LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
A Guide to Live Race Tracking & Race Day Apps
Races are reaping the benefits of live tracking with improved safety and increased social engagement. We look at the technologies making it possible.
Tracking participants during a race is a brilliant perk to have in a race. Not only does it give you, the race director, piece of mind in knowing where everyone is, it also gets everyone to join in your race from spectators to friends and family following participants on their phone or laptop.
What's more, live tracking is no longer a technology reserved solely for the big brand events. You can bring it to your event too, whatever the size or type of your race.
In the rest of this feature we'll be taking a look at a number of live tracking technologies, from dedicated hardware trackers to chip-based tracking solutions and race day apps, and discussing what might be best for your race needs. So let's get on with it!
Live GPS Tracking
As we'll see in the course of this article, "live tracking" can mean a number of things. Most products claiming to provide live tracking of participants don't actually provide anything like real-time position updates. The only technology that comes close is GPS tracking.
Now, it's fair to say that you will only likely need to consider GPS tracking for your race if you put on trail or ultra races. For shorter races and road events it is unlikely the cost will make sense. If you do, however, organize trail and ultra races, live GPS tracking can provide a number of benefits that go beyond just knowing where everyone is.
How it works
Live GPS tracking works either through a dedicated GPS tracker or a GPS-enabled smartphone app. In both cases, the hardware will relay a participant's position to the live tracking server in regular intervals. The positions of all participants are then usually combined on a publicly accessible race map page to produce a live trace of every participant on the course.
There are pros and cons with either choice of dedicated GPS tracker or smartphone for tracking.
On the one hand, using a service that works through a GPS phone app is cheaper (no hardware to hire and ship) and there is a good chance most participants will be carrying their phones during the race anyway, hence removing the need for another device that can be lost or damaged.
On the other hand, a dedicated GPS tracker will significantly outperform a phone on battery life and can be much more reliable in rugged conditions. A GPS tracker will also be able to switch across mobile networks for better connectivity and usually comes with a handy distress button that can be easily accessed by participants in case of emergency (some times, a little too easily, giving rise to false positives).
As alluded to earlier, there are a number of benefits in opting for live GPS tracking:
- Improve race safety. Accurately knowing where everyone is in a race within a few meters and giving participants a means of communicating distress can be an invaluable first aid tool. It can also be very useful in managing participants getting lost around the course, which in some conditions can prove very dangerous.
- Get real-time checkpoint timing at no extra cost. Although GPS trackers can only be accurate down to a few meters, the ability to record crossing times of fixed GPS checkpoints (which can be set to the coordinates of any number of race checkpoints/aid stations) makes GPS trackers a good alternative for checkpoint timing. If set up correctly, a GPS tracker will ping the time of a participant coming within range of a predefined GPS checkpoint and that time will be recorded on the operator's server in real time, giving you a real-time scoreboard with no additional hassle .
- Set up a live race broadcast. An often significant unintended benefit of using GPS trackers is the ability to put on a live race broadcast. This can be as simple as pointing people to the live race map webpage or, if you feel like it, setting up a live race broadcast to the live tracking webpage either by linking you Twitter account or by using a direct comments feed.If you do choose to use GPS trackers in your race, you should definitely consider the social element of this technology. Most participants will very actively share a link to your (branded) live tracking page and the traffic you'll get on the back of this will surprise you.
There's not much of a point adding a cons section here, as with live GPS tracking there really only is one downside: cost. For shorter races (sub-marathon distance), the cost of hiring GPS trackers for every participant (typically in the £20/$25 range) will likely prove too high, but for longer races the benefits can quickly tip the scales.
Live(ish) chip tracking
If you are already using chip timing in your race, you can use your existing chip timing infrastructure (tags, mats etc) to deliver approximate participant tracking for a fraction of the cost of a dedicated GPS tracking service.
How it works
In contrast to GPS tracking, where a participant's position is continually pinged back to a server, in chip tracking the position of participants is only recorded at fixed locations. These are usually intermediate split-timing points (e.g. 5km intervals in marathons). The split times at these intermediate points are then combined with pace data to create a best-guess position for participants between timing points.
Because chip tracking can only really know a participant's position with any certainty at the handful of intermediate timing points, it cannot be relied upon to provide true real-time position information. Hence, chip tracking is of limited use as a safety device or as a safeguard against people getting lost in the race (participants will always be projected as being on the course, regardless of where they actually are).
However, chip tracking can still deliver some of the social benefits that come from making intermediate position data available to the public. As chip tracking is more of an add-on to chip timing than a purpose-built tracking solution, it can be a good low-cost extension to your existing timing infrastructure without the need for dedicated tracking equipment.
Race Day Apps
Race day apps are purpose-built apps for mass-participation sports which aim to enhance the event experience for participants and spectators before, during and after the race.
During the race, the main purpose of race day apps is to help spectators track and interact with participants, whereas before and after the race they can help deliver key race information, event announcements and sponsor initiatives to participants and spectators in an engaging way.
How they work
Race day apps can be developed from scratch to suit your particular event's needs, but most are customized from white-label platforms. Once an app has been branded and customized for a particular race's needs, it can be released for download on Google Play or iTunes under that specific race's name, e.g. "Rotterdam Marathon App".
All race day apps come with participant tracking. Some apps track participants using their timing tags (see the discussion above on chip tracking), others use the participant's phone's GPS tracking to provide real-time position updates, while many can do both. The participant tracking feature is meant primarily for spectators and it allows users to track participants by race number, receiving alerts and notifications on their progress. Live split timing and finish times come as standard, as the app draws data directly from the chip timing infrastructure.
Besides participant tracking, race day apps come with additional features for a richer race experience, such as:
- training plans for participants before the race
- sponsor and other promotional initiatives
- interactive race maps spectators can use to navigate the course
- race photo/video sharing of favorite participants
In addition to all that, because race day apps are natively integrated in phones, they can be very effective for sharing news, weather alerts and other content with participants and spectators through push notifications. They also integrate well with social assets, such as Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, bringing together media shared across social sites under one roof on race day.
So there you have it...
Whether you want to offer just a good-enough live participant tracking experience to your audience through your existing chip timing infrastructure or go all-out with dedicated personal GPS trackers, the choice will depend on your budget and event type.
Need something basic for a small chip-timed race? Ask your race timer about chip tracking options they offer (most race timers do these days).
Need independent live tracking or participants in remote locations and/or for multi-hour races? Pick a GPS tracker service, if you can afford it.
Can you do with phone-based GPS tracking that can run without any additional timing infrastructure? Go with a race day app that can also offer your event a bunch of other helpful features.