How to use your running watch to earn your marathon PB

How your GPS running watch can help you cross the marathon line
How to run your fastest marathon

If you got swept up in the business of making the New Year resolution to run a marathon, then we imagine your training has already started. If you're aiming to run a sub-4-hour marathon – or just do a personal best you're going to need to be a bit more scientific about your training – and your GPS running watch can help.

The good news is that there's plenty of wearables out there that can now take a lot of the guesswork out of what is a tricky training process to get in the right shape.

Run faster: Check out our running hub for tips and tricks

Not only will your GPS watch make sure you're running the right distances and give you real time updates on how fast, and how hard, you're running, but it can also tell you exactly how to structure your training to get to the start line in shape to run the race of your life.

If a sub-4-hour marathon is your target time, here's how to use your running watch to build a plan that'll help you reach your goal.

Calculate your race pace

How to use your running watch to earn your marathon PB

Let's get down to brass tacks, in order to run a sub-4-hour marathon, you're going to have to put together 26.2 consecutive miles run at 9:09 min/mile pace. That's four sub-1-hour 10km runs and a bit more. We've done the sums for you in the case but you can use Polar Flow, Garmin Connect and Adidas miCoach to do this for you.

Create a target race with a time goal in any of these web tools and it'll give you feedback on how fast you need to run. It's a good idea to choose from the outset whether you plan to run the actual race in kilometres or miles and stick to that in training.

Try heart rate training

How to use your running watch to earn your marathon PB

Once you know your race pace you'll need to build a plan that combines shorter distances faster than race pace, middle effort runs at 75% of your race pace, long runs at around 65-75% and your recovery runs at 60% of your race pace. And the perfect way to do this is to start with heart rate training. At this point it's worth jumping over to our heart rate training guide.

With products like the Garmin Forerunner 630 you can also choose to run against a virtual pacer in training, this is a great way to get a sense of how the actual race pace is going to feel come the big day.

Most running watches come with default heart rate zone settings. You can alter these to make your tracking more accurate but first you need to find out what your zones are.

Once your zones are fine tuned you can ensure you're running sessions at the right intensity and put together the right combination of low, medium and high intensity runs.

This mix of training is vital to build the endurance and speed to get round in under four hours.

Increase your VO2 Max

How to use your running watch to earn your marathon PB

We wrote a big explainer piece on VO2 Max and the science behind both the metric and how it's measured. Now wearables including the Fitbit Charge 2, Fenix 3 HR and the Jabra Sport Pulse. All of these devices make use of a metric that was once only for elite athletes with access to sports labs.

Why is it important? Well, it can give you a strong indication if your training is making a difference. We carried out a big VO2 Max test to find out which wearables are best suited to give you the most reliable and valuable data.

Test your fitness first

Another smart thing to do before you set off on any marathon training programme is to assess your current fitness levels. The Polar Fitness Test, for example, is a pre-programmed test you can do using just your watch and a heart rate monitor.

Read this: Garmin Connect essential guide

It provides you with a benchmark that you can use to see how your fitness fares against the average. It's a great barometer for how hard you're going to have to train to get ready for race day.

You can use this information to help you decide how best to approach your training plan.

Opt for an off-the-shelf training plan

How long should I train for? How many times a week? What's the furthest I should run in training? These are all common questions for anyone putting together a marathon plan. Thankfully, Adidas miCoach, Garmin Connect and Polar Flow all offer ready made marathon schedules that answer a lot of these questions.

With Garmin you can choose between from a set of sixteen-week training plans that work on heart rate or pace, and also three different levels, depending on how many times you want to run per week. Sadly these don't give you the option of gunning for a target time.

Adidas miCoach gives you the option of a pre-packaged 20-week, six session per week, sub-4-hour plan which you can then customise choosing to work from your start date or progress towards a set race date. You can then tell miCoach how many times a week you want to run (4 ,5 or 6), when you'd prefer to do your longest runs and which days you'd like off.

You can then use our guide from turning an off-the-shelf training schedule into a personalised biometric plan using our guide.

Build your own training plan

Polar Flow offers far more customisation but with this service you will need to already know what makes a solid training schedule. This is great if you already have a coach setting a regime or are following a training plan like the Hanson plan but want to a tool that gives you an easy to follow schedule.

If your running watch doesn't come with any online planning tools, you can still you can still use the heart rate and pace to create your own benchmarks a build a plan.

Essential reading: Trying out Polar's new running program

Using the heart rate zone information you gathered earlier, you're looking for a combination of lower intensity, longer endurance base training runs, with high intensity intervals.

If you've built your own offline plan and you want to bring it into the digital world, Google Calendar is a good option for scheduling, annotating and sharing your training. While it lacks the automation and the insights of Polar Flow or Garmin Connect, plot your workouts ahead of time and add the key stats after your runs and you'll have plenty of data to track your progress.

Stay in the zone

On your GPS running watch you're likely to find options for audio of vibrating alerts. Setting these to give you a nudge when your BPM or pace rises or falls outside of the training zone for that session will ensure that you stick the plan and achieve the right training effect from each of your runs.

Download a great playlist

Music is a great motivator and can help you get through those tough long weekend runs. The TomTom Spark 3, Apple Watch Series 2 and sporty Android Wear watches like the Polar M600 offer you the ability to sync music to your watch so you can stream music without carrying around your phone.

Check out our list of running watches with offline music playback.


Shop for recommended running watches on Amazon

Garmin Forerunner 235
Garmin Forerunner 235
$288.00
TomTom Spark 3
TomTom Spark 3
$249.99
Polar M600
Polar M600
$329.95
Fitbit Surge
Fitbit Surge
$248.88

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