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The Art of Pacing with a Garmin

One of the primary reasons you’d buy a training device like a Garmin Forerunner or similar would be to allow you to pace more effectively, whether that be in training or racing.  While most folks understand that once you turn the watch on it’ll show you your pace, there’s actually a number of different ways you can display ‘Pace’.  Each variation allows you to track slightly different metrics, but metrics that unless understood could you leave you short of your goal pace or PR.

The primary goal of this post is to outline the different methods you can use to pace with your Garmin, as well as cover some tips on how best to pace in races.  After all – while your Garmin’s GPS is actually quite accurate, that won’t matter when it comes to your real race time on a USATF approved course.  Meaning that even if your Garmin measured 26.5 miles instead of 26.2 – you’re not going to get credit for that extra .3 miles when it comes to a Boston Qualifying time.

Which reminds me, since one of the fundamentals to understanding race pacing with GPS or foot pods is to understand how actual courses are measured – I highly recommend everyone first read this post (pretty please?) on understanding how race courses are measured by USATF and exactly why getting your Garmin (or any GPS or footpod device) to match that distance in an actual race is incredibly difficult.

With that said, let’s get into the methods that your Garmin can display.  I’ve included photos of each method taken from actual training tonight during intervals I was doing – so you’ll have to forgive the lack of photographic beauty in lieu of realistic numbers.  Also, I happened to be using a FR310XT, but you can use pretty much any running watch to display these common metrics.

Method #1 – Instantaneous Pace:

This metric is the default measurement displayed on the majority of Garmin watches (FR305, FR405, FR410, FR310XT, FR60, etc…).  It should be noted that on the FR110 and FR210, this is not the default.  This metric is simply called ‘Pace’.

IMGP4383

Instant pace is just that – your instant pace.  It’s the speed the unit thinks you’re going right this second (well actually it lags about 5-7 seconds behind).  The challenge with instant pace and running is that it tends to wander a bit.  One second it’s displaying 7:30/mile, and the next second it’s showing 7:50/mile – even if you didn’t vary your actual pace any.   In an ideal world, vendors would use a slightly smoothed GPS pase – such as taking the average over the last 5 seconds.  And in fact, the Timex Global Trainer actually does this, and it helps to make this a more useful metric.

Nonetheless, I use instant pace on the majority of my non-paced runs as a quick metric to glance at.  By non-paced I mean runs where I’m not trying to hit an exact pace, but rather focusing on some other measurement (heart rate, perceived, not dying, etc…).  In these cases, I don’t much care what the pace is, as long as I’m not being passed by grandma in a wheelchair.

Method #2 – Lap Pace:

Lap pace became a more popular way to measure your pace after folks complained about instant pace being too jumpy/inconsistent.  In fact, it’s the default of the newer FR110 and FR210 watches – which aim to simplify the running experience.

Lap pace simply shows you your average pace for that lap.  What’s a lap you ask?  Well, anything you want it to be.  On watches with Auto Lap turned on, that’s every 1 mile.  But you can change it – it can be 1 kilometer or 5 miles.  Whatever you want it to be, it’ll be.  Or you can just have it off and be manual only (my favorite).

Lap Pace simply takes the distance travelled thus far for that lap, your total time in transit for that lap – and calculates your average pace.

For many pacing efforts – this is the ideal metric.  It allows you to absorb slight changes in terrain like small hills, and understand how a short change in speed has affected your pace over a longer time period (like a mile).

IMGP4390

You can see above how at that moment my instant pace (upper right) is slightly slower than my lap pace (lower right).  That’s because at that moment I was headed up a slight incline during that portion of the interval, slowing me down a little bit.

Lap pace is also great for intervals.  I use it on my intervals and tempo runs by resetting the lap at the start/stop of each interval, so I can both monitor my average lap pace for that interval – but also record that data later on.

It should be noted that if you never press the lap button (and don’t have Auto Lap configured), then lap pace simply equals average run pace since you’ll in effective have just one lap.

Also, as a side note to lap pace, you can also show ‘Last Lap Pace’.  This is useful if you are taking mile splits, but want to keep track of what your last set time was as well as this current lap time.

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You can see above how I’ve configured one screen to show both my current lap average (upper half), as well as my previous lap average (lower half).  I should point out at this juncture that you have a ton of different options for configuring data fields on your watch.  Here’s a post I wrote up on my configuration, as well as all the options for the most popular Garmin models.

Method #3 – Average Run Pace:

If you’re with me thus far, then you’ll find that Average Run Pace is simply your average pace across your entire run.  It’s like having lap average…except without the lap part.  This is useful in longer runs or races where you’re trying to maintain a specific pace.  This allows you to understand the impact of water breaks or even start-line crowding, on your ultimate average goal pace.

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It’s important to note (and I’ll talk more about it in a minute) that if you’re pacing a race off of Average Run Pace in hopes of hitting a specific time, then you need to aim for a slightly faster pace to account for ‘running long’.  But more on that in a minute…

Method #4 – Manual Lap Splits in Races:

You may know that you can manually create your own laps on your Garmin device by simply pressing the lap button – or in my case the well used ‘ap’ button (see below).  This is incredibly useful not only in training – but also in races.  See, in races with posted mile markers you can create simply hit lap to create a lap for what is truly the actual mile markers in your race.

IMGP4385

(In the above photo I was simply doing 5-minute sets, but you can use this for any distance/time you want.)

This means that you can then display lap times for your real pace (as opposed to the slightly longer GPS pace).  I use manual splits instead of Auto Lap in virtually every scenario from racing to training.  I use it to both demark intervals and to mark mile markers in races.

Method #5 – Virtual Partner mode:

Virtual Partner mode is a pretty cool option that essentially takes all the mental brain work out of options #1-4 in a race or training effort.  Instead of having to track numbers, splits and times in your head (which I can attest no longer works after about mile 18 or 19 in a marathon), it does it all for you.

You simply tell it your goal pace, and it then tells you how many minutes and how far ahead or behind that goal pace you are.  It also adds in two little stick figures on a screen to show you just how far behind you’ve gotten (or ahead, if you’re lucky).

IMGP4379

I’ve used this in some Ironman races to account for walking water-stops.  At that point in the day my brain simply isn’t going to be able to handle doing mental pace math with numbers (though it always tries).  With Virtual Partner mode I merely have it preset for a specific pace, and it automatically keeps me in line.  I try to aim to be about 100-200 feet ahead of ‘the little man’ on the screen.

Note again though, that this is basing everything off of your actual run distance – not the race distance.  So if you’re going for a very specific time goal, the you’ll need to buffer for extra distance ran.

Racing with a Garmin – Things to Understand:

You’ve heard me caveat the last five methods with some form of ‘you need to buffer for extra distance’ – but what does that really mean?

As I outlined previously, it means that virtually nobody in a long distance event is going to be able to run an exact 13.1 mile race.  The nature of race measurement mixed with race logistics dictate that on race day you’re going to be running around people and objects that simply weren’t likely there when they measured the course to the absolute perfectly minimal distance possible.  These could be misplaced cones, a police car, spectators, water tables, or even just a pile of other runners like yourself.

This weekend for example I ran the National Half-Marathon.  I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to running as clean a line as I can from a race standpoint.  But it requires a lot of attention.  You have to look ahead sometimes hundreds of meters on a road and understand where the race course would be measured (most direct point to point route) – and not where the runners are necessarily running.  My overall distance for the race was 13.2 miles – which, to brag a moment – is pretty darn close to perfect.

So this ultimately means that if you’re looking at hitting a specific goal time (and thus goal pace) – you should adjust your paces accordingly so that if you want to hit a 7:30/mile pace for 13.1 miles, you may want to plan that you’ll be running 13.3 or 13.4 miles instead and adjust your pace to say, 7:20 or 7:25.  Again, this has nothing to do with GPS accuracy – but rather everything to do with ones running route (these two are often confused).

Finally – what to do about races without mile markers.  My plan this weekend was to take manual splits at each actual race mile marker.  This would give The Girl and I a clear picture of each of our mile splits – both for race day pacing, and later analysis.  Regrettably, the National Marathon didn’t have any mile markers except for mile 10 (I don’t know why).  So in that case, I simply switched over to using the data the Garmin was providing.  It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.  Sometimes (most times), the mile markers are actually spray painted on the road if you look carefully – usually not very big, but they’re typically there (and were there this weekend).

Also, in larger races like the National Marathon, there are so many people with Garmin’s that if you simply listen you’ll hear a chorus of ‘bee-boop’ as you hit each mile marker, since most folks have Auto Lap configured.  That’s typically a good indication of where the mile marker should be – regardless of where it may actually be.

In summary, there are many ways to pace with a Garmin (or without one), so it’s really a matter of deciding which method works best for you.  It may be just one of the above, or a combination of them.  Good luck with the upcoming season!

Sport Device GPS Accuracy In Depth- Part I

Sport Device GPS Accuracy In Depth- Part II

Racing the line – understanding how courses are measured

Choosing your Garmin Device Fields

40 Comments

  1. Nicely writen. I have a Garmin and my wife not, so is some races I will take the race splits and let my wife know if any of the marker were out of place!!!

    Reply
  2. Nice post, Ray. I've got a question. I recently got a foot pod to go along with my 405. It has an option to have pace set by the foot pod rather than the GPS. Have you ever played around with that setting? If so, do you find that it gives a more stable/consistent reading for instant pace, as opposed to going by GPS?

    Thanks.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. I like to split the screen into 3 – current average lap pace, average run pace (entire run) and heart rate. This has work well in the past.

    Reply
    • Benjamin C replied

      I also use the screen split into 3
      - Instantaneous Pace (I use this to set the pace. I aim for 4:00/km on the flat)
      - Heart Rate (To show if I'm trying hard enough. If it's less than 166bpm I can run harder)
      - Distance (I know the distance of the run / race I doing. So I use it to see how much further I have to run and am I so far away I need to conserve myself? Or do I only have <1km left and sprint for the line?)

      Also the Garmin gives me Lap Splits for every km. (I aim for sub 4:00 km's).

      I don't need to look at the elapsed time (stop watch) as by looking at my pace and lap splits it becomes obvious if I will run a sub 40 minute 10km.

      Reply
  5. With my 310xt, I've generally stayed with the default data fields. However, you've motivated me to begin exploring more in an effort to see what will work best in training and racing.

    Thanks, Ray.

    --Richard

    Reply
  6. Great post Ray. I had lap pace set up and race average set up on my watch, but I never actually looked at anything other than instant pace and total time. I used the mile split alerts to gauge how I was doing pace-wise. I was more concerned with finishing though, than finishing on pace :-) I should maybe also brag, though, and say I clocked in at 13.25 miles and that's with hitting start slightly before the start line and at least three veers off the road to check on a port-a-john status (always full, ALWAYS FULL!!!!). I think my cycling background helped in that regard because I just naturally take the apex on corners and tend to ride, er, run the tight line.

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  7. Thank you for the millions of caveats! Not only is important to pace based on the expectation that you're running further than the official distance, but I am so sick of people claiming races are long simply because their Garmin said so.

    One other point you may want to mention is using your Garmin on a track. It is always better to use your LAP TIME as the default value, over any pace (I use pace as a rough guide so I don't have to do math) provided by your Garmin, given that you are running in circles. Even the slightest percent standard deviation of the GPS signal has consequences over the course of a run with so many turns.

    GPS devices are very useful tools for training and racing, but they are not THE answer to everything.

    Reply
  8. B French

    You said that a primary use for a GPS watch while running is staying on top of pacing strategies.

    However, my primary purpose for GPS is using it as a training log. Pacing is secondary to me, a casual/enthusiast age grouper.

    It's valuable to review routes, and more importantly (to me), long-term history and trends.

    In spite of this, I very much dislike the form factor of multiple devices (pods, etc.). One skinny GPS watch would be my ideal.

    Love your writing. Thanks for staying on top of this field!

    Reply
  9. Wes

    I always use lap pace and last lap pace so that I know I am being relatively consistent, and I am negative splitting (if that is my goal). I like your idea of setting a longer distance for the Virtual Partner in a race. That is actually an excellent idea. My recent distance at the Georgia Half Marathon was 13.27 on my 310XT.

    Reply
  10. As usual your posts are great. I have become addicted to you blog, lol. I have to check it at least once a day. I was inspired to run more and better by this blog (you, of course). Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  11. Nice read! Thanks for making me do a headslap on calculating goal race pace from a distance that is actually a bit longer than the race. Never thought of that!

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  12. I need to re-read this with my Garmin in hand. I don't fully understand how to use it to it's potential.

    Thanks for the explanation!

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  13. Another great post. I'm particulary impressed at the clarity of the photos from someone who's running sub 6m/m, and is at 175 beats!

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  14. Also worth noting that in races where you go into a tunnel (London Marathon, London Triathlon), the GPS lock will likely go crazy and add a lot onto the race distance, screwing over the pacing by more than just 'running long'. I've seen upwards of 27miles at the London marathon.

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  15. Thanks for this post Ray - this information will be very helpful as I get ready for my first half with my 305!

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  16. very well said/written. i'm debating whether or not to borrow my friend's garmin for some training and/or my next race. thanks for the info!

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  17. Great post. I have a FR 410CX, and now starting running TRIs I am considering the 310XT. I like the multi sport feature. How can you combine that feature with manual lap within one sport? (I just think it is not possible, just want to confirm) Can you run auto Lap in multisport, within one sport? Can you run VIrtual Partner in multisport? (In example with a recorded course on bike part and a given pace for running, all in a race with multisport)
    Thanks, Ignacio Miranda

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  18. Very interesting stuff. Someday I will have a Garmin and then I will put to use all the great tips I get from reading your blog. :)

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  19. Bob

    Incredibly useful post. Lap pace - I never thought of using that in a race context.

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  20. hello,
    in the manual lap mode, is there a way to increase the size of the display of the lap time and the lap number when it shows for a couple seconds? it there a setting to adjust the readout of it? it seems to be in such a small font and hard to read when running in a race.
    thanks
    drew

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  21. Hi Ray,

    Is there an easy way to do negative splits with the virtual partner. It seems like all the crs generators are using a steady pace. I'm running the Brighton Marathon on sunday so just coming up with a strategy. Thanks

    Reply
  22. Hi Drew-

    Unfortunately there isn't a way to increase the size of the short review screeen that pops up. One way around it though would be to add the Last Lap (time) and "Laps" data fields to a single two-field display page (you have four pages you can use). That way it'll show it in nice big letters.

    Hi Scott-

    No way to do negative splits, aside from changing the pacer itself. Meaning, as you go along if you change the Virtual Partners pace, it'll reset the differential clock (actually a good thing). Alternatively, you could create a workout instead, which maps to specific pace zones, that are descending.

    Good lucK (though, realize you race tomorrow!)

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  23. Anonymous

    The virtual partner screen is too small! Why do they waste all the screen space with that useless animation? And it is not customizable. Really annoyed--and feeling a bit deceived--that one of the main extra features of the higher-end watches is so badly crippled.

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  24. I tried the update this morning, ran 5k. I have set auto lap, virtual pacer (7:00 min/km) and average lap pace in my fr10. While the average lap pace is displaying 6:42 (4min in my first lap), alert for the virtual pacer starts to beep and said that i'm behind pace. Does that mean that Virtual Pacer uses the Instant Pace?

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  25. steve

    Can someone explain to me how I set my Garmin FR 210 to show instant pace? Please!

    Reply
  26. Thank you so much for this post. It's time for me to get my first GPS watch. Pace is the most important feature to me, and I didn't understand all the bickering on comment threads and in product reviews about instant pace v. average lap pace. Now I get it and feel more confident making a purchase. Thanks!

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  27. Alfie

    My favorite view for all my runs is to have Lap Pace, Average Pace, Pace and Lap Distance on my 305. This way, on my programmed workouts, the lap is whatever portion of the workout you are doing is (e.g. 400 meter intervals with 2 minute slow jogs in between will log the 400 meter as one lap and the 2 minute slow jog as another lap). Then for my longs, it is set to 1 mile laps for no other reason than I like to look at my data that way.

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  28. monte

    I also prefer to use Method #4 – Manual Lap Splits in Races.
    On my 405, when racing, i just use one page with Time, AvgLap, AvgPace. That's it.
    For me, the key is AvgLap because then i know what REAL pace i have been doing until that point.
    AvgPace is kind of meaningless since the gps is not accurate.

    My question to you is that after going through all your reviews, i am still not clear as to which Garmins have the AvgLap option. I know that the 405 does but do the lower end models (10, 110, 210) also have it????
    thanks

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  29. Benjamin C

    I used a Garmin 910 to run a marathon. I decided that I wanted to beat 3 hours 45 minutes. I used the pace calculator on the cool running.com website to work out I had to average 5 minutes 19 seconds per km. I put this figure into the virtual partner on the Garmin 910 and used it to set my pace. It showed me if I was too slow or not pacing myself. It worked like a dream, a beautiful bit of engineering.
    When running 10k's I aim to run 4 min 0 sec km's. I use the instantaneous pace and km lap splits on the Garmin to monitor how I'm doing. Some people criticise the instantaneous pace for lagging or inaccuracy but it gives me a rough ball park figure how I'm doing. If its something like 4:30/km it's obvious I need to pick up the pace.

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  30. Jim

    I've been running for about a year and received my Garmin FR220 today. My near term goal is to run a 5k in 25 min (current PR is 27 min). What is the best way to use my Garmin to help me achieve this? I've read about interval training but am not sure how long (distance or time-wise) each interval should be. Appreciate any advice.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Hi Jim-

      Intervals will indeed go a very long way, they are without question the fastest and most effective way to increase speed. For a 5K, you're probably going to focus on 400m intervals (one loop around a track), at a pace harder/faster than race pace.

      I started off following plans from Hal Higdon. His stuff is free, and may be worth looking at to understand a bit on how a week can be structured.

      From there you can easily program these into the Garmin FR220 to execute while on the track (or just anywhere). Remember that it's best to do any interval work in a consistent place. For example, in about 30 minutes I'm headed out to do 800m intervals. I've found an area where I can do my 800m loops over and over again. It's not a track, but it's flat and each interval will be identical - so I can compare efforts across them.

      Hope this helps!

      Plans: link to halhigdon.com

      Reply
  31. Hi DC;

    Very useful article! As always thanks for all the information you share. I´m curious about how much does your pace osillates from mile to mile? Yesterday I run 17km as part of my half marathon trainning and my went from 5:21 the gastes km to 6:01 the slowest. How accurate should I be? Or wich is the "acceptable gap"? Should I try to be as precise as posible or that´s not that important?
    I´ll be running my first half marathon on june and you and your website are being very helpful and motivational. Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      If I'm pacing to a specific pace, I'll try to get within 1-2s per mile. For example, tomorrow I'm doing a 13-mile paced effort at 6:35/mile on a flat route. As such, I shouldn't have any problem hitting each mile at 6:34-6:36. However, I recognize that every once in a while I'll have to divert (such as a red light) and it'll mess up my pace. So in that case, I'm happy tomorrow if all my miles are between 6:30 and 6:40, and the average is basically 6:35.

      Reply
  32. Marcos Rivas

    Hi Rainmaker,
    First of all thank you for all your efforts on keeping us inform! You are doing a tremendous work!
    I have a question in regard the Felix 2... I bought it a couple of days ago.... I was really amazed by it... I programmed my first interval workout on it and then.....
    I must first day that the last two years I used the polar rcx5.... And the instant pace was always on the money.... I was,planning on buying the v800 but I was tired of waiting so I decided to give Garmin a try...
    The lag that I experienced (1 or 2 min behind actual pace).... I was so frustrated that I almost stopped the work out.....
    Is impossible to do interval training with so much lagging.... Lap pace don't resolve the issue... Not if it takes two minutes to realise that I'm running a min per km faster... And then the interval is over...
    Do you know if Garmin is planning on fixing this or should I return the Felix and go back to the reliable polar?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Have you updated your Fenix2 to the most recent firmware? What you describe definitely isn't normal.

      Reply
  33. Marcos Rivas

    Hi again...
    I bought the fenix 2 , i updated the software to 2.9m and did a hard reset.
    The gps accuracy is max 12m.
    I thinking of sending the watch back.... instant pace is a disaster. The watch is simply lagging behind me. Ist so frustrating. In a way i think they wanted to beat the polar v800 on the marked and rushed the watch unfinished.... now you pay 450 € for something that maybe one day will be a great watch.
    I used in two interval workouts... i tried the average pace too... but then you have to startthe interval a little sooner because of the lag.... i enden running longer intervals and starting to fast ....
    I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.... did you do some interval training with it?
    Thanks
    Marcos

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I've used it on intervals from as short at 30-seconds in length to 800m to 1600m, without any issue. I haven't seen anyone else note issues with instant pace.

      You may want to contact Garmin support to see if they can get your unit swapped out.

      Reply
    • Rob Youl replied

      I've found the same thing with instant pace as Marcos .30 second or more lag when hitting strides or intervals. Running 3.20 update

      Reply
  34. Marcos Rivas

    Hi,
    Last couple of days I trained with both watches (Fenix 2 and Rcx5 plus gps).... Here is what I founded:
    Both runs there was a difference is distance... First run +50 meters for Garmin.... 2th 120 m for garmin....
    The avg pace 5:16 for rcx5 5:20 for Fenix 2
    Lap Times:
    5:34 5:39
    5:13 5:15
    5:04 5:12
    5:01 5:07
    5:10 5:09
    5:00 5:20
    5:31 5:29

    On lap 6 you can see the big difference... That's when I did some strides.... 20 sec accelerations.... the rcx5 was on target after 5 seconds (3:30/35) but the Fenix 20 seconds was about 4:10 (wich is my threshold pace) ....
    My little investigation show me that overall is the Fenix reliable for and easy run... but in no way you can do something semi profesional with it....
    I mean you can use avg pace and go to a track and hit manually every lap.... but for that I dont need a $450 watch... I just need a chronometer....
    I would love to hear that is just my watch that is mal functioning...
    But I thing the chip is the same as the forerunner 620... and you can read about the same problems that I have in Garmin Forum.....
    I think the watch is great in every other sense... but I need it to train and I think in these field is not a really good watch.....
    Great for grampas doing nording walking.....or for casual runners.... but who needs run dynamics when the pace lag 20 + seconds????

    Reply

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