How to get the most out of your GPS running watch

GPS running watches can do much more than tell you how far and fast you're running. Yet, many runners (me included) only use the start-stop function to record their workouts. The latest smart watches like the Garmin Forerunner® 645 Music, Suunto 3 Fitness or Apple Watch Series 3 are loaded with features that can help you become a better runner. Here's how to get the most out of your watch.

Scroll through the gallery above for some of the best fitness trackers on the market. 

Fine-tune your form

Some watches like the Forerunner 645 Music can measure important running metrics to help you analyse your technique and performance. Biomechanical measurements, such as stride length, ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio, are the key to understanding your form so you can bring your best on race day. Check if these features are in-built or require additional gear like heart rate strap or running dynamics pod.

Know your max

Measuring your heart rate can help you avoid making one of the most common mistakes that runners make - running too fast too often, which puts you at risk for injury and burnout.

Most running watches now feature in-built heart rate monitors that read your pulse via a sensor on the wrist, and tell you how hard your heart is working during exercise. This feature allows you to try heart rate zone training, which means your run should fall within a percentage of your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) during the workout. Benefits of heart rate zone training include increased fat burning, increased muscle and increased anaerobic thresholds.

To do heart rate zone training first you'll need to work out your max heart rate. There are a few ways to calculate this but the simplest is to take 222 and minus your age (though some experts believe this may be inaccurate). For example, 220-34 = 186. Some running watches set up your heart rate zones for you once you enter your age, gender and other personal information. Another way is to do a 15-minute warm-up jog and some dynamic stretches followed by two two-minute hill repeats. This should give your watch the data needed to set up your zones.

Once your MHR is set then you can try working out in the following zones:

Zone 1: 60 to 70 per cent; very comfortable effort; use this for warm up and cool down.

Zone 2: 70 to 80 per cent; comfortable enough to hold a conversation; most training is done here.


Zone 3: 81 to 93 per cent; "comfortably hard" effort; you may be able to say short, broken sentences.

Zone 4: 94 to 100 per cent; hard effort; the pace is sustainable, but conversation is a few words at a time. For most people this is around five-kilometre pace.

Solo interval training

Some GSP running watches include interval training options and there are plenty of running-related apps like Simple Interval Timer for the Apple Watch Series 3. While interval training or Fartlek is usually done in group, your watch can be your training partner by helping you to create a training session that varies in intensity and combines fast run-throughs with slower ones. But it can't help you to manage the pain once the session is over!

Never get lost

If you want to explore new trails but fear getting off course and finding yourself lost in the bush then a watch like the Suunto Spartan GPS can put you at ease. Its powerful navigation tools allow you to follow a pre-planned and loaded route, run to a point of interest or find your back to where you came from. If you do find yourself in a spot of trouble the Apple Watch Series 3 has a very handy Emergency SOS function that allows you to quickly and easily call for help and alert your emergency contacts.

Count your steps

Cadence is an important part of running because the frequency of steps is a major contributor to overall speed. The sweet spot for running efficiency is around 180 steps per minute and some GPS watches now measure this for you.

Share and compete

Use your watch to sync your runs with the popular fitness tracker apps like Strava, Runkeeper, Garmin Connect and Nike Run Club. Once uploaded you can share your fitness achievements with other runners, brag on social media, join challenges, and compete against or encourage other runners.

Track training

Running around a track for speed session is a great way to improve pace and achieve new PBs, but if you don't live near a track you can use your running watch to recreate the distance. Using GPS, measure out 200 or 400 metres and then switch the watch to the timer or stopwatch to time your splits.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

Follow Laura Hill on Twitter