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Review: Biathlon training using a Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch

This article refers to the winter sport of biathlon (Cross country (Nordic) skiing and target shooting).

I have a Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch which I brought to assist my biathlon training. As you probably already know biathlon is a sport that requires fitness, skiing technique, target shooting skills and a certain mental strength. The Garmin helps me primarily with the fitness aspect, but it is also useful for the shooting range as well.

The Garmin has a hundred of features so I’m covering the ones I find useful for Biathlon.

Fitness - Interval training

I get very limited time on the snow. Most of my training time is spent either roller-skiing, running, doing Pilates or doing strength exercises. The Garmin is particularly good for interval training. I follow the CXC Cross country skiing program and the program has various interval drills such as 4 x 3 minutes running or 8 x 2 minutes etc. With the Garmin you can setup up interval drills on your smartphone using the Garmin Connect app and then upload them to your phone. You can include a warm-up and warm-down. The watch will vibrate when it is time to start the next interval and the screen will show you whether it’s to run or recover. The watch will show you what heart rate zone you are currently in and buzz if you fall outside of the heart rate zone. This makes it much easier to stick to an interval plan based upon achieving and staying within a heart rate zone.

You don’t need to carry your phone for the watch to record your progress.

Intervals can also be setup for any exercise including cross country skiing or cycling.

Run Statistics

After you have completed your exercise the Garmin Connect app will show you a map of the run, how far you have run, the time and the calories burnt. Where is gets really interesting is when you look at the graphs over the time axis. This show your pace, heart rate, cadence, elevation and how much time you spent in each heart rate zone. You can overlay two of the graphs to compare say your pace with your heart rate.

The statistics for the run also show things like your averages and maximums for pace, heart rate, cadence, elevation and speed.

Cadence

Cadence in the context of running is how fast your legs are moving up and down. As a general rule the best runners have a cadence of 180, which is a lot faster than my normal cadence. I’ve been using the cadence display on the watch to increase my cadence and take quicker but shorter strides.

Roller-skiing

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 doesn’t have a specific roller-skiing exercise listed however the cross country skiing mode is a good substitute. It’s has similar statistics to the running mode in that it shows a map, pace, heart rate etc.

General Health Statistics

One of the very cool features of the Garmin is that it monitors your health constantly including heart rate, stress, steps and sleep.

Heart rate

The Garmin tracks your heart rate throughout the day. It measures your heart rate through your wrist so there is no need to wear a chest strap. Resting heart rate is a good indicator of general fitness. I have a friend who can tell if she is getting sick by changes in her heart rate.

Stress

The stress feature is an interesting one I haven’t quite figured out. However, it looks at the variability of your heart rate is designed to show you your overall stress level.

Sleep

The Garmin will track the number of hours you sleep which is not that amazing but what is amazing is that it shows a breakdown between deep sleep, light sleep, REM and awake time. Sleep is really important to your recovery and if you are not getting enough sleep then your exercise program is being compromised.

To get the benefit of the Sleep monitor, all day/night heart rate and stress recorder you really need to wear the watch when you are sleeping. That’s not something I was used to doing but the watch is quite comfortable so sleeping with it on is not a problem. It never buzzes while I’m asleep either. I am in the habit though or swapping to the opposite wrist while I sleep to avoid getting a mark on my wrist.

Insights

Insights shows you how you compare to the rest of the population. For example I log more sleep hours than 84% of other people in my age group and gender.

Weight

You can use the Garmin to track weight. I find measuring your weight isn’t that useful but I do it nevertheless.

VO2 Max calculator

This is my favourite feature and what I used to justify the $300 to buy the watch. VO2 Max is one of the best measurements of your fitness. The best way to measure it is to go to a sports lab, run on a treadmill while hooked up to a mask and equipment that measures your oxygen use. It’s expensive and not that pleasant. To do it properly you need to repeat this a few times a year. I’m not saying the Garmin watch is as accurate as the method I just described but it’s a much easier, less costly and it can provide ongoing measurement.

The Garmin works by looking at your run or cycling pace and in combination with your heart rate it can estimate your VO2 Max. In my case it’s 51 ml/kg/min which for my age group, 45 years old, puts me in the top 10% and is equivalent to a 20 year old. When you are in your 40s being told you are as a fit as 20 year is priceless 😊.

 

My VO2 Max recently dropped from 53 to 51. I’m not 100% sure why but it could be due to doing less intervals and more general exercise over the holiday. I’m sure the hot humid weather in Sydney has not helped.

Motivation

The Garmin does a good job of providing extra motivation to exercise. If I’m close to my steps goal for the goal I’ll go for walk to hit the target. There seems to be a never ending parade of badges such as fastest 10km or more trivial ones such as training on New Year’s Day but each one brings a smile to my face.

Watch face

The screen on the watch is very easy to read. I’ve owned a Samsung Fit previously which was impossible to see in direct sunlight. With the Garmin that is not a problem. The numbers and letters are large enough to see even when exercising.

Most features are accessed through a touch screen and a single button. It is easier though to read statistics on the Smartphone.

Heart rate monitor

The heart rate monitor records not only when you are exercising but all day and night long. Being a wrist based sensor it is probably not as accurate as a chest strap but I’m prepared to accept that. The Garmin uses 3 light sensors vs cheaper watches which only use one. Compared to my old and cheaper Samsung Fit the Garmin estimates my max heart rate to be much lower. On the Samsung I saw maxes up to 195 bpm but on the Garmin I rarely get to 175 bpm. The lowest heart rate is about the same on both watches (40 beats per minute).

Something to remember is that the Garmin needs to be in contact with your skin to record your heartrate. This means you can’t have it on the outside of your glove. Depending on the outside temperature or how easy it is to push up your glove this might be an issue. An alternative would be to use a chest strap, which I haven’t tested.

Training at the rifle range

For the target range I configured a Workout to record my range time. Essentially, I run and do push ups to get my heart rate up, walk to the firing line, place my rifle on my back and then press the button on the watch. This starts the timing for my range procedure, I then go through the process of getting onto the mat, firing and getting the rifle back on my back. I press the button again and repeat the process, usually 4 times. This allows me to record my range times. I’m still experimenting with this.

When I’m training at the snow I look at my Garmin to see what my heart rate is as I ski into the range. This allows me to get some consistency when I’m zeroing with a pulse. I wouldn’t suggest doing this all the time though as it can be distracting.

Blood Oxygen meter

The Garmin 5 series of watches come with an Oximeter which records your blood oxygen levels. That is something I haven’t tested but I would definitely be interested.

Battery Life

If you are using the training features you can get 3-4 days out the watch. Depending on how long you train for will determine how often you need to charge it. I exercise about 40 mins a day so I have to recharge every 2 to 3 days.

What would I change

  • The Garmin doesn’t have a speaker and so it’s no good as an alarm clock. And, on occasion you miss the buzzing and an audible sound would be useful in those cases.

  • The charging cable is unique to the Garmin so if you go away and forget your cable then you can’t recharge your watch.

Summary

The Garmin is great if you are a bit of fitness data junkie like me. It has a wealth of information and I find it very interesting. It helps me to keep track of my fitness program and through features like the heart rate and VO2 Max I can benchmark my fitness. Although it is not directly designed for Biathlon I found many of it’s features to be useful.