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Runners - how to get more out of your training watch

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Most people I know have some sort of ‘training / GPS watch’.

And most people I know religiously record every session and are horrified if they realise they’ve forgotten to press start at the beginning of a session.

And most people I know would like to get better (faster, easier, able to go for longer without getting injured…).

But most people I know press start and stop, and that’s it. If you are one of those people, read on!

Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with the importance of tracking training so that you can build up training steadily and progressively, of the motivational importance of watching the miles rack up, and the psychological boost of getting the notification that you beat yourself or a rival on a particular segment.

But you probably spent a fair amount on the watch, and if your only requirement is to record the session, your phone could do that. Whereas your watch could do soooo much more. So let’s get this sorted!

Pacing easy runs

Firstly, as runners we usually tend to go way too fast, running at a pace that feels ‘suitably hard’ for the distance. Instead I recommend runners do the majority of their training at an easy pace. If we’re training for races that last anything over a few seconds, the majority of our power will be coming from the aerobic system, and we can train this very effectively at an easy pace. Unless we go significantly faster, we’re getting few additional training benefits, but we’re tiring ourselves out, which then has an impact on the rest of our training and life.

So my motto is “go slow to go fast”, or “keep the easy stuff easy, so the hard stuff can be hard”

Yes we should be able to do this on feel, and an easy way to modulate your pace is to practice nose breathing, but most of us like a target to aim for, and you’ve got that expensive bit of kit on your wrist, so why not use it?

I’m a big fan of the Jack Daniels VDOT system - sorry, no whisky involved - where you put in a recent time trial result, and it gives your predicted race times and training paces, including easy pace.

Race pacing

Watches are also a great tool for training at race pace. The most efficient way to race is to run at constant speed (or effort, where conditions vary) rather than going too fast and then slowing down. You know this yourself - if you’ve ever done a hard intervals session you know 5k of intervals is waaay harder than 5k at a steady pace, even if the overall pace of the intervals session is slower. And when you come to cool down at the end, what used to be an easy pace suddenly feels like running through treacle.

The same applies in racing. If we start off too fast because we feel fresh and buoyed up by the crowds and race day excitement we go ‘too deep’ and will end up slowing so much that our overall speed for the whole race is slower than if we’d gone steady from the beginning.

Ideally we’d run the whole way pretty much at race pace (adjusting effort for hills), but with a little in reserve, in case things don’t go according to plan. Then if you’re still feeling fresh towards the end you can speed up (the infamous negative splits). But if you’ve gone too fast at the beginning you can’t ‘unrun’ those initial overly speedy miles.

The best way to get good at holding race pace is to do some of our training at that pace (and can practice fuelling at that pace). So again, let's use those watches to see the pace we’re running at.

>> So bare minimum, work out how to display (and easily find) pace on your watch. If it’s a GPS watch, I’d be very surprised if that’s not possible.


So now that you’re doing your easy runs easy, so long as you’ve got a good base of running, then you should be able to add some speed work to build the top end speed.

There’s lots of different types of intervals, depending on your goal, from short blasts that last a few minutes, to holding marathon pace for 5 km blocks. But most involve holding a given pace for a certain distance/ time. And whilst we should be able to do this on RPE (perceived effort), the vast majority of us will always go too hard at the beginning, and slow down by the end. Learning to hold constant pace is a really important skill for training and racing.

So let's put the watch to use. Decide your goal pace for the session (Jack Daniels can advise on different training paces) and learn to calibrate RPE against pace (RPE changes through the effort as you fatigue whilst the pace should generally remain the same).

Measuring the intervals also means you can also measure improvements which is a great boost, or know when things are off track and plans need adjusting.

Quick note: If you want your data to be useful, don't stop the watch between intervals, or when stopped to cross the road etc, the rest is as much part of the session as the running.

Lap pace

If you’re running fast, and then recovering, your average pace isn’t much use, you want to know the speed when you’re running fast. And current pace isn’t great, it varies too much and can be thrown off by buildings etc. Most modern GPS watches will have a lap function which you can press at the beginning and end of each interval.

So find the lap button (and know where it is when you’re knackered at the end of the lap!). And set the data up on your screen to show the relevant info. How to do this will depend on your watch, but good old Google and YouTube will probably have the answer, and it shouldn’t take long.

The minimum fields I’d suggest are:

· Time

· Distance

· Lap pace (if you were just doing a steady run this would be the average pace for that run)

· And if you have the optional of another field: heart rate (or HR zone if you prefer)

Not got a fancy pants watch?

Then your watch almost definitely has a timer function. Do the intervals on the same stretch of ground so distance is preset and time them. That way you can check that you’re holding the same pace, and measure improvements over time.

My suggested settings:

This will depend on your goals and watch, but here's my set up that should work on most Garmins. Set up via: Menu/ activity settings/ data screens

Screen 1:

This is my standard screen telling me the main metrics I want to know on most runs.

I have current pace as well as average pace so that I know what I’m doing right now (bearing in mind it will bounce about a bit) as well as for the run overall.

Screen 2

Pretty much a copy of my main screen (with all the fields in the same place so I can see at a glance) but showing HR instead. I’ll swap between screen 1 and 2 depending on which is more useful at that point.

Screen 3

For interval sessions - I have the same layout as my main screen, but showing data for that lap rather than the whole run. I might change either lap time or distance (e.g. if running on a track/ set stretch of ground I don’t need distance) to HR.

Screen 4

I use this one less but on a hard intervals session where I cross the line in a heap and wont be looking at my watch (or a winter session when I can’t see it), this shows me my last interval, so I know if I need to tweak things going forwards.

Racing – think through what you want to use on race day, set it up for training and practice with it in advance (often you can set up a separate profile for racing).

What's with the toilet roll?

I can almost guarantee you’ll read this and either think ‘nah, cant be bothered’ which is fine and your choice, or intend to do something about setting up screens but get distracted.

So next time you’re sitting on the toilet, let that toilet roll be a reminder to

>> find the lap button

>> and set up the data you want

You don’t have to set them all up, just find how to display lap pace, and begin to unleash the potential of your watch.

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