The Garmin Fenix 3 is nothing like it’s predecessors, the Fenix 1/2. While the hardware on those models was pretty cool and rugged, the software wasn’t. This version changes all of that.
As one of the more highly anticipated new products from the most popular GPS device manufacturer in the world, there are hundreds if not thousands of online reviews, hands on tutorials, and unboxing videos for the Garmin fenix 3 available all over the web. That’s not what this article is about though. You’re here because you’re an obstacle course racer and tnt to know if having a fancy watch will help your racing and training, or if you should just stick with the Strava phone app and a naked wrist on race day. While sometimes I do love to ditch the technology and just run, it’s undeniable that real time feedback, post workout analysis, and the “I spent $500 on this watch, so I should probably go run with it” feeling, can help you tremendously as you plan future training, evaluate race performances, and stay motivated.
But obstacle racers don’t just want the basics, do we? Why have a water resistant watch when it can be waterproof to 100M? Why settle for GPS elevation when you can have a barometric altimeter? Why settle for 32 GPS satellites when you can have 24 additional GLONASS satellites at your disposal for even better data? This is by no means a budget-friendly watch, but if you’re in the market for what might just be an obstacle racer’s dream watch, then the Fenix 3 might be the one for you.
The Big Things
Although its name suggests otherwise, the Garmin Fenix 3 is nothing like it’s predecessors, the Fenix 1/2. While the hardware on those models was pretty cool and rugged, the software wasn’t the most user friendly for runners, cyclists, etc. As such, the Fenix line has historically been more popular among hikers because of it’s navigation features, while the Garmin Forerunner series has been popular among runners because of it’s streamlined software and ease of use, despite being a bit clunky. I used to own a Forerunner 910XT and absolutely loved it; the software was great, never had any bugs/issues…it just worked. I only traded it in for the Fenix2 because I thought it looked super cool, but was disappointed by the software and all the bugs I encountered. I had decided that I would trade it in once the next generation Forerunner watch came out, but when I learned about the Fenix 3 I changed my mind. The Garmin Fenix 3 actually builds upon the software of the Forerunner and, internally, is quite similar to the top-of-the-line 920XT, yet is housed in an improved exterior of the original Fenix. As such, software issues = none. This may seem a small thing, but it is incredibly frustrating for your watch to freeze 12 hours into a 15 hour race and then get crappy data for the coolest race you’ve ever done. You should get what you pay for, but with the Fenix 2 you didn’t; frequent software crashes is unacceptable on a $400 device. So, it’s worth repeating, the Garmin Fenix 3 has awesome software!
You know what else is awesome? Daily activity tracking. Unlike most (any?) high end GPS units on the market today, the Fenix 3 tracks your sleep, steps throughout the day, and more. I never realized how cool functionality like this could be until I started using it. Admittedly, this data would be far more useful if you were also tracking your heart rate 24/7 (like some activity monitors can do), but it is still useful and motivating to see these metrics, even if they could be improved.
Also awesome: widgets! The Fenix 3 isn’t the first watch to have downloadable apps/widgets, but Garmin has the potential to do it very well. Currently, the IQ store where you download them has just launched and options are limited, but there are already some very cool apps you can download right to your watch. As a physicist, I particularly like the one that calculates the velocity-dependent relativistic time shift that accumulates during your activities. Yes, that one is totally pointless, but it just shows how the sky’s the limit with these widgets. I expect to see lots of very interesting ones available soon.
Widgets and WiFi (aka Nerd Porn)
Another big thing that’s new (and improved) to the Fenix 3 is wireless connectivity. Wifi uploading is totally new to the Fenix lineup, and it truly is amazing if you’ve never experienced it yourself. Like magic, you finish an activity, walk in your house, and it automatically uploads without pressing any buttons or plugging in any wires. And if you have a smartphone, you don’t even need to get home. Simply pair your phone with the watch over bluetooth, and you can auto-sync activities that way too. While bluetooth connectivity isn’t new to the Fenix line up, with the Fenix 3 it works much better than before. The impact on battery life is minimal (before, it was a big drain), the uploads speeds are super fast, and with the IQ store for widgets, it’s really easy to download a new app, widget, or watch face, and instantly send it to the watch. Yes, you can download new watch faces, so you can display analog, digital, or something custom in between, while in watch-mode.
While battery life may not be critically important for most athletes, it’s a necessity for anyone planning on doing a long race or ultra. Even if you’re not, it’s convenient not to have to charge it all the time on a day to day basis. The Fenix 3 boasts the best battery life yet with 16-20 hours of use in normal GPS mode, and up to 50 in ultra trac mode (a less accurate but more efficient mode for multi day events). Not only is the battery great, but everything about the watch is built to last. Solid exterior, waterproof to 100M, and buttons that aren’t easily clogged by mud. As an obstacle racer, you couldn’t ask for better hardware. It’s thinner than previous models and probably the most durable GPS watch out there. It will probably last longer than you, but in case you plan on running over 50 hours, it has the ability to charge while still recording an activity, so you could put it in your pack plugged up to a solar panel and keep moving.
I could write for days about all the features that the watch has to offer, but most aren’t super relevant to obstacle racing. In addition to what’s discussed above, some key features that you’d want to pay for as an obstacle, trail, or mountain athlete include the barometric altimeter and auto-climb feature. Altimeters are pretty common on most high end watches, but many people don’t know what they are or how they work. Instead of using GPS to determine your altitude, the watch uses changes in air pressure to calculate changes in altitude. Depending on the calibration, the actual value it gives you for your altitude may not be perfect, but it’s far better at determining changes in elevation than GPS is. For this reason, especially on trails and in the woods, watches with barometric altimeters are superior to GPS-only devices, as you’re going to have much more accurate data. Generally speaking, GPS will give you an underestimate when it comes to elevation gain. The only thing to consider is that brief water submersions can cause unusual spikes in elevation since the watch can’t tell the difference between air pressure and water pressure. Just be sure to subtract out these spikes in your head (looking at the graph) before you post to Facebook about how you just climbed a million vertical feet. The video below is a quick demonstration of how much a quick water submersion can throw off altimeter readings, but also shows you two other cool things about the watch. The data field “GA pace” is grade adjusted pace, showing the pace you’d be running if you were on flat ground instead of an incline – this is one of many cool data fields you can download to the watch that don’t come standard. Also, the virtual ascent out of the water bucket triggers the auto climb feature for which the display inverts colors and changes the information displayed. Everything from the sensitivity, to the trigger rate, to the data fields displayed can be modified to your preferences.
Obviously, the Fenix 3 has a barometric altimeter, but you can also adjust the calibration settings manually and view your elevation graphically, rather than just see a number. Using this data, the Fenix 3 also has an auto-climb feature that I think is really cool. When enabled, the watch will change displays when climbing above a certain rate (adjustable), then switch displays back to normal when on flat ground again. It’s pretty neat for the watch to automatically switch from displaying time/pace to altitude/grade once you start going up a hill. That’s pretty much the theme with the Fenix 3: even with the most basic features, they do a great job making it customizable, user friendly, and aesthetically pleasing.
Another big reason to pay more than a hundred bucks for a watch is heart rate tracking. I think that the run dynamics metrics such as ground contact time and vertical oscillation distance are interesting but generally useless data, but you can do a lot with heart rate information. With just your heart rate, you can train more effectively by monitoring time spent at certain intensities, which is great for knowing how hard you’re really working. The Fenix 3, like other high end watches, takes this a step further. Using your heart rate data and workout history, they calculated predicted race finish times, tell you how much you got out of a workout (“training effect”), estimate your VO2 max, and say when you’ll be recovered for your next hard training session. It can be a bit overwhelming to always be doing heart rate training and, I admit, it takes a lot of fun out of it sometimes, but it is a great tool to have in your toolbox, and the Fenix 3 specifically does a great job at making the most out of heart rate data if you provide it.
Is the Sapphire Edition worth it?
The Garmin fenix 3 Sapphire costs $600, when in stock, so I get this question a lot. Is the sapphire display and metal watch band worth the extra money. From a functionality perspective, absolutely not. With the metal band, the watch is more than twice as heavy (175g vs 85g), and the display on the standard edition is honestly good enough. That said, the sapphire has the look and feel of a nice watch that you could wear to social events besides a group run. If you plan on making this your daily watch to wear around town, to work, and to workout, you might want to consider getting the sapphire edition because it does look pretty sharp. I do actually prefer the rubber band for workouts, as it’s easily adjustable and much lighter, but again, the metal does look great.
This guy needs the Sapphire Edition. Do you?
After spending the last few weeks testing out the Garmin fenix 3, I’m confident in recommending it to anyone who can rationalize the high price point. You do get what you pay for, and in this case, that’s a lot. It’s a great watch that can do just about anything you could want it to do. There are a few very minor things I’d like to see added in future software updates, but otherwise, this is an obstacle course racer’s dream watch.