Measured Steps: Garmin step adjustment algorithm

I recently got a new GPS running watch, a Garmin Fēnix 5. As well as tracking runs, cycling and swimming, it does “activity tracking” – number of steps taken in a day, sleep, and so on. The step goals are set to move automatically and I wondered how it worked. With a quick number crunch, the algorithm revealed itself. Read on if you are interested how it works.

Step screen on the Garmin Fēnix 5

The watch started out with a step target of 7500 steps in one day. I missed this by 2801 and the target got reduced by 560 to 6940 for the next day. That day I managed 12480, i.e. 5540 over the target. So the target went up by 560 to 7500. With me so far? Good. So next I went over the target and it went up again (but this time by 590 steps). I missed that target by a lot and the target was reduced by 530 steps. This told me that I’d need to collect a bit more data to figure out how the goal is set. Here are the first few days to help you see the problem.

Actual steps Goal Deficit/Surplus Adjustment for Tomorrow
4699 7500 -2801 -560
12480 6940 5540 560
10417 7500 2917 590
2726 8090 -5364 -530
6451 7560 -1109 -220
8843 7340 1503 150
8984 7490 1494 300
9216 7790 1426 290

The data is available for download as a csv via the Garmin Connect website. After waiting to accumulate some more data, I plotted out the adjustment vs step deficit/surplus. The pattern was pretty clear.

There are two slopes here that pass through the origin. It doesn’t matter what the target was, the adjustment applied is scaled according to how close to the target I was, i.e. the step deficit or surplus. There was either a small (0.1) or large (0.2) scaling used to adjust the step target for the next day, but how did the watch decide which scale to use?

The answer was to look back at the previous day’s activity as well as the current day.

So if today you exceeded the target and you also exceeded the target yesterday then you get a small scale increase. Likewise if you fell short today and yesterday, you get a small scale decrease. However, if you’ve exceeded today but fell short yesterday, your target goes up by the big scaling. Falling short after exceeding yesterday is rewarded with a big scale decrease. The actual size of the decrease depends on the deficit or surplus on that day. The above plot is coloured according to the four possibilities described here.

I guess there is a logic to this. The goal could quickly get unreachable if it increased by 20% on a run of two days exceeding the target, and conversely, too easy if the decreases went down rapidly with consecutive inactivity. It’s only when there’s been a swing in activity that the goal should get moved by the large scaling. Otherwise, 10% in the direction of attainment is fine.

I have no idea if this is the algorithm used across all of Garmin’s watches or if other watch manufacturer’s use different target-setting algorithms.

The post title comes from “Measured Steps” by Edsel from their Techniques of Speed Hypnosis album.

Elevation: accuracy of a Garmin Edge 800 GPS device

I use a Garmin 800 GPS device to log my cycling activity. including my commutes. Since I have now built up nearly 4 years of cycling the same route, I had a good dataset to look at how accurate the device is.

I wrote some code to import all of the rides tagged with commute in rubiTrack 4 Pro (technical details are below). These tracks needed categorising so that they could be compared. Then I plotted them out as a gizmo in Igor Pro and compared them to a reference data set which I obtained via GPS Visualiser.


The reference dataset is black. Showing the “true” elevation at those particular latitude and longitude coordinates. Plotted on to that are the commute tracks coloured red-white-blue according to longitude. You can see that there are a range of elevations recorded by the device, apart from a few outliers they are mostly accurate but offset. This is strange because I have the elevation of the start and end points saved in the device and I thought it changed the altitude it was measuring to these elevation positions when recording the track, obviously not.

abcTo look at the error in the device I plotted out the difference in the measured altitude at a given location versus the true elevation. For each route (to and from work) a histogram of elevation differences is shown to the right. The average difference is 8 m for the commute in and 4 m for the commute back. This is quite a lot considering that all of this is only ~100 m above sea level. The standard deviation is 43 m for the commute in and 26 m for the way back.


This post at VeloViewer comparing GPS data on Strava from pro-cyclists riding the St15 of 2015 Giro d’Italia sprang to mind. Some GPS devices performed OK, whereas others (including Garmin) did less well. The idea in that post is that rain affects the recording of some units. This could be true and although I live in a rainy country, I doubt it can account for the inaccuracies recorded here. Bear in mind that that stage was over some big changes in altitude and my recordings, very little. On the other hand, there are very few tracks in that post whereas there is lots of data here.

startmidIt’s interesting that the data is worse going in to work than coming back. I do set off quite early in the morning and it is colder etc first thing which might mean the unit doesn’t behave as well for the commute to work. Both to and from work tracks vary most in lat/lon recordings at the start of the track which suggests that the unit is slow to get an exact location – something every Garmin user can attest to. Although I always wait until it has a fix before setting off. The final two plots show what the beginning of the return from work looks like for location accuracy (travelling east to west) compared to a midway section of the same commute (right). This might mean the the inaccuracy at the start determines how inaccurate the track is. As I mentioned, the elevation is set for start and end points. Perhaps if the lat/lon is too far from the endpoint it fails to collect the correct elevation.


I’m disappointed with the accuracy of the device. However, I have no idea whether other GPS units (including phones) would outperform the Garmin Edge 800 or even if later Garmin models are better. This is a good but limited dataset. A similar analysis would be possible on a huge dataset (e.g. all strava data) which would reveal the best and worst GPS devices and/or the best conditions for recording the most accurate data.

Technical details

I described how to get GPX tracks from rubiTrack 4 Pro into Igor and how to crunch them in a previous post. I modified the code to get elevation data out from the cycling tracks and generally made the code slightly more robust. This left me with 1,200 tracks. My commutes are varied. I frequently go from A to C via B and from C to A via D which is a loop (this is what is shown here). But I also go A to C via D, C to A via B and then I also often extend the commute to include 30 km of Warwickshire countryside. The tracks could be categorized by testing whether they began at A or C (this rejected some partial routes) and then testing whether they passed through B or D. These could then be plotted and checked visually for any routes which went off course, there were none. The key here is to pick the right B and D points. To calculate the differences in elevation, the simplest thing was to get GPS Visualiser to tell me what the elevation should be for all the points I had. I was surprised that the API could do half a million points without complaining. This was sufficient to do the rest. Note that the comparisons needed to be done as lat/lon versus elevation because due to differences in speed, time or trackpoint number lead to inherent differences in lat/lon (and elevation). Note also due to the small scale I didn’t bother converting lat/lon into flat earth kilometres.

The post title comes from “Elevation” by Television, which can be found on the classic “Marquee Moon” LP.