Altra Golden Spike Review

Altra Golden Spike
3.8 Overall
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Well known for their line of foot-shaped shoes with roomy toe boxes and a natural fit, Altra has become increasingly popular over the last few years, especially among ultra distance trail runners. Despite their growing popularity, they have yet to tap into the short distance market, let alone the world of obstacle racing. With the addition of the Altra Golden Spike to the lineup, that may change. While it’s only their first shoe to cater to high speed racers, they did a fantastic job with it and it has the potential to be a great choice for short course OCR, or virtually any other race where you need to run fast!

altra-golden-spike-review-1

Altra Golden Spike Features

Spikes or No Spikes  – the Golden Spike, as it’s name suggests, comes with five gold colored spikes per shoe, but you can wear the shoe with or without them. Some companies will offer a spikeless model of their racing shoes, meant specifically for road and trail running when spikes aren’t needed; with Altra, you just have to leave them out if you don’t want them. While a dedicated spikeless model would be cool, it’s not a big deal. The main downside is that after lots of racing and training with the spikes removed, the holes may get so beat up and filled with dirt that you can’t get the spikes in later if/when you want to.

With the spikes in, the shoe basically performs like you would expect a spike to perform. It has great traction (the same amount of traction as any other spike, for the most part) and it feels fast. Aside from the obvious, nothing really changes with the spikes removed. Without them, the shoe has pretty good traction as you can see, similar to some of Altra’s other shoes like the Superior. It doesn’t compare to an x-talon, but the traction is on par with things like the New Balance Minimus or Brooks Pure Grit. It doesn’t look like much, but it grips well while still allowing for decent ground feel.

altra-golden-spike-review-4

Top shoe: Brooks Mach 14, Bottom Shoe: Altra Golden Spike

Stack Height, Weight, and Other Specs – like all of Altra’s shoes, these are zero drop. That means that the heel of the shoe is at the same level as the toes. The total stack height is 15mm, so you have a little over a half inch of rubber and foam underfoot for cushioning and support. It’s not really much, and it’s certainly no Hoka, but I found it refreshingly soft compared to my last pair of racing shoes. Even with a touch of cushion, the shoe is very light at 5.2oz for a men’s size 9.0. It’s not the featherweight of something like the Mizuno Wave Universe (2.8oz), but it’s a lot lighter than your average OCR shoe. It doesn’t have any extra material to hold water either, so even when soaking wet, it’s still lighter than Inov-8’s most popular options.

Upper, Tongue, and Laces – it doesn’t look like it in pictures, but the tongue is actually fully attached to the upper, so you don’t have to worry about it sliding around or being uncomfortable. It’s not a super papery, scratchy tongue like some, so it feels good against the top of your foot even without socks. They also used pretty soft laces, so it doesn’t feel like fishing line running across your feet. The upper is somewhat soft, but kind of plasticy too. Not the most comfortable upper I’ve ever felt, but it still passes the sockless test; I’d wear it without socks and not worry about blisters.

altra-golden-spike-review-2

Sole, Footbed – The Altra Golden Spike fixes some issues that I’ve had with other Altra shoes in the past. Before, on steep downhill runs in wet conditions, the footbed would slowly start to bunch up in the front of the shoe and become a major pain in the butt. However, the footbed is glued in place with the Golden Spike, so this isn’t a concern.

Natural Fit – Like all of their other shoes, the Altra Golden Spike is what they call “foot shaped”, meaning it has a wide toe box and allows for toe-splay instead of squeezing your toes together. Shouldn’t all shoes be shaped like feet? Why is this an award winning innovation? It seems like common sense to me, but I digress… Anyone who has ever worn spikes knows how uncomfortable they can be. Altra encourages their customers: “don’t settle for the XC spike that hurts the least”. I’d have to agree. The wide toe box on the Altra Golden Spike (lower) is clearly a better fit than my old Brooks Mach 14 spikes (upper).

altra-golden-spike-review-3

Colors and Sizing– the Altra Golden Spike is unisex, so the fit is the same for men and women. It’s a bit ironic since they advertise a female specific fit on their other shoes, but I guess when it comes to speed, men’s and women’s feet have the same needs. The shoes come in red, green, blue, and pink. You can get them anywhere from a size 4.0 (women’s 5.5) to a 15.0. This is still kind of disappointing as I know a handful of women that wear a 4.5 or 5.0 who have extremely limited footwear options, but at least there’s a 5.5. The shoe fits a bit large, about a 1/4 size in my opinion, so size down for a competition fit.

Altra Golden Spike Usage

altraracephoto2

I have used the Golden Spike for various training runs on the road, trail, and treadmill, and it’s a great shoe on all surfaces. I mostly use the shoe with the spikes removed, but they perform as expected when you put them in; they’re metal, sharp, and stick into the ground – that’s about it. Most spikes are so tight and uncomfortable that you can’t wait to rip them off after your race or workout. Not so with the Golden Spike!

Beyond comfort, I’ve really enjoyed their versatility. While remaining super light, they still have enough cushioning that it feels fine for mid distance road runs. You’re not limited to short track workouts with the Altra Golden Spike and it seems like it’s built to handle more miles than your average spike. It’s comfortable enough that you could run a 10k or even a 13.1 if your feet are strong enough to run in a minimalist shoe for that distance.

I ordered my first pair of Golden Spikes a half-size too large which made them far less comfortable. I highly recommend you don’t make the same mistake. While the upper is comfortable when it fits properly, a poor fit will result in pinching around the toes and severe blistering! When it fits well, the shoe is astonishingly comfortable, and not just for a spike. I would still recommend a thin sock, but the upper materials are soft and pliable. If you think you’re between sizes, opt for the smaller size; it’s a pretty flexible shoe and can fit tightly while still feeling good. If it’s too loose then you’ll have the same problems I did with my first pair – not fun.

While most of my experience has been on the road, I think the Golden Spike really shines on the trail. With the spikes removed, it still has excellent traction. Plus, it’s comfortable enough to wear for longer distances and has moderate cushioning (as far as racing flats go). With all that in mind, it will be my go-to shoe for 10k-13.1 trail races!

Altra Golden Spike Durability

It drains exceptionally well and has a glued in footbed, ideal for wet and muddy conditions. I’m tempted to take this shoe out to an OCR to see how it performs. I have no doubt that it would perform well over varied terrain, but I worry about it’s durability through obstacles. It would be fine for a stadium race, but a Spartan Beast might be more than it can handle. It is tougher than a lot of spikes on the market, so it has great potential. Only time and further testing will tell if it can stand up to some of the tougher courses and obstacles.

If you only intend on using the Golden Spike for trail racing, I’d tell you the durability was excellent. Just don’t expect it to compare to something like an Inov-8 or Icebug. While the traction is excellent for dry courses, it simply won’t perform well in mud like a shoe with lugs.

altra-golden-spike-review-5

Altra Golden Spike Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable
  • Durable for “normal” use
  • One piece construction

Cons

  • No spikeless model
  • Probably not durable enough for long OCR

Similar Products

Altra Golden SpikeBrooks PureGrit 5Reebok All Terrain Super OR
Weight290g277g219g
Heel Drop0mm4mm5mm
Grip1/8"3/16"3/16"
Metal StudsYesNoNo
Price$90.00$119.00$90.00
ORM ReviewYesYesYes
BuyAmazonAmazonAmazon

Altra Golden Spike Conclusion

While the Altra Golden Spike might not be the next big shoe in OCR, it’s worth checking out if you run other short distance events. Try it out for your next road or trail race and see why I love this shoe! You may just fall in love with it and end up wearing it for your next obstacle race. If you do, let me know how it goes. My hope is that Altra will expand their offerings and make a beefier version geared towards obstacle racers!

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Alec Blenis

Alec Blenis is a trail runner and obstacle course racer from Atlanta, GA. He has been on the OCR scene since 2011 and has since competed in over one hundred events, including dozens of podium finishes and overall wins.

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Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Review

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical
4.9 Overall
0 Users (0 votes)
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How does Suunto’s Ambit3 Vertical compare to other premium watches like the Garmin Fenix 3?

Ever since my review of the Garmin Fenix 3, I’ve been getting requests to do a review and comparison with the Suunto Ambit3. Well, I finally got my hands on their latest and greatest edition, the Ambit3 Vertical, or Ambit3V for short. Like pretty much every watch over $400, it boasts an incredible battery life and supreme durability, but Suunto claims this watch is a must have for high altitude enthusiasts and want-to-be mountain goats. Is it really all that special? Compared to the Fenix 3, there are a lot of things that I really prefer with the Suunto, but it’s not without shortcomings. So which watch is right for you? It depends. Garmin vs. Suunto is kind of like iPhone vs. Android.

suunto box

 

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Features

GPS  – With Suunto, you can choose between three different ping rates for GPS. 1s, 10s, or 100s. Ping rate refers to how frequently the watch updates your position; the more frequent the updates, the more accurate the watch is going to be. Unlike Garmin, there is no “smart recording” or variable rate. A large majority of the power used by the watch goes to the GPS chip, so your battery life is going to be hugely affected by the setting you choose here.

On 1s recording, accuracy is really quite remarkable. No GPS watch is going to be perfect, but the Ambit3V does a surprisingly good job even under a tree canopy. I did a few different tests here to determine it’s accuracy.

For my first test, I evaluated GPS drift. If you start an activity but remain stationary, the watch will keep racking up miles (very slowly) since there is still some uncertainty in terms of your position. Measuring the total amount of distance accumulated while stationary can be a good indicator of overall accuracy.  With 1s recording intervals, I got an astonishingly low GPS drift of only 0.03 miles over the course of 10 hours. This means that, at rest, it was only incorrect by about 15ft/hr. That’s pretty solid! The accuracy wasn’t as good with the other GPS settings, but if you’re looking for precision, this setting does a fantastic job.

For my next test, I took the watch out to a local trail that has notoriously bad satellite reception due to a combination of topography and tree canopy. For the 2.50 mile route (measured with a wheel), I’ll typically see values around 2.25-2.35 miles with my Garmin. With the Suunto Ambit3V, I recorded 2.4 miles for the loop, the highest value I’ve ever seen for the run. Still not up to the actual 2.5, but definitely an improvement. I repeated this test on 3 occasions all with similar results.

For my final test, I ran a certified 5k loop on a cloudy day. Depending on weather conditions and tree cover, I often see anywhere from 2.95 to 3.05 miles for the route with my Garmin. On the day of the test, I expected a lower reading due to the poor visibility. Garmin came in with a respectable 2.99 on but Suunto wins this contest with 3.08 on 1s-recording. I complete the test again on a sunny day with good satellite reception and recorded 3.05 on Garmin and 3.07 on Suunto (pictured below) – the Garmin seemed to improve on the sunny day but the Suunto was not phased by the weather.

suunto vs garmin

Now, it sounds like Suunto is the clear winner with accuracy here, but this only comparing the watches on a 1s recording interval! Suunto doesn’t have variable recording or any intermediate settings (2s, 5s, etc) like Garmin, so if you want battery life over 10 hours, you instantly lose considerable accuracy by increasing to a 10s refresh rate. With this recording interval, I accumulated a GPS drift of over 3 miles in the same 10 hour period as before, only increasing battery life to 20 hours. Suunto also has a 100s rate option, although unless you’re doing a multi-day hike, this option isn’t practical or accurate. However, it is nice to have the option since a 100 hour battery life would be very useful for multi day events where precision isn’t necessary (think SISU Iron, Spartan Agoge, etc).

Battery Life – Battery life on the Suunto Ambit3 Vertical can be highly variable depening on the setting you have it on. As mentioned above, I get about 10 hours on the most accurate GPS setting, 20 hours on 10s recording intervals, and 50 hours on the 100s recording intervals. While 50 hours sounds extremely impressive, this comes at the expense of significant accuracy, so if you want flawless data for your 100 miler or multi day event, you’ll have to look elsewhere. It is worth noting that my personal tests were very consistent with what Suunto advertised on their website for the watch, so I figure it’s safe to trust whatever the say in terms of battery life for other watches / configurations as well.

Also worth noting is the battery life in storage. One great future of the Ambit3V is that it “sleeps” when not being used, turning the display off and conserving battery life. You can keep this in a drawer for weeks and still have a nearly full battery for your run. Garmin is pretty good at this too, but not like Suunto.

suunto back

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Usage

I had the pleasure of using the Suunto Ambit3 Vertical for a couple of races and a handful of super long training runs with lots of vertical gain. The watch initially seems a bit less user friendly than Garmin, but after I got used to the menu options and controls, I began to like it quite a lot. It was very reliable, had extraordinary battery life and durability, and quite frankly, looked awesome. One thing that I quickly appreciated was the quick satellite lock. While my Fenix 3 locks onto GPS reasonably quickly, there are days where it will take several minutes. The Ambit3 is AMAZING here, finding satellites within a few seconds every time.

One cool feature that Garmin simply can’t compete with is Suunto Movies. Basically, they take your GPS data and create a short “movie” showing your run (drawing a red line across the topography) while displaying some key stats from the run. It’s cool to be able to share these videos along with some humble bragging on your most recent workout. While cool, it’s limited. I think that this would be way better if they allowed you to customize the video and choose what stats to display, add photos, text, etc… Still, it’s a pretty neat feature of Movescount, their online data analysis software.

Speaking of Movescount, I really like Movescount a lot more than Garmin Connect. It doesn’t quite compete with TrainingPeaks in my opinion, but I think it’s easier to analyze data on Movescount and looks much more visually appealing. They also show some metrics like energy consumption that Garmin does not show, and they allow for zooming and scrolling across the various charts. The running heatmap is also pretty cool, showing you where other people often run around your route.

movescount datamovescount heatmap movescount graph

Despite my love for the watch, I’m not sold that it’s a must-have for people that love climbing. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the Suunto Ambit3 Vertical compared to the standard Ambit3, and I think that Garmin’s “auto-climb” feature far outperforms Suunto in this area. While it is nice to see your daily/weekly vertical gain on the watch face itself, it’s just as easy to track this with a 3rd party app like Strava or TrainingPeaks.

I actually find it somewhat ironic that Suunto chooses to display your vertical stats on the watch itself, but limits so much configurability to the phone app. Want to change the displays? Better have your iPhone handy. Basically any sort of configuration changes you want to make, you must do on your phone or computer and sync it wirelessly with the watch. This is extremely frustrating if you find yourself walking to the start line of a race trying to add a display field or modify the settings. Don’t get me wrong – it’s very easy and simple to do it on the phone and I love that this feature exists, but it’s very frustrating that you can’t also adjust these settings directly on the watch if you wanted to. This is honestly my biggest frustration. This aside, I really loved my experience!

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Durability

The Suunto Ambit3 Vertical, just like the Garmin Fenix 3,  is built like a tank. There’s virtually nothing they could do to make it any more durable than it already is, nor is there a need to. The silicon strap is thick enough and seems quite sturdy, so I don’t imagine that it will tear or break even after extended usage. That being said, if something was going to break, that would be it… I just don’t see it happening any time soon.

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Extremely good accuracy (on 1s recording setting)
  • Supreme battery life, up to 50 hours
  • Durability. Nearly indestructible.
  • Easy configuration via phone app.
  • High contrast, scratch resistant display.
  • Semi-stylish and not “overly rugged” for day to day wear.
  • “Instant” satellite lock
  • Suunto Movies

Cons

  • The buttons / controls aren’t super intuitive
  • Poor accuracy when you need battery life over 20 hours (rarely)
  • Inability to adjust some settings without smartphone or computer
  • No wifi data uploading. Bluetooth only.

 

Similar Products

Suunto Ambit3 VerticalGarmin 235Garmin Fenix 3
Battery Life2 weeks as watch, 15 hours with GPS9 days as activity monitor, 11 hours with GPS5 weeks as watch, 20 hours with GPS
GPSYesYesYes
Heart Rate MonitorYes, with additional chest strapOpticalYes, with additional chest strap
Waterproof 100 Meters5 ATM (50 Meters)100 Meters
Weight2.62 oz.1.5 oz2.9 oz.
Phone CompatibilityAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOS
Price$325.00$329.99$499.99
ORM ReviewAmazonYes Yes
BuyAmazonAmazonAmazon

Suunto Ambit3 Vertical Conclusion

Overall, the Suunto Ambit3 Vertical is an amazing watch. Many people ask me whether the Ambit3 or the Fenix 3 is better. It’s really a personal preference and depends on which features are important to you. If you run 100 milers, I think you’ll most likely prefer the Suunto because of the battery life if nothing else. If you often run mountainous trails or other areas where GPS performs poorly, Suunto has the potential to be more accurate. Suunto Movies are also super cool! I prefer the latest edition of the Fenix 3 that has a built in heart rate monitor and think that Garmin is more user friendly overall, but neither watch is downright superior. If you’ve never tried a Suunto watch, I encourage you to give it a try! I was definitely impressed and am excited to try more Suunto products in the future.

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Alec Blenis

Alec Blenis is a trail runner and obstacle course racer from Atlanta, GA. He has been on the OCR scene since 2011 and has since competed in over one hundred events, including dozens of podium finishes and overall wins.

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Garmin Forerunner 235 Review

Garmin 235
4 Overall
0 Users (0 votes)
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The Garmin 235 is the first of Garmin’s watches to introduce their own optical heart rate monitor rather than licensing Mio’s technology. After great success with the Garmin 235, they’ve now added a built in heart rate monitor the the FR635, Vivoactive HR, and Fenix3 HR. The updated technology now comes in a slimmer design and with improved accuracy to boot.

Garmin 235 Features

The Garmin 235 is for the most part just an upgraded version of the Garmin 225 (which was reviewed here). But what sets it apart are the stats on the new model, it places the Garmin 235 within striking distance of much pricier options like the Garmin 630 and Garmin Fenix 3 HR. It still lacks a barometric altimeter, but includes other “premium” features like cycling mode, relatively good battery life, activity tracking, bluetooth notifications, and a VO2 max estimator. Until recently, you had to spend upwards of the $400 to get these kinds of features, but they’re now becoming much more accessible. While the heart rate monitor is different than the older version, you’re not likely to notice any differences here – it still works the same way, though perhaps a bit more accurately. The biggest improvement, to me, is aesthetics. The 235 is much slimmer and sleek looking than its predecessor, and the display size is much improved.

GPS accuracy – On most of Garmin’s low to mid range watches, they only have a “smart recording”, in which the GPS recording interval varies depending on speed and acceleration to make a compromise between accuracy and battery life. At this, it does a fairly good job, but smart recording will never be as accurate as the more battery-sucking “every second” recording mode. With the 235 boasting a better battery, there is now support for every second recording. This is significantly more accurate on routes with lots of turns and on most trails. I’ve seen about a 5% accuracy improvement on my local trail route when using 1s recording intervals. I highly recommend using this setting for short runs where you care more about accuracy than battery life. Long story short though, the GPS accuracy on the 235 is on par with other Garmin watches; the only thing worth noting here is the ability to choose the recording interval.

Optical Heart Rate Monitor – Optical heart rate monitor mean that you don’t wear a chest strap but it is instead measured through a sensor on the back of the watch. The accuracy is surprisingly good – amazing actually – for usage during steady state efforts when your heart rate isn’t changing super quickly, but still a bit shaky when dealing heart rate spikes. For things like interval training you will want to stick to a chest strap monitor if you want instant and perfectly synced data.

garmin-235-review-3

In addition to Optical heart rate tracking on runs, you also have the option of 24/7 heart rate monitoring. Just like during runs, it performs very well when not dealing with HR spikes. Chances are it will be right on when you’re checking your HR at your desk at work, but when you stand up to walk to the bathroom it will take some time to lock on and probably deviate up and down significantly. At the end of the day, I’m really happy with how the 235 performs 90% of the time, but would still recommend a chest strap for testing things like maximum heart rate or workouts involving short duration intervals.

Battery Life – Interestingly, battery life seems to be a bit variable, with different users reporting different numbers. This is likely due to the number of configurations with which you can use the watch. Disabling the HR sensor and using smart recording will get you up to 16 hours of battery life, whereas you’re likely to get 6 hours or so with HR enabled and 1s recording intervals; probably about 10 hours out of the box with factory settings.

Likewise, there’s a lot of variability with standby battery life as well. You’re going to get between one and four weeks in watch mode depending on your activity level, your settings, and how often you press buttons.

Overall, battery life here is really good for a watch with a built in HRM at this price point. Disabling HR puts the watch in the same league as watches like the 920xt, Fenix3, an Ambit3, making the watch suitable for many ultramarathoners (though you’d have to be elite to make it through a 100 miler with the watch still alive).

High Resolution Display – The display is really great compared the 225, which is especially great for obstacle races when the display is likely to have a layer of mud over it, limiting readability. The bright backlight, larger watch face, and high contrast makes the watch easy to ready in low-light, direct sun, and even with a layer of dust/dirt. While it seems like a minor point, it really is nice to see your stats at a glance instead of having to bring the watch 6 inches closer to your face and stare for a second!

Smartwatch Capabilities – The watch easily syncs with an iPhone or Android smartphone app, which you can then sync with third party apps like Strava and MapMyRun should you choose to do so. While Garmin Connect is getting better and has an arguably better mobile app than Strava, I still sync all of my activities to Strava. To me, Strava is the best place to keep track of all my activities from various devices, record from my phone if my watch is dead, and chase segments PR’s and CR’s (Garmin’s “segments” feature is lacking IMO). Sometimes the watch/app connection has a mind of its own and syncs whenever it wants to, but normally by closing and reopening the app you can get to connect right away. It does seem to have a more reliable and fast connection than it did with the 225.

 

Garmin 235 Usage

I’ve always been a big fan of heart rate training but, like most athletes, hate the discomfort and inconvenience of chest straps. I was really excited when I began to see optical, wrist-based heart rate monitors hit the market, but was skeptical of their accuracy; I knew the technology would improve though, and I’ve been testing various brands ever since. It was less than a year ago that I reviewed the Mio Link, and if you scan through that review it’s hard to see how far the technology is come in such a short period of time. It’s still not perfect and I’ll discuss some of the current limitations, but if you’re still wearing a chest strap for all of your workouts then you need to catch up to 2016.

I started using the 235 just as I was doing my last few weeks of training for the Georgia Death Race, so in just a two months it went a few hundred miles, went up and down thousands of feet, and I wore it pretty much 24/7. Until this watch, I’ve always opted for the top-of-the-line, dating all the way back to the 910xt in 2012. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 235, while not exactly entry-level either, still offered many of the bells and whistles of the nicer watches and was a perfectly suitable option for my training.

garmin-235-review-2

On one of my longer training runs of the year, I used the 235 for about 6 hours of running and finished with about 40% battery life remaining. Not bad at all considering it was gathering heart rate data, gps data, accelerometer data and many of the other data points built into the watch for 6 hours. This run had lots of heart rate spikes as we did a lot of walk-running, stopped for water breaks, etc, and the watch did a decent job at still reporting accurately (I did a manual count periodically to check). The main inaccuracy I encountered was that it would take a while to recognize my heart rate was up again when I started running from a walk, occasionally reporting a heart rate in the 90’s for a few 3-4 minutes before “finding” it in the 140s. On this run and many other long training runs I did, there were other runners with me all sporting their own Garmin, Suunto, or Polar for me to compare data with. The 235 was generally consistent with the other Garmins, though it underestimates elevation gain compared to models with a barometric altimeter. Compared to the Suunto Ambit3, the 235 always came up short on distance, by up to a mile on longer runs in the 25+ range.

Teaser: on a local trail known for horrible satellite reception, the Garmin 235 recorded 2.32 miles and the Suunto recorded 2.40 miles. I wheeled the route as per USATF certification standards for a distance of 2.50.

 

Garmin 235 Durability

While not as rugged as options like Fenix and Tactix lines, the 235 is fully waterproof up to 50m and will withstand pretty much anything you throw at it. However, the wrist strap will eventually break after constant abuse. Honestly, you’ll have to beat the crap out of it through dozens of OCRs, not just standard wear and tear, but you can expect to have the rubber degrade if you’re an OCR addict that runs 20+ races a year. If you fall under this category, I’d recommend upgrading to the Fenix3.

garmin-235-review-4

Another thing to consider when using the 235 for OCR is that if the watch isn’t on tightly enough, mud will collect between your wrist and the heart rate sensor which will affect the accuracy. Be sure to opt for a tight fit on race day (but not cut off circulation) to ensure you’re not interfering with the optical heart rate monitor.

 

Garmin 235 Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Optical Heart Rate Sensor
  • Multiple GPS settings
  • HR accuracy for steady state
  • Battery Life relative to price
  • Excellent Display
  • VO2 max estimate

Cons

  • HR accuracy for intervals
  • More expensive than other “200 level” watches

 

Similar Products

Garmin 235Garmin 225Garmin Fenix 3TomTom Cardio
Battery Life9 days as activity monitor, 11 hours with GPS4 weeks as watch, 10 hours with GPS5 weeks as watch, 20 hours with GPS8 Hours
GPSYesYesYesYes
Heart Rate MonitorOpticalOpticalYes, with additional chest strapOptical
Waterproof 5 ATM (50 Meters)5 ATM (50 Meters)100 Meters5 ATM (50 Meters)
Weight1.5 oz1.91 oz2.9 oz.2.22 oz
Phone CompatibilityAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOSAndroid, iOS
Price$329.99$239.99$499.99$99.99
ORM ReviewYesYesYesYes
BuyAmazonAmazon Amazon

 

Garmin 235 Conclusion

After extensive testing with Garmin 235, I feel confident recommending this watch to anyone and everyone looking for a watch in the $300 price range. There’s honestly not much to dislike. Sure, there’s still room for improvement with the HRM accuracy, but at the end of the day, it’s accurate enough for most practical training purposes. While your most hardcore obstacle course racing enthusiasts, ultra runners, and triathletes would be better off with a top of the line watch like the Garmin Fenix 3 or Garmin Forerunner 920XT, this is the perfect mid level option for most runners and obstacle racers today. If you haven’t jumped on the optical heart rate sensor bandwagon yet, you’re missing out!

 


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Alec Blenis

Alec Blenis is a trail runner and obstacle course racer from Atlanta, GA. He has been on the OCR scene since 2011 and has since competed in over one hundred events, including dozens of podium finishes and overall wins.

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Marc Pro Review

Marc Pro
3.5 Overall
0 Users (0 votes)
Features
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Summary

There are dozens of electrical muscle stimulators on the market, many of which make some pretty outlandish claims. Can you really get stronger just by hooking yourself up to a machine?

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I looked at the research behind EMS (electronic muscle stimulator) devices to find out how much a performance-driven athlete could really benefit from electrical stimulation, and I appreciated how Marc Pro focuses on where EMS really has the most potential: recovery. Plus, with some of my favorite OCR athletes personally using Marc Pro, I had to give it a try myself.

Marc Pro Technology

The idea behind EMS is to stimulate nerves and muscles by passing current through. However, different frequencies and amplitudes will have very different effects on the body, and not necessarily positive ones. Because different devices are tuned to different parameters, each will work differently. Unfortunately this means there’s a lot of variability among products, so while there are tons of research studies on EMS out there, there are very few studies on each specific use. In fact, only a dozen human studies have been done to investigate whether EMS enhances recovery, and the results weren’t entirely convincing [1]. That said, I looked at some other studies done with the Marc Pro unit specifically that show that it is effective at reducing muscle soreness and recovery time [2][3], and promoting angiogenesis / increased blood flow [4]. While these were all small sample studies done by the same guy, there was enough there for me to want to run a Marc Pro through a field test. Obviously, reducing down time between training sessions and increasing maximal blood flow would be great for any type of athlete [5].

Marc Pro Unboxing

The packaging on the Marc Pro is great, and it’s really easy to get started. It comes in a carrying case with partitions for the unit itself, the wires/electrodes, and the charger. The case itself is compact and protects the unit pretty well, so it’s perfect for travelling with right out of the box. The unit came fully charged, so I started hooking up electrodes as soon as I opened it. There are two channels, with two electrodes each, so you can stimulate both sides of the body at once or just go double-time on a single area or muscle chain. Each channel operates at a fixed frequency (about 2Hz) but adjustable intensity. For some reason, intensity is on a scale of 0 to 9. Most other people I hooked up to it were hesitant to go above 5 or 6, but I would have loved a 10 on some of my larger muscle groups. Lower intensities were fine for smaller muscles on the arms and shoulders.  I’m not really sure what determines an individual’s tolerance to electrical stimulation, but it definitely varies. Here is what it looks like in action on my quad:

Marc Pro Usage

I tested out the Marc Pro on pretty much every muscle group I could think of, but there are some limitations on where you can use it. For obvious reasons, don’t use it around your head, neck, or heart; this means your chest muscles are going to have to recover the old fashioned way. As an endurance athlete, I mainly used it on my lower body, but I have heard more than one person say they used it to treat their bicep tendonitis with good results (disclaimer: I’m not a doctor). At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out where to place the electrodes, but it was really simple. Generally, start by placing an electrode at each end of the muscle you’re trying to stimulate, and then adjust the electrode placement until you maximize the muscle’s contraction. The Marc Pro comes with a booklet with some suggestions on electrode placement that I found helpful. My personal favorite was one electrode on the bottom of the foot, another at the top of my calf. I loved the unit on my calves, hamstrings, and quads, but I never could find a configuration that really got my glutes firing. As far as upper body usage goes, my experience is limited. To be honest, I don’t push my upper body to the limit very often, and don’t need it to recovery any better than it already does. I tested out some upper body configurations for fun, and found lower intensities (3 to 5) were sufficient for stimulating the arms, shoulders, and upper back, but I didn’t find the sensations to be as enjoyable as on the legs. In certain configurations, the electrodes can cause some painful stings, but a slight placement adjustment will resolve any issues. The only minor issues I really had was that the electrodes pull out my leg hair, and my skin is sensitive to the adhesive.

To really see how well the Marc Pro worked for recovery, I pushed myself a little harder than usual during the two week training block that I had the unit. It’s so hard to definitively say whether something helped or not, especially when it comes to recovery aid, but I do believe the Marc Pro helped me sustain an increased training load for two weeks. I used the unit for about 90 minutes per day, after training, for 14 consecutive days. Weeks later, after a workout that was a bit too hard, I really wish I still had the Marc Pro to help me get ready for another full week of training. It may be placebo, but based on the studies cited above and the almost exclusively positive feedback from fellow athletes, I think there’s actually something to it. Here’s what top OCR athlete, Hunter McIntyre, had to say about his experience with Marc Pro:

marc-pro-review-Hunter-McIntyre“The Marc pro has been a key tool in my training for almost a year now. The body of an athlete is constantly taxed by the training that we put ourselves through to improve for future sport. The truth is that training is only part of the cocktail – it’s more recovery, more importantly, that will allow you to grow and excel the next time you test yourself. The Marc pro is a huge part of getting me ready for whatever I face next.”

For a kind of tutorial on how to use Marc Pro to help recovery after a run, check out this video from Bryan MacKenzie. He makes it seem pretty complicated, but it’s a starting point if you have no idea what to do.

Marc Pro Competition

While it’s definitely an expensive piece of equipment ($650) for a weekend warrior, a top athlete looking for an extra advantage should consider adding Marc Pro to their regimen. There are competing products on the market, like Compex and Tens units, but the Marc Pro is the only one designed for recovery only. The Tens unit focuses on treating nerve pain, and Compex has a bunch of different pre-set programs for a variety of purposes. I haven’t researched or tested a Compex unit, so I’m not sure if it works well for recovery like the Marc Pro, but I don’t think using EMS programs to build strength or endurance is the most productive use of an athlete’s time. I like how Marc Pro focuses their research and attention on enhancing recovery. In addition to the regular Marc Pro unit, the also make the Marc Pro Plus which includes a higher frequency pain-relief mode. I only got to test a regular unit, but if that sounds appealing, you can get that feature too for an extra $300.

Pros:

  • “Active” recovery without fatiguing muscles
  • Increased blood flow, possible angiogenesis
  • Portability, convenience, and battery life

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Benefit relative to other modes of recovery is debatable
  • Fixed frequency
  • Electrodes need occasional replacement (and can pull out leg hair!)

Marc Pro Verdict

After using the Marc Pro daily for 2 weeks, I feel like it helped me adapt to a higher training load by reducing the amount of time I needed to recover between workouts. I even used it to compete in two back to back races over a weekend and felt better than I ever have before when double racing. But was it superior to other recovery techniques like dynamic stretching, massage, rolling, etc? Maybe adding an hour of yoga to my daily routine could have similar effects at a fraction of the cost. Personally, I feel like one of the biggest advantages of the Marc Pro is improving recovery without further accumulating fatigue; you can just hook up the electrodes and relax while doing other things like working on the computer, something you wouldn’t be able to do while employing other recovery techniques. I guess you could say it’s passive recovery that works like active recovery. So, while there a tons of ways to help you recover, hooking up to a Marc Pro while you sit on the couch beats just sitting on the couch, and can easily be incorporated into any routine. And while it may be expensive, it’s a one time cost unlike the recurring costs of PT appointments and massage.

My recommendation: if you’re already maximizing your recovery ability in other ways and feel like there’s not much more you can do, the Marc Pro could give you an extra edge. But if you’re not even eating right and hydrating after your workouts, doing recovery workouts between harder ones, training purposefully instead of always going “beast mode” with random fitness challenges, etc., put your time and energy into the basics first.

As a Special Offer to ORM readers – Use Discount Code ORM1 to Save 5% off at the Marc Pro Store

 

Sources
 
 [1] http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Citation/2014/09000/Neuromuscular_Electrical_Stimulation_During.12.aspx
 
 [2] https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineAPRIL2013_Blum.pdf
 
 [3] https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineApril2011KennethBlum.pdf
 
 [4] https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineOctober2011Blum.pdf
 
 [5] http://jap.physiology.org/content/97/3/1119

 


Mio Link Strapless Heart Rate Monitor Review

Mio Link Heart Rate Monitor
3.9 Overall
0 Users (0 votes)
Features
Durability
Battery Life
GPS Accuracy
Summary

If you like using heart rate data to get the most out of your training but you’re ready to ditch the cumbersome chest strap, then optical heart rate sensors might be for you.

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Mio Link Strapless Heart Rate Monitor and Optical Heart Rate Technology

Instead of directly measuring electrical impulses in the heart the Mio Link detects your pulse by shining light into your wrist. It sounds bizarre, but this new technology could make chest straps a thing of the past. Mio Global is leading the charge, and their recent partnership with Garmin will usher in a new era of wearable sports technology.

Mio Link Summary

I was skeptical when I first saw optical heart rate technology and, at the time, I was right. CNET posted a review last year on wristband HRMs (heart rate monitors), basically stating they are terrible and get even worse when you start moving; even if these devices could measure your heart rate accurately at rest, it was challenging to detect fast pulses in a real world environment. Luckily, technology has come a long way in the last year (and CNET failed to review Mio), and Mio’s heart rate sensors are the best of the bunch. But are we really ready to ditch tried-and-true chest straps for good?

Garmin may just think so. Although they just released their advanced HRM-RUN chest strap that measures vertical oscillation, ground contact time, and cadence in addition to heart rate last year, Garmin is now on board with optical heart rate technology. This May, they partnered with Mio and became the first of the big three (Garmin, Suunto, Polar) to release a GPS watch with an optical sensor built directly into the watch: the Garmin Forerunner 225.

Mio uses the same sensor in all of their wristbands, and I have a hunch that we’ll see the same sensor implemented in more Garmin devices in the near future. Naturally, Suunto and Polar will have to release competing products. If wrist based HRMs are the future, then I have to put the tech to the test. I purchased the Mio Link, which connects via Bluetooth or ANT+ to your favorite GPS device or smartphone, and put it through 50+ workouts before writing this review.

mio-review-hr-monitor-5

The good and the bad.

Obviously, having a wristband HRM offers some advantages to a chest strap. Even better, with the Garmin 225, you don’t need an external HRM at all. Comfort and convenience typically come at a high price, but the price tag of the Mio Link is comparable to a traditional chest strap and cheaper than a premium chest strap. And if you’re getting the Garmin 225 or a future watch with a built in sensor, you won’t have to spend money on an external HRM at all. It’s the best of both worlds! That said, there are some drawbacks as well. Premium HRM chest straps like the Garmin HRM-RUN offer more data than just pulse rate, and it’s simply impossible to get this data from a wristband. If you’re looking for more sophisticated data, you’re going to have to wear a chest strap. Plus, constantly shining light into your wrist demands a lot more power than simply detecting an impulse, so there are some battery life limitations that need to be addressed. Apparently, this technology may work better on certain skin colors than others, and users with tattooed wrists might find that optical HRMs aren’t good at sensing through ink. Finally, despite being a definite step in the right direction, there are some heart rate related issues that I’ll get into with more detail below.

Mio Link Features

The Mio Link is the simplest of all the Mio products. It features Mio’s optical heart rate sensor built into a silicon wristband, one button, and a single LED light; that’s all. The LED serves multiple purposes: the color and flashing pattern of the light gives you information about your heart rate and battery life. Other than that, it couldn’t be any simpler. Just turn it on, connect your GPS/phone to it, and go. This particular unit goes for $79 on Amazon. In addition to the Mio Link, they offer more “complete” options for users that don’t want to connect to a watch, or who want additional info. Options like the $149 Mio Fuse include an LCD display and activity tracker. The Mio Link has a 7-10 hour battery life, while the bulkier Mio Alpha has a 20 hour battery life. In my own tests, I got about 8 hours of use per full charge. The sensor itself is very small and lightweight, with most of its size being the battery, I imagine. If you’re interested in the Link, it comes in two sizes (small/medium and large), and two colors (black and white).

mio-review-hr-monitor-4  mio-review-hr-monitor-6

Competing products

After researching and reading reviews of all the different optical heart rate sensors on the market, it’s clear that not all optical HRMs are created equal. While there are at least a dozen watches/HRMs that use optical heart sensors today, many of them are using either Mio or Valencell sensors, most notably the Garmin 225 (Mio) and Scosche (Valencell). Other companies developed their own optical HR sensors in-house.

Fitbit SurgeApple Watch - Sport EditionMio LinkBasis PeakWithings Pulse O2
Battery Life7 days without GPS, 5 hours with GPS18 hours8 hours4 days14 days
GPSYesNoN/ANoNo
Heart Rate MonitorYes, opticalYes, opticalOpticalOpticalOptical
Waterproof 50 Meters (no swimming)Splash Resistant30m5 metersNo
Weight1.8 oz1.41 oz30 gN/AN/A
Phone CompatibilityAndroid, iOS, WindowsiOSBluetooth Smart (4.0) and ANT+Android, iOSAndroid, iOS
Price$249.99$549.99$79.00$199.99$119.95
ORM ReviewYesBeing TestedYesNoNo
Buy Amazon Apple StoreAmazonAmazon Amazon

 

Mio Link Usage

It’s race day, and you’ve just put your sponsor’s temporary tattoo on your chest. After spending most of the morning figuring out which hashtags would be most clever to include in your next instagram post, you realize that it would also be pretty cool to wear a heart rate monitor for the race. But wait! You already have a tattoo on your chest and you wouldn’t want to cover that up. Even if you don’t need your chest to be available for professional reasons, there’s no denying that a HRM on a bare chest looks pretty dumb. You might as well wear nostril openers and prescription eye goggles too. Thank goodness for the Mio Link! In this photo of me at the 2015 Atlanta Battlefrog race, you can’t even tell that I’m wearing a HRM; it’s discretely hidden under my orange wristband.

mio-review-hr-monitor-9

Not only is it way cooler looking, but also more functional and comfortable. The chest strap has the potential to get in the way of obstacles like bucket/log carries, and cause unwanted chaffing once mud gets stuck underneath the water-soaked strap. After running the 16k Battlefrog with the Mio Link, I’m pleased to say I never even noticed it was on. The wristband / strap is also pretty sturdy and secure, so I never had to adjust it while running (I did, however, have to tuck the strap of my fenix3 back in once or twice).

 

The Mio Link did allow me to get heart rate data without looking like the data nerd that I am, but the data wasn’t quite perfect. Almost though. After running through dozens of workouts with the Mio, I’ve noticed a few things that cause it to malfunction every once in a while. I’d say 9/10 times, it works without any issues, but cold skin and extremely rapid changes in HR can throw it off sometimes. For this race, it had trouble tracking for the first mile, then worked great besides a brief loss of HR around 33 minutes (due to a water submersion at “mounds of grounds”). The second graph, below, is from a half marathon road race I did the next day, and the Mio performed perfectly. Note that the graph is much smoother for the road race due to the nature of the event, compared to the varying intensity of completing obstacles and navigating trails.

mio-review-hr-monitor-10

For fairness, the Garmin brand chest strap would also have some difficulty in an obstacle race with water submersions, and possibly additional circumstances that wouldn’t have given the Mio any issues. So, in spite of it having some issues for the first couple of minutes, I don’t consider this to be typical, and don’t imagine a chest strap would be definitively better in an obstacle race environment. After dozens of workouts with the Mio, I found that it has trouble tracking the first few minutes of an activity about 5-10% of the time. This issue can be avoided by connecting the HRM and giving it 5-10 minutes to start tracking your warm up, etc, before actually beginning an activity. Another minor issue I found is that it doesn’t track well on very cold skin. In the summer, this isn’t an issue, but in the winter, it’s best to either wear it extra tight or underneath a sweatband or long sleeve. In general, it works much better if you’ve warmed up first, because of both temperature and additional time to start tracking accurately. Adjusting tightness and position on the arm are both ways that you can try to get a better reading. Thankfully, you don’t generally have to wear it too tight for it work. Just tight enough so that it stays in place is okay, but for an obstacle race I would recommend a tighter fit to keep dirt from getting between your skin and the sensor. A tighter fit in cold weather or rain is also a good way to keep the skin beneath the sensor a little warmer. If you’re wrist looks like this after wearing it, it was probably on too tight:mio-review-hr-monitor-2

Mio Link Durability

You probably don’t think of durability issues at all when it comes to heart rate monitors, but the Mio is actually the clear winner in this category. Over time, the elastic band on a chest strap gets over-stretched and worn out, often needing adjustments. Not only that, but it gets sweaty and gross after every workout. I remember leaving my chest strap out in the sun to dry after hard workouts, and washing it by hand with soap when it got especially nasty. I can only imagine how gross a chest strap would be after an OCR. With the Mio Link, simply rinse it under the sink if it gets gross and you’re good to go. That’s it! The only downside to the Mio Link is that you do have to charge it. I get about 8 hours of use per full charge. It is very convenient to charge though, snapping on magnetically to a small usb mount.

mio-review-hr-monitor-3

Pros

  • no more annoying chest strap
  • connects via Bluetooth and/or ANT+ to pretty much anything
  • comfortable, convenient, and works well most of the time
  • cost effective
  • no maintenance
  • water resistant to 30m
  • light weight (approximately 30g)

Cons

  • not quite as accurate as chest strap, especially when high degree of precision is needed, such as for HRV tests.
  • battery life / requires more power than a chest strap.
  • cold skin, tattoos, poor circulation, and other factors may reduce accuracy.
  • no advanced data like vertical oscillation and ground contact time that you get from premium straps

 

Mio Link Verdict

So you’re probably wondering if I’m going to throw away my chest strap, and the answer is…. I’ll put it on the shelf, but not throw it away. I do like the precision of chest straps for if I want to do an HRV test, and if I want to track heart rate for an event longer than 8 hours then the Mio Link won’t cut it. But, for day to day use, I definitely won’t be using the chest strap. More than anything, I love that the Mio HRM is so convenient that I actually want to track my heart rate for every single workout. It was such as hassle and annoyance having to wear a chest strap that I rarely even used it; now I’ve been tracking HR for every workout for almost a month, and have been able to make use of the data to improve my training. The power of HR training isn’t looking at your HR for a single workout, but tracking it over time, establishing trends and zones, and adjusting your training accordingly. For me, the simplicity of wearing a HRM on my wrist allows me to get the data all the time, and I’m already seeing the benefits. Sure, you may not really be getting data as accurate as from an EKG, but if you’re ready to take your training to the next level and geek out all at the same time, get a device equipped with Mio sensor like the Mio Link or Garmin 225… and leave your chest strap on the shelf.

 

Garmin Fenix 3 Review

Garmin Fenix 3
5 Overall
5 Users (1 vote)
Features
Durability
Battery Life
GPS Accuracy
Summary

The Garmin Fenix 3 is nothing like it’s predecessors, the Fenix 1/2. While the hardware on those models was pretty cool and rugged, the software wasn’t. This version changes all of that.

Used it before? Leave a review

 

As one of the more highly anticipated new products from the most popular GPS device manufacturer in the world, there are hundreds if not thousands of online reviews, hands on tutorials, and unboxing videos for the Garmin fenix 3 available all over the web. That’s not what this article is about though. You’re here because you’re an obstacle course racer and tnt to know if having a fancy watch will help your racing and training, or if you should just stick with the Strava phone app and a naked wrist on race day. While sometimes I do love to ditch the technology and just run, it’s undeniable that real time feedback, post workout analysis, and the “I spent $500 on this watch, so I should probably go run with it” feeling, can help you tremendously as you plan future training, evaluate race performances, and stay motivated.

But obstacle racers don’t just want the basics, do we? Why have a water resistant watch when it can be waterproof to 100M? Why settle for GPS elevation when you can have a barometric altimeter? Why settle for 32 GPS satellites when you can have 24 additional GLONASS satellites at your disposal for even better data? This is by no means a budget-friendly watch, but if you’re in the market for what might just be an obstacle racer’s dream watch, then the Fenix 3 might be the one for you.

The Big Things

Although its name suggests otherwise, the Garmin Fenix 3 is nothing like it’s predecessors, the Fenix 1/2. While the hardware on those models was pretty cool and rugged, the software wasn’t the most user friendly for runners, cyclists, etc. As such, the Fenix line has historically been more popular among hikers because of it’s navigation features, while the Garmin Forerunner series has been popular among runners because of it’s streamlined software and ease of use, despite being a bit clunky. I used to own a Forerunner 910XT and absolutely loved it; the software was great, never had any bugs/issues…it just worked. I only traded it in for the Fenix2 because I thought it looked super cool, but was disappointed by the software and all the bugs I encountered. I had decided that I would trade it in once the next generation Forerunner watch came out, but when I learned about the Fenix 3 I changed my mind. The Garmin Fenix 3 actually builds upon the software of the Forerunner and, internally, is quite similar to the top-of-the-line 920XT, yet is housed in an improved exterior of the original Fenix. As such, software issues = none. This may seem a small thing, but it is incredibly frustrating for your watch to freeze 12 hours into a 15 hour race and then get crappy data for the coolest race you’ve ever done. You should get what you pay for, but with the Fenix 2 you didn’t; frequent software crashes is unacceptable on a $400 device. So, it’s worth repeating, the Garmin Fenix 3 has awesome software!

You know what else is awesome? Daily activity tracking. Unlike most (any?) high end GPS units on the market today, the Fenix 3 tracks your sleep, steps throughout the day, and more. I never realized how cool functionality like this could be until I started using it. Admittedly, this data would be far more useful if you were also tracking your heart rate 24/7 (like some activity monitors can do), but it is still useful and motivating to see these metrics, even if they could be improved.

Also awesome: widgets! The Fenix 3 isn’t the first watch to have downloadable apps/widgets, but Garmin has the potential to do it very well. Currently, the IQ store where you download them has just launched and options are limited, but there are already some very cool apps you can download right to your watch. As a physicist, I particularly like the one that calculates the velocity-dependent relativistic time shift that accumulates during your activities. Yes, that one is totally pointless, but it just shows how the sky’s the limit with these widgets. I expect to see lots of very interesting ones available soon.

Garmin Fenix 3 review

Widgets and WiFi (aka Nerd Porn)

Another big thing that’s new (and improved) to the Fenix 3 is wireless connectivity. Wifi uploading is totally new to the Fenix lineup, and it truly is amazing if you’ve never experienced it yourself. Like magic, you finish an activity, walk in your house, and it automatically uploads without pressing any buttons or plugging in any wires. And if you have a smartphone, you don’t even need to get home. Simply pair your phone with the watch over bluetooth, and you can auto-sync activities that way too. While bluetooth connectivity isn’t new to the Fenix line up, with the Fenix 3 it works much better than before. The impact on battery life is minimal (before, it was a big drain), the uploads speeds are super fast, and with the IQ store for widgets, it’s really easy to download a new app, widget, or watch face, and instantly send it to the watch. Yes, you can download new watch faces, so you can display analog, digital, or something custom in between, while in watch-mode.

While battery life may not be critically important for most athletes, it’s a necessity for anyone planning on doing a long race or ultra. Even if you’re not, it’s convenient not to have to charge it all the time on a day to day basis. The Fenix 3 boasts the best battery life yet with 16-20 hours of use in normal GPS mode, and up to 50 in ultra trac mode (a less accurate but more efficient mode for multi day events). Not only is the battery great, but everything about the watch is built to last. Solid exterior, waterproof to 100M, and buttons that aren’t easily clogged by mud. As an obstacle racer, you couldn’t ask for better hardware. It’s thinner than previous models and probably the most durable GPS watch out there. It will probably last longer than you, but in case you plan on running over 50 hours, it has the ability to charge while still recording an activity, so you could put it in your pack plugged up to a solar panel and keep moving.

Other Things

I could write for days about all the features that the watch has to offer, but most aren’t super relevant to obstacle racing. In addition to what’s discussed above, some key features that you’d want to pay for as an obstacle, trail, or mountain athlete include the barometric altimeter and auto-climb feature. Altimeters are pretty common on most high end watches, but many people don’t know what they are or how they work. Instead of using GPS to determine your altitude, the watch uses changes in air pressure to calculate changes in altitude. Depending on the calibration, the actual value it gives you for your altitude may not be perfect, but it’s far better at determining changes in elevation than GPS is. For this reason, especially on trails and in the woods, watches with barometric altimeters are superior to GPS-only devices, as you’re going to have much more accurate data. Generally speaking, GPS will give you an underestimate when it comes to elevation gain. The only thing to consider is that brief water submersions can cause unusual spikes in elevation since the watch can’t tell the difference between air pressure and water pressure. Just be sure to subtract out these spikes in your head (looking at the graph) before you post to Facebook about how you just climbed a million vertical feet. The video below is a quick demonstration of how much a quick water submersion can throw off altimeter readings, but also shows you two other cool things about the watch. The data field “GA pace” is grade adjusted pace, showing the pace you’d be running if you were on flat ground instead of an incline – this is one of many cool data fields you can download to the watch that don’t come standard. Also, the virtual ascent out of the water bucket triggers the auto climb feature for which the display inverts colors and changes the information displayed. Everything from the sensitivity, to the trigger rate, to the data fields displayed can be modified to your preferences.

Obviously, the Fenix 3 has a barometric altimeter, but you can also adjust the calibration settings manually and view your elevation graphically, rather than just see a number. Using this data, the Fenix 3 also has an auto-climb feature that I think is really cool. When enabled, the watch will change displays when climbing above a certain rate (adjustable), then switch displays back to normal when on flat ground again. It’s pretty neat for the watch to automatically switch from displaying time/pace to altitude/grade once you start going up a hill. That’s pretty much the theme with the Fenix 3: even with the most basic features, they do a great job making it customizable, user friendly, and aesthetically pleasing.

Another big reason to pay more than a hundred bucks for a watch is heart rate tracking. I think that the run dynamics metrics such as ground contact time and vertical oscillation distance are interesting but generally useless data, but you can do a lot with heart rate information. With just your heart rate, you can train more effectively by monitoring time spent at certain intensities, which is great for knowing how hard you’re really working. The Fenix 3, like other high end watches, takes this a step further. Using your heart rate data and workout history, they calculated predicted race finish times, tell you how much you got out of a workout (“training effect”), estimate your VO2 max, and say when you’ll be recovered for your next hard training session. It can be a bit overwhelming to always be doing heart rate training and, I admit, it takes a lot of fun out of it sometimes, but it is a great tool to have in your toolbox, and the Fenix 3 specifically does a great job at making the most out of heart rate data if you provide it.

Is the Sapphire Edition worth it?

The Garmin fenix 3 Sapphire costs $600, when in stock, so I get this question a lot. Is the sapphire display and metal watch band worth the extra money. From a functionality perspective, absolutely not. With the metal band, the watch is more than twice as heavy (175g vs 85g), and the display on the standard edition is honestly good enough. That said, the sapphire has the look and feel of a nice watch that you could wear to social events besides a group run. If you plan on making this your daily watch to wear around town, to work, and to workout, you might want to consider getting the sapphire edition because it does look pretty sharp. I do actually prefer the rubber band for workouts, as it’s easily adjustable and much lighter, but again, the metal does look great.

Garmin Fenix 3 review

 This guy needs the Sapphire Edition. Do you?

Summary

After spending the last few weeks testing out the Garmin fenix 3, I’m confident in recommending it to anyone who can rationalize the high price point. You do get what you pay for, and in this case, that’s a lot. It’s a great watch that can do just about anything you could want it to do. There are a few very minor things I’d like to see added in future software updates, but otherwise, this is an obstacle course racer’s dream watch.


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Alec Blenis

Alec Blenis is a trail runner and obstacle course racer from Atlanta, GA. He has been on the OCR scene since 2011 and has since competed in over one hundred events, including dozens of podium finishes and overall wins.

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