Why Race Results May Vary From Your Smart Watch

November 28, 2023

Aside from receiving a finisher time and wearing the required bib or timing chip, most athletes do not know the details that go into providing timely, successful, and accurate timing for races. When timing is flawless, these are the only details you should notice other than running over the timing mats at each split of the race. Timing is extremely complex and prior to race day, there are countless hours spent preparing and pouring over every detail to ensure a smooth and successful race day for the athletes and the event.

Times have changed drastically from your typical manual timing results. In those days, you would see people frantically pulling tags and punching in numbers as fast as possible as athletes cross the finish line. After you finished, you typically wouldn’t receive your results until several days later. Now, athletes and family members can simply pull up an app on their phone, track their friend or family member real time on the course, receive finisher results within a matter of seconds and even share this information instantaneously on social media accounts directly after finishing a race.

On the athletes end, the use of Garmin devices and Smart Watches provide "real time" timing as they train and participate in each race. On race day, this sometimes leads to confusion for the athlete. The athletes finisher time and overall distance does not always reflect the same value as the final race results from the timing team. As an athlete, it’s important to understand why this slight variance can occur.

Garmin devices and Smart Watches are good but not 100% accurate.  Certified race courses are measured very precisely (using a Jones Counter) and use the tangents of any turn – something that GPS tracking simply cannot replicate for both time and distance.  GPS devices aren’t measuring location in a ‘real-time’ stream.  Depending on the device, it will measure your location every 2-20 seconds on average.  Distance is then measured between these waypoints to create a ‘route’ and measure for distance.  When you add this up over a marathon for example – these little differences in distance vs the certified course will add up and your device will show a longer distance than the race course – every time. This is important to keep in mind when comparing your Garmin/Smart Watch time to your official race time.

Another item to pay attention to on GPS tracking devices is the use of ‘auto-pause’.  Many devices have this on by default and will show you your ‘moving time’.  Meaning, your complete race time with any pauses subtracted.  This will result in a time shorter than your official race time.

Keep this information top of mind and be sure to double check if your Garmin or Smart Watch is set to auto-pause. As you begin each race, do your best to run the tangents along the course. When you hit the finish line, do your best not to stress or become frustrated if your watch shows a slight variance from the official results. This is a common pain point among athletes which timing teams field questions on often. Armed with this new information, breathe easy and enjoy every race ahead!

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