Finishing Ironman is all about pacing yourself and managing your energy and fitness resources. Your Garmin multisport watch plays a vital role in getting you through that 3.8 Km swim, 180 Km bike and 42.2 Km run. If you are a newbie, you might already have questions regarding the best watch setup. If you have completed a few Ironmans, keep in mind that technology evolves fast and there could well be something that will add value to your race day.

Getting rid of unnecessary screens
The triathlon app on Garmin’s multisport watches like the Fenix 3 and the 735XT allows the option of multiple screens per discipline, but on Ironman race day you should rather aim for a more minimalist approach. Scrolling through five or six screens for stats whilst in a delirious state is not advisable. Three screens that work well include, the main screen, a second screen, and the extremely handy ‘overall time screen’. Three screens also imply that the up and down cursor will take you to your other two screens with one press. Multiple presses won’t be necessary.

The heart rate screen on the Garmin 735XT [Left] and the Garmin fenix 3 [Right]

Total Time
Let’s jump right in with the essence of having total time on your watch. Garmin did something very clever by adding a ‘default total time’ screen on each of the disciplines. Obviously your goal times for each leg, plus transition times determine the total race time you set for yourself. As the race progresses and fatigue sets in, effective pacing becomes difficult but even more important. In the days of old, Ironman began with a mass start at 07H00. All you needed to do was check the time of day and gauge your progress as the hours passed, on the hour. With the current rolling start format, all of that has changed. Now your race can start at 07H19 for instance. When fatigue sets in, doing the math in your head can get tricky. The Garmin multisport watches have a great ‘default total time’ screen that shows your accrued time as your race progresses. It uses a big font, with an easy-to-read reversed colour display. If your goal time is 12 hours, you’ll know how far off you are with one glance.

The swim
Once again, before we get to a suitable swim screen, I would like to highlight the necessity of knowing how to lock your watch as you run into the sea. One bump in the “washing machine” can stop or move your watch’s settings to the next leg of your race, pacing, or even worse, your final time can fly out the window. Exiting the swim, just to see that you are 3 kilometres into your bike leg at a pace of 1 km/h, or finding that your watch has stopped, is a race spoiler. The Fenix3 locks with one press and the 735XT locks with three. “Auto Lock” has its disadvantages. During the ride and run, it becomes a troublesome exercise to press the unlock buttons every time you want to check a different screen as the auto lock feature kicks in. I recommend you stick to the manual lock option. Once your swim is done and after you have pulled your watch arm out of the wetsuit, unlock the watch, press the lap button for T1 and carry on.

The main swim screen on the Garmin 735XT [Left] and the Garmin fenix 3 [Right]

Now, regarding your swim screen, 3 data fields for the main screen should do the job: time, distance and average pace. Checking and using stats during the swim can be difficult and inferences can be misleading. If the sea is flat and calm with little current, checking your goal pace during the swim could tell you whether you are on or off target. But even with a good pace, if you don’t swim straight lines, you will have a bad swim time. Likewise, checking distance will once again only be of value if you swim straight lines. The best advice is to swim and sight as well as you can. The valuable part is when you exit your swim. Your watch will tell you right away whether your swim time set you up for a good overall time, or whether you have to play catch-up. If you see a distance of 4300m, you will immediately know you have wasted time, and you can start figuring out how to make up for it if necessary or possible.

One last point ont this, Garmin’s Swim heart rate straps does measure heart rate, but it only uploads once you exit the water, so you cannot check it during the swim. Of course, you will see your swim heart rate after the race and it is great for future reference.

The bike
Regarding the bike, we are looking at two scenarios. The first is the way most Ironman athletes race, which is without a power meter. The second, and let’s call it the pro setup, is with a power meter. Athletes using a power meter are normally very clued up with gear, stats and setups because a power meter demands it, if it is to be used effectively. In most cases the pro approach will include a bike specific computer like the Edge 820, Edge 1000, etc. For now, we once again focus on athletes that race with one multisport watch. If you are using a Fenix3, 735xt, 920xt or any other Garmin watch, by default you will have a maximum of 4 data fields per screen. (If you downloaded a third party app with more data fields, the scenario changes)

The main bike screen on the Garmin 735XT [Left] and the Garmin fenix 3 [Right]

A good main screen is time, distance, average speed and current speed. A second screen could be average heart rate, current heart rate and heart rate zone. The obvious bike goal is to achieve the average speed you require for your goal time. Most amateur athletes race with a heart-rate based approach, meaning they want to maintain their average speed target while staying within predetermined heart rate zone, otherwise they would be burning up the proverbial “candles”. Having your heart rate on a second screen only works well if are able to switch comfortably between screens mid-race. If you want to monitor your average heart rate without switching screens, a second option for a main screen is; time, distance, average speed and average heart rate. This means you won’t see current speed, but you can up your speed if you dip below your average speed whilst keeping your heart rate in check at the same time.

As an example, for the Standard Bank Ironman in PE, if your first lap average speed shows a higher heart rate than expected, listen to your watch and back off a bit. Fatigue levels will go up during the second lap, and a higher intensity level would be needed.

The run
Despite the excessive amounts of money and training time that goes into the bike leg, the run leg is where the wheels or more specific, the legs come off. Amongst the pros, a good run determines the winner, time and time again. Gauging and governing your run pace with your watch is crucial. By all accounts, most amateur athletes have an extreme downwards graph in terms of pace during the run, which indicates that the run is by and large the Achilles heel (no pun) of most athletes.

The main run screen on the Garmin 735XT [Left] and the Garmin fenix 3 [Right]

A good main screen would again be time, distance, average pace and pace. During the run, fatigue levels will deter you from galloping at your 10km race pace, but even the slightest overcooking in terms of your predetermined pace will cost you dearly later. If your goal pace is 6 min/km, try not to exceed it, no matter how good you feel. Listen to your watch and stick to your pace. If it feels like you’ve got extra candles to burn, reassess that feeling at kilometer marker number 28, and start burning those extra candles then, if they are still there. The Ironman PE event has four laps. Those extra candles would be good for lap 4. Run heart rate during Ironman seldom pushes way up into threshold levels, unless you unleash your fighting spirit to make a cut-off time. The heart takes on a governing role of its own in most cases, but if you rely on heart rate stats during the run for any reason whatsoever, make use of a heart rate data field.
At the end of your race, fatigue sets in and being able to see your overall time with one glance helps a lot. During the second half of the run, knowing how aligned you are with your overall goal time helps with making decisions. If you are comfortably on track, it means you can burn your remaining candles with relaxed confidence and finish in style. If you are way off target and experiencing excessive fatigue levels, you can choose to back off and rather finish than getting a DNF.

The best screen you’ll see after your triathlon, the total time screen.

The best part of your Garmin watch
The best part of the watch is the stop button, and you get to press it when you cross the finish line hearing the commentator say: “You are an Ironman!”. Until then, let your watch be your guide. Test your screens during training and chop and change them till they live up to your requirements. Your multisport watch can be your ticket to a good Ironman. Use it to its full capability. Happy racing. – (c) 2017 NavWorld

About The Author

Frank Smuts is a triathlete and writer at

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