Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My thoughts on the Garmin Forerunner 920xt

I've now owned the Garmin Forerunner 920xt GPS for just over a month. While I don't think there's any point in me doing a detailed review (Go to DC Rainmaker for that, especially if you're interested in cycling and swimming), I did think it would be worthwhile to give some of my thoughts from the perspective of a person switching from the 910xt.

The 920xt is supposed to be Garmin's top-of-the-line triathlon watch, so it's a little odd for an occasional cyclist / non-swimmer to get one. Really I should probably have a 620 or a Fenix. But the 9XX series has a couple features that I really like: 1. a barometric altimeter, and 2. a big, readable screen.

Having used the 920xt for a month now, I have to say that on those two fronts, it actually probably falls a little short of the 910xt.

Although the 920 "upgrades" to color, the trade-off is somewhat lower contrast. I can read it all right, but not quite as easily as I could read the 910. Both watches are fine in broad daylight, but in poor conditions like rain / dark trails, etc, the 910 wins. Both the 910 and 920 have an option to keep the backlight on permanently, and the battery is certainly strong enough to keep it lit for a 2-hour-plus workout, so that's what I do for interval training and other situations when it is really important to see the display.

One place where the 920 improves visibility is when it displays the lap time for a workout on auto-lap. On the 910, inexplicably the lap time is shown in a tiny font. It's nice and big on the 920, which is a relief! On both watches it would be nice if this screen was configurable, for example perhaps to show distance or pace instead of time for the lap, but the 920 definitely wins here.

Both watches feature a barometric altimeter that is accurate enough to give real-time elevation data. I love this feature, which can help with navigation on trails (since you can compare your elevation to the elevation on a map), and can give you a nice sense of "where you are" on mountain / hill climb-type races. I used this feature a lot when I ran Pikes Peak.

But again the 910 wins over the 920 because it also gives you a very useful measure of the current grade. The 920 has this feature as well, but it's not as well-implemented as in the 910. The 910's grade feature attempted to give a precise (to 0.1%) measure of the current grade. It wasn't always accurate, but you could tell when it was wildly off, and I found, for the most part, that the number seemed to be a reflection of the effort it was taking to climb a hill. I used it as a way to decide when to walk -- if the grade was over 10 or 15 percent (depending on how far I was running), then I'd switch to power-walking.

In the 920, the grade feature is there, but it only gives the current grade in increments of 3%. I can see why they do this; it's probably not much more accurate than that most of the time, but it seems to me that by taking a simple average of measurements over some period of time (maybe 5-10 seconds) it could generate a more precise figure, which would then enable me to adjust my pace / gait appropriately. In the current implementation, the grade shifts around so much (say, from 3 to 6 back to 3, and so on) that it's hard to decide how to use it. So for me the 910 wins on its Altimeter function.

One hope for the 920 is that someone will come up with an IQ App to solve these problems; Anyone can develop apps for the 920 and maybe they will address my concerns. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened yet ... I can dream, can't I?

On the other hand, the 920xt definitely out-blings the 910. It has are some nice little features that I like a lot. For example, it can now connect directly to a wi-fi network to upload your data. This is very handy for someone like me who used to use his laptop for data uploads. I didn't want to keep the ANT stick in my computer all the time, so I was always searching around the house or my laptop bag to find it, just to upload my data. Now it "just works." I can also connect with my phone via bluetooth to do the same thing (I've disabled this feature most of the time, however, because it will sync mid-workout if I have my phone with me, and I prefer to wait until the workout is finished to upload).

I haven't used the ability to auto-track workouts/races so that others can follow along. In practice I'm not sure this will be such a useful feature since it requires you to have your phone with you. Once you have your phone, there are any number of apps that do the same thing.

It also has an activity tracker similar to a Fitbit or other device, which counts your steps and reminds you to "MOVE!" if you stay still for longer than an hour or so. While the feature is kind of fun, I don't plan on wearing my 920xt full-time as a watch so it has limited utility for me.

It also has a simple "watch mode" which enables you to wear it as your full-time watch, with a week or more of battery life. While I don't plan on wearing mine all the time, it's handy for race days or short trips when I don't want to bring two watches. One place where the IQ App has been well-developed is custom watch faces, so you can even configure the face to something you prefer over Garmin's default screens.

While I haven't done a scientific comparison of the 920 versus the 910, my general perception is that the GPS on the 920 is a little better. I have enabled GLONASS, which is supposed to be a more-accurate version of standard GPS. This results in a small battery-life hit (maybe 10 percent), but since I'm never running 15+ hours, that's not an issue for me. On the track, the 910 was consistently short, while the 920 seems just about right on, lap after lap.

The 920 can also count footsteps using just your arm motion (no footpod needed). It will give you an estimate of distance run when you're on a treadmill or (in my case) even on a moving cruise ship (where the motion of the ship would otherwise wreak havoc on your GPS data). It was generally accurate to within a tenth of a mile on my 6-mile runs on the cruise ship track. Not bad!

One really nice feature of the 920 is its ability to cache satellite locations, which means that it finds the satellite signal much faster than the 910. Usually the 920 finds satellites in seconds, even if you're hundreds of miles away from where you used it last time. The 910 can take 2, 3, even 5 minutes to find satellites, especially if you've moved significantly since the previous use.

That said, there are a couple areas where the 920 falls short of the 910, particularly in the "history" function. When you are going over previous workouts, the 920 does not display all the information that the 910 did. The 920 gives you distance and time for each lap of your workout, but the 910 also gives pace for each lap. This is especially important if you're doing workouts like "minuters" where you run 1 minute fast and one minute slow. The 920 won't tell you your pace, just time and distance — and naturally the time is the same for each lap!

The 920 also won't allow you to access the "history" of your current workout, which can be important — for example if you have forgotten how many laps you have run. Yes, if you have configured your data screens to show it, you can display which lap you are on, but when you're doing a workout like 12 x 200, 8 x 400, 4 x 800, with rests between each lap, it can still be difficult to figure out if you're on your 7th or 8th 400-meter rep!

Finally — and this may be an issue more for me than anyone else — if you take a break in the middle of your workout, on the 920 there is no manual way to get the watch back to watch mode without saving the workout first. Then you'll end up with two separate workouts instead of one big one. I do this a lot when I run into town, run with the group, then stop for coffee before running back home. It'd be nice to spend that time in the coffee shop in battery-saving watch mode. What you can do is switch your "power save timeout" to from "extended" to "normal", and it will automatically go back to watch mode in just a couple minutes, but the downside of that is if you're at a race and want your watch to be ready to go for an extended period, you may end up scrambling to get your watch back into GPS mode.

One sore spot for me with Garmin devices has always been the charger. From my very first Garmin 305, it was too easy to unseat the Garmin during charging. Then you'd wake up in the morning to start your run only to find your GPS completely dead. The 910xt partially solved this problem with the "claw" charger that held on to the unit more firmly, but even this unit performed poorly. I'd say at least half the time when I put the unit in the charger, it wouldn't engage properly and would power-on the unit. You would then have to wait for the entire power-on cycle, power it off again, and try to put the unit in the charger again without repeating the same issue.

I'm happy to say that this problem FINALLY seems to be solved with the 920xt. The new charger holds the unit firmly, and engages easily, every time. As it should have been five years ago with my 305!

The Bottom Line
At $450 without a heart rate monitor, the 920xt is not an inexpensive device. Is it worth it? I'm not sure. In my case I sold my 910xt for $145, so I only paid $305 plus tax for the 920. Is it $305 better than the 910? I really like the convenience of not messing with a footpod and ANT stick. That feels like a lot of freedom. The reliability of the charger cannot be underestimated as well; I can't tell you how many times I've awoken in a panic on race night wondering if my Garmin would be properly charged. Similarly, I've already found "watch mode" convenient at races and traveling, making my life much simpler. And knowing the limitations of the 920, I've found if fairly easy to adapt to them compared to the more daunting problems with the 910. For somebody who uses their device day in and day out, $305 really isn't that much to pay. Consider what you'd spend on a car with heated seats, or a slightly more elegant interior. It might be thousands more than a model that "does what you need." For me, running more than 10 hours a week and also using the device for cycling and backpacking, it's worth it. For you? That's something you'll have to decide for yourself!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why running is a part of who I am

Today in a Facebook running group, someone asked the following question of the group: "Is being a runner just something you do/a hobby or is it part of you/your identity and is there a downside to the latter?"

There was a healthy discussion, with seemingly little correlation between how much someone ran, how fast they were, and how much running was a part of their identity. Here's my response:
Hmmm... I run about 10 hours a week, cross-train 5 hours a week, spend about 15 hours a week on my race-timing business, maybe 5 hours a week administering running clubs, another god-knows-how-many hours online on FB/running forums, not to mention a few hours blogging / logging all this. If this isn't my true identity I'm in a VERY good witness protection program!
I spend at least 40 hours a week on running-related activities! That's a full-time job! Good thing I don't have a full-time job, or I'd really be in trouble.

This is not to say I'm only a runner. Although running is a huge part of my identity, it's not the most important thing in my life. If I spend 40 hours a week on running, that leaves 128 hours for everything else. Even allowing 8 hours a night for sleeping, that still leaves more than 72 hours for non-running activities. If I was really efficient, I could have a full-time job on top of all that running! I love my family and friends, love travel, cooking and food, love backpacking and the outdoors, love literature and writing. Other than definitely ranking below family, friends, and food, I'm not sure where running falls in that hierarchy. Maybe it's next after those three.

Fortunately I don't have to choose or specify a ranking, and even more fortunately, my running doesn't interfere much with the others. My family appreciates that I'm staying healthy (though sometimes they might think I'm a little unhealthily healthy), many of my best friends are my running partners, and running enables me to eat more food while staying healthy.

But clearly my passion for running has led me to make some dramatic changes in my life. After spending most of my life as an occasional runner, I ran my first half-marathon in 2006, having lost about 30 pounds to get to 208, the lightest I had been in years. But the workouts had been so draining that I felt they were compromising my career as a science writer. So I backed off the training, running another, slower half in 2007 and then going back to my occasional-running ways and gaining back 20 pounds.

It wasn't until I joined the then-tiny Davidson Area Running Team (DART) in 2010 that I really got serious about running. My new running buddies convinced me to sign up for my first marathon, in 2011, and I shifted gears in my career, going from daily science blogging to writing a weekly column, which made it easier to run more. I lost all the weight I had regained and then some, getting down to 195. By the end of 2011 I had not only run three marathons, I had qualified for Boston!

Since then, it's been a gradual transition as running has taken a larger and larger place in my life. I now weigh about 185. Now other than the occasional Science-Based Running post, I don't do much science writing at all. But I do have a growing race timing business that satisfies the need to be productive and make some money (my wife's career has always been the primary source of income for our family, so I don't have to work full time).

But why does running consume so much of me? It's not like I'm an especially gifted runner. Although I can usually win an age-group award in local races, when the competition gets tougher I've never cracked the top 3 in an age group.

For me, it comes down to a few key things:
  1. Camaraderie/friendship: My running friends are among my closest friends. Current best-practices in running argue that 70% or more of running should be at an easy pace. That means you can carry on conversations while you work out. You can continue those conversations in the coffee shop after the run. After a while, you start doing other things besides running with your running buddies, and you realize you can't live without them.
  2. Constant, measurable improvement: Even though running can involve setbacks, the pattern from week to week, month to month, and year to year, always involves improvement or progression toward a goal. Even if you get injured and have to take time off and rebuild, you can see yourself getting better again; this sort of improvement is endlessly satisfying (at least to me!).
  3. The opportunity to help others: Now that I've been a serious runner for 5 years, I've accumulated a lot of knowledge. New runners in my various running groups come to me for advice. There's little more fulfilling than seeing a friend reach a goal or a milestone, whether it's completing her first marathon, winning his first age group award, or setting a new PR.
  4. Fun: I genuinely like running. I like it so much I do it in the rain, in the cold, in the wind, in the heat, in the humidity, when I'm traveling, when I'm sad, when I'm hung over, when I'm not even sure I can complete the workout I have planned. I like feeling the cool wind in my beard, I like the dark mornings, I like seeing the sunrise, I like the focus it takes to keep my legs churning away at the optimal rate. Don't get me wrong, I like winning awards and setting PRs too, but I wouldn't be trying to do those things if I didn't like the hours and hours and thousands of miles of training it takes to get those awards and PRs.
So running is now a critical part of my identity. Yes, I'm a husband, a father, a brother, an outdoorsman, a traveler, a writer, a friend, and a cook, and probably some other things too.

But I'm unquestionably a runner, and I wouldn't have it any other way.