August 13, 2010

My virtual running partner

I have enlisted a new running partner to help me as I prepare for the marathon this time.

Garmin Forerunner 310XT GPS Enabled Sports Watch with Heart Rate Monitor

A running gadget won't necessarily make you run any faster, but I have to say that it can sure make the necessary training a lot easier. The Forerunner 310xt is one of the latest GPS sports watches from Garmin. I had been using a Polar watch that had a footpod to estimate my running distance. It worked well enough, but the desktop software stopped working so I couldn't upload any of the data, and the heart rate monitor was also becoming very faulty.

There are a few different Garmin GPS watches with varying features, but I decided on the 310xt primarily for the battery life. The other watches would typically last 8 or 10 hours, but the 310xt is advertised to last up to 20 hours. Not terribly important for running, but I can imagine being out on the bike all day, and it would be disappointing if it pooped out before I did.

I have been using if for about a month and a half, and it has been really useful for training. Having any sort of watch that measures distance helps tremendously. You don't have to plot out things ahead of time, and you can try out new routes on the fly and it will keep tallying up the miles. I chose to get the version with the heart rate strap because I find that to be helpful feedback on training and effort.

The watch comes with a USB sensor that you plug into your computer to communicate with the watch. It works well, and as soon as the watch is within a few feet of your computer, your workout data is sent to the desktop and/or online program for review. There is plenty of data for a numbers geek like me - time, distance, pace, heart rate, elevation gain, lap splits, and even a map of your route. My old Polar watch used infrared communication, and the technology seems to have largely died along with the watch.

The Garmin has been particularly helpful during my interval training. At times, the workout for the day can be pretty complicated, and I would otherwise need to be writing down my repeats on my hand.

You can set up the interval workouts ahead of time, and the watch tells you what to do when you are out on the road. It keeps track of the intervals, goal pace, number of repeats, and beeps to tell you when the next interval or rest period begins. If you like, it will even give an audible signal to tell you if you are running too quickly or slowly. It has made these workouts so much easier to do (except for the actual running).

There is also a screen on the watch that has a "virtual partner". Your virtual partner is set to run a specific speed, either a general pace you specify, or one that is programmed into your workout. When you are out on a workout, the screen compares how you are doing against the virtual partner, showing for example that you are 3 seconds or 50 feet ahead. I didn't think I would ever use this, but I find myself checking the screen to see how close I am to hitting my interval pace. It is an easy visual to know whether I need to pick up the pace or I can ease off.

One major disappointment was the ability to send workouts to the watch. The desktop software allows you to set up workouts easily enough. The hassle comes in when you try to set the desired pace. There are ten stock speed zones in the software and the watch. The software allows you to customize the zones, and I spent some time setting up paces for my intervals, tempo and long workouts. But for some reason, the customized speed zones do not transfer to the watch, and the stock ones are used in any workout you set up. The stock zones are so broad that they are worthless, and range from slower than walking speed to faster than world record time.

I emailed Garmin product support to see why this was happening, and apparently it is a design flaw in the software. It seems a rather major flaw to me - why have the ability to customize the speed zones if they can't be used on the watch? I was able to find a work around after some internet research, a fix that Garmin support seems clueless about. It is less convenient, but it does work.

I found the Garmin 310xt for 20% off, and there was also a $50 rebate when I bought it. It was still a bit of an investment, but I think it is worthwhile as I try to take my training to another level. I have to say that I am very pleased with it overall, and I hope to put a lot of miles on it over the next few years.

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