A survey by TomTom in Jan 2015 revealed how 45% of runners are using smart technology, such as GPS, to track and log their runs.
There’s currently a lot of talk about escaping data, becoming wire free and running ‘naked’ (in the technological sense, not the â€˜risking arrest for indecent exposureâ€™ type), but to be honest I don’t agree with all that. I’m an analyst. I love running, and I also love knowing how I’ve run compared to last time. How have I improved since the last time I covered a certain distance and is my training paying off or do I need to reel it in a bit? When I first started running I tracked all my runs on a spreadsheet until it became too much effort (and then thankfully RunBritain.com and Power of 10 had my back on that one) so to satisfy the statistical geek in me, being able to analyse my pace, heart rate and improvements makes me happy!
In an article I read recently the author advised people to ‘throw [their] watches away’ as they were holding themselves back by stressing out about the various facts and figures being thrown at them. However, I see huge value in using this data to not only check how youâ€™ve performed post-event, but also to monitor how things are going while youâ€™re running and of course, to do this you need the right tools for the job. For anyone looking to improve in endurance activities, this is where a good GPS watch really is worth its weight in gold.
For this review I chose to put TomTomâ€™s watch through a vigorous long-term test using it throughout an entire season of events involving running, cycling, swimming and triathlon events (I felt using it during obstacle course races might be pushing it too far and didnâ€™t want to risk breaking it!). Hereâ€™s how I got on…
When I first received the watch in April 2015 my first tests with the watch involved my regular swim technique session in my local 20m pool. Unfortunately during my first few trials, whether I was performing short 200m drills or longer 1km sessions I found the watch kept measuring just short of the actual number of laps which made me wonder if I was actually using the watch correctly at the end of each set? Did I need to do something specific to make it register the last lap – maybe jumping up and down or clapping my hands once I’d finished, or performing some kind of secret masonic style handshake to count that elusive final lap?
As time passed a number of software updates were sent down to the watch and admittedly this issue seemed to occur less often, so it may have been the case that early software wasnâ€™t as good as later updates, but I often still found myself finishing sets at the same end of the pool where Iâ€™d started but on an odd number, so this revealed that I definitely couldnâ€™t trust the data 100%. Even worse, this meant that a number of the statistics available (i.e SWOLF (swimming efficiency), SPL (strokes per length) etc…) wasnâ€™t always reliable making it difficult to perform statistical analysis with the available data post-swim.
I was also disappointed to learn that although the watch utilises GPS for running and cycling, this particular model was unable to track distance during swimming using satellites and so when the weather improved and I started to use a lake at a local adventure centre for open water swimming, the watch was unable to track my distance or provide any feedback on the route Iâ€™d taken â€“ something which my Triathlon club-mates were able to do on quite a few of their watches and a feature I wouldâ€™ve found useful for monitoring my swimming efficiency.
As Iâ€™m a runner first and foremost, out of the water my first chance to test the watch came during a local Half Marathon and one of the things I absolutely LOVE about this watch is how fast it picks up satellite signal! I’ve had watches where the manufacturer advises turning on GPS 15 minutes before a run resulting in moments on race start-lines where Iâ€™ve forgotten to switch my watch on so I find myself ignoring the race and waving my arm in the air praying I find signal before I hear the word ‘Go!’. Thankfully those mad moments of panic are now long-gone as TomTom uses ‘Fast GPS’ which means even when you hear the ‘one minute to go’ announcement on the start line, chances are you’ll still have time to grab signal without even needing to stand on your tiptoes.
During this race I decided Iâ€™d test the heart rate function by using it to monitor my level of exertion and run the race accordingly. The watch uses bright green lights to pick up your pulse and calculate your heart-rate and by using a monitor during training I knew I could maintain a decent pace at around 175-180 BPM so my plan was to test whether monitoring my heart rate and keeping it below a certain level would result in a better time than my usual method of monitoring pace.
Initially this didn’t work out as planned as despite reading the instructions about where the watch should go I ended up spending the first couple of miles trying to find optimum wrist placement as it was clear the lights werenâ€™t shining into the correct spot and the on-screen figure was much lower than my actual heart rate, but after a while the number seemed to match my perceived level of exertion and my plan was working – so much so that I still felt great 11 miles in (even though I’d been pushing myself running 7:10 to 7:20 min/miles â€“ the fastest Iâ€™ve ever paced during a Half Marathon) and I was able to speed up for the final 2 miles leading me to a personal best! This left me wondering if this tactic could help me towards a Marathon personal best and where I’d previously given up hope of going sub-3:30 in a marathon, I now found myself looking into races I could enter where I might be able to achieve this milestone…
Although the race itself had been a success, I do have to whinge about something I discovered post-race while sitting in the pub… A friend had run with a Garmin which used a separate arm mounted HR unit, and although he was jealous about the fact my unit was an all-in-one, he was able to sync his gadget up to his Android phone while we sat enjoying our post-race pint whereas my watch was incompatible with the same operating system on my phone so, apart from the limited data on the phoneâ€™s screen, I was unable to fully look through my race data until I get home a few hours later. Thankfully it wasnâ€™t long before the compatibility issues were sorted via. software updates, but judging by online reviews it took a while for TomTom to sort this particular issue. Itâ€™s worth also pointing out that more recently Iâ€™ve upgraded to a phone with the latest Android operating system (Marshmallow 6.0) and the app appears to have syncâ€™d straight away without any issues although time will tell if this remains the case…
The Paris marathon would prove to be the first major test of my device during a long distance raceâ€¦ How would the unit cope in a major event when all around me quite a few of the other 40,000 other runners would be using their own kit? How would it cope with a route involving tall buildings, tunnels and trees? And most importantly… could I upscale my previous test and run the entire 26.2 miles using a balance of perceived level of effort (PLE) and heart rate (HR)…?
As we’d awaited our Eurostar I’d checked Google Play store and was happy to see an update for the TomTom MySports app was available offering Lollipop connectivity – just in time for marathon season! I excitedly downloaded the software and connected my phone ready for the next day! Post-race I’d connected my phone again to upload the race stats and wow I was shocked by just how slow the upload process was! I’d make the typical excuses such as â€˜Its because there’s so much data to uploadâ€™, or â€˜maybe because my roaming partner is only offering a slow internet speedâ€™ (as if that’d make a difference when the phone and watch were connected via. Bluetooth) however uploading a 10km race back in the UK a few weeks later proved the same ordeal so don’t expect to be able to analyse your data within minutes of finishing your race!!
Thankfully the data upload eventually completed and I have to say I was impressed about just how much information the app contained as I was able to view the exact same information available on the internet site including full graphical analysis of my pace, speed, heart rate and the routeâ€™s elevation throughout the full 26.2 miles. I also loved the fact the data was automatically uploaded to Strava (I only became aware of this when friends started giving me ‘kudos’ on the activity!) which meant, as well as my Strava friends becoming aware of my achievement, I had options of which software I wanted to use to pick apart my performance.
As with previous events, I was able to use the website to check the various elements of my performance such as when my pace had altered, when my heart rate had raised and even after the tunnel sections of the route where I’d lost GPS, the watch had done a great job of picking the distance back up and continuing the measuring. I’m going to assume this was down to some complex formula involving my current pace satellite positions, but a part of me likes to think there was a tiny bit of magic involved there too! At the end of the race the total distance showed as 42.56km which, even allowing for GPS variance, shows the tunnel sections may have affected the distance a little by adding 0.36km to the distance, however in general the recording was excellent and I was very happy with the wealth of data available for analysis post-race.
Human Raceâ€™s London Cycle Sportive was my first real chance to test of the unit’s abilities during a real-life cycle sportive and, despite a slight feeling of â€˜all the gear but no ideaâ€™, I kind of felt like a serious cyclist knowing I was kitted up with a Heart Rate monitor and Bluetooth cadence monitor. I’d originally entered this event with no intention of racing for a time (never a bad idea when the route involves the infamous Box Hill used during the 2012 Olympics) and instead I planned to use the event to ensure I was able to cover high mileage at a decent pace in preparation for a few of the Triathlon events Iâ€™d be tackling later in the year including a Half Ironman.
Although TomTom provide a bike mount in the box (pictured in use above), I’d decided to wear the watch on my wrist so I could still track my heart rate, and unfortunately this is one of the downsides of the built-in HR monitor compared to the old-fashioned separate chest strap, as having the unit directly in front of me and communicating with a chest-strap would’ve meant I only had to glance down quickly rather than having to let go of my handlebars each time I wanted to check my stats. Update: I later discovered a hidden menu option within the watchâ€™s sensor settings which allows an external chest strap to be used with the device, although this isnâ€™t mentioned in the user guide!
As this particular event had chosen not to use distance markers it was really useful to be able to track how far I’d covered using the watch, and the HR function meant I was able to see when I was pushing myself too hard and should ease off the pedals a bit. As for my plan to monitor my pacing, Iâ€™d decided to keep my heart rate around 75-85% of my max HR, and as a result I was able to finish the event feeling brilliant and with much more confidence about my upcoming Half Ironman Tri than I would’ve been if I’d pushed hard and finished the event in a dribbling heap!
This was also the case with long training bike rides throughout the year and even as I ramped up the distance, I was impressed to see that the watch provided a huge chunk of data at the end of each ride with which I could track my progress. The screen-shot below shows the feedback from the end of a ride I completed with my Triathlon club and as you can see, thereâ€™s plenty of data there to analyse in detail where Iâ€™d struggled and where Iâ€™d excelled, and most importantly where I needed to focus my attention ready for my next ride.
Looking back at the end of my long-term testing, I have to say the best experiences I had with the watch were when cycling as if youâ€™ve fully loaded your bike with the optional cadence monitor then youâ€™re in information overload (in a good way) as soon as you upload your data and open the MySports software! For example, following the recent Dublin 70.3 Half Ironman I was able to look back over my data following the race and although again the Heart Rate element was questionable (possibly my own fault for not attaching the watch properly where I was in such a rush/mess after the swim!), I was able to pick apart each part of the race looking at it mile by mile by using various options to examine different elements of my performance during the event.
The first Triathlon I was able to use the watch during was Human Race’s Eton Sprints. I’d chosen not to wear it during the swim section so of course this led to my first issue – did I really want to risk leaving a Â£220 watch in an area which hundreds of people would be passing through? Would it still be there when I eventually got out of the water?! To minimise the risk of it being noticed I decided to stash it in my bike shoes ready for the cycle and thankfully it was there ready for me to put on in T1, but as I finished my cycle and re-entered transition for the 2nd time this was where the watch proved how despite the watches multi-sport moniker, it isn’t actually suitable for multi-sport events as I had to stop the watch, exit cycle mode, change to ‘run’ mode and then restart it as I left transition again – all of which could’ve been easily avoided if a ‘triathlon’ mode had offered the ability to hit a single button switching the watch from cycle to T2 as I’d entered transition, then to ‘Run’ as I’d left again. Thankfully TomTom’s QuickGPS meant I was able to lock on to a satellite straight away, but still this was unnecessary stress at a time when I should’ve been able to just get on with the event – as if there isn’t enough to think about already during a Triathlon transition!
Despite the lack of open water swimming functionality, I decided to keep my watch on during later events in triathlon season and although the watch originally felt quite bulky to me, I was happy to find I was able to remove my wetsuit without it causing an obstruction (an issue friends with larger watches such as Garminâ€™s 910/920XT range have encountered). This removed the worry of leaving the device in transition and also meant I could use the watch throughout all 3 disciplines. Of course this meant that during Triathlons with open-water lake and sea swims I could only use it with the same functionality as a cheap watch with basic stopwatch functionality, and offered me practically no data to look at on MySports afterwards an inaccurate distance out by almost 300m making the speed and pace data inaccurate (see below), however just knowing my time still proved useful during the Dublin Half Ironman when I faced a strict swim cut-off time of 1h 10m which I wasnâ€™t feeling 100% confident about. By taking a quick occasional glance at my watch while in the sea I was able to make sure I was still on target to finish before the cut-off which definitely helped me to judge my pace and speed up towards the end when I thought time was running out!
While Iâ€™ve mainly focused on TomTomâ€™s MySports software during this article, itâ€™s worth pointing out that unlike some manufacturers TomTom arenâ€™t precious about where you use your data so when you upload your data, youâ€™re presented with a variety of directions in which you can send your valuable analytic including Strava, MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, Endemondo and MyFitnessPal.
For me personally this meant as well as using TomTomâ€™s software I was able to use Strava, a website which a number of my friends also use which offers a number of additional settings, especially when you pay the extra for the premium version, and this choice of outputs means that you can do some amazing things with your data once the activity is over offering multiple ways of analysing your data in depth. For example, the Strava screenshot below shows lap 3 of the â€˜Spitfire Scrambleâ€™ 24 hour endurance event in particular focusing on Stravaâ€™s Pace and Heart Rate analysis tools
And even more information is provided for cyclists; the screengrab below is from my Dublin Ironman 70.3 event with the cadence monitor on my bike providing a huge amount of data for the 56 mile cycle. Although as mentioned previously some of the heart rate data is questionable, the volume of information available in MySports and other apps means you really can pick apart the event and work on where you need to improve in specific areas.
In their April 2015 magazine Runners World described the TomTom Multisport Cardio as ‘Best for beginners’ however I feel that with the number of features and tricks up its sleeves including the built-in heart-rate monitor and super-fast GPS signal pick-up, this unit is so much more than that – and that’s not even mentioning how well the unit performs when being used for cycling and swimming! Sure the unit is great for beginners in the sense it’s easy to pick up and just use it, but it is just as food for someone who takes their running seriously, chases personal bests on a regular basis, and loves having a wealth of information at their fingertips so they can actively track their performance and monitor potential areas of improvement.
Admittedly this watch is a little bit too chunky for me to commit to wearing the device as my day-to-day watch, however despite some of the minor issues Iâ€™ve had with heart rate and the swimming lap counter, I really do like this watch!
Fair enough there are a few negatives; A true multisport mode and being able to change units during an event would make it much more useful plus the issues with the heart rate monitor function caused me quite a bit of grief during some pretty major events where I was planning to rely on monitoring my heart rate to judge my level of exertion, however the number or positives vastly outweigh these negatives and the number of features in such a small device really is impressive.
For a start, the battery life and amount of storage space is amazing! I take part in a large number of events and am almost constantly training, however the watch only required charging once every couple of weeks and it seemed to take forever until I needed to export my activities (although of course I found myself exporting before the storage was filled in most cases so I could use MySports to analyse my performance).
Itâ€™s also really impressive just how good the watch was at picking up a signal and then holding onto it during various terrains. Fair enough the watch lost signal in the underpasses of Paris (as Iâ€™d imagine most do seeing as GPS canâ€™t penetrate thick concrete) and it didnâ€™t recover very well after that, but during a number of forest training runs and especially during the Spitfire Scramble event, my running companions complained of heavy tree cover causing them to lose signal a number of times while my TomTom carried on tracking throughout without any issues.
All in all this is a great piece of kit and Iâ€™ve been impressed just how many times the software has been updated since I received the product in March. Yes, there are still a few areas of improvement to bring the product up to the level of some of the high end GPS watches on the market, however this is reflected in the fact the watch costs a fraction of the price of the â€˜top-of-the-range units and with TomTomâ€™s regular software updates Iâ€™m sure these will be addressed in the future, making this possibly one of the best value GPS watches on the market and one sports tool I now couldnâ€™t live without.
To learn more about the TomTom Cardio Multisport watch or the other watches in TomTomâ€™s range, visit: https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/sports/multi-sport/products/multi-sport-cardio-gps-watch/white-red/