For over a decade now, runners and multisport athletes have grown accustomed to using GPS watches that offer a host of advantages over a standard sports watch. The advent of the GPS watch has made tracking mileage and monitoring pace as easy as simply looking at your wrist. When integrated with a heart rate monitor, those devices allow runners and cyclists to track the three key data points of distance (mileage), time (duration), and intensity (via heart rate), while water resistant models allow swimmers and triathletes to track distance and time in both the pool and open water.
In this article, I review the latest model in the Garmin Forerunner series—the Garmin 920XT. I have been a fan of the Garmin Forerunner training devices since I started using the Forerunner 305 when it first came out in 2006. I upgraded to the water resistant 910XT in 2012 and recently purchased the 920XT and Fēnix 3 models to test. This review will focus on the 920XT, especially as it compares to the previous generation 910XT. Watch this space for a separate review of the Fēnix 3, as well as a review of the Mio Link heart rate wristband that can be used in conjunction with Garmin devices or with your smart phone.
The 920XT vs. the 910XT
If you are a current user of the 910XT, the 920XT provides everything you have grown accustomed to—separate profiles for different activities, alerts, auto lap, auto pause, virtual training partner and racer, custom workouts, customizable data screens for each activity, courses, basic navigation—plus several new features.
Like the 910XT, the 920XT is water resistant up to 50 meters so you can use it while swimming in the pool or open water, as well as for running, cycling and other endurance activities like cross country skiing.
The 920XT has a slightly sleeker and thinner profile than the 910XT but with a longer wrist strap, which works well if you’re wearing it over a jacket. The previous generation 910XT came with two sizes of wrist straps so you could swap them out as needed (which required popping out the pins with a special tool). The longer strap of the 920XT obviates that step but it also means the strap can be a bit longer than needed when just wearing it on your bare skin. All things considered, though, I’d say the longer strap is more beneficial than bothersome.
In terms of differences, the 920XT is significantly lighter than the 910XT. The 920XT comes in at 60 grams vs. 72 grams for the older 910XT, according to my measurements. Another difference is the layout of the buttons. Although not vastly different than the 910XT, the 920XT’s interface is different enough that someone accustomed to the 910XT will need to play around with the 920XT for a few hours to get the hang of the new controls and menu layout. It’s not a steep learning curve, though, and any initial frustration should quickly dissipate.
Usual Accessories plus the HRM-Run Heart Rate Strap
One of the strengths of Garmin devices is the ability to pair your device with various accessories, such as a heart rate strap (to measure heart rate while running or cycling), foot pod (to measure cadence while running, as well as distance while running indoors), and speed/cadence bike sensor (to measure cadence while cycling, as well as distance while on a stationary trainer). The list also includes power meters and any compatible third-party ANT+ devices (ANT+ is the wireless technology that allows different devices to communicate and share data).
The 920XT can be purchased alone or packaged with the HRM-Run heart rate strap. The HRM-Run represents an improvement over the traditional heart rate strap by providing “running dynamics” data. As Garmin’s website explains, the “HRM-Run has an accelerometer in the module that measures torso movement to calculate” cadence, vertical oscillation (Vert. Osc.), and ground contact time (GCT).
Running cadence, of course, refers to the steps you take per minute. The output is shown in total steps per minute (both left foot and right foot combined). So if you’re used to thinking of running cadence in terms of how many steps a single foot (e.g. right foot) takes per minute (e.g. 90); then this number is doubled (e.g. 180). In other words, the device gives you steps per minute rather revolutions per minute. Vertical oscillation refers to the up and down movement in your stride. This is measured in centimeters. Ground contact time refers to how long “your foot spends on the ground while running.” This is measured in milliseconds.
The main advantage of the HRM-Run strap is that you no longer need a separate foot pod to measure cadence. As a coach, I encourage athletes to monitor their cadence in an effort to improve awareness and increase the cadence where needed. I also encourage athletes to use heart rate as a means to monitor intensity. So the HRM-Run provides you with both of these measurements in a single accessory. However, even if you only use a regular heart rate strap, the 920XT itself has an internal accelerometer that records cadence as well as distance for indoor workouts without need for a foot pod.
The vertical oscillation and ground contact time features are fun bonuses. They can provide you with more insight into what type of runner you are—a glider vs. a gazelle—and offer data geeks more numbers to play with. Although biofeedback in any form can be useful to improve body awareness, I don’t believe these numbers are all that useful for day to day training. And if you are interested in tracking these numbers in your workouts, you can examine your numbers in the history stored on the 920XT itself or on the Garmin Connect website, but you will not be able to track these numbers in your Training Peaks training log (at least at this time).
Clock and Daily Activity Tracker
Another nice improvement in the 920XT is the clock feature. The clock automatically sets itself as you move across time zones, and it also includes an alarm. This allows you to use it as a regular watch in between workouts (if you don’t mind the bigger size). And Garmin clearly intends for users to wear the device all day (and even all night) to take advantage of the activity tracking features—which seem to be Garmin’s response to the FitBit and other fitness tracking devices that count daily steps, calories, and sleep. You have the option of turning the activity and sleep tracking features on or off, whether or not you use the clock feature.
Based on my testing, I’m skeptical of the daily activity tracking feature. That feature counts steps, and correlates those steps with calories burned and miles covered. This includes the steps and distance covered during runs, plus the steps you take during daily activities (e.g. walking around the office, walking to the store). That’s all good in theory, but the numbers I was getting seemed to inflate the actual distance I covered during a day, even taking into account the fact that I do walk a lot in addition to training.
Part of the problem I have is with the nebulous notion of “step.” What is a “step” exactly? A step while running is certainly different than a step while walking. Although fitness trackers are supposed to be able to determine how vigorous the activity is, I don’t know how they convert the differences between running and walking into total “steps” or how Garmin converts “steps” into distance covered. And the accuracy of the 920XT’s conversion from steps to distance leaves much to be desired. At the least, one should take that distance number with a large grain of salt. For example, after wearing the device on my right wrist one day, it told me I covered a much greater distance than plausible. I could only attribute the result to the fact that I moved my right arm quite a bit while using the computer mouse. Not exactly what most people would characterize as “steps.” In any case, perhaps there is potential for integrating an activity tracker with a training device, but at this point the strength of the 920XT remains with its ability to monitor and record endurance training sessions such as running, cycling, and swimming.
Firstbeat Calculations and Other Training Features
In terms of features squarely aimed at athletes, the 920XT uses algorithms devised by Firstbeat Technologies (a Finnish company) to estimate your VO2max (i.e. aerobic capacity), the training effect you’ve gained from workouts, and the amount of recovery time you’ll need after those workouts. To take advantage of these features you will need to use the 920XT with a heart rate strap (whether the HRM-Run or traditional strap) for running as well as a power meter for cycling. Since you cannot measure heart rate while swimming, there is no VO2max estimator for that activity. Along with these features, the 920XT also provides a running race predictor.
Given that these calculations are highly individual, the more you use your 920XT the more accurate the numbers will be for you. It is still important to keep in mind, however, that these numbers are estimates. To measure your actual VO2max you would need to go into a lab and do a treadmill test while hooked up to equipment that measures oxygen/carbon dioxide as you run (or bike). With that said, the calculations appear to be fairly accurate and quite similar to the Jack Daniels Vdot method for estimating VO2max from running times.
Likewise, the race predictor is similar to the various race predictor calculators out there that can estimate what you should be able to run at one distance based off actual race times at another distance. Of course, you don’t need a device to make these calculations. You can find both of these types of calculators (among others) on the Alp Fitness calculator page.
Again, keep in mind the disclaimers. The 920XT will estimate your VO2max based on the training you do while wearing the device. This will wax and wane given the nature of that training and how much you train/race with the device (versus without the device). For the race predictor, although it may predict that you should be able to run a marathon in a certain time based on your 5K race time, you still need to put in the distance-specific training to do so. Nevertheless, it can be fun and often helpful to estimate your equivalent running performances. Again, see the Alp Fitness “equivalent running performances calculator” to do this even if you don’t have the 920XT.
Another Firstbeat feature that may be helpful is the training effect (TE) feature. If you look at the details of a finished workout on your device, this is indicated as TE. The TE feature is based on an algorithm developed by Firstbeat Technologies that takes into account heart rate variability. Here is what the numbers mean:
In other words, a workout with a training effect in the range of 1-1.9 is an easy, recovery workout. A workout in the range of 2-2.9 is a maintenance workout that helps you maintain your fitness but doesn’t necessarily add to it. A workout in the range of 3-3.9 is a more intense workout that will add to your fitness level. Likewise, a workout in the range of 4-4.9 will provide a substantial training effect. A workout with a score of 5 represents a very intense workout that requires substantial recovery to avoid overtraining.
Although this TE feature may be new to many athletes (as it is to me), the numbers seem to closely track the typical 5-level training zone system I use with athletes and in my own training. (To be accurate, I actually use a 7-level training zone system, but this includes three zones collapsed into what is considered “Zone 5.”) In that system, Zone 1 workouts are easy, recovery workouts. Zone 2 workouts are done to build the aerobic base. Zone 3 workouts represent sub-lactate threshold aerobic work. Zone 4 workouts emphasize improvement to the lactate threshold. And Zone 5 workouts take you into the anaerobic, or supra-lactate threshold zones. For more on how to use training zones to design workouts, see The Triathlete’s Training Guide.
In other words, the TE numbers make sense in terms of familiar training approaches. Although you should know what type of training effect you are targeting based on the prescribed workout you are doing (and the intensity level at which you are working based on heart rate or pace), the TE feature on the 920XT can provide you with confirmation that you have hit that targeted training effect. The TE feature could be especially useful for those who have a tendency to “blow” their recovery days by going too hard. In that case, a high TE provided by your device could be considered a “warning flag” to remind you to take additional recovery time before embarking on your next hard workout to avoid overtraining.
Bluetooth Smart, Wi-Fi and Direct Data Uploads
Whereas the 910XT uses only ANT+ technology to communicate with other devices, the 920XT also includes Bluetooth 4.0 (a.k.a. Bluetooth Smart) technology. This enables all sorts of fun features when matched with your smart phone or Bluetooth Smart Ready devices.
But what I love most is the ability to set up a Wi-Fi connection on the 920XT so that workouts will be automatically uploaded when you are within range of that Wi-Fi connection. This means you can connect your 920XT to your Wi-Fi at home or the office and your 920XT will automatically upload the data from your workouts when you walk in the door. You no longer need to transfer the data to your computer first and then upload from your computer to the web.
To enable this, note that instead of using Garmin ANT Agent, you will need to upgrade to Garmin Express (which replaces ANT Agent). As you did with the older ANT Agent, you install Garmin Express on your computer to act as the intermediary between your device and the Garmin Connect website. Using Garmin Express, files from your device are automatically uploaded to your account on Garmin Connect. If you use Training Peaks to log your workouts, you can set up a sync between Garmin Connect and Training Peaks so that any workout data transferred from your device to Garmin Connect will also be transferred to Training Peaks.
This may sound a bit complicated, but it really means more simplicity in your life as you no longer need to manually save files to your computer and/or upload those files to either Garmin Connect or Training Peaks. If you currently use the Training Peaks Device Agent to upload your workout files to Training Peaks, you will no longer need to use that. Again, once your Wi-Fi connection is set up on your 920XT (which you do through the Garmin Express interface), all your data are automatically synced to your Garmin and Training Peaks accounts on the web.
Smart Phone Integration and Live Tracking
As noted above, the Bluetooth Smart technology allows you to integrate your 920XT with your smart phone. This allows you to receive notifications from your smart phone directly on your 920XT, such as notification of a call or a text message. Of course, you cannot respond to a call or text from your 920XT, but these notifications can alert you to dig out your phone if needed. This may or may not be desirable depending upon your situation. Personally, the last thing I want in the middle of a workout is to have my attention diverted by a phone call or text; but the feature could be potentially beneficial if you are expecting an important call, need to be available in case of an emergency or simply want to read incoming texts (perhaps from someone you are trying to meet up with along your route).
Probably the coolest feature enabled by Bluetooth Smart technology is that it allows “live tracking.” Live tracking allows you to broadcast live updates of your location throughout your workout to friends or family. It does this by connecting to your smart phone and using your smart phone data connection to send those updates to the web. This can be nice during a long workout so friends or family will know when to expect you home or where to find you in case of an emergency.
Note that to use the live tracking you need to have a smart phone with a data plan (and, of course, you need to be within your coverage area to transmit data). And not just any smart phone will do. You need a phone with Bluetooth Smart (or Bluetooth 4.0) technology. I have yet to try out this feature because my current smart phone doesn’t have Bluetooth 4.0. At some point, I will upgrade my phone and try out the live tracking.
Navigation and More Features
As with the 910XT, the 920XT allows you to save locations and use the navigation feature to guide you back to the starting point of your workout. The navigation on the 920XT may not compare to the navigation capabilities of the Fēnix 3, but it works for basic needs.
Among the 920XT’s numerous features is the metronome. The metronome allows you to program a cadence you want to keep and your device will beep or vibrate to keep you in sync with the rhythm.
You can set your device to use sounds, vibration, both or none of the above. So you can customize your device to poke and prod you as much or as little as you prefer. And that, I would say, is the ultimate strength of the 920XT, and many of Garmin’s training devices—the ability to customize the numerous features.
Indeed, the 920XT has way more features than most people will ever use or need; and different athletes will gravitate to different features, developing individual preferences for what they like best or don’t use. But perhaps that is the beauty of the new training device technology. One can do with it what they want—take what they find useful and set aside the rest.
The Bottom Line
is that the 920XT offers a wealth of features using the latest technology that can be integrated with your smart phone. But if you simply want a solid training device to track and monitor the basics, such as distance, time, pace, heart rate, and cadence—and to use that device for running, cycling, and/or swimming—there is no reason not to stick with the 910XT if you already own one. However, if you are looking to buy a device in the Forerunner series for the first time, or if you are interested in using some of the new features described above; then the 920XT is an excellent choice.
- Garmin 910XT Owner’s Manual | purchase on Amazon
- Garmin 920XT Owner’s Manual | 920XT website | purchase on Amazon
- Comparison of the 910XT and 920XT on the Garmin website
- Accessories: HRM-Run | Garmin Foot Pod | Garmin Speed/Cadence Bike Sensor
Disclosure statement: The author received a one-time pro discount in 2012 when purchasing the 910XT, which is referred to in this review. Otherwise, all other products tested for this review–including the 920XT and HRM-Run–were purchased independently. The author does not receive any ongoing sponsorship or incentive from Garmin to use its products.