As humans, and especially as runners, we crave cold, hard numbers. This is especially true when it comes to our training, and the plans that guide that process. Numbers show us how we are improving and getting stronger. Although some running plans are written based on time, most are based on distance. The idea is that you’ll be able to run a certain distance faster the longer you practice.
The problem is that unlike race courses, there isn’t someone to measure exactly where you’ve run (just like there aren’t strangers holding out water for you during your training runs), so you have to figure it out yourself.
In this article, we’ll cover six different ways that you can measure your running or walking distance, including their benefits and limitations. We have listed them in the order of what we think is most helpful to least helpful. But make your own decision on which one is best for you.
If you’ve been a part of the running community for any duration of time, you’ve probably seen the huge watches that most runners wear. Garmin and Apple and two popular brands, but there are more options out there. In our book, GPS watches are your best choice.
GPS watches allow you to measure distance in real time. So if you don’t have a specific route planned, you don’t have to worry. But they provide many benefits beyond simply tracking time and distance.
Additionally, you can track distance on the road, trail, track, park, beach, etc. In other words, you can use a GPS watch anywhere outside. Some GPS watches even have a tracking option for swimming, if you’re training for a triathlon.
Finally, a GPS watch will tell you pace as you’re running, the distance that you have already run, and various other features like heart rate, estimated race times, or VO2 max. Some models play music for you, give you turn-by-turn alerts on routes, and help guide your recovery as well.
Unfortunately, GPS watches are very expensive compared to other options, so if you’re tight on money, this might not be an option for you. If finances are a concern, you could definitely consider buying a used watch (maybe from a friend who is a runner). Or get a slightly older version that still functions just as well, but won’t have the high price tag.
While my GPS watch was several hundred dollars, to me it was worth the expense because it was my commitment to running. Even though I was training for a half marathon but hadn’t ever run farther than three miles in my entire life, I bought a GPS watch to tell myself that I was a runner.
While this might not be helpful to everyone, it definitely helped me because I started to identify as a runner and acting like a run would—being less likely to skip runs, eating healthy, stretching, warming up and cooling down, and so forth.
While a GPS watch is more useful in my opinion because you can easily wear it on your wrist, using a phone app is a good alternative.
Like a GPS watch, a phone app measures distance in real-time. You’ll be able to see exactly how far you’ve run at any given moment. You likely won’t get heart rate from your phone app, but it should provide pace and other features.
When I trained for a 5k years ago (long before I got back into running), I used a phone app because I wanted to know how far and how fast I was running without the price tag of a GPS watch.
While a phone app will give you a pretty good idea of distance, it is not as accurate as a GPS watch. If you really need accuracy (like you’re trying to run a sub-18 minute 5k), it won’t give you that.
Additionally, it requires you to bring your phone, which can be bulky to run with. On the flip side, it is an additional safety measure. However, using a phone app requires a lot of battery power, so you’ll want to make sure that your phone is charged up.
Websites like Mapmyrun and Plotaroute
Websites like mapmyrun and plotaroute can help you meet a particular training goal. And they will definitely tell you how far you ran or walked. In many cases, there are linked apps that facilitate this process on your mobile device.
The good news is these websites are free and easy to use, and they are quite accurate. They work on roads and most trails.
If you don’t have a GPS watch, you could always plot the route on a website, and then run that route with your phone to track information as you’re running. Then you’ll know the accurate distance as well as information in real-time.
Unfortunately, websites like these only measure your route after you’ve run it, meaning that you have to remember where you ran. Depending on where you live, this could be fairly easy or extremely hard.
If you pre-measured, you’ll have to remember which streets to flow, which might not be ideal if you’re just trying to get in a run before it gets dark. You might not have the time to figure the distance out and get your run in.
Running or Walking on a Track
Many of us have a history as track athletes in high school. So running on a track can come with some nostalgia, whether good or bad. Even if that’s not you, tracks are great because they are perfect places to train on a flat surface. They are ideal for speedwork, and ideal for exactly measured distances.
Tracks are great because you get that exact distance measurement. If you’re trying to figure out miles, it’s a little bit harder, but typically, most tracks are 400 meters, or just less than one-quarter of a mile, around.
This means that 2 laps will be ½ mile, 3 laps ¾ mile, and 4 laps 1 mile. Indoor tracks are smaller. Typically, 1 lap = roughly ⅛ of a mile, or 200m. Whatever the measurement, it lets users know how far they need to run in order to get that mile in.
Obviously, running around a track (especially a smaller one) can get boring quickly. If you want to do speedwork, it might not be too hard, but you certainly don’t want to run a half marathon on a track.
Additionally, you’ll have to count laps, which might be challenging if you really focus on your runs. Counting four laps for a mile might not be a big deal, but if you’re dealing with 3+ miles, you’ll definitely have to stay alert.
Fitness Tracker or Pedometer
If you’re more interested in walking than running, a fitness tracker or pedometer is a good option. They aren’t too expensive, and will get you the information that you want to know.
With a fitness tracker or pedometer, you’ll be able to measure distance as you run or walk. Fortunately, such devices are fairly inexpensive.
When my family had a walking competition last summer, my brother-in-law bought a pedometer for under $10 to track his steps. He discovered that if he moved his leg a certain way while sitting on the couch, the tracker would still register that as a step. One of our editors has discovered the motions of rolling pizza dough get counted as steps, too. Not that we are encouraging substituting pizza for exercise, folks.
For that reason, fitness trackers and pedometers (while they can give you a good ballpark) are the least accurate option of measuring distance. If you just need a general idea and don’t want to pay for a more expensive option, though, they could be perfect for you.
Measuring Your Route with a Car, Bike, or Mechanical Wheel
If none of the options above sound appealing to you, there’s always this last option, but depending on your needs, it may or may not appeal to you.
If you’re training for a triathlon, mapping your route with a bike can be a great way to get a short bike ride in while making sure that you know exactly how far your run will be.
Additionally, all of these options, particularly a mechanical wheel, are quite accurate, and the car option is super easy. Set your trip odometer to 0 and then drive your route. Once you get done, your car odometer will tell you exactly how far you have gone.
Unfortunately, all of these options require additional time that you may or may not have, and the mechanical wheel (which is the wheel-on-a-stick that coaches and race directors use to measure the distance of a course) is especially so. You’ll get accurate numbers, typically down to the foot, but it is SLOW.
Additionally, if you’re trying to map a trail run, you can’t take your car on a trail. So you’re left with your bike or a mechanical wheel to figure out the distance for those runs.
In the end, there are a variety of ways to answer the question, “How far did I run or walk?” How you chose to answer depends on how much money you’re willing to spend as well as how much time you’re willing to invest.
From my perspective, if you’re planning to run for a good length of time in your life, get a GPS watch. It’s expensive upfront, but it has definitely paid off for all the runs I’ve logged in the past year or so.