My trusty Garmin Forerunner 220, a birthday gift from my wife six years ago, went totally haywire a few days ago, at first claiming that my easy running pace was around 14 min/mile, and then later changing its mind and deciding that, no, I was running at a sub-7:00 pace. Restarting the GPS didn’t solve the problem.
Fortunately, this happened on day 2 of Amazon’s Prime Day, and it just happened that the Garmin Forerunner 35 was one of the deals of the day. I had been eyeing the FR 35 for a while now but hadn’t been able to justify getting it so long as the FR 220 was working. With that no longer being the case, I considered myself lucky to get the FR 35 at about a 30 percent discount.
The FR 35 is now Garmin’s entry-level GPS running watch with a MSRP of $169.99, but available for a lower price at Amazon and other retailers. That’s a bit pricey for an entry-level model; it appears that Garmin has discontinued the FR 15, which was previously the basic model. For an entry-level model, though, you get a ton of features.
GPS tracking and pace data
You can tell when a runner has a GPS watch based on that particular pose where the person is dressed in running gear but standing still and holding the wrist with a watch up in the air (as if being a foot closer to the sky will help the GPS lock). It’s a fact of life that GPS watches need time to find the satellites.
The FR 35 doesn’t seem appreciably faster or slower than my older FR 220 at getting the GPS lock, except that when I visited Seaside, it didn’t need any additional time, whereas my old watch took longer whenever I started up in a different location.
In terms of the activity data to be displayed, there are two pages to be toggled back and forth, and three fields per page. I go with distance, time elapsed, and average pace for page 1, and heart rate, cadence, and calories for page 2. Other possibilities include lap pace, lap distance, current pace, and heart zone. Because the watch asks you to enter your weight, the calorie count is (somewhat) personalized and not a simple 100 calories/mile.
Wrist-based heart rate monitoring
What intrigued me about the FR 35 was the wrist-based heart rate monitor. I’ve tried a heart rate monitor using a chest strap but didn’t like the feel of it, nor the fact that it would slip to my waist during the middle of a run. I liked the thought of just having the watch read my heart rate directly. I did have some concerns based on reviews that I’d read about how well the wrist-based monitoring worked. So far, it’s a mixed bag. It reports my heart rate during runs around 120-130 for easy runs, 155 for a recent quarter marathon, and a peak of 165 during an interval rep session. That all sounds about right. However, after two weeks, it now reports my resting heart rate (i.e., the lowest recorded during the day) as 39, after trending down from the high 40s over the past week. That seems way off. When I check myself manually, I come up with something around 54-55. That’s a little annoying, but it’s the running heart rate information that I’m more interested in.
The FR 35 also works as a step counter. This isn’t surprising given that GPS watches typically track cadence during logged activity; however, the FR 35 does so even when you aren’t actively tracking a run.
In fact, if you don’t move for an extended period, the watch will buzz and instruct you (in caps) to “MOVE.” A half bar will appear on the bottom of the watch face. If you continue to remain inactive, the bar will extend in smaller increments until it reaches the other end. If placate the watch by walking around, the entire bar will flash, encouraging you to keep going, and if you take enough steps, the bar disappears and the watch tells you approvingly, “MOVE BAR CLEARED.”
In case you are wondering, I turn it off at night so that it doesn’t keep beeping at me when I’m sleeping.
Initially, the FR 35 set a default goal of 7500 daily steps for me. When you reach your daily goal, the watch beeps to let you know. It has also been adjusting my daily goal upward — it’s now expecting 8490 as of this writing (after five days of wearing it).
I’m one of those people who think that the triathlon would sound interesting if you could skip the swimming and cycling parts, so I don’t really need the ability to track swimming or cycling, but the FR 35 offers that as well. When you are starting to track an activity, you can scroll through the following options: “Run Outdoor,” “Run Indoor,” “Bike,” “Cardio,” and “Walk.”
I tested the “cardio” option with a 5000-meter rowing session on my Concept2 erg. It took me 26:44, and per Concept2, it burned around 250 calories based on my weight. The FR 35 thought I went 1.51 miles (based, I’m guessing, on the back and forth motion) and burned 179 calories. That’s not too bad considering it’s just estimating from the heart rate and not taking into account the large muscle group usage of rowing.
I don’t have access to a treadmill right now so I can’t test the “run indoor” option. My older FR 220 also worked, sort of, indoors, but I had to turn the GPS sensors off manually to force it to measure by cadence. My recollection is that it was within about 15-20% of the actual distance run. The nice thing about the FR 35 is that it’s a separate option in the activity menu so that you don’t have to turn the sensors off yourself. (Or you could get a foot pod to pair with the GPS watch for more accuracy.)
This watch uses an internally contained rechargeable battery. It charges via a proprietary cord with a USB plug on one end and an alligator clip on the other. I charge it about every other day, or more frequently if I’m in a hurry to upload my run data to the Garmin Connect website. I think I could get away with charging it every three or four days even, but if you run a lot of miles, you probably couldn’t.
You can also avoid the need to upload data to the website (I think) if you download the app on your smartphone and then sync via Bluetooth.
The FR 35 comes with a silicone wristband that feels soft and flexible, and in white, black, frost blue (pictured above), or lime green. I’ve been wearing mine more or less non-stop except when I’m sleeping or when I’m charging it, and I haven’t had any issues with chafing or discomfort.
The Forerunner 35 packs a lot of useful basic features into a small package and a reasonable price at vendors that sell below the MSRP. It’s not a super-fancy watch, and the display is on the small side and monochrome*, but it can replace a FitBit or other activity tracker with something you’re wearing anyway and not likely to lose, and it gives pretty decent heart rate monitoring without the need for a chest strap.
* If you want a bigger, round, color screen, you could look at the Forerunner 235. It’s about $80-$100 more, but I think the FR 35 has everything the FR 235 does other than the color screen.
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