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Time to upgrade your watch?

Despite being a techie in work terms (I build web sites and the like) I'm a complete luddite when to come to tech gear and the last to adopt any gadget.   Sports watches with any features beyond a stopwatch have been tried and consigned to the cupboard but all that has changed with my Ambit 2S.  I'm no expert on these things and this is not a review of the device but it does have the ability to download gpx/kml routes from its online service (Movescount) and that has been an absolute revelation.

I've always loved just going out exploring and finding trails.  It always looks simple viewed in Google Earth, from above, in bright sunlight.  Get your trail shoes on however and what was an obvious track on the laptop is impossible to find on the ground.

Watches that can navigate a route for you are becoming commonplace and cheaper all the time.  I suspect there will be big advances in this area in terms of display - as far as I know, all the current models show the route as a simple line.  The Ambit lets you view the entire route in one go, or a zoomed-in version showing the 200m (sometimes 500m, it decides) ahead of you.  I'm sure additional landscape features will start appearing until there's a full OS Map-style representation. 

Counter-intuitively, if this report is to be believed, newer watches are actually becoming less accurate than their predecessors!  Not that this is likely to affect navigation but will no doubt lead to ever more posts on Runners World forums complain some race or other was either too long or too short.

The main benefits as far as I'm concerned are twofold.  Firstly I've paid much more attention to the local trails that I never knew existed despite being right on my doorstep and that has opened up huge possibilities. Secondly, when travelling - anywhere - a route can be worked out and loaded to the watch ahead of time. 

Last weekend I ran the Purbeck Way from Swanage, dropping down to the South West Coast Path at Lulworth Cove and continuing on to Weymouth.  My longest unsupported run to date (32 miles) and something that would have been very difficult to organise without this fantastic tool.  A blog post specifically about this run will follow shortly!

I've still managed to get lost (though only temporarily) almost every time I've run a new route however.  The compass sometimes doesn't sort itself out totally accurately and you can compound the error if you forget you need to hold the watch directly ahead of you so it's pointing in the direction of travel.  It's all too easy to glance at it at an angle, as if looking at the time, and that way disaster lies.  Also it's surprising how often there's more than one available track ahead and it's not always clear which is right. 

As with any trail, especially a new one such as the National Forest Way, opened in May 2014, if lightly used it can quickly become impassible. I was presented with walls of brambles and nettles where a path should have been several times during this 24-mile run to Leicester.

You have to be a careful plotting trails in the first place.  It's tempting to assume every single track is open to the public.  I've yet to find the best resource for doing this online.  The best plotting services (eg. Trailzilla, MapMyRun) don't seem to have the best maps (ie they are poor at showing trails).  Even the LDWA maps only show very approximate routes and don't let you plot your own.  If you know a good one, please let me know!!

But these are minor inconveniences compared to the benefits.

So, if budget/someone else's Christmas budget allows and trail running is your thing, I think you should make sure your next sports watch has this feature.  For me it leaves every other incremental service packed into watches - pace, splits, laps etc. in the dust.  It's a licence to explore, rather than ever more accurately timing yourself running in circles.

As I said, I'm no expert and while I really like the Ambit, it does have a battery life issue (I got just 6 hours out of it when running to Weymouth which proved to be a couple of miles short).  So do your own research and find the best one for you and perhaps post your recommendations in the comments.


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