Some people take to running like a duck to water – or more accurately like an athlete to the track. For others, it’s not so easy. That’s where Garmin Coach wants to lend a helping hand if you’re starting to get to grips with your running and maybe even preparing to tackle your first race.
The coaching platform lives inside of Garmin’s Connect app and on a host of compatible Garmin sports watches with the aim of helping you reach your ultimate running goals.
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So how does it work and what do you need to get the coaching ball rolling? We’ve spent some time getting to know Garmin Coach to learn the ins and outs. Plus, we see if it can actually help us pick up the pace on our quest to run a quicker 5K.
What is Garmin Coach?
If you want to run a longer distance, you don’t just throw yourself at the target: that’s a recipe for failure, and a common mistake novice runners make, which just ensures disappointment. You need to build up to it.
Garmin Coach guides you through the steps, adapting to your progress with a series of training runs sent straight to your watch.
This is a tailored approach that should guide you to achieving one of three 5K-related goals: run/walk the distance, run it without stopping or complete the race at the pace of your choosing. Best of all, it’s completely free.
Garmin Coach: Compatible watches
Despite the goals and targets in Garmin Coach clearly being aimed at beginners, the choice of watches veers towards the expensive end of Garmin’s selection.
This feels counterintuitive: instinctively, it feels like the cheaper watches will be for people dipping their toes in the world of running, and the expensive models will be for pros, but there we are.
As it is, the selection doesn’t include the entry-level devices: there’s no Forerunner 30 or Forerunner 35 unfortunately and support ranges from devices costing £280 for the Vivoactive 3 Music to something pricier like the Fenix Chronos.
Here’s the full list of watches:
- Vivoactive 3
- Vivoactive 3 Music
- Forerunner 645
- Forerunner 645 Music
- Fenix 5 plus series
The site also lists the Fenix 5 series and Fenix Chronos as “coming soon.”
Garmin Coach: Getting set up
If you have a supported watch, it’s easy enough to get up and going. On the Garmin Connect smartphone app, under training you’ll see a plan called “Garmin Coach 5K Plan”. Press it, and you’ll get an overall introduction to the concept and a big blue button labeled “Set Up Plan.” Once that commitment is out of the way, you’ll be asked a question about your general fitness level and what you want your goal to be: Run/walk, Run or Run with a time goal. If you pick the latter, you’ll then be asked to pick the aim from a list between 25:00 and 37:30.
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To aid you with the goal, Garmin then lets you pick one of three real-life coaches. There’s Jeff Galloway, Olympian and best-selling author; Greg McMillan, physiologist and online running coach; and Amy Parkerson-Mitchell, physical therapist and running expert. Once selected, you pick how often you can run and your preferred days, and set a race date. This isn’t something that can happen overnight: the training plans are pegged as taking between six and 20 weeks, no matter how experienced you are, and it won’t let you pick a race day earlier than that. Once selected, your plan will be automatically synced to your watch, ready to go.
The app will schedule three or four runs for you per week, which will be paired to yourwatch automatically. Your next run will appear just like a regular menu item on the watchface, and if you don’t have one scheduled that day, it’ll tell you when the next one is due.
Our Garmin 645 Music watch did manage to lose the menu item after a firmware update. If this happens to you, go back to the app, find your next scheduled run, and tap the icon with an arrow and the phone in the top right-hand corner. It’ll be pushed to the watch.
You can see your running schedule for the week on either the phone or the watch, but you can’t see what future weeks hold, because they adapt based on how you’re performing. At the top of the Coach page on the app is a picture of your chosen coach along with a progress meter showing how confident he or she is of you accomplishing your goal by race day.
Garmin Coach: Let’s get training
To be clear, the coach’s involvement in your actual training is pretty limited. This isn’t like the Lifebeam Vi where you get active voice coaching as you go about your run, and you’ll be relying on the data on your wrist just as you would normally. The coach does have his or her say, however: throughout the week, you’ll get blog posts packed with advice and guidance, and the occasional pre-prepared video, but it’s not as tailored as you’d hope and they’re a touch on the generic side.
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Sadly, I seem to have outgrown Garmin Coach before we begin. I can already run 5K without stopping, and my best time – 24:11 achieved back in February – is faster than the pacing trainer, which caps at five minutes per kilometre, or 25-minutes on the nose. Still, recent efforts have been closer to 26 minutes, so maybe this is just the thing to get me back to my best? I figure if I go slightly faster than the coaching plan then it stands to reason I’ll be sub-25 in no time. Or at least the minimum ten weeks this particular regime is pegged to, anyway.
So having set my goal to the toughest target available – a 25-minute 5K by 3 November – what exactly does my training plan look like? The first three weeks contains four runs, each divided into warm-up, run and warm-down, and sessions are split between short high-speed blitzes, longer on-pace workouts and recovery sessions where you can relax a little bit.
A sample run from Week Six:
- Warm up for 805 metres
- Run 1.61km at 5:00 per kilometre
- Cool down for another 805 metres
Your watch will give you an idea of how much effort you should be putting into each section, and will buzz when it’s time to advance to the next stage. The watch face shows the usual information – though if you have a custom race screen as I do, this will be replaced by ‘just the facts’ here: the top of the screen shows how far you have left to go in the segment (in minutes or in distance), with a step pace and a step distance divider below, which measures the whole workout.
Once complete, you fill in a one-question survey putting the workout through the Goldilocks test: was it too easy, too hard or just right?
Unfortunately, four weeks in and disaster strikes: two kilometres into Hampstead Heath parkrun, I end up rolling my left foot round and putting all my weight on it. It’s my first parkrun DNF, and the offending extremity swells up to a comical size: it’s like looking down at a hairy, chubby baby foot. I don’t run for two weeks and my Garmin coach finally notices with some passive-aggressive notifications and blog posts.
Still, my goal confidence remains in the green, so I make a tentative return to parkrun. My foot, it turned out, wouldn’t be the problem, but not running for two weeks certainly would be. It was supposed to be an easy run, but I went faster than it suggested, because I didn’t really want a 30-minute time on my parkrun record. Ideally, Garmin Coach would allow you to put races in as part of your training – as it was, I had to include the warm up and warm down as part of the run. It doesn’t adapt to exercise logged outside of the training plan, y’see.
Garmin Coach: A great training partner in the making?
This is ultimately my problem with Garmin Coach: it’s not hugely flexible and not as reactive as you’d like, which isn’t something you’d have if Parkerson-Mitchell, Galloway or McMillan were actually there coaching you for real. The mode is very good at motivating you to lace up and get out the door, but not brilliant at pushing you when you’re out there, as a good coach should. Especially a coach that lives inside a wearable that’s already aimed at athletes.
The good news is that this is pretty easily fixed – being able to tell Garmin Coach your current 5K time would give the software a better fix on your capabilities, or better still, it could ask you to run 5K and make a judgement based on that. The first session is called a Benchmark Run, but it only involves running for five minutes, and I’m not convinced of its usefulness. If it was, bluntly, it would have noticed that I shouldn’t need 10 to 20 weeks to get to a sub 25-minute time again. Slow-balling me to get there to its rigid schedule isn’t helping anyone.
Beyond this, increasing the variety of time goals would be simple, too. It’s not just beginners who want to get faster and I think even an experienced runner would appreciate a structured way of hitting a sub-20 time. Real-time run feedback would also be helpful: if the watch knows you’re not giving your all – or worse, going an unsustainable pace – a friendly voice prompt would certainly make this a lot more useful.
Then there’s the distance: there’s more to life than 5Ks. While I’ve run 140 5K parkruns, I’ve only ever run two 10K races, and haven’t ventured into half marathons or greater. Some Garmin help getting there would make the whole thing a lot less daunting.
As things stand, Garmin Coach is a decent start, but only 5K novices need apply: everyone else will have outgrown it before they lace up.
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