How Accurate Are GPS Watches for Running?

My husband purchased a Garmin GPS watch, the Forerunner 205, when he first started running. Since then I have used this watch (and the later ones he purchased) mostly on long runs, or when I didn’t have the time or energy to map out a path with a specific distance before my run. How accurate are GPS watches?

During these times a GPS watch has been a tremendous training tool. However, a GPS watch is not essential to my training (I lived without one before) and I certainly don’t use one at races or on a daily basis.

How Accurate Are GPS Watches?

How Accurate Are GPS Watches?

Using a GPS Watch for Running

That being said I understand many runners swear by their GPS watch. They get cold sweats if they go on a run without theirs. They panic if they forget to charge their watch’s battery. Some go as far as to give theirs a pet name.

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Countless times before, I’ve also heard runners using these watches say something along the lines of “My watch said I ran 6.4, the 10K course must not have been measured properly.” Or “Here’s my Garmin time… which is different than the time race organizers recorded.”



GPS Watch Accuracy

The New York Times published an article with a headline describing these GPS watches as an “unreliable running partner.” The writer goes on to recount her experiences running with the devices, along with the experiences of race organizers — often bearing the brunt of complaints from athletes.

“Race organizers know this problem all too well. Douglas Thurston, operations director for the Competitor Group, which organizes Rock ’n’ Roll Marathons, a series of races across the country, braces himself for complaints with every race.

Runners who wore GPS watches start e-mailing him or posting comments on Facebook or X (formerly Twitter) afterward. The course was measured incorrectly, they will say. According to their GPS devices, it was too short.”

What Impacts GPS Accuracy?

The writer details that technology used by GPS watches is a work in progress. The watches are not 100% accurate and furthermore, a cloudy day, tall buildings or trees can easily disrupt the distance a watch records.

All along the Garmin company (as one example) has not claimed their products are 100% accurate. According to their website, “Garmin GPS receivers are accurate to within 15 meters on average.”

On average.

How Accurate Are Garmin Watches?

How Accurate Are GPS Watches?

In Summary

My thoughts? Use your GPS watch as a training tool.

Use the official race time and distance designated by officials to track your PR.

Do you run with a GPS watch?


8 thoughts on “How Accurate Are GPS Watches for Running?”

  1. I always run with Greta, my Garmin. If not I would run 1 mile and tell myself it was 5.5. I am horrible and do not trust myself!

      • It’s not a real run unless I track it. Half kidding. I love my GPS watch but the times I’ve been without have been liberating.

        I would never use my GPS to argue with a race course. That’s just silly.

        After my first full my watch said 26.97. Yuck. You figure bathroom breaks, water stops, weaving in and out of runners; the course wasn’t measured improperly, I just did too much running around. 🙂

  2. I get a little ragey when people list their Garmin time vs. official time. The official time is the official time. Race courses are measured on the insides of turns so there’s pretty much a 100% chance you’re going to go over the official distance. With that said, I do like to use my Garmin to see what my finish time would be if I actually ran the course distance – ex: My official time was 30:21 but if I would have run the course tangents better I could have finished in 29:28!

  3. I’ve always wondered about that, especially seeing how the treadmill display is often inaccurate. I do agree with your final conclusion though: it’s to help you train, not to help you nitpick with race organizers!

  4. I think the Garmin is an amazing training tool. However, I don’t think people should stress over 10 seconds or .05 miles – it’s close enough in my opinion!

  5. I absolutely LOVE my Garmin! It makes my hectic running schedule so much easier!! I usually never leave home without it! I do understand, however, the advantages and disadvantages of the technology savy world we live in today! No technology is perfect and they all quirks! Although, it may not be accurate 100% of the time, mine comes mighty close!


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