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 Are Speed and Distance Monitors Worth It?
Submitted by Rickshaw :: Fri Dec 03, 2004 1:48 pm
Speed and distance monitors have become increasingly popular in the running community since their introduction a few years ago. Their ability to measure your current speed and accumulated distance on the fly opens up all kinds of interesting new possibilities. But are these pedometers on steroids really much improvement over a standard running watch and a measured route? And can they justify their lofty price tags?

While their technologies differ, all the major speed and distance monitors achieve 98% to 99% accuracy under typical conditions. Most units combine a conventional watch with a shoe or arm-mounted sensor to collect data, and use a wireless link for communication. An add-on heart rate monitor and PC data analysis software are common add-ons, and are included with some of the more expensive units.


Systems from Fitsense, Polar, and Nike rely on a shoe-mounted sensor to measure the length of each stride. Unlike a standard pedometer, these units use an electronic accelerometer to measure the length of each step, not just the number of steps taken. An initial calibration step is needed to account for differences in gait between runners, and the calibration may need to be repeated when changing shoes. Accelerometer based units have the advantage of being fairly small, and work equally well indoors and out. However, some people may find the two ounce shoe-mounted sensor to be annoying.

Fitsense FS-1 Speedometer - $125 - The FS-1 is a capable performer at an attractive price. The extra large watch face can display lots of data simultaneously, but looks awkward. A heart rate monitor and PC link are extra.
Polar S625x - $315 - Polar is known for the quality of their heart rate monitors, and only recently entered the SDM market. While functionally similar to the Nike units, the S625x utilizes Polar's distinctive watch design. It comes with the HRM and PC link included.
Nike Tailwind - $100 - Nike makes a dizzying variety of SDM units. The Tailwind is a shoe-mounted unit with an integrated display screen, and does not include a watch, so it's not practical for checking your stats while you're moving. No HRM or PC link is available.
Nike Triax CV10 - $270 - The CV10 is similar to the FS-1, but with a smaller, more stylish watch. A HRM is included, but no PC link is available.
Nike Triax Elite - $340 - The Triax Elite is Nike's top of the line system. It includes everything the CV10 has, and adds a wireless PC data link and powerful analysis software to help make sense of your data.


Unlike their competition, systems from Garmin and Timex use global positioning satellite technology to pinpoint the runner's location. On-board software then computes the current speed and route distance. These systems have the advantage of not requiring any calibration. Their main drawback is that they don't work anywhere that GPS signals can't reach, so indoor runs or heavily tree covered trails are a problem. The GPS units are also slightly bulky.

Garmin Forerunner 201 - $160 - The Forerunner is a large watch, with no other parts, scoring it points for simplicity. Like the FS-1, the large display can accomodate plenty of information. A PC link and software are included, but no HRM is available.
Timex Bodylink System - $200 - The Timex system uses separate watch and GPS units. A heart rate monitor and data recorder / PC Link are optional add-ons. The data recorder must be worn on the body while running, a comparatively clumsy solution.


Whether any of these systems will help you depends on how you plan to use them. The ability to run and measure an unknown route is often cited by manufacturers, but seems of limited usefulness. More compelling is the possibility of moving interval workouts off the track, by using the SDM to keep an even pace over a fixed distance anywhere. The current speed data may also be helpful to those prone to blasting out too fast at the start of races. But the most compelling selling point is probably the ability to download training or race data to your PC and geek-out with detailed graphing and analysis.

Of the systems available today, the Garmin Forerunner 201 is the best option for most people. It is reasonably priced, and includes the PC link and software. If you must have a heart-rate monitor too, purchase a simple stand-alone unit like the Polar F1 for $50. If the PC link is not important to you, then consider the inexpensive Fitsense FS-1.


Joined: 26 Nov 2004
Posts: 37

Triax Elite Posted: Mon Dec 06, 2004 10:10 pm 

I've had the Triax Elite for about a year. It works pretty well when calibrated, but seems to require recalibration pretty often. The heart rate monitor doesn't work as well as the Polar HRM I used to have, and often gives bogus readings. For the money, I think there are better options.


Joined: 10 Dec 2004
Posts: 1

Re: Are Speed and Distance Monitors Worth It? Posted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 3:30 pm 

I've got the Garmin and these remarks are right on:

"More compelling is the possibility of moving interval workouts off the track, by using the SDM to keep an even pace over a fixed distance anywhere. The current speed data may also be helpful to those prone to blasting out too fast at the start of races."

This is exactly what I'm doing and it's already helped my race strategy/performance as I used to go out way fast. Now I can run my own race and don't have to rely on inaccurate timers/distances etc.. Too, the interval workout companion has really got me going on off track intervals.

Runworks 2005 5M Racer
San Francisco, CA
Joined: 26 Nov 2004
Posts: 1157

Re: Are Speed and Distance Monitors Worth It? Posted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 4:48 pm 

Even with a SDM, I find I still go out too hard at the beginning of races. The speed display lags a bit, so as you take off, it's a short while before it catches up with your true speed. Then I always seem to find I'm going about 30 sec/mile faster than I intended. But at least I discover my mistake within a short time, instead of at the first mile split.


Joined: 07 Jan 2005
Posts: 3

Re: Are Speed and Distance Monitors Worth It? Posted: Mon Jan 10, 2005 2:23 pm 

I've got the Garmin Forerunner 201 and the Polar S625X. Each uses very different technologies (Garmin uses GPS technology, and the Polar uses very accurate accelerometers.) GPS had advantages (accuracy, ability to export to a map, such as via and disadvantages (bad reception unless worn on upper arm... terrible reception in urban "canyon" situation or with heavy tree cover.) Polar's accelerometer technology eliminates the reception issue and provides a superb heart rate monitor system with the speed/distance system (although at the cost of not allowing a map-type output.) Which one you should buy depends on your needs.

P.S. - Sometime late in 1Q05 Garmin recently announced they will be introducing their new Forerunner 301, which will retain all of the 201's abilities, add a digital heart rate monitor, and correct a few minor problems.... I've already got mine on order!

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