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Where am I, and why am I running?

As many of my friends know, I took up the sport of running back in 2010 when I needed to get in shape. As I entered middle age, my metabolism did a revolt on the eating habits of my younger years, and I had to shed some pounds and regain my health. So what does this have to do about tech? Well, as a gadget guy, with a distinct interest in all things that make life easier, I wanted to utilize some form of technology in my running.

For most runners, the go-to gadget is GPS. In the old days, runners had to plot their distance using courses that had been pre-measured, or through maps, or a variety of other methods. You would go for a run, and you may or may not be at the correct distance that you think you are. Well, in the wonderful age of technology we can solve that problem. And solve it we will!

For the gadget minded runner (or biker/walker/hiker for that matter), there are a few different options for determining where you are at any particular time. If you feel comfortable carrying your smartphone with you then you need to look no further than one of the many cool apps that are available for tapping in to your phone's built-in GPS features. Many of these apps tie in to services on the web for mapping, storing and sharing your running data. My personal favorite is Endomondo a great service for mapping your runs and keeping statistics, but it also includes a great socail networking component where you can see all the running that your friends are doing and comment and 'like' each other's workouts. You can even see when someone is running in real time and give them a text-to-speech 'peptalk' in the middle of their workout.

There are plenty of other sites out there, similar to this including MapMyRun and Runkeeper, but the overall point is that they all have smartphone apps where you can tap in to your phones GPS system to track yourself. But let's say that you're not comfortable carrying your phone with you as you're out sweating to the oldies. Another option is a GPS watch, such as those made by Garmin.

There are a plethora of options for these watching, including touch screens, water proofing (for tracking swims), heart-rate monitors, and options for how you want your laps broken up and so on. GPS watches are great for doing basic run tracking, and for people like myself who often run over the lunch hour in the middle of a work day... a watch allows you to disconnect from the internet and just focus some time on being active. By using a watch I'm able to unplug during my runs and not worry about the texts, emails, etc that are waiting for me back at my desk. Also, a GPS watch has to be uploaded after the fact, so no live run pep talks or tracking. Most sites accept GPS files from these watches just fine, so importing is quick and easy.

So what other points of comparison can we talk about besides ease of carrying? One that's worth mentioning is accuracy. The best route tracking tool is only as good as the GPS technology that it employs to do the tracking. In the case of smartphones vs. watches, the watches beat the phones for accuracy every time. With.... one notable exception. When you first start up a GPS device it needs to find the satellites floating around the planet and get a lock on your position. Often with a GPS watch this can take 30-60 seconds of standing still, and even longer in the middle of a downtown where you're surrounded by tall buildings blocking the sky. There was even a recent joke motivational poster of a woman staring at her watch that said "There's a fine line between waiting for a satellite lock, and starting at your wrist like an idiot." So despite being super accurate for most of your run, a GPS watch falls down a bit in the beginning as it's trying to get it's lock on.

This is one area where the smartphone can shine. Since it's a fully functioning phone with all kinds of different radios on it, it can call upon secondary sources to pinpoint your location. So by utilizing cell phone towers and wi-fi hotspots, a phone can get a signal lock within seconds. Even in a crowded downtown area. This assisted GPS is really great if you want to get started right away and not wait for a signal from the clouds. However, this quick startup does little for the distance of the run, where often times a cell phone GPS will drift and slide, leaving you with a lack of precision. Granted, it's often a small variation, but over a long run it can add up. Plus, it sometimes makes it look like you're running through people's lawns, or through buildings, when in fact you're running next to them.

So if you're a runner, or biker, or walker, or hiker, or whatever, next time you head out on the trail, consider giving one of these GPS tools a try and hooking up with a tracking site and find out where the heck you really were.

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