Smash your personal best: 11 essential running watch tips

How to get the most from your Garmin, Polar or Suunto GPS running watch
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Using a GPS running watch can help you to shave minutes from your times and become a better runner. The problem? After spending big on the latest wearable tech, few people use their watch to its full potential.

The truth is that a running watch does a whole lot more than tell you how far and how fast you're running. Use it right and it can be your very own digital running coach, and a helping hand to reaching your goals, utilising the built in heart rate monitor for powerful insights.

Whether you've got a powerful Garmin Fenix 6 or something more basic like the Polar Ignite, Forerunner 45 or even smartwatches like the Apple Watch, there's so much practical information you can glean from your device.

With that in mind, we've rounded up eleven simple ways to unleash the training potential of that new GPS running watch.

1. Pay Attention to the baseline


Knowing when to work out and when to rest is an important part of any successful training plan, but judging whether it's your body or your brain that's tired can be tough. This is where your watch's heart rate monitoring feature can help.

Lie down with your chest strap or your optical heart rate monitor on and stay still for up to five minutes. Once you're fully relaxed, take a reading of your resting heart rate and make a note. Repeat this process at the same time each morning for two weeks. From this you'll be able to get a decent idea of your average resting heart rate.

On any given day, if your heart rate comes in 10 beats per minute (BPM) higher than your average, it's a good indication that you're overtraining – and that should be your sign to take a rest.

Alternative: The Polar V800 has its own orthostatic test feature that shows how your heart rate responds to training, stress and illness. By repeating the test regularly, you can learn what to expect from your heart rate and what can affect it. You can then adjust your training to allow your body to recover when it needs it.

2. Find your maximum heart rate

Before you can get stuck into heart rate zone training, you need to find out what your maximum heart rate is. Once you've clocked your maximum heart rate (MHR), your running watch will then set your five heart rate segments that relate to the type of workout results you'll get.

Different devices give them different labels, but they break down like this: Recovery training (60% of MHR), endurance base training (65-70% of MHR), aerobic capacity training (75-82% MHR), anaerobic threshold training (82-89% MHR) and maximum aerobic training (89-94% of MHR).

To find your max heart rate, make sure you warm up for a good 15 minutes with a combination of slow jogging and dynamic stretches. Once you're nice and loose, find a hill that will take at least two minutes to run. Run the hill building to a fairly quick pace you can maintain. Once you reach the top, turn around and run back down at an easy pace and then repeat the climb. This will give your watch the info it needs to set your zones. The more advanced watches will then automatically adjust your zones with each run.

3. Zone out

Most high end running watches now feature a heart-rate zone training feature that helps you work out more efficiently. Whether you want to burn fat, build a better aerobic base or work on your anaerobic threshold, sticking religiously to your heart rate zones will help you fine tune your training like you're a pro.

Check out this breakdown of the types of training, and the heart rate zones for more detailed information, and then use your watch to make sure your training sessions match up.

Glancing at your wrist to check your BPM every five seconds can be a pain, but you can make life easier by setting heart rate alerts to vibrate when you're working your heart too hard, or running below the required BPM.

Alternative: If your watch doesn't have heat rate zone training, consider employing a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones like the Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition or Bragi Dash Pro. Not only is the heart rate data extremely accurate, due to the rich delivery of blood to capillary bedsin the ear tissue, but they sound great, too.

4. Go for the slow burn

The importance of monitoring your heart rate for base level endurance training (the training that helps you go for longer) is huge. Rather than running flat out on every run, make sure you do at least one of your longer weekly runs while sticking to a low heart rate.

Watches like the Garmin Forerunner 935 make this easier, displaying your heart rate zones as you go along. Most devices will show the endurance base building zone as green. Stick to this zone no matter how slow the pace.

This type of training session encourages the body to burn fat as a main source of fuel, an essential tool for any long distance runner, plus it'll help you get lean too and being leaner means going faster.

5. Create a training diary

Although most running watches come with their own apps and web analysis tools for keeping tabs on your performance over time, it's important to put your stats into context.

Use Google Calendar to create a simple training calendar and note down the following simple bits of important information: resting heart rate, today's planned workout, what you actually did and how you felt.

Over time you'll have a brilliant overview of what training works best for you and the great thing about Google Calendars is that these can be easily shared with a personal trainer, coach or running partner.

Alternative: If you're a Garmin Connect user, you can also take advantage of its web service to create a plan from there and keep tabs on your training days. And since you're able to sync this to the watch, the specifics of a planned workout will never slip your mind.

6. Find your form


“Form first, then faster" is a great mantra for beginner runners looking to improve pace and endurance. The good news is there are now running watches that feed back on how you're running in real time.

The latest Garmin Forerunner watches are now compatible with the Running Dynamics Pod that can add additional metrics like your 'vertical oscillation'. Translation: it'll tell you how much 'bounce' there is in your running motion. Typical oscillation is between 6-13 cm, while elite athletes have less bounce.

What's in it for you? Less bounce equals increased running efficiency, which means you can go further and faster while burning less energy.

7. Fake a fartlek

Fartlek, or “speed play", to translate the word from its original Swedish, is a great way to build pace and endurance. Essentially interval training, it's usually done in a group and runners take turns to set the pace at the front, choosing whatever intensity they feel comfortable at for whatever distance they choose. If you're a beginner, this might include running around the touchline of a football field - behind the posts you walk, on one side you jog and on the other you sprint.

However, you can now recreate a fartlek-style session using your watch's interval training feature. Create a plan that combines periods of high pace or high heart rate running with slower ones but make the intervals random. Mix up different durations of high intensity with varying recovery times and then hit the streets and have some fun*.

One of the best options for this is the Polar V800, which lets you create your own bespoke interval session in seconds using the Polar Flow website.

*Fun not guaranteed

8. Track sessions without the track


Hitting the track for structured interval speed sessions is a fantastic way for runners looking to improve pace and hit new personal bests for a 5k, 10km, half or full marathon.

If you're not lucky enough to live near a track, you can use the GPS tracker strapped to your wrist to recreate a 200m or 400m interval session. Either fire up the watch's GPS to measure out 400m and then switch to the stopwatch to clock your split times for each effort or alternatively, create an interval run that puts together 400m sprints with 400m jog recovery and run your usual route.

9. Take it to the VO2 Max


VO2 Max is another one of those scary sports science terms, but it's simply 'the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise.' It's used as a way of measuring your individual aerobic capacity.

Getting an accurate VO2 Max reading involves being strapped up to a gas exchange mask as part of a (usually quite expensive) lab test. Using clever algorithms, the likes of Suunto, Polar and Garmin have all devised a way of estimating your VO2 Max without the need for the costly test.

Polar's Fitness Test function lets you do a set workout before revealing your VO2 Max, while the Garmin Forerunner range will give you your stats after each run and even use that info to predict race times.

10. Step it up

The frequency of your feet striking the ground, or cadence, is a dead giveaway for how efficiently you're running. Runners tend to clock a strike per minute (SPM) rate of somewhere between 150 - 200. Most of us mortals come in well below 180SPM with elite level athletes like Mo Farah hitting the 180 SPM sweet spot, the rate the experts claim gives perfect running efficiency.

One way of calculating your current cadence is to count the number of times your right foot strikes the floor over 60 seconds and then double the number. A better way is to let your running watch do the work. The Suunto Spartan Wrist Trainer HR, Polar M430 and Garmin Forerunner 935 all give cadence stats, while many footpod sensors like the MilestonePod and some sports headphones will also give you the same info.

Use one or two of your longer training runs to focus entirely on your cadence, making sure that's the stat showing on your wrist.

11. Race yourself

Benchmarking is brilliant to see how far you've progressed and build your confidence. Find a familiar course, preferably somewhere where the conditions will be consistent each time you run. (Avoid runs where there might be traffic lights to wait at or people in the way).

Run the route, log the time and then come back to it on a monthly basis to see how you've improved. The web tools from Garmin and Polar can overlay your stats for easy comparison. Things to look out for include your heart rate versus pace, cadence and consistency of laps. Over a period of time you should start to see your pace rise but not your BPM and be able to stick at a steady pace from start to finish.

TAGGED Running

How we test

Kieran Alger


Kieran is a world record-setting runner and one of the UK's most experienced running journalists.

A constant tester of the latest fitness technology, he's always hunting for innovations that can make him run faster, further and generally be in better shape.

Kieran is often found wearing four GPS running watches at once. And to date he's tracked more than 50 marathons, 13 ultras and countless half marathons - including the Marathon Des Sables.

In 2022, he became the first person to run the river Danube from sea to source, a measly 1,830 miles in 66 days. And still had time to test running gear.

Kieran regularly takes running tech to the extremes for Wareable and the likes of Runner's World, Mens Health and Wired.

Related stories