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5 things you should be doing with your running watch on race day

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro
(Image credit: Tom's Guide/Future)

Let me set the scene: I’m 18 miles into the Berlin Marathon and my trusty Garmin Forerunner 645 has lost the plot. It’s telling me I’m miles ahead of my actual location and my real-time pace is fluctuating so wildly you’d think I was jumping on and off a bike. By mile 20, I was using my phone as a stopwatch to work out my average 5K pace (yes, that was as annoying and complicated as it sounds). Tech disasters aside, I crossed the finish line with a new personal record and had run a negative split, but Berlin taught me one very important lesson: I needed to learn to use my running watch on race day. 

Now that we’re (finally) seeing a return to mass-participation races following the Covid-19 pandemic, whatever distance you’re gearing up for, getting your tech set up is an important part of your race day prep. Here’s how to make sure you’re set.  

Connect to GPS as soon as you arrive at the race village 

If you’ve ever stood waiting for the race gun, you’ll have been witness to one of the stranger traditions of race day — hundreds of runners raising their wrists into the air, desperately trying to help their watch find GPS. Of course, GPS is never 100% accurate, but chuck in hundreds of people and buildings surrounding the start at big city races, and it’s no wonder it can take a few minutes longer than it does at home.

Luckily, this is an easy one to fix. Get your watch connected to GPS as soon as you get to the race village, or a good ten to fifteen minutes before your wave is called. This reduces that awful will-it-or-won’t-it-connect-in-time panic on the start line and lets you focus. 

Manually lap each mile or kilometer 

As well as gels, blister plasters, and jelly babies, your smartwatch’s lap button is your best friend on race day. Your watch will automatically auto-lap when its GPS calculates a mile or kilometer, but if it’s not actually buzzing as you reach the course markers, those extra few seconds difference can make a difference on the finish line. Switch your watch from auto-lap to manual, and manually lap your watch at every mile or even every 5K marker, depending on preference. This sounds fiddly but will be so much more accurate when it comes to working out your actual pace.

A word of warning here — it’s a good idea to check the markers on the course beforehand. European races are normally in kilometers, so it might be handy to convert your pace if you’re used to training in miles. 

Your watch is accurate, but not that accurate 

No matter how accurate your beloved Garmin running watch might seem when running around the track, on race day it’ll almost definitely buzz to say you’ve completed the race before you can see the finish line. 

Not only is the GPS not 100% accurate, race courses are measured along a racing line, which you’ll often see the elite runners sticking to. Unless you’re running a very quiet road race, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stick to this blue line, meaning you’ll run further than the distance according to your watch. 

Don't try new watches or watch settings on race day

Running coaches and veteran runners will always tell you one thing — nothing new on race day. The same applies to your tech. No matter how tempting it might be to grab a new running watch in the sales the week before the race, sticking to the one you’ve trained with and know your way around is definitely the better option. 

This advice also applies to your watch set up — for some long training runs, I split my run into 10K blocks to help myself mentally focus on the next few miles, rather than the distance as a whole, but on race day, your watch moving on to the next “block” can feel demoralizing if it happens too soon. Keep things simple - you’ve got enough to focus on. 

If you’re trying for a personal best, practice training with your watch’s pace tools 

Again, let me start by stressing that if you’ve not used your watch’s pacing tools during training, race day probably isn’t the best time to experiment. That said, if you’re focused on running a negative split or getting a PB, some higher-end running watches will give you the option to set pace alerts, so you can keep an eye on whether you’re heading off too quick, or need to pick up a bit. 

For some runners, these little buzzes are extremely motivating, for others, the constant reminders would make them want to lob their tech into the crowd — it’s a good idea to work out which side you’re on before reaching the start line. 

Remember: it’s not about your watch

Finally, remember that your race is about far more than the running watch. When they’re working, running watches can be a brilliant tool to help you see improvements in your running, alert your loved ones of your safety, or even tell you the right route. At their worst, a running watch telling you you’re running slower than you are because of sketchy GPS has the chance to completely sabotage your run. Should the worst happen on race day, turn the watch around on your wrist so you can’t see it, or take it off and tuck it in your running belt.

Remember, your legs and your lungs have trained for the race, your watch has just come along for the ride. 

Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.