Why would you want something on your wrist to track your running or other sports? After all, Steve Prefontaine did a 27 minute 10k back in 1974 without any of this gadgetry. The answers I’d give are: health, tracking, feedback, social, and fun. Ultimately, having something that is naturally with you all the time (on your wrist) makes all of these answers easier to tackle.

Let’s start with health. Fitness trackers started out with the humble beginnings of the basic pedometer, counting steps so people could see if they had reach a minimum level of activity during a day, but now they are so much more. Optical Heart Rate Monitors (HRM) “look” at your pulse, accelerometers feel your movement so know the quality of your sleep, and can even guess what sort of activity you are doing, even if you don’t tell it at the start of the activity, based your movements.

Plugging all this data together can allow athletes of all levels, from beginners to elites alike, to get valuable data on their general fitness levels. You might be thinking, why would an elite athlete be interested when they have a coach and a team looking after them, so let’s look at some examples.

Let’s say your heart rate overnight normally drops to about 55bpm, but one day, you are feeling a bit tired an you noticed your heart rate was 70bpm overnight. This could be a sign you are coming down with a cold, or you are overtraining, or just need more recovery time with gentle exercise sessions following a hard race that took everything out of you a week previously.

Or perhaps you notice your sleep is broken up every night many times. Realising you have might have sleep apnea, you try to solve this with a nasal strip and immediately get a much better quality of sleep, allowing you to recover from exercise more swiftly (yes, this happened to me).

Next up is tracking. Seeing trends over time is incredibly insightful, but manually tracking everything is boring. Who wants to spend time filling in spreadsheets when you could just automatically upload your daily activities (via Bluetooth to your phone) to a website that does it all for you? Even if you aren’t training for anything in particular, everyone likes to know that their last 7 runs are a little bit longer or faster than normal right? There is so much more these devices can track though.

Those with GPS can track how far you went, not just when running (which could have been done with a pedometer), but also when cycling, or open-water swimming or kitesurfing.

Some watches have optional accessories for use with cycling that will also track your cadence (pedal rotations per minute).

The accelerometers in them can measure your running cadence (steps per minute), which is great for improving running efficiency and some go a little further and measure how high you are travelling off the ground as well as ground contact time when running. Seeing how these areas change over the course of a long race as your form degrades is quite insightful. Those same accelerometers help out in multisport watches, for example in the swimming pool, noting any high-G pushes off the poolside and thus counting number of lengths, vibrating you when each phase of the workout is done.

This leads nicely on to feedback. As well as the feedback from data trends, some sports watches have vibration and audio feedback so that within a training session, you can think less about when to do things and focus more on form and less about having to look at the watch all the time. For example, if you want to run an interval session – set a warm up time or distance, set a rep distance and recovery time, plus number of reps and a warm down. The watch will nudge you when to switch to each phase, which is especially useful after the 6th rep when you can barely remember your own name any more, let alone how many reps there are to go or how long you are supposed to be walking for in between!

Alternatively, perhaps you want to set a pace to run or ride at – on some watches you can set zones the various sensors, be it max and min speed, or max and min heart rates. Heart rate training is a fantastic way for most athletes to avoid going out too hard on their rest days and going hard enough on their tempo days. Most beginners fall into the habit of the somewhere-in-between fast and slow training zone, which could really be holding them back.

Some devices go a step further, offering a personal training style schedule to follow, adjusting each day according to algorithms based on personal speed and heart rate trends, the effectiveness of which is improving all the time.

Another reason you might consider a Fitness Tracker is to get social. Perhaps you told everyone you are going to get fit and a few of you are doing it together. If you can all keep track of each other and keep each other accountable, you are much more likely to succeed. Allowing each other access to your training data lets everyone pass around encouragement and if you have a particular success, then bragging is easier with proof!

Beyond this, some applications have the ability to download other people’s routes, so that the watch can give directions on the fly. If you are just visiting a new area, finding and following a lovely route that other people enjoyed and shared just became easier.

Finally, let’s have some fun. Some people just like looking at data. Pouring over the minutiae of every session to some people is part of the experience. If that sounds like you, then there is probably already a GPS watch or Fitness Tracker on your wrist. If not, then there is other fun to be had. Perhaps your idea of fun is competitive. Apps like Strava mean you can race against friends (and strangers) virtually or see that you were the 12,145th fastest in the world at the 10k this month, or climbed Mount Everest 3 times last year when you tot up all the session elevation. Some GPS watches can even have tunes loaded on to them, connecting to your wireless Bluetooth earphones and keep your favourite running tunes pumping without needing to carry a phone with you.

Fortunately, when it comes to GPS Sport Watches and Fitness Trackers, the technology is reaching a level of maturity where many features have been standardised, so you can be pretty sure that what you are getting will be reliable, and fit for purpose. Since there is a large variety of devices, with a variety of different functionality, come on in to The Run Company where you will get some personal advice to help figure out which functions and devices will be right for you, or take a look at the GPS Running Watches section on our online store.