If you own a newer model of a Garmin GPS watch, I feel certain you’ve experienced the mind games the Garmin metrics can play with you: e.g. you just had your longest run ever and it tells you your training status is “unproductive.”
HOW is that possible and WHY?
On the flip side, the Garmin race predictor is notorious for overselling your race performance. Again, HOW and WHY?
There are plenty of stats that Garmin can now supply you with including monitors of your sleep, energy, and stress. But I am not going to get into that. Instead, I am going to focus on the Garmin stats that are directly related to your run training and performance.
In this article, I am going to explain four popular Garmin data points:
- VO2 Max,
- Training Status
- Training Load, and
- Race Predictor
I will detail how Garmin collects this data, how accurate it is, and how to make it more accurate.
I’ve wanted to research this topic for a while since Garmin’s training status, Garmin training load, Garmin VO2 max, and the Garmin race predictor times have puzzled me.
Plenty of times, I’ve had great workouts only for my Garmin to demote my training status to unproductive. On the flip side, I’ve had several weeks of only easy runs only for it to tell me I’m capable of running a sub-2:40 marathon (in my dreams!).
I decided to write this article now when I watched my VO2 Max number plummet 3 spots in a matter of days—when running my highest mileage since I tore my plantar fascia in early July of 2021.
Turns out, I had COVID, which actually explains a lot when you look at how Garmin calculates its VO2 Max. So, let’s get to how Garmin does that and more!
Related: How to Return to Running After Having COVID
How does Garmin calculate its VO2 Max?
Your VO2 Max is the maximum rate at which you can deliver oxygen to your exercising muscles and helps measure how fit you are. A low VO2 Max score means you aren’t fit. A high VO2 Max score means you are fit.
VO2 Max on Garmin is calculated by looking at the relationship between your pace and heart rate. As your score gets higher, it means you’re getting into better shape.
To get an accurate VO2 Max score on Garmin you need to:
- Be sure to enter in your personal info such as your gender, age, height, and weight.
- Run nonstop for at least 10 to 15 minutes (length depending on your Garmin GPS watch model)
- Have your heart rate elevated by at least 70 percent
- Run outdoors with a GPS signal
- Use a chest strap to make the score more accurate.
How accurate is Garmin’s VO2 max?
Garmin’s VO2 Max status is pretty accurate. Some studies suggest it overestimates someone’s VO2 Max (particularly in men than women) while other studies suggest the opposite is true.
Almost all studies find that Garmin’s VO2 Max estimate is within about 5 percent of your true VO2 Max value.
Related: How Many Miles Should I Run in a Day?
Which is better chest or wrist-based heart monitor?
The biggest reason for the inaccuracy in Garmin VO2 Max values are the use of wrist-based heart rate monitors which can underestimate heart rate which them overestimates VO2 Max.
Studies find wrist-based monitors to have a margin of error ranging from 1 percent to 13.5 percent, depending on the brand and model. Factors such as moisture, grime, and fit can impact the accuracy of your heart rate monitor.
Conversely, chest strap data seems to have a margin of error of about 2 percent.
So, if you want more accurate Garmin data, wear a chest strap!
Why is my VO2 max decreasing on Garmin?
Your VO2 Max decreases on Garmin when your heart rate is higher relative to your pace. Average heart rate and VO2 Max are inversely related.
This explains why my VO2 Max dropped the week I tested positive for COVID. I was running slow but my heart rate was high because I was sick.
Recently, I traveled to Texas and South Carolina in the middle of summer. My VO2 Max dropped almost after every max because my heart rate was higher relative to my pace.
Therefore, bear in mind that Garmin doesn’t know extenuating circumstances. For example, Garmin doesn’t know if:
- you are fighting an illness
- are dehydrated
- haven’t gotten enough sleep
- are traveling
- running at high altitude, or
- running in the heat and humidity.
All these factors can raise your heart rate and lower your VO2 Max score. However, it doesn’t mean that you are less fit. Thus, your VO2 Max will go back up once you feel better or run in cooler weather, for example.
Related: How to Run Without Stopping
How do I increase my Garmin VO2 max score?
In general, to get a better V02 Max score, you need to run hard about two to three times per week where your aerobic training effect is between 3.0 and 4.0. Be sure to recover well in between these sessions. Don’t do back-to-back hard workouts.
Fatigue, or lack of recovery, can raise heart rate which will lower your VO2 Max score.
What is Garmin training status?
The Garmin Training Status uses your VO2 Max estimations and training load (how much and how hard you are running) to assess how effective your training is.
Garmin divides your training status into the following categories:
- Peaking: you are in ideal race condition. Your recently reduced training load is allowing your body to recover and fully compensate for earlier training. You should plan ahead, since this peak state can only be maintained for a short time.
- Productive: your current training load is moving your fitness level and performance in the right direction. You should plan recovery periods into your training to maintain your fitness level.
- Maintaining: your current training load is enough to maintain your fitness level. To see improvement, try adding more variety to your workouts or increasing your training volume.
- Recovery: your lighter training load is allowing your body to recover, which is essential during extended periods of hard training. You can return to a higher training load when you feel ready.
- Unproductive: your training load is at a good level, but your fitness is decreasing. Your body may be struggling to recover, so you should pay attention to your overall health including stress, nutrition, and rest.
- Detraining: you are training much less than usual for a week or more, and it is affecting your fitness level. You can try increasing your training load to see improvement.
- Overreaching: your training load is very high and counterproductive. Your body needs a rest. You should give yourself time to recover by adding lighter training to your schedule.
- No Status: the device needs one or two weeks of training history, including activities with VO2 max. results from running or cycling, to determine your training status.
Related: FREE Training Plans!
Why does my Garmin say I’m unproductive?
Your Garmin will move you to an unproductive status when your heart rate is high relative to your pace.
As mentioned, this can be for reasons other than your general fitness. It could be because you’re getting sick, didn’t get enough rest, or were running in hot and humid conditions.
There are so many variables in running and Garmin doesn’t take these into consideration. So, try not to let the unproductive status get in your head.
You did the work. Now recover. Focus on hard and easy efforts, and lots of rest to be your best.
Related: Running on No Sleep: Do or Don’t?
How do I make my Garmin productive?
To get a Garmin productive status, you need to work hard and recover hard. (Remember the crucial equation of stress+rest=success).
This means, run hard two to three times per week. The rest of the time, run easy and get enough sleep.
Productive status on Garmin means that your VO2 Max is improving, and your training load is high.
Related: The Benefits of an Easy Running Pace
What is training load?
According to Garmin, training load is based on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (or, EPOC aka the “afterburn effect”). EPOC is the increased rate of oxygen intake following activity. The more intense your run, the higher your EPOC will be.
Looking at a seven-day window, the watch can determine whether you’re getting more or less fit as your training load increases or decreases.
- If your fitness appears to be getting better at the same time your training load is increasing, you are in a productive state.
- If your training load is increasing but your fitness seems to be decreasing (e.g. higher heart rate and slower paces), you are in an unproductive state.
There are 3 training load categories:
- High: Based on your current fitness level and recent training habits, your training load may be too high to produce positive results.
- Optimal: This range is ideal for maintaining and improving your fitness level.
- Low: Your training load is low for your current fitness level and training habits. You will not improve fitness in this status.
What are Garmin race predictors?
Garmin uses your VO2 Max and training history data to determine race predictions. The projected race times are for the 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon distances.
How accurate are Garmin Race Predictors?
The more data it has AND the more accurate the heart rate monitor, the more accurate the race predictors.
If VO2 Max, training status, training load, and race predictors are all based on your heart rate data, then it would behoove you to get a chest-based heart monitor.
How can I get an accurate race prediction?
Here’s how to get the most accurate Garmin Race Predictor:
- Log your personal information including age, gender, weight, and height.
- Wear your watch for all workouts.
- Try not to pause your watch a lot.
- Wear a chest-based heart rate monitor.
Remember that these times are predictions and do not factor in all the variables that come with running such as the terrain, course, or weather.
Two other ways to get race predictions include:
- Run a time trial or use another race result, and plug in the result into Jack Daniels race pace calculator
- Wear a chest-strap heart rate monitor, take your Garmin VO2 Max score and see the corresponding race times in Daniels’ VDOT table.
There are upsides and downsides to data. It’s important to take the Garmin data into consideration but also with a grain of salt. If you feel good, that is all that matters.
If you feel like you could be over- or undertraining, or aren’t recovering well, then you need to take a hard look at your training and how it is fitting with the demands of your life. For example, the marathon training you did before kids may not suit you when you’re in the throes of parenting young kids.
If you need support and guidance with your running, please check out my run coaching services!
8 thoughts on “Garmin VO2 Max Explained & Metrics Reviewed”
Great summary of garmins training terms. I was wondering why I became unproductive after overreaching. Actually think it might be an artifact of using an indoor bike for a few days for the 1st time (hot and no cooling wind) but maybe not.
Thanks for the garmin insight
Could totally be it! I’ve come to ignore this data related to training load, status & conditionas it really isn’t very accurate!
Great write up Whitney. I train almost every day and I’m usually in a productive state on my Garmin. I noticed that after being sick I went from detraining to unproductive. It was like my garmin saying, well you aren’t getting worse now, you have plateaued. Then after more workouts I’m back to productive. I’m only ever peaking with I stop working out. Otherwise I’m constantly in productive I find.
Great article. Didn’t know about EPOC and
That is great you stay mostly in productive! What Garmin do you have??
My Garmin has me at 57-58 VO2max for running, which I – someone who was never into sport but got into cycling and running in my 30s – thought was great but took with a grain of salt. I’m preparing for my first running race and recently splashed out on a lactate and a vo2max test – and it turns out my number from the lab was 69!
I think the discrepancy has to do with me mostly having run at an easier pace (but not easy enough it turns out) the last couple of years since I got into running, and hence my threshold is still not great, and I think that’s a large part of Garmin’s calculations. I’m now all about my measured Z2 and threshold pace and I feel amazing! I run more than before but I feel both rested and powerful, and the race predictions are dropping after every run!
The test cost a bit of money but it turned my ambition in running on its head, and finally running in my correct zones feels great.
Wow! That is a huge difference! Glad you found your correct easy zone 🙂
Hey thanks for the write up! I’ve found a few posts of yours over the past few weeks (loved the Carb Loading one!) as I’ve been in the final weeks of training for my first marathon in several years.
This is what worries me: I’ve been training to run a sub-3 hour marathon. I’ve been able to follow the training plan more or less to a T, and my last “long” run of 12 miles felt amazing…a 7:10 avg pace (running negative splits) felt easy and relaxed. However, my Garmin race predictor still has my marathon prediction at 3:14 and my half marathon at 1:29 (I ran 1:28 in a race near the beginning of my training cycle). If Garmin overestimates race times, does this mean I don’t stand a chance running sub-3?
My mind is going crazy just a few days away from race-day 🙂
Jess, my advice to you is to completely ignore Garmin!! A couple of my running friends are 2:3-something marathoners and Garmin has them running much slower marathons. I think because their heart rates are higher so garmin underestimate a their fitness. Trust your training and let me know how it goes!