Using GPS watches for orienteering

Author: Daniel Gray  Date Posted: 11 September 2020

GPS watches are an integral part of the post-race debrief. The amount of information to peruse seems formidable. Daniel Gray explores the main features relevant to an orienteer, and how to use them in race analysis.

From route to VO2 max, from heart rate to elevation, what does it all mean? Amongst the myriad of data they generate, what is useful in an orienteering context?

A note on Orienteering Australia rules
The rules of foot orienteering state that:

Competitors shall not use or carry telecommunication equipment between entering the pre-start area and reaching the finish in a race, unless the equipment is approved by the organiser. GPS-enabled devices (watches etc.) can be carried provided that they have no map display and are not used for navigation purposes. However, the organiser has the right to specifically forbid the use of such equipment.

In practice, no GPS watches are banned during events. In major events, you may be required to cover the watch face with tape so that you cannot see it. As part of the fair play rules, competitors cannot use the watch during a race, including but not limited to: distance estimation, map overlay or compass navigation. Luckily for us, the best features of the watch come out to shine after the race!

Part 1: Racing and Routegadget
When you record a run on a GPS watch, it creates a GPX file. This is the key to post-race analysis. It saves your location and speed, and other software allows you to place this on the map. The good news is that almost all GPS watches have this feature. The two major players in this market are Garmin and Polar. Once you have the GPX file, they are the same for analysis.

How to download GPX files from Garmin Connect

How to download GPX files from Polar Flow

How to Analyse a GPX File
The biggest benefit of combining GPS watches with orienteering is the ability to see where you were after the race. This is normally done using the website routegadget. It allows you to compare your route and pace with other orienteers who also upload. You can replay the race to see where you gained and lost time and see the mistakes common to competitors. Download your GPX file, then follow the routegadget instructions on eventor. Routegadget automatically places your route on the map, but you can manually adjust it if there are errors.

Here is a link to a race in NSW last year. You can see which orienteers have uploaded their GPX file, and replay the race to compare them.

The other option is the program QuickRoute. This allows a user to overlay their GPS route onto the pdf of the map. This is useful for training, or where the organiser has not set up the routegadget for the event. Once you have your map file (as a pdf or image) and your GPX file (explained above), open Quickroute and create a new document.

You then tell Quickroute certain waypoints along the route to calibrate the GPX to the map. This is as simple as using the start, and perhaps a track along the way to make sure it lines up.

Quickroute gives you some tips along the way and then go to pointer view.

Now comes up the fun bit! Quickroute shows your location and your speed. It is very useful to know not just where you were, but how fast you were going. Here is my whole race.

Focussing on 3-4, we can see how Quickroute shows my mistake. Seeing this after the race is the best way to learn from your errors, and to stop doing them over and over!

All it takes for this level of analysis is a GPS-enabled watch. On every leg you run, you can see which rock you ran past, where you changed direction, how fast you were going. There is so much to learn from GPS analysis! For best results, set the GPS accuracy to 1-second recording, and allow the use of GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellites (check your user manual).

Part 2: Heart Rate and Training
Running watches aren’t just useful on race day. They are great interval companions, recovery advisors, and, in the higher-end models, your credit card and music player.

The other major player in this market is Polar. Polar has similar features, including everything you need for orienteering. Some of the staff at Wildfire Sports discuss two of the new Polar models here.

It would be remiss not to mention the social aspects of running accessible with these watches. Strava has a community of 42 million athletes. Connect to strava to see others’ workouts, try and win local segments and compare to your previous efforts. If this appeals to you, look for a watch that has Bluetooth connectivity to your phone.

Once you have GPS connectivity, the rest of the features depend on the customer. There is always a trade-off between price and features, battery life and size, aesthetic and durability. Those conundrums, I leave to you!

Basic GPS Watches
Look good on your wrist, and look good on your credit card statement. These watches bring everything you need for detailed race analysis.

Stylish GPS Watches
If you are a runner who goes straight from orienteering to an urban café, these watches fit right in, everywhere.

Advanced GPS Watches
Look here for watches that have it all. Recovery features, multi-sport modes. These watches are aimed at athletes who want it all.