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Watch or phone?

In this article, we look at one of the questions asked by many new runners: Should I use my phone to keep track of my runs, or invest in a running watch?

Normally in an article like this we would attempt to address the question by considering the pros and cons of both and providing an even-handed conclusion. In this article, however, we’re going to come straight out and say it…

Using a GPS-enabled running watch to track your runs is better than using your phone.

That said, a phone can be good enough. It all depends on what you want your technology to do for you and whether you feel like shelling out on more kit.

A Garmin watch showing elevation in the mountains

Do you even need to track your runs?

First things first: you don’t have to run with any kind of technology.

If you’re not fussed about knowing exactly how far you’ve run or how long you’ve run for, then you don’t need anything. It might be helpful to have a simple watch on so you can make sure you’re not late for work or that you’re home in time for Coronation Street, but that’s all you need.

If you run for fun, and don’t need to know your stats, then feel free to run tech-free. If you wanted to, you could monitor your progress by jotting down estimated times and distances, how you felt, and how hard you were pushing. The data won’t be precise, but it can be a great way of keeping track of your running without stressing too much about the details.

What about ‘low tech’?

If you don’t have a smartphone, don’t have a GPS watch, or want to avoid having to share your location and activity data with the internet, you can still keep track of your runs with a reasonable degree of precision. You just have to do it the old fashioned way with a stopwatch to time your runs and a piece of string on a map to measure the distance.

Until recently this was the only way of doing things and it worked just fine. Just look at the top race times from the 70s and 80s, when runners didn’t have the benefit of 21st century technology, and they’re not far off what people are running today.

Lonely Goat, Gemma Goode’s watch congratulating her on her fastest ever mile

The benefit of technology

Where technology can help is by making life easier for you.

If you’ve got a smartphone you can download a running tracking app (Strava is probably the most well known, but there are plenty of others). These apps will use the GPS function on your phone, and a bit of your data, to log the duration and distance of your run. The apps will also be able to tell you your pace at different points of the run and provide an elevation chart to show the hills.

If you have a smartwatch linked to your phone, you can use the tracking app without having to fiddle about with your phone, which may be in a pocket or on a nightclub bouncer-style armband. You may also be able to sync it with a separate heart-rate monitor if that is another metric you wish to track.

A phone’s benefits

Taking photos and staying safe are areas where a phone will beat a watch.

Some runs are so stunning that we feel compelled to document them with a photo. You simply can’t do that with a watch.

We’d also recommend carrying a phone (even if you use a watch to record your run) from a safety perspective. Being able to phone for help, should you need it, can quite literally be a lifesaver in some circumstances.

If you don’t have big enough pockets for your phone and don’t fancy carrying it in an arm strap (which can make you feel unbalanced), a running belt is a great option. You can buy a Lonely Goat running belt in our shop.

A wrist-mounted coach

If your phone can do so much, why bother getting a watch? Because a decent GPS running watch can do all of these things and more, and usually do them better. Compared to your phone, a good running watch:

  • Has better, more accurate GPS functionality;
  • Has a longer lasting battery;
  • Is more straightforward to use, with a running-specific display, buttons and user interface;
  • Is more convenient than having to carry your phone around; and
  • Can store previous runs, play music through bluetooth headphones, and measure your heart-rate either through your wrist or using a chest strap.

More significantly, it can act as a coach, with pre-loaded or customisable running workouts guiding you through your training sessions. If you are stepping up the seriousness of your running and discovering the world of interval sessions, fartleks, progression runs, tempos, and strides, then a bit of wrist-based encouragement can be a real help. With a little beep here and there to tell you what to do and when, plus provide feedback on how well you’re doing, you’ll be better placed to improve.

Yes, some phone or smartwatch apps can do this too, but they tend to be lacking in features compared to a dedicated running watch.

Specificity

You don’t need anything to track your running. Just getting out your door and running according to how you feel can be liberating and a lot of fun.

However, if you would like to get stuck into studying your speed, distance, pace, heart rate, elevation gain, split times, or any of the other stats that can be measured by a watch or phone, then a GPS running watch is probably the best way of doing so.

Why? Because a smartphone is designed to do a million different things; just one of which is track your running. A running watch is a watch designed just for running (or running plus other sports).

It is for this simple reason why, in our opinion, GPS running watches have the edge over a smartphone when it comes to tracking your runs.

Plus, if you’re in the pub with a running watch on your wrist, you can casually drop in a mention of your recent running achievements should someone say “Nice watch. What does it do?”.

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Thanks to Lonely Goat, Sam, aka @all_things_run.derful for the header image.