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Getting the most out of your GPS Running Watch

We are often asked how to best maximise your GPS Running watch for training and racing. I thought the question was so good it was worth putting a couple of articles together on how I think you can best use your watch in training and racing.

So, let’s start with an important point, GPS watches are not 100% accurate. I believe companies are aiming for a 97% accuracy rate, so the results you get on the watch won't necessarily reflect what you've actually done! Sometimes the GPS gives you a short reading, sometimes it thinks you've gone further than you have. There’s nothing wrong with this, the devices are great for what we need as runners, but don't take the output as the absolute truth.

With that in mind, let’s dive in and get an idea of how best to use your watch.

Switch to “Average Pace” or “Lap Pace”. Almost all watches will be set to display your “Pace” by default. This is the pace you’re running at, at that moment. The worse the watch is, the more jumps you'll see the Pace make as the values you get from it aren't smooth. Again, taking into account the fact the watch isn’t 100% accurate, your Pace readout could give you a rather unreliable snapshot of what you’re currently doing. To combat this, I suggest using either the Average Pace or Lap Pace readouts on the watch. The difference here is Average Pace shows you the Pace for the whole workout, whereas Lap Pace is just for the Lap (or section) of the run you are on. For an interval workout, for example, I want to know my Lap Pace for that interval, but for a long run, I might be more interested in the Average Pace. By using this function, you’re taking away some of the inaccuracy of the watch and will be getting a better picture of the workout.

Do keep in mind that the longer the Lap is, the better the Lap Pace or Average Pace will be. If you ever do shorter intervals then see the numbers you get from the watch as a guide rather than anything else.

Sometimes you just need to ignore the watch. If you ever take your watch down to a track and use it to monitor intervals, you may notice that the readings you get on the watch don't correlate to how far you've gone on the track. It might only be .01 of a mile out, but it won't be all there. At these stages it is worth using just the Lap Time on the watch and work out how fast you’re going from there. Each lap is 400m (as long as it is a standard outdoor track) and you can work out your mile times from that. It might require a bit of mathematics, but it'll take your mind off the workout!

Use the “Workout” feature. One of my favourite features on Garmin Watches (and on other units also) is the ability to put workouts onto the watch. A simple interval can be set up on the watch itself and more complex workouts can be built on Garmin Connect and sent to the watch either by a phone or connected to a computer. What this will do is allow you to focus on the workout, taking any thinking out of the equation!

Once your workout is set up, you star the watch and it'll count you in and out of any intervals, and even display what you’re doing and how long you’re doing it for. I prefer using Time for the length of the interval (as opposed to distance), as the distance might be a little bit out. The other advantage of this is that when you connect the watch online to review your stats, the intervals are already segmented into lovely laps and you can review the efforts for each segment.

Many watches now come with a heart rate monitor built into the watch itself, which measures it on your wrist, or you can get a chest strap to wear. If you have accurate data for yourself, these heart rate zones can be really great to train in and use. You need accurate data because to work the zones you, you’re going to want to use a Resting Heart Rate measure and a Maximum Heart Rate measure.

A paper by Robert A. Robergs and Roberto Landwehr in the Official Journal of The American Society of Exercise Physiologists from May 2002, conclude that 220 - Age - "has no scientific merit for use in exercise physiology and related fields". That’s fairly conclusive stuff!

Many watches ask you to plug in your age and from there gives you a max HR number. This isn't good enough if you want to train to hear rate as it could give you wildly unreliable numbers to train with. The max HR number isn’t a suggestion of how fit you are, it’s just the number your heart can go to. We'll cover the options for heart rate training in another post, so check that out soon.

If you do have good, accurate numbers, training to those zones can really help keep you out of trouble, especially on recovery and easy runs, where the aim is to run easy!

The 1 mile Auto Lap function is one of my hates when it comes to running watches. What this means is that every mile the watch automatically beeps at you when you've run a mile, and tells you the pace for that mile. With the watches not being 100% accurate, your mile distance could be out and is therefore not giving you a true reflection of the pace you are running. If you've ever raced with auto lap on, you may have noticed your watch beeps at you for a mile, but the mile marker is still 100m away (see our racing blog post here for more discussion on this), making it a rather useless measure!

If you do want to keep Auto Lap on, then make sure you have Average Pace on the screen, so you can see the pace from the whole run and not just the pace from the current segment.

After sessions, when you sit down with a cup of coffee and pour over the stats of a run and compare it to the last one, you can use the values you get from the watch to see patterns over time.

  • Are you doing a long run and slowing down after 90 minutes?

  • Is your Threshold interval starting off slowly and picking up?

  • Are you even paced in your Laps?

These and many more questions can give you insights into the type of runner you are and how you tick as an athlete. You can use these insights to guide how you train and what you can do to improve your running.

Many watches now provide a wealth of information, but one thing I want to look at is your cadence, that’s the amount of steps you take in a minute, and how you could start to analyse that.

What you may notice is your cadence starts to slow down later on in a Threshold Interval (or Lap) but your pace stays the same (or it might slow a bit). This suggests that as you tire you take less steps and either extend your stride to run at the same speed, or slow down a bit. With this information, in your next session, you can think about keeping that cadence up during the last part of the workout when you’re tiring, and perhaps the metronome feature of a watch will help here. It's a really specific example, but these sorts of insights could help make you a better runner. Some runners will do the opposite, shorten the stride and take more steps as they get tired, and will need to work on keep the stride length there to help combat that.

The run still counts, even if it isn't online! Many people get significantly upset if their watch battery dies or they can't track their workout (I am one of them!), but the good news is that the run still counts, even if it doesn't make its way onto Garmin Connect! There's so much noise and data coming from these watches that at times you just need to go out there and run. It should supplement your training, making it easier to train, and not be something that upsets you or frustrates you.

To summarise:

  • Take what you see with a grain of salt, it isn’t 100% accurate

  • Work to Average and Lap aces

  • Turn off Auto Lap

  • Use Heart Rate if you have accurate data

  • Look for patterns in your running and use that to guide your training

  • If in doubt, just run!

GPS watches can really help us with our training, but you can very easily let it dictate your training rather than using it to help you.

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