Navigating Your Garmin

Many of the athletes that I coach often ask me ask me whether they should have a GPS device for measuring time/distance/HR for their workouts.  My answer is typically a resounding yes!  It provides invaluable data both in real-time and information for post-workout analysis.  But the next question from my athletes usually comes after they bought their shiny new Garmin:  “How do I set this thing up so I can use it?”

The question is typically not how to use the device – I think many of these manufacturers make devices fairly intuitive even for those who are technologically challenged.  Rather the question is “what do I look at?”  The Garmin 910 has 39 different possible data fields when it’s in swim mode; 53 when in run mode; and a whopping 70 when in cycling mode.  All of this data cannot possibly be useful while in the middle of your long ride on Sunday.  So what is important on your ride, or your run, or even your swim?  Is it different in racing versus training?  It all boils down to a simple question:  What’s Important Now?  You and your coach can do the post-workout/race analysis, but what’s important now?  Let’s break it down:

First things first though.  I set my watch to have 3-data field on the primary menu for each sport and 4-data fields on the second menu for each sport.  But I primarily look at the menu with 4-data fields (I leave the 3-data field with the default information).  I know there can be more data fields on a particular menu, but during a workout or a race can you effectively process more than 4 pieces of data at any given time?  And remember that increasing the number of data fields will lower the font size of each field making it more difficult to read.

NOTE:  Below I am going to describe specific data fields for the Garmin.  If you have a different device like a Polar and Timex, many of these data fields exist but with a different name.


In the pool, you likely have a prescribed set of intervals that you are doing during the swim like 4×100 or 8×50.  Answering the question of what’s important now, I find that information about the specific interval that I just finished is valuable information for me.  For example, if I’m doing a set of 8×50 with a rest interval of 20-seconds, after I finish one of the 50s, I hit the wall and then the lap button on my watch.  I want to know how fast I did that  50, I want to know how many strokes I took or more specifically my strokes per length, and I want to know stroke rate (especially if it is a limiter for me).  But then I also want to know the time for the current interval because that is what is going to tell me my current rest interval and once that time hits 20-seconds, I hit the lap button again and take off for my second 50.  For longer sets like 400’s and 500’s, if you have trouble counting laps then you may possibly replace stroke rate with Interval Distance

So specifically for the Garmin, here are the 4 data fields that I use in the pool:  Time – Last Interval; Time – Interval; Strokes/Len. – Last Int; Stroke Rate – Last Int.  Other useful fields on a separate data page may include:  Distance – Interval, Pace – Last Interval, Time (for total elapsed time)

During a race however, your device is simply going to be a tool that records data for post-race analysis since it is not practical to stop and look at your watch.  But you may simply want elapsed time on the main screen so once you exit the swim, you can get an idea of how fast your swim was.

Side note:  I find it humorous that there is a data field that tells you the stroke you’re performing.  If you have to look at your Garmin to determine which swim stroke you’re performing, you quickly need to find a coach.


For the bike, the first question we have to answer is:  What additional devices do you have on your bike?  Do you have a power meter?  Do you have a cadence sensor?  (Of course you have a HR monitor, right??)  As a coach, I find it extremely important to have a cadence sensor and while I also find it important to have a power meter, I understand the cost-prohibitive nature of power meters (but the price is coming down!).  So I’m going to assume that you have a cadence sensor and give you the 4 data fields that are important, but I’ll also give you some power based fields that are also important.

For the bike, what’s important is information related to the intervals that you’re currently doing because it is real time feedback and you can adjust.  The fields that I like to see are Cadence; HR Zone (assuming you have a current LT test); Current Interval elapsed time; and Current Interval distance.  With a power meter, I replace Current Interval distance with either 10-second power or power zone if you have a current FTP test.  On your Garmin, here are the specific fields:  Heart Rate Zone; Time – Lap; Cadence; Distance – Lap.  If you have a power meter, replace lap distance with either Power Zone or Power – 10s Average.

These don’t necessarily change for race day.  If you’re not using power, then you’ll like want to set up your watch to auto-lap on a specific distance like 10-mi or at some even division of the race course like 14-mi. for long-course and Ironman.  Other useful fields for the bike include Speed if there are sections on the course where there’s a speed limit, and Time – Elapsed.


The run is very similar to the bike in “what’s important now.”  During training, you’ll want information about the specific interval that you are running.  Imagine your workout looks like this for the main set:  4×4-min @ HR ZN 4 with 4-min walking recovery.  At the very least, you’ll want to see Interval Time and the HR Zone to make sure that you get the correct effort level in.  You’ll also want the Interval distance because in this particular workout, you should see roughly the same distance for each of the interval (if the interval distance changes significantly, then you need additional aerobic conditioning).  If we change the workout slightly to be distance based (i.e. 4 x 0.25mi.) then you’ll use this field as the indicator as to when to hit the lap button.  Finally, I like to have current pace on my watch as well although that can easily be switched out with Pace – Average if that is workout goal.  For the Garmin specifically, the fields are as follows:  Heart Rate Zone; Time – Lap; Pace; Distance – Lap.

If you have the Garmin foot pod, then data related to cadence (Cadence, Cadence – Average, or Cadence – Lap) is likely important.  Data like ground contact time is not as useful in real time – save it for post workout analysis.

During race time, these fields do not change significantly however, I do typically set up auto-lap at 1-mile so I can see my splits.  If you have a specific pace you are aiming for then changing Pace to Pace – Average may be a better option.

Coach J

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