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How to Make the Most of Your GPS Device as a Training Tool

If you’re a racer or a serious trainer, one of the most important pieces of gear you can own is a GPS. If you’re going to try to get faster, it’s essential to use one regularly.  How you use it can have a big impact on what you get out of your training session and how quickly/how much you improve over time. So, let’s take a look at how to use your GPS to help you go faster.

let’s take a look at how to use your GPS to help you go faster.

Mount your device where you can see it

It’s fine to download the data from your GPS at the end of every workout or race to see what it tells you. It’s particularly useful when you are testing over a standard distance on calm, still water as the data you get can be compared from one test to the next and can be used to chart your progress. But to really maximize the use of your GPS it’s more important to mount it where you can see it so that you also get real time feedback when you are paddling.  

When you look at downloaded data, you can see where you were going fast and where you lost speed. If you have a GPS that doubles as a heart rate monitor, you can see where you were working hardest and where you were going easier. You can correlate speed and heart rate and get some idea of where you were going fastest with the least effort. These are all good things to know.

The problem is, if you’re looking at all of this information off of a download, you’re going to have to have an awfully good memory to know exactly what you were doing in the workout at any given moment, what you were focusing on at the time, and exactly what you were feeling at each moment in question. You’ll also have a hard time remembering exactly what the conditions were like at each data point and, in an outdoor sport like ours where things like speed are so dependent on conditions, what good is the data if you can’t cross reference it to the environmental conditions? While it can be good to see the data, it’s almost useless if you can’t relate it accurately to how you were paddling at any given moment and what the conditions were at the time.

Much more important than downloaded information that you look at after the workout is real time feedback that you get in the moment. It can provide you with information about your technique.  For example, when you make a subtle change in your stroke or a minor adjustment to your technique, you want to see what kind of impact it has on your speed.  Does it make you faster or slower?  Is it sustainable?  Real time feedback helps provide insight on this.

We’ve talked a lot about technique on this site.  We’ve looked at errors associated with each part of the stroke and their fixes.  When you are working on your technique is this manner it is extremely useful to have quantitative feedback that tells you whether the adjustments you are making are effective or not.  You can’t get this information if you can’t see your device.  So, to get maximal benefit from your device it is extremely important that you mount it where you can see it while you’re paddling.  You’ll still be able to download the information as you would otherwise, but being able to see data in real time is essential.

Wearing your GPS on your wrist or carrying it where you can’t see it isn’t good enough. If you have to miss a stroke while you’re paddling to look at your device you aren’t getting valid information.  Also, you’re not doing the work properly if you’re stopping. Furthermore, wearing your GPS on your wrist increases the chance of inaccurate readings.  To get really accurate readings, your device should be mounted on as solid a platform as possible with minimal movement other than that of your board.  

Unfortunately, if you wear your GPS on your wrist, the movement of your arm, especially at high speeds, can affect the reading.  You’ll get erroneous information that results from the device reading both the movement of your board (or other paddle craft) and your hand.  

Mounting your device on your board/boat gives you the most accurate and useful information.  It should be a relatively simple task to mount it where you can see it while paddling, and many units come with mounting gear specifically for this purpose. There’s literally no excuse for not doing it. 

Making the most of the information your GPS provides you

GPS devices can give you a variety of information. It really depends on the make/model you’re using, how many display windows you have open and what information you’ve chosen to display. Let’s take a look at the most common types of data they provide and what their use is to you.

Speed or pace

Without a doubt this is the most important piece of information you can get from your GPS. If you’re racing, it matters how fast you’re going.  If you’re doing workouts, knowing how fast you’re going is important as well.  Speed data can provide you with information about the effectiveness and efficiency of your paddling.  I cannot overstate the importance of knowing your speed. It should definitely be the first window you fill on your GPS display.

You have a few options on how your speed can be displayed. You need to choose between metric and imperial units. And, you need to decide whether you want to view your pace or your actual speed.

I prefer to see my speed expressed as my pace per kilometer. It makes the most sense to me. Remember, I grew up racing canoe over 1000m.  The time it takes to paddle a kilometer is an extremely useful piece of information for me, and one I don’t have to think much about to meaningfully interpret. Unlike driving a car where both km/h or mph make sense to me, at SUP speeds I can’t really relate to either of these measurements.  They mean next to nothing to me. And other than knowing that 10 km/h equals 6:00 min/kilometer, I’m not good enough at math to quickly convert speed data to pace.  On the other hand, knowing my pace per kilometer can give me a pretty good idea of how fast I am going and how long a race of a given distance is going to take me. Even though I’m lousy at math that’s a calculation I can more easily do.  The choice between pace and speed is yours, however. Choose the method of tracking your speed that makes the most sense to you and is easiest for you to do some basic math with.

Actual speed or average speed

Most GPS devices will give you the option of viewing actual real time speed or the average speed, either for a split or for the entire workout up to that point.

While there are advantages to knowing both, to me there is little value in knowing the average speed while I’m paddling.  That should be something I can look at later.  I want real time feedback while I am actually paddling.

Using real time speed feedback to improve your pacing

I don’t fixate on my GPS when I am paddling.  Doing so would encourage me to paddle with my head down, and that is not good for your technique.  Paddling with your head down actually makes it harder to unload timely and forcefully and encourages you to get “stuck” in a bent over position when you should be unloading.  However, you don’t need to look at your GPS every stroke to use it for real time feedback.  Just glancing at it occasionally can provide all the information you need – feedback that can be hugely valuable.  

Consider your pacing.  Whether you’re doing a workout or racing, you want to know as soon as possible when you’re slowing down.  Usually, you don’t lose your speed all at once.  Normally, you begin to slow down just slightly.  As you do, your board begins to sit a little deeper in the water, thus making it a little harder to pull.  Since you’re already tired (that’s the reason you’re slowing down in the first place), pulling a board that is sitting deeper in the water past the paddle is going to tire you out even more.  There is increased wetted surface and increased resistance to forward movement the deeper the board sits.  Each stroke becomes a little heavier.  The deeper your board drops into the water, the harder it is to pull and the more tired you get.  The more tired you get, the more your board is going to slow down and drop even deeper into the water.  It is a vicious circle, characterized by ever increasing fatigue and decreasing speed.  And, with timely feedback, it is largely avoidable.  

Usually when you begin to slow down, it’s just a matter of being a tiny bit more aggressive gathering water at the catch, a little bit more dynamic working against that water in the pull, getting just a little more weight off the board and on the blade, or being just a little more dynamic and forceful in your unloading movements to prevent it.  As you fatigue, you gradually become slightly less effective in one of more of these areas, resulting in speed beginning to ever so slightly bleed off and your board sinking slightly deeper into the water.  Often, you don’t even realize that it’s happening until suddenly things start to feel really heavy and you’re going considerably slower.  However, your GPS can detect even the slightest decreases in speed and can tell you that you’re slowing down before you can feel it, allowing you to prevent speed from bleeding off by making only small adjustments to your stroke.  If you catch it early enough, keeping your board at speed and on top of the water is usually just a question of being slightly more dynamic with your movement and how you’re working against the water.  With relatively little additional effort, you can pretty easily short circuit the process of slowing down, sinking deeper into the water, and then slowing down some more.  

Some of my favorite workouts are pacing workouts.  In these, I’m usually doing them at level 3 and trying to maintain pace over a distance, like, for example, 5 km or for a series of 1 km repeats.  I’m trying to paddle as efficiently, yet as fast, at level three as possible, while also trying to pace as evenly and sustainably as possible.  I can use my GPS to monitor my speed, ensuring that I am not going too hard and thus making my pace less sustainable, while at the same time catching even the slightest decline in speed as it happens and allowing me to make small adjustments that make my stroke more dynamic, thus reestablishing the pace I am trying to maintain.  This is the essence of learning to pace more evenly and, eventually, learning to pace evenly at a faster speed.  

Your GPS can also tell you when it is a good time to change sides in order to maintain pace.  Sometimes, we can stay on one side just a little too long, slowing down due to fatigue more than we realized.  Since changing sides when fatigued usually allows you to pull fresher strokes which are generally more forceful and dynamic, it’s a good idea to know exactly when you need to change sides.  Sometimes, your GPS will tell you it’s a good idea to change sides before your body will.

Using real time feedback to improve your technique

I’ve already alluded to how subtle changes in how dynamically you gather on your blade and work against it can affect speed.  Often, going faster is just a question of leaning on your paddle a little more in the stroke, working just slightly faster against the water held on your blade, or contracting your abs or moving your hips a little more quickly at the exit.  You can be an experienced paddler with a sound motion but that really isn’t enough to go fast.  If you’re going to reach your full potential, it’s not just your motion but how forcefully and dynamically you use it that is key.  The subtlest changes in this regard to a stroke that otherwise appears unchanged can make a considerable difference in your speed and its sustainability.  The only way you can learn to paddle faster is by using your GPS and getting real time feedback as you experiment with your connection and how dynamically you move.  Your GPS allows you to pretty quickly learn what, exactly, makes you faster and what doesn’t, allowing you to accentuate and consolidate what works.  

For more novice paddlers, who are still trying to learn a sound, effective motion, a GPS mounted where you can see it provides similar feedback.  As a more novice paddler, your concerns may be more about basic movements than the subtleties described above, but the idea is the same.  As you experiment with your movement and try different things, your GPS provides you with incontrovertible information about what works and what doesn’t. It can direct the path that your technique evolves along and help you learn to paddle well more quickly.  

There is no more effective way to learn how to connect and use effective technique than by getting real time feedback from your GPS.  

Using real time feedback to monitor water conditions when racing

If you are a racer, sooner or later you’ll end up racing in wind, current or other conditions that affect your speed.  Rarely are these conditions uniform across a stretch of water.  The line you take on the race course matters.  Real time speed feedback also allows you to see really quickly what water conditions are doing and how they are affecting your speed. Do you want to know the best line to be taking in a race or do you want to be left guessing?   I’ve found my GPS to be incredibly valuable when racing in tidal conditions like at the Carolina Cup, to the point where it has actually helped me easily pass people who weren’t getting any GPS data and were following the wrong line.  I’ve also found it useful in a race like Chattajack, which is raced downriver in a strong current.  Generally, current is the strongest in the middle of the river.  However, on a big river with lots of bends, there can be advantages to cutting closer to shore on the inside of these bends.  You’re simply paddling less distance.  Your GPS can help you pick the ideal line on these bends, allowing you to find out the perfect combination of current strength and shorter distance.  

Using real time feedback to assess the ability of other racers

Lastly, real time speed feedback can help you gather information and insight about other paddlers in the draft train that can make or break your race.  At Chattajack, for example, I am frequently in a draft train with two to three other paddlers.  Knowing the pace that each of us leads at really helps me tactically.  I want to know how my pace when leading compares to the others in their leads, as it can help me develop a strategy for the finish or the inevitable point where the draft train breaks apart.  If my leads are fastest, I know that very likely I can begin my finish earlier and wear them down.  If my leads are slower, I know that coming off the wash and starting my finish too early can be dangerous.  Trying to paddle away from someone who has been demonstrably faster than you each time they’ve lead is extremely difficult, verging on impossible.  It’s probably better to wait as long as possible before getting off the wash, then hope that you’re a better sprinter for a short distance to the finish than the paddler with the faster traveling pace that you are drafting.  

On my device I have my actual, real time, pace on constant display. It is the single most important piece of information I need from stroke to stroke. I only get an average pace for the most recent kilometer completed that flashes up briefly with a little alarm every time I start a new kilometer, and I have an average pace for the entire workout on one of the secondary screens that I can look at, if I choose to, after the workout or race has been completed. That gives me some perspective of what my pace is over time.

Other information your GPS can provide you

Elapsed time

Elapsed time is clearly of value, particularly if you’re timing your workouts or if you’re racing and want some idea of how long you’ve been going for or how much longer you might have to go. I find it is also useful for helping maintain a hydration schedule in long races. I try to drink every 10 minutes whether I need to or not in a long race like Chattajack. Elapsed time is one of the windows I use on my main screen.

Split times

Most GPS units will display a split time, either by mile or kilometer or by any other split (distance or time) that you’ve programmed. I relegate this information to a background screen and, truthfully, I rarely check it. And if you download your data theses split times are almost always calculated and displayed in the data summary anyway.

I only have a maximum of four windows on each screen on my particular GPS.   I prioritize the information I need, and this piece of information normally doesn’t make the cut for a main screen window.

Stroke rate

Not every GPS device offers stroke rate information (mine doesn’t), but most that are SUP dedicated do. It’s a great piece of information and is particularly useful as another measurement to monitor your pace or work output.  If you notice your stroke rate starting to slow down unintentionally, there’s a high likelihood it is due to fatigue.  If you catch it quickly, it is usually just a simple matter of being a little more dynamic to restore the desired cadence.  However, the longer you wait, the harder it is going to be to restore your cadence to the desired level.  

Unfortunately, unlike devices you use to monitor performance on a bicycle or on a rowing erg, we don’t have a display window that shows power output for paddling. Currently, the technology used to measure that isn’t readily available for the average paddler.  So, we can’t see when our power output (wattage) is optimal and consistent or when it is starting to decline. However, if we use a combination of stroke rate and pace or speed we can get a good idea of whether our power output is remaining constant or declining.

In previous posts, I’ve talked a lot about the concept of gears in paddling.  Like on a bicycle, your gear is usually a function of your cadence and load, with the two being inversely proportional.  Knowing your stroke rate and being able to cross-reference it with your perceived exertion and speed or pace can be a huge help in determining the effectiveness of the various gears you might be trying to use or develop on your board.

By monitoring stroke rate, perceived exertion and speed, you should be able to get some idea of how effective your paddling is. Some people will like to take less strokes and try to move their board with more power. Others will want to use less power and take more strokes. Neither approach is right and neither wrong. The key is finding out which is most effective for you, and finding the optimal balance between stroke rate and power for your own unique set of physical strengths and weaknesses.

If you have a device that measures stroke rate, you should definitely consider it for one of the windows on the main screen.

Distance per stroke

Distance per stroke is another piece of data that can be displayed and stored on SUP specific GPS units. It can also be really valuable in helping to determine your optimal gear, but if I had to choose something to drop from my main display screen this is absolutely it. In my mind, it is not nearly as important as real time speed or pace, elapsed time, or stroke rate.

Here’s a quick quiz question: what do you do if you want to maximize your distance per stroke? Catch harder? Exit earlier? Use more legs? Nope. Answer: do any of those things with a really, really slow stroke rate.

Distance per stroke is affected by your stroke rate. If your stroke rate is really slow and you’re pulling hard the distance per stroke value is going to be higher. If your rate is quicker and you’re still pulling hard your distance per stroke will for sure be lower, but you’ll be going faster with that lower distance per stroke. So, distance per stroke in most cases is an unnecessary and misleading piece of information.  In order for it to be useful, you need to control stroke rate.  For example, a piece of distance per stroke data is only useful when compared to another piece of distance per stroke data gathered at the same, identical, stroke rate.  

Where distance per stroke can be useful is when you’re paddling at a constant rate and want to learn to maximize your efficiency. If you can move farther each stroke at the same stroke rate, you’ll be going faster which is what you want.  Assuming that you’re working sustainably, this should be more efficient and should become your new traveling stroke.   The thing is, I can get the feedback that I am going faster by looking at my real time speed. So, do I really need distance per stroke data?  Remember, you’ve got a limited number of windows available on your GPS screen and need to be selective with regards to how you fill them.  


Distance data has always occupied one of the windows on the main screen of my GPS.  Of course, I’ve been using a GPS for years that doesn’t provide stroke rate data so it is easier for me to justify it being there. 

I find it extremely useful to know how far I go in a given chunk of time.  And, there is no way I am able to do work prescribed by distance like time controls or pacing work without distance information.  The only way I could do this type of work without my GPS showing distance data would be on a marked course, and most of us don’t have regular access to one.  

Heart rate

If your GPS device is also a HR monitor then you probably want to have HR as one of the windows on the main screen. If you’re using training zones in your training you’re likely using HR as a way to control and monitor your intensity so it is essential that you’re able to see it in real time.  If you have a different HR monitor you can use, then you can opt out of using one of the windows on your GPS screen for HR and get your HR data from the other device.  You can even program your device to tell you with an alarm when you are out of your prescribed training zone.  And, of course, if you don’t use an HR monitor and instead control intensity through perceived exertion only, you don’t need to commit a window on your GPS screen to HR.  Otherwise, I think it is pretty important that it occupy a window on the main screen.

So, that is a quick look at the most useful data that your GPS will display and that you should be using in real time to monitor your effort and its effectiveness. But what about downloading the data?

Downloaded info

Downloading the information from your GPS is fun and a great way to keep track of your progress over time. It is also a great way to share your workout data with others. If you’re doing a test or a race, it’s a great way to collect data that can be analyzed closely in more detail afterward. Since downloaded data can be saved and stored, it’s a great way to see trends in your training over time and spot subtle declines in performance due to things like bad habits creeping into your technique or cumulative fatigue building from your training. The sooner you spot these subtle declines, the sooner you can do something about them. All that said, downloaded data is no substitute for real time feedback from your device while you’re paddling.

The reality is, you can still record and download data from your device when you have it mounted where you can see it and are using it in real time.  In no way does using your device for immediate feedback prevent you from downloading information.  

I’ll be honest and confess that the last time I downloaded data from my GPS was a few years ago. The novelty of pouring over data and storing it has long ago worn off for me.  That said, I feel sort of lost when I paddle without my GPS and the real time feedback it provides.  My workout simply becomes less effective.  My GPS, mounted where I can see it, is essential and continues to help me get faster. It amazes me that I was actually able to train in canoe and race successfully at three Olympics back in the day without one.  They hadn’t hit the market yet.

As strongly as I recommend you mount your GPS where you can see it and use it in real time, I also recommend you download your data so that you can monitor trends in your training. It also allows you the opportunity to share data with your coach. But above all, I want to stress the importance of getting real time feedback from your device. It is crucial and the single most important thing you can do, especially if you train alone.

If you don’t have a GPS

If you don’t own a GPS and you’re a racer or a serious trainer, I strongly recommend that you get one.  They can be expensive, but you can also get used or restored devices that provide you with everything you need for under $100.  

This article isn’t meant to be a consumer’s report of the best available devices for your dollar so you’ll have to do your due diligence in shopping for a device after reading this post.  Personally, I’m satisfied with an old Garmin 910xt that they don’t even make anymore.  And, though I’m just not knowledgeable about all the different options available for purchase, I can tell you what you should be looking for:

  • Make sure the device updates speed information every couple of seconds.  This is the most important criteria you should look for in a device (other than the accuracy of the data it provides).  There are some devices that simply update speed too slowly.  You can paddle harder and it takes you 30 seconds or more to see any change of speed register on your device.  This is unacceptable and is not the “real time” feedback you’re after.  There are other devices that update and display speed almost instantly.  This can be confusing to use in real time as the numbers on the screen are constantly changing really quickly.  I’ll take this over a device that updates speed too slowly, but I prefer a device like my Garmin 910xt that updates every one to two seconds.  This is plenty fast enough to provide the useful real time information I am after and slow enough that the speed information is not changing so quickly it is hard to make sense of.
  • Make sure the device has a minimum of three data windows.  Having three or four data windows on your GPS screen should allow you to see all the information you need while you are paddling.  Anything less than three windows is going to leave you unable to see something that is useful.  
  • Make sure the screen on your device is big enough for you to see while paddling.  This, of course has as much to do with your vision and where you mount your device as anything else.  Make sure that you’re able to see all the information your GPS provides you while you’re paddling.
  • Heart rate information is optional.  While it is nice to have a GPS that is also a HR monitor, it is not essential.  Remember, the speed information and how often it is gathered and displayed is most important.  I would advise against getting a device with a HR monitor that doesn’t perfectly meet your requirements for how it presents speed information.  If you’re on a budget, you can always take HR by hand at the end of every work interval and/or use perceived exertion.  Over time you will get pretty good at using that to estimate your effort.  

Mounting your GPS

You’ll want to mount your GPS where you can see easily when you’re paddling. Ideally, you don’t want to be paddling head down, fixated on your device.  When you’re paddling looking down like that, your body tends to follow your line of sight.  So, if you’re looking down, your body tends to stay down past the point where you’ve finished loading and should be “coming up” in the unloading part of the stroke.  Instead, you want your line of sight to be scanning between the nose of your board and the water ahead of you.  You should be able to get all the information you need from your GPS with just quick glances at it.  

I’ve found that mounting mine on the deck of my board, in front of where my paddle crosses when changing sides, is perfect.  It’s far enough forward that I don’t have to look down too much to glance at it, yet is close enough that I can still easily read what’s in the data windows.  It’s also out of the way of my paddle when it crosses the board.  Mine is mounted precisely 110 cm from the nose of the board and, on my Starboard All Stars and Sprints, that is about where the GoPro mount is.  So, if you’ve got a GPS that can use this type of mount, like a Speed Coach, you’re set.  

I use a Garmin 910xt which is wrist watch type GPS, so I have to mount it differently.  If you can figure out a way to attach a watch style GPS to a mount, you can use the mount spot built into the board.  In my case, I use a 3M product called “Dual Lock”, which is an industrial Velcro-like product to mount mine.  You can get this in many hardware stores or order it online.  

I simply cut two pieces about 1 ½ inches long and use the self-adhesive backing on the Dual Lock to attach them to the board on either side of where my watch strap will go.  Then I cut a larger piece that is long enough to cover the entirety of both pieces I’ve attached to my board and span the gap between them.  I leave the cover on the self-adhesive backing on.  There’s no point in taking it off only to have the sticky backing collect dirt.  

Before I permanently attach the larger piece across the two pieces I’ve already attached to the board, I test attach it using the “hooks” on the Dual Lock only and make sure my watch fits through the space provided and I can do up the strap in a manner than leaves the screen in a position that I can easily see it while paddling.  Then, I remove the top piece of Dual Lock and I get some super glue and squeeze enough onto the mating surface of the Dual Lock to keep the larger piece from ever coming off in rough water.  I re-attach the top piece and firmly push it down.  The glue dries quickly and I have my GPS mounted completed.    

I usually remove my GPS after every paddle and rinse it off, charge it when needed, and then remount it using the Dual Lock, which stays permanently on my board, before each paddle.  Figures 1 through 3 summarize the process I’ve described above.  

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

If you’ve mounted your GPS solidly, it should be good to use in all but the most extreme conditions.  I would caution against using it mounted on your board when surfing.  You really don’t need the information it provides when surfing and, if you’re ever going to encounter conditions that can rip your GPS from your board, it’s in surf.   

Here’s hoping this information helps you better use your GPS to improve your paddling.  

Happy paddling!


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