How to Do Interval Training with a Watch

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Intervals are an excellent way to build up your running fitness and increase your speed and stamina.

Most runners already use a running watch to track stats and health metrics. But they also make it easy to do interval workouts. And what’s great is that a watch can help you do them anywhere – no need to seek out a track every time you want a speed workout.

Here’s how to do interval training with a watch. We’re not going to convince you that interval workouts are easy, but doing them with a watch will definitely simplify the process!

What Is Interval Training?

Interval training is a workout that alternates fast, high-intensity running with low-intensity “recovery” phases. The intervals are often set according to either time or distance—for example, run at high intensity for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, or run at high intensity for 400 meters, easy run for 200 meters.

The most popular interval workouts for runners are usually done at a track. Tracks are useful because 1) it’s a flat, even surface and 2) they are uniformly 400 meters long. So if you are doing 400m or 800m intervals (these are two of the most popular intervals distances), it’s easy to count one or two laps, plus recovery for 100-200m.

Another type of interval training you’ll hear about is HIIT—short for high-intensity interval training. Rather than a specific workout program, it’s rotating series of exercises that can be applied to almost any type of cross-training. They are popular with cross-fitters, but runners can benefit from these as well

Benefits of Interval Training for Runners

Research suggests that interval training helps to boost your VO2 max. This is your body’s ability to use oxygen effectively, so the better it is, the healthier you’ll be and the more your running will improve.

Intervals also get your body used to running faster than its used to. Your legs will feel what it’s like to run quicker. And your mental toughness is tested, helping you prepare for the discomfort you’ll probably feel during a race.

There’s also the fact that it’s a challenge! If you want to grow as a runner, stepping out of your comfort zone is a good idea.

How Often Should You Do Intervals?

Intervals are taxing on the body and require a longer recovery time than other runs. For this reason, it’s recommended that you stick to a maximum of two interval sessions per week.

If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with one weekly and see how it goes. You can increase to 2 as you improve, but any more than that, and you’ll be putting yourself at risk of injury.

What Is the Recommended Duration for the Intervals?

There’s no right or wrong answer here—it depends on your fitness and what you are training for!

Beginners may want to try 30 seconds running, 30 seconds rest, for a total of 5 to 10 reps. Intermediates can increase to 1 minute and 1 minute, and you can increase as much as you can handle.

For runners with good base fitness who want to get faster, 200m-800m intervals followed by a recovery that takes half as much time as the interval are great options. And the longer your interval, the fewer reps. So you might do 10 x 200m but only 5 x 800m.

Runners training for a marathon should opt for longer intervals. Mile repeats (essentially 1 mile intervals) and 800m intervals are classic interval distances.

The important thing here is to make sure the intervals are suitable for your skill level and goals.

Why Use Your Running Watch for Intervals?

Even if you are at a track doing distance intervals, you’re going to want some way to track you times. An old-fashioned chrono watch works or a GPS watch.

When doing intervals, you want to keep an even pace for each rep. It’s tempting to run them as fast as you can but what will happen is that you go blazing on the first 2-3, then lose stamina and do that last few much slower. Better to keep even splits – and the best way to do that is with a watch.

A GPS watch is even better than a chrono watch. A GPS watch will track your distance, so you no longer need to be at a track if you want to do distance intervals. Just find a flat, obstacle free area and off you go!

Even better, a GPS watch can program your workout. So you no longer need to count and track each rep, your watch can do it for you. You can even build warm-ups and cool-downs into the workout.

How to Do Interval Training With a Smartwatch

Here’s a quick guide on setting up interval training on your watch.

Garmin Watches

Garmin remains the most popular running watch brand in the world. The majority of their watches work the same way when it comes to setting up intervals:

  • Navigate to the “Run” screen.
  • Press the menu button.
  • Go into Training > Intervals > Edit.

Suunto Watch

All predetermined sports modes have an interval option, which you can find in the options when you’re in that particular mode. In custom mode, though, you need to set them up manually.

To get intervals in custom mode, you’ll need to install an “interval display,” which can be found on the Suunto app. You can set your intervals, recovery, and reps on that display.

Polar Watches

You can find their Interval Timer on the Quick Menu. Choose “Timer for This Session,” Here you can choose between time-based and distance-based. You’ll also find timers you created previously here, so you can reuse them as often as you need.

Coros Watches

Begin by going into the Run profile. Navigate down to “Interval Training” and select it. On the next screen, you’ll be prompted to enter the number of repetitions, your run interval—time or distance—and your rest sessions. You can also set a warm-up and a cooldown here, which is great.

Apple Watches

Open the Workout app and find your chosen activity. On your activity, hit the menu button and scroll down to find “Create Workout.” Tap “Custom,” and you’ll be asked if you want a warm-up and a cooldown.

Then, hit the “+” button to add an interval. You can choose between time and distance and you can repeat this step as many times as you need.

Fitbit

From the app screen, hit “Account”, and navigate to your device’s image. Here, you’ll “Exercise Shortcuts”, and under that you’ll find “Intervals”. Set them and have fun!

Types of Intervals Runners Can Do

Intervals are versatile! Here are some of the workouts you can do.

VO2 Max Intervals

These are traditional intervals. Usually between 2 and 6 minutes long, with rest periods of 50 to 100 percent. These are usually high-intensity, pushing hard, designed to boost your VO2 max and elevate your performance over time.

Hill Repeats

Short but hard intervals up a hill. They can be done on a real hill or even on a treadmill at an incline, although it’s a little more tricky. The recovery period is the time it takes you to walk back to your starting point at the foot of the hill.

Threshold Intervals

Paced at your hour-race speed, less intense than VO2 max intervals. You can do intervals of anything from 5 minutes upwards, and you should rest for a minute or a few in between each session.

Fartlek Intervals

Fartleks are fun and are a bit more unstructured than others. You give it short bursts of 80 to 90 percent effort, followed by short sessions of easy running. You can set intervals on your watch or simply run—from this lamppost to that bench at 90%, from the bench to the fountain at an easy pace.

Pyramid Intervals

A fun challenge where you work your way up and down a set of intervals. Don’t forget to warm up and cool down! For example:

  • 1 minute, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 1 minute
  • 2 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 3 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 4 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 5 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 4 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 3 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 2 minutes, 5K race pace
  • Walk/jog 2 minutes
  • 1 minute, 5K race pace
  • Cool down

Can You Do Intervals Without a GPS Watch?

You don’t need a watch to do interval training.

You can use a stopwatch, or a smartphone. Or you can use a distance-based visual, like running between two trees or telephone poles.

There’s no denying that a watch is convenient, but it’s not an absolute necessity for intervals.

7 Tips for Runners to Use Their GPS Watches for Intervals

If you’re all set to start using your GPS watch for interval training, here are 7 quick tips to help you maximize your experience.

1. Customize Your Interval Settings

Most GPS watches allow the user to customize their intervals. This means you can tailor it to your own needs and abilities. Don’t just stick with whatever comes—really experiment with different interval lengths, recovery periods, and reps to find something that truly works for you.

You may also be able to save numerous interval workouts on the watch so you don’t have to do the same one again and again or create a whole new one every time you work out. This depends on the watch, but it’s worth researching.

2. Set a Target Pace

Rather than just going through your intervals without thinking, set a target pace you want to achieve. This will challenge you to stay consistent throughout your intervals and give you something to actively work on, rather than just “go as hard as you can.”

Depending on your watch, you may also be able to set pace alerts that will tell you when you reach your goal pace during an interval.

3. Use Visual and Audio Cues

Most GPS watches offer visual cues to indicate when your intervals are over or a new one is beginning. But this may not be convenient for everyone, so many watches also include audio or vibration cues.

If you don’t want to look at your watch to find out when your intervals are beginning or ending, set this up. It’s an excellent feature that lets you stay focused in your workout until you hear the beep or feel the vibration.

4. Use Auto-Pause

Some watches have an auto-pause function that comes into play with these kinds of workouts. It starts when you begin to run, and stops when you stop running or when your pace drops below a certain point.

This is handy for intervals as it gives you accurate interval times, and it helps to maintain a high speed if that’s what you’re after. Your recovery intervals won’t reduce your fast intervals regarding average pace.

5. Keep an Eye on Your Heart Rate

By monitoring your heart rate during your workouts, you can ensure that you’re always working at the right intensity. Most watches have Heart Rate Zones features, which allow you to see in real-time where your heart rate falls.

This helps you to get a feel of how intense you’re working out. If your heart rate is too low, you can up it a little to get yourself in the heart rate zone that’s most appropriate for your goals.

6. Set Your Split Screen

Set up the metrics that you want displayed on your split screen. This is the screen that shows during your workout, so you can get real-time data mid-workout. Set your split screen up with your current pace, your average pace, and your heart rate, as an example.

7. Listen to Your Body

Although interval workouts can be an amazing challenge and can boost your fitness, you need to pay attention to your body as you’re going through them. If you feel exhausted or have any kind of pain, rather stop.

You may need to take a little break, catch your breath, and get back into it after a few extra minutes of rest. Or, you may need to adjust your intervals to something that’s more doable for your current fitness level.

If you have sharp pain during the activity, you might need to adjust your shoes, loosen a piece of clothing, or something to that effect. But if it persists, it could be a sign that something is wrong.

Rather finish up, go home, and take some recovery measures, like foam rolling or using compression gear. If the pain doesn’t go away, or goes away with rest but returns when you exercise, you may need to see a doctor to rule out any serious problems.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.