on a treadmill.
Remember the Purpose of Your Workout
Since we’re now in the age of GPS watches, we can become obsessed with data and metrics. Ultimately what matters most is the workout itself, which you define by volume and intensity. When using distance and pace, you can measure the volume and intensity of your treadmill runs besides duration and perceived effort.
Don’t obsess too much if there’s a small discrepancy between your GPS watch and treadmill readings, especially if it’s an easy run. The difference does not negate the purpose of your running.
Other Tips for an Effective Treadmill Run With a GPS Watch
Although your watch’s indoor mode is more similar to outdoor running, there are still some discrepancies that you will notice when running on the treadmill. Here are other tips to help you close the gap and get accurate data.
Don’t Step on and Off While the Treadmill Is Moving
A fast-moving treadmill can pose a massive risk to the user. If you need to run to the bathroom or answer a call, get some water, or grab a towel, slow the machine down, reduce the pace, lower the incline then step off.
When getting back, don’t try to pick up from where you left off, mostly if you were on a fast pace. Instead, start to slow again as you gain speed and ensure that you have everything you need near so that you won’t be tempted to hop off.
Visualize a Route
Another trick to effectively run on the mill is to visualize an outdoor route that you frequently run. Picture yourself running along and imagine the trees, the breeze, and landmarks you pass along the way.
Change the incline settings as if you’re heading up a hill in an outdoor route. You can also build in some speed changes because of other factors that you meet along the way, such as traffic lights. The point is, mimic outdoor running conditions and vary the pace throughout the run.
Improve Your Stride Count
The more steps you take when running on the treadmill, the more you improve efficiency. Count how often one foot hits the belt in a minute and multiply that by two to get the steps per minute.
If you want to improve your stride during a treadmill run, take shorter, quicker strides and keep your feet close to the belt. Improving your stride also helps you deal with boredom on the mill and eventually enhances your outdoor running.
Pay Attention to Your Stride and Don’t Look Down
When you’re running on the treadmill, run the same way you would run when outdoors. It’s hard not to keep on looking at the console and see how much time or distance you have left. But looking down will affect your form, which can lead to inaccurate readings.
If you look at your feet, you may hunch over, leading to back and neck pain. Run when looking straight ahead as you would when running outside.
Another common mistake is overstriding where you land the heel first with your heel while your foot is well ahead of your body’s gravity. Run with your natural gait and avoid short, choppy strides.
Since the belt moves you forward, overstriding creates a braking force with the belt. To overcome this form mistake, keep your stride quick to minimize the impact transferred to your legs.
Use a Slight Incline and Don’t Make It Too Steep
Treadmill incline is one or two percent. A gentle uphill simulates outdoor running, but you can incline it to zero when starting until you build up and increase the pace. Increase the incline to push yourself and feel challenged.
Also, please don’t make the incline too steep as it could strain you back, hips and ankles. Anything over two percent is never a good idea, and it could lead to injuries.
Things to Note
- Running on the treadmill is different from running outdoors, especially when it comes to form. To achieve a good form when running, you need to lean slightly on the run instead of running completely upright.
- GPS watches are based on step count and extrapolate from your arm movements, which, at best, is a rough guide. If you get a reliable calibration from GPS when doing speeds, hills, or other variance work on the treadmill, the watch will not know how to apply it and might even indicate a slower pace when doing speed work.
- If you check your wearable frequently and then stop swinging the arm, it will affect the watch’s accuracy. Additionally, if you swing your arms wildly when running, your GPS will record an inaccurate pace.
- You also can expect data inaccuracies based on individual variations in form from running outdoors to the treadmill.
- The variation is mainly because of the distance recorded by a GPS watch given how novice wearable tech is, it may take time to take accurate distance measures. But developers are working to improve the limitations.
Running is one of the easiest sports. If you’re running indoors because the weather is horrible or gyms in your area are closed due to the 2020 global health scare, a treadmill or indoor track will do fine.
However, if you’re into data as most running enthusiasts nowadays are – tracking your workouts accurately when indoors is crucial. However, GPS running watches may not offer accurate metrics since you’re moving in the same spot.
To get around this challenge, you can apply some of the tips and tricks we have mentioned in this post. You can improve your form or use time-based interval workouts rather than distance-based intervals. Other options include connecting an external accelerometer pod or getting a pedometer that comes at a cost.
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David is 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.