A smart watch can help you run, swim, bike and more. Ali Wood tests the GPS smart watch in Snowdonia, Dorset and the New Forest to improve fitness, enhance adventure and get home safely

I’ve had my Garmin smart watch for six months now and have taken it up mountains, swum in lakes and the sea, hiked through forests and run across beaches.

There’s a whole host of things you can do with the Garmin Vivoactive 4 watch. You can run, cycle, measure distance, elevation and heart-rate, all while listening to music.

running with garmin watch

Using the run app on the Garmin Vivoactive S4 at Hengistbury Head, Dorset

It’s rugged and waterproof and you can even record swim strokes and oxygen levels. But my favourite features are the simple ones, such as pacing myself to improve a run… and once even navigating to a pair of grass snakes! 

Garmin Vivoactive 4S

But I have to confess, the Garmin GPS smartwatch is a little complicated – at least to a smart watch novice. A few accidental swipes and it reckons you’re doing pilates and snowboarding whilst drinking 10 cups of water… and then calling for assistance because you held the ‘Back’ key too long. 

However, if you put the effort in to learn how it works, it’s also a very exciting and addictive watch! 

How does a smart watch work?

Smart watches – with their touch-screen interfaces – allow you to track your performance across a whole range of activities, such as running, yoga or circuit training, as well as recording data such as wind speed, waypoints, distance covered and many more things. 

Garmin watch in front of conwy castle

Using the Garmin Vivoactive 4s Walk app for a hike out of Conwy, North Wales

Some watches allow your activity to be tracked on another person’s phone and shared with groups.

You can record your sleep patterns – working out the optimum time for your alarm to go off – and if your smart watch has a built-in cellular or LTE/4G connectivity and a SIM card or eSIM, it can even make phone calls. 

You don’t have to connect your smart watch to a phone or make purchases but more features become available if you do.

Measuring cadence and heart rate on Garmin connect app

In this screen on the Garmin Connect phone app you can see my cadence (steps per minute) overlaid over heart-rate data on a 8km run

When you synch a smart watch to an app on your mobile phone you can look at your data in more detail. For example, in the 8.17km run (above) you can see my pace on the left (varying between 4:48 mins per km and 12:06), my run time (59:02), and cadence (steps per minute) on the right, which averages around 168.

Here you can see a map of my 8.17km run, as well as time and calories burned (always heart-breakingly less than I think).

You can also see a more ‘zoomed-out’ summary of your activity, including a map, which is a nice feature of the Garmin Connect app.

Smart watch for women

The Garmin Vivoactive 4s is a slightly smaller version of the Vivoactive 4 (having a 1.1in display rather than 1.3in) with a strap made for slimmer wrists.

It’s in fact so small that my 6-year-old likes to wear it when we’re out walking and she chooses to be ‘expedition leader’. 

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The silicone strap is soft and the watch face comes in a range of colours. I chose the white with rose-gold bezel. 

It’s a very stylish watch, which gets lots of compliments when I wear it. However, because it’s robust, I’m just as happy wearing it on a sweaty run, mountain scramble or cold water swim as I am to dinner. 

The Garmin Vivoactive 4s smart watch is great for women as it has a small strap. Here I am about to go for a run on Bournemouth beach

The strap on the 4s (small) model fits wrists with a circumference of 110-175 mm. On me it’s pretty short. For example, I can’t loop it closed and slide it over my wrist. Nor will it do up over a wetsuit sleeve. However, it’s extremely comfortable.

Garmin smart watch for running 

So, on to the important stuff. What does the Garmin Vivoactive 4s actually do?

Taking a breather during a beach run. The Garmin Vivoactive watch shows my heart rate is high for me at 149 BPM. Pace is zero as I’ve stopped

I first tested the Garmin Vivoactive 4s with a 5-mile beach run. The watch vibrated constantly, telling me I’d done laps, or reached various ‘goals’, which I later discovered were pre-set but could be adjusted to any distance.

Running on Southbourne beach, Dorset, with the Garmin GPS smart watch

So, for example, if I’d run a mile or a kilometre it would record that as a ‘lap time’, in addition to giving the stats for the whole run itself. 

Finding the GPS on a smart watch

The watch sometimes takes a while to find the GPS. You have to be outside and it can take a few minutes. Sometimes, if it’s cold, or I’m just too impatient, I’ll start my run anyway and let the GPS kick-in when ready, even if that means missing the first bit of data from my run.

Once you finish your run, you press the Active button and it tells you distance, time, speed and pace as well as other things, such as heart-rate.

A nice feature (which can be adjusted) in the Running app is that it pauses the timer to let you do stretches or cross the road, then continues recording once it sees your pace pick up. 

You can display whatever data you like. During this walk I’ve done 4,724 steps and burnt 310 calories

You can adjust the settings so you have the data of your choice. Sometimes I like to have calories and steps.

Measuring pace on the Garmin Vivoactive 4s

A feature I especially love on the Garmin watch is ‘pace’. Whether running, walking or cycling, this measures your average speed per mile, which I find helps me improve my time.

My Garmin smart watch recorded a pace of 7:50 minutes per mile during a fast run, but I couldn’t keep this up for the whole mile!

For example, running at a comfortable pace would be somewhere around 11 minutes per mile. If sprinting I can get it down to around 7 minutes, and if going up hills, along sand or into the wind, it will average at 13 – 15 minutes per mile.

My fastest mile so far has taken 10:32 minutes – I was even rewarded a virtual medal, which flashed up on the phone – a nice, (slightly cheesy) touch!

Reducing injury by measuring cadence 

You can also improve the efficiency of your run by measuring cadence on the smart watch. This is a common metric for runners, which tells you how many steps you take per minute, counting both feet. According to Garmin, a quicker cadence (more steps) and shorter stride length results in smaller forces on the ankles, knees and hips, reducing the risk of injury. An often cited cadence is 180 steps per minute.

Measuring cadence

Measuring cadence (steps per minute) on the Garmin Connect app once I’d finished my run

I measured this for the first time on a run this week. At 162, my average cadence turned out to be below this recommendation. My maximum cadence (from hill-running, where I take smaller steps and lean into the run) was 194 and my stride length was 0.86m.

Garmin watch and your heart-rate

I particularly like the heart-rate monitor on the Garmin Vivoactive 4S, which measures beats per minute (BPM). It’s fun to see your heart-rate increase as you push yourself, though interestingly this doesn’t happen straight away.

Heart rate data on smart phone using garmin connect app

On the Garmin Connect app synched to my Vivoactive 4s watch you can see how my heart-rate increased from 89, peaking at 199 over the course of a 59-minute run. You can also see the variation in pace (min/km) left

Sometimes after sprinting up a hill there’s a delay before my heart-rate increases from, say, 100 to 150 – by which time I might be back in a gentle jog again. It’s surprising how much your heart-rate fluctuates, but the watch can record an average heart-rate over a day or longer, and you can analyse this in detail using the Garmin Connect app. 

Using zones for smart phone training

If you’re an athlete, you can set ranges or ‘zones’ to work towards, pushing yourself safely to your limit whilst improving cardiac strength.

This is way too complex for me, as I just run for enjoyment, so I use the standard measure of 220 minus my age as being the maximum BPM to aim for (177 in case you’re wondering – though I confess, I rarely get there).  In fact, you can see from the photo below that I only very briefly got out of ‘Zone 2’ during my last run. 

zone training on smart phone using garmin watch

I wouldn’t make much of an athlete. I spent 1% of this run in a the aerobic zone, and almost all of it in the ‘warm up’ phase 🙂

Mostly, whilst jogging bare-foot in the sea, and enjoying my latest Audible book, my heart-rate peaks around 130 BPM but settles in ‘Easy’. Occasionally I hit the higher numbers going up hills. 

My friend, who is a semi-professional cyclist, uses zones all the time with her training, trying to increase the time she spends in a higher heart rate zone. 

What happens to your heart rate in cold water?

On one occasion I managed to massively increase my heart-rate without doing any work… you might call that cheating!

I’m a keen cold water swimmer, so decided to measure my heart-rate going from a gentle walk on the beach to stripping to my swimsuit and jumping in the sea in February. 

My resting heart-rate is quite low anyway, but went from 70 to 135 in a few seconds as I shrieked and gasped, waiting for my breath to come back. 

Increased heart rate is one of the body’s typical responses to cold water shock, and is why the RNLI’s advice if you fall in cold water is simply to float until your heart-rate recovers. 

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Interestingly, I did the same thing after a run (jumping in wearing only a bikini), when my heart-rate was already 120 from the exercise.

I expected to experience a similar jump in BPM, but my heart-rate – already elevated by running – didn’t change at all… though the water, at 8 degrees, still felt freezing!

Note, however, when you’re actually swimming, with your wrist submerged (as opposed to jumping around like a lunatic) the Garmin Vivoactive 4 can’t monitor heart-rate.

What is swolf? Improving swim technique with a smart watch

Where the Garmin Vivoactive 4s comes in handy for swimmers is the ‘swolf’ measure. This records the number of strokes you do in a given length and adds this to the time to create a score. So, for example, if a length takes you 30 seconds and your watch records 15 strokes (when your wrist hits the water), you get a swolf score of 45. Like golf, a lower score is better. 

Cold water swimming with a smart watch

Being a cold water swimmer with an aversion to chlorinated pools, I had to do a bit of a workaround to test Garmin’s Pool Swim app in the sea.

The Garmin Vivoactive watch isn’t designed for cold water swimming but if you can measure some kind of lap you can still use it

There is no option for open water swimming with the Garmin Vivoactive watch (and indeed on a lot of smart watches). This is because it uses lap data rather than the GPS signal, which gets lost each time the watch is dunked and takes time to reconnect.

So, for measuring performance and GPS distance in open water, you might be better going for a watch like the Garmin Swim 2.

My smart phone swim fix for open water

To work out my swolf in the sea, I first used the Walk app to measure the distance between two groynes. It was 112m. I then entered this into the watch settings as a pool length, and treated it like a regular lap. 

I jumped in, pressed the Active button, and off I went. At the groyne I pressed the Active button to indicate my lap was complete, and it gave me a swim time of 2:07 minutes (127 seconds), which is a pace of 1:53 minutes per 100m. Like with the running app, I can use this feature to swim faster. 

Measuring my swolf using the pool swim app on the Garmin Vivoactive watch

When I completed the activity, I was given distance (worked out by my lap length and number of laps, not GPS), time, swim time, pace, calories, strokes per length (which was 67) and my swolf, which was 194 (127 seconds + 67 strokes).

Garmin smart watch for navigating

My favourite Garmin Vivoactive 4s feature is the Navigation app – probably because it’s the least complicated! Being a sailor, I’m familiar with chartplotters and handheld GPS sets, so using the navigate feature is really straightforward.

Using the Garmin Vivoactive watch to navigate back to the car

That said, it is limited.  You can’t programme a waypoint in advance; you have to actually get there and save it in order to use it later. Plus, there’s only a small selection of symbols to describe your waypoint (no option to name it).

I find the car symbol most handy, especially when walking in Snowdonia and prone to getting lost! When all goes to pot, and you don’t know where you are on the map, just navigate back to the car, following the arrow. It’s reassuring to watch the distance get shorter – especially if the weather’s closing in.

At 2,001ft the summit of Tal-y-fan in Wales is indeed a mountain and not a hill as confirmed by my Garmin Vivoactive 4s watch!

You might also use the ‘Navigate to’ feature for saving a trailhead, summit, or a series of waypoints on a new hike you wish to repeat. Recently, on a walk near Conwy, I found an amazing burial chamber which I saved as a waypoint for next time.

I used to do a lot of fell running, and a lot of getting lost! I wish I’d had the safety net of Garmin’s Vivoactive watch then. Being able to drop a series of waypoints into your watch means you can always retrace your steps, as well as having a great new run to check out later on the Garmin Connect app and repeat in the future.

Waypointing wildlife 

The ‘Save Waypoint’ feature is also great for wildlife walks. My daughter and I were hiking in the New Forest, Hampshire, when we heard a rustling in the bracken. We thought it was a rabbit or small deer, maybe.

Imagine our delight when we spotted a tangle of grass snakes – there were at least two heads, possibly more!

My husband and sons had charged off ahead so we saved the waypoint on my watch using the green flag icon, fetched the rest of the family and navigated back to it. Had I not been wearing my Garmin smart watch with GPS we may never have found them again. 

Garmin smart watch for hill walking

Funnily enough, walking ought to be the most straightforward activity with the Garmin Vivoactive 4S, but this is where I found it got complicated.

To give you an example, I started a walk from the village of Rowen up to the peak of Tal-y-fan in Wales. On reaching the summit I wanted to verify if it was, indeed a mountain (2,000ft being the minimum height). I managed to ‘save waypoint’, then go to ‘details’, which confirmed it was 2,001ft (hurrah!). 

So far, so good. However, when I tried to return to the activity, it had saved and completed it, and there seemed to be no way to resume. 

The Garmin GPS smart watch showing data from a hike up Tal-y-fan. The problem was, I hadn’t finished the hike when it stopped tracking

With the smart watch you have to be really confident you’re going to press the right buttons before switching screens in an activity. On many occasions I’ve accidentally finished tracking my activity and been disappointed (especially 3 hours into a hike)! 

walking with watch

Walking in the Conwy valley using the Garmin Vivoactive 4s watch. We’ve walked 1.85 miles in 1 hour and 13 minutes and my heart rate is 90 beats per minute

Similarly, the day before I did a walk with my three young kids. We stopped several times to kick a football or have a picnic. They were desperate to know how far we’d walked, but to my dismay when I checked my watch at the end of the activity, the log had stopped at the first break, but not resumed when we got going again.

Whilst the clever ‘pause’ feature seems to be pre-programmed into the Running app, it looks like there’s some more jiggery-pokery required to make it work on the Walk one. 

Garmin Vivoactive for sailing

I haven’t tested my Garmin smart watch yet whilst dinghy sailing but I imagine the most useful feature (aside from the stopwatch to time the start) would be saving waypoints. 

Race marks are often hard to see on the water, so one trick would be to sail past a mark before the race starts, ‘save waypoint’, then when the start gun goes off, ‘navigate to waypoint’.

The Garmin smart watch gives you wind speed, direction and temperature (shown here in centigrade), which is handy for sailors

When connected to your smart phone you can also use the watch to check wind direction, temperature and the weather forecast, which is useful when planning a day on the water if you’re dinghy sailing or paddleboarding

Smart watch safety features

The Garmin Vivoactive 4S watch can help keep you safe with its Livetrack feature, but you have to have your phone connected via bluetooth, which begs the question, why don’t you just call from your phone? 

The Livetrack feature allows friends and family to track your run or walk via email, social media or the Garmin Connect tracking page. I’ve managed this once – linking up to my husband’s email – but mostly it doesn’t work as my bluetooth connection or mobile reception dropped out. 


Using Garmin’s LiveTrack feature you can have someone track your hike and you can send an alert if you need assistance

Another option is to use the ‘Assistance’ app. You still need to be connected to the phone, but you just hold the ‘Back’ button down on the watch for 5 seconds and it will discreetly send your location to your emergency contact (which you have to pre-program). Useful if you can’t, or don’t want to, use your mobile.

‘Incident detection’ only works during an outdoor activity and is triggered by sensors within the device which determine if there is an impact during a run, walk or bike activity. It sends your data automatically to an emergency contact.

The incident detection on the Garmin watch triggered for some reason, and when I cancelled the ’emergency’ it also stopped recording my run

This has flashed up a couple of times during my runs and I’ve cancelled it, but I’ve yet to get to the bottom of what triggered it in the first place. Annoyingly, this also cancels your trip data too, so it’s not something I want to happen again (unless there’s a real emergency of course!).

Fortunately my emergency alert on the Garmin watch was a false alarm

Personally, I wouldn’t rely on these settings. If I was going anywhere off-grid and felt I needed a tracker/ emergency locator, I’d probably opt for something like the Spot X tracker, which works off satellites and doesn’t require a mobile phone.

Receiving smart phone notifications

When you connect your Garmin Vivoactive 4S watch to your phone, it gets cleverer still, and sends you notifications such as WhatsApp messages. Whether you actually want library book reminders and PTA notices when you’re at the top of a mountain is another matter…

Like everything else on the Garmin watch, alerts can be switched off, but it’s just a matter of reading the lengthy manual!

Battery life

Like anything, battery life of your smart watch depends on your usage. Garmin say up to 7 days for the Vivoactive 4s, but with GPS mode and music, for example, you’re looking at five hours.

On average I find I need to charge my watch every couple of days, and the cable is far too short. It won’t reach a bedside table from a floor plug, which is a pain. 

Also, the battery will eventually run out, even if you don’t use the Garmin watch, and there’s no alternative or residual battery for simple functions such as telling the time, so it’s not a replacement for a regular watch unless you’re meticulous at charging (which I’m not).

The other thing worth noting is that screen brightness affects battery life. Given that all the activities I do are outdoors I find I need this on 100% in sunshine, which drains the battery more quickly than stated, but does mean the screen is pleasingly bright and easy to read, so you don’t have to stop your activity and squint. 

Setting up a smart watch

Setting up a smart watch is tedious. Garmin doesn’t provide a user manual, which meant I had to print out the 68pp PDF before getting started. I did try bookmarking it on my phone, but found a paper copy much easier. Here’s the Garmin Vivoactive 4s manual if you need it.

Once you’ve downloaded the Garmin Connect app, however, and synched it to your phone you’re all set to go. Note, you don’t need your phone to be synched every time you use your smart watch. It will store the data and synch when next in range.

Do you need to buy apps for your smart watch?

You don’t need to buy apps or give credit card details to use your Garmin watch.

After downloading the Garmin Connect app on my phone, I was taken through a series of questions and attempts to take my data and credit card details, with warnings that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the full functionality such as downloading music or sharing my stats with communities. That wasn’t a problem for me – there’s enough to learn anyway, and you can always go back in later and opt for stuff when you know what you’re actually doing. 

Being a watch targeted at females, it also seemed annoyingly concerned with tracking my monthly cycle… and not the kind with two wheels! 

I opted out of all of these things, and finally managed to connect with bluetooth to my phone. 

How much data does a smart watch store?

The Garmin Vivoactive watch stores up to 14 days of activity tracking and heart rate monitoring data, and up to seven timed activities. However, if you want to view unlimited history, you need to synchronise it with your phone app via the Garmin Connect account. The bluetooth connection on my phone frequently drops out, which is frustrating, but once synched your activity is on there to view at your leisure. 

Is the Garmin connect app any good?

There’s certainly some useful information on the Garmin Connect app and the more time you spend on it, the more addictive it becomes. It’s nice to see the history of your activities (saved in calendar format) and to drill down on each walk and run and look at metrics such as heart-rate, pace or cadence – or the elevation and distance covered if hill walking. 

That said, the watch told me everything I wanted to know during the activity itself, and because the bluetooth connection was sketchy I only ever used the app when I got home. 

So what do I think of my smart watch?

Believe it or not, despite this lengthy test (which is the most I’ve ever written about any product!) I still feel like I’ve a lot to learn. I’ve only discovered a handful of the apps on my Vivoactive 4S smart watch, and will no doubt keep finding features till Christmas and beyond.

Which brings me to my final question…

Do I even need a smart watch?

Before forking out £200+ on a smart watch, it’s worth asking yourself do you really need it? The novelty of heart-rate monitoring soon wears off (and if you really want to know you can always take your pulse), plus you have to remember to charge the watch – even just to tell the time.

Whilst activity stats are great, there are mobile phone apps which will do the same thing. Or, if you’re old school, remember speed is simply distance over time – easy enough to figure out with a £12 Casio watch and a map (or Google map).

The tracking option on the Garmin Vivoactive 4S is limited because it requires bluetooth and cellular connectivity. Plus, if you have your phone with you anyway, then others can track you via Google maps, and you can simply call if in need of assistance. 

Even with a handful of apps a smart watch is worth having

On the other hand, if you love your fitness stats, want to listen to music and really improve at running, swimming, ski-ing or any other activity, the Garmin Vivoactive 4 is like having your own personal trainer. I especially love the pace metric and being able to see a map of my run or walk.

Plus…  if you have a tendency to get lost, want to record new routes, or just have the safety blanket of being able to return to the car or trailhead at any time (even without mobile signal) the navigation app is brilliant.

Take it slowly

My advice is to take it slowly. Just concentrate on one app at a time.  Don’t expect to learn every fancy trick on your smart watch at once. Such ambitions will only lead to disappointment!

It is a great watch, but give it time. There will be many failed runs, swims or hikes, random activities you’ve never done, and badges and medals for things you don’t understand… but eventually it will start to make sense.

For me, the Navigate, Run and Walk apps are enough – plus I like to know elevation when walking and wind speed when sailing. I probably won’t use any more, but these alone would justify buying the watch, with the added excitement of learning to use new apps as I become accustomed to owning a smart watch.