How to Do Interval Training with a Watch

If you’ve been in the running community for any duration of time, you’ve probably heard how great intervals are for developing speed and increasing your endurance. In this article, we’ll talk about intervals with an emphasis on using a watch to complete the workout.

Tracking your intervals with a watch is a great way for you to make sure that you’re completing the workout as planned as well as giving you evidence of your training efforts. That always makes me want to do more!

women looking down at watch doing running intervals

What are intervals?

We’ll start first with answering a basic question: what are intervals? In a couple words, intervals are short, intense efforts followed by at least equal recovery times. This means that you run really fast for a little bit, slow down to recover, and repeat the process several times.

Thus, you might run ¼ mile at an 8 minute mile pace—2 minutes—followed by at least 2 minutes of recovery where you’re lightly running/jogging or even walking.

If you’re looking to increase your speed and develop more endurance, you have to start interval training. In fact, Runner’s World actually has a whole page dedicated to interval training.  

Why should I incorporate intervals in my training?

The better question is why wouldn’t you incorporate intervals into your training? The benefits go on and on. Here are just a couple reasons to start including intervals in your training.

Quickest Way to Improve Fitness

Running coach Jeff Gaudette notes that interval training is the fastest way to increase your level of fitness as compared to any other type of running. Because you’re giving yourself a short break between fast sprints, you’re allowing your body to handle more fast running, which stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles more.

Trains You to Push Harder for Longer

In addition, Gaudette mentioned that short bursts of hard running can train your body to run more efficiently, which can translate into the rest of your training. In other words, intervals train you to be a better runner.

Similarly, Caroline Geiger, a certified group fitness instructor, notes that pushing your body to handle a hard pace for several short intervals will assist your body in handling a more aggressive pace sustained over a longer period of time.

Improves Your Running Form

When you’re running faster, your running form is going to be better. Why? You naturally make your form as clean as possible so that you can get through that particular interval, as certified personal trainer Corinne Fitzgerald notes

In addition, by sustaining the hard running for a short period of time and focusing yourself to take a break between hard intervals, you’re inevitably ensuring a pause before your form starts to break down.

Helps You Lose Weight and Reduce Stress

Interval training boosts your metabolism and increases certain hormones that suppress appetite and reduce stress, so intervals are a great way to help you lose weight! 

In fact, a British Journal of Sports Medicine review found that interval training assisted people in losing 29 percent more weight than moderate steady state-exercise.

Improves Your VO2 Max

Finally, interval training is a great way to improve your VO2 max because training at high-intensity levels trains your body to perform better under physical stress and use oxygen more efficiently. This will help you see major gains in your 5k performances in particular.

runner doing intervals looking at watch

Time vs Distance Intervals

Now that we’ve gone through the reasons why you want to start including intervals in your training plan, let’s discuss the two basic versions of intervals.

What are time intervals?

As the name indicates, time intervals are based on a particular time, not distance. For example, you might decide to run hard for two minutes and then recover for two minutes.

When should I do timed intervals?

When you don’t have access to a track or if you don’t have a GPS watch to measure distance, timed intervals are a great way to still get the benefits of intervals. Timed intervals are also good for doing very short intervals—less than 200 meters—or run/walking training or HIIT.  

What are distance intervals?

Unlike timed intervals, distance intervals as the name implies are based on distance. This can be in meters (if you’re using a track) or in other increments (normally less than a mile).

When should I do distance intervals?

Distance intervals are ideal when you have access to a track or a GPS watch, and they are especially good for longer intervals of 200 meters or more. Also, training plans typically feature interval workouts that are distance intervals.

running with watch

Interval training with Chrono Watch

If you don’t have a GPS watch, you don’t need to despair because you can still do interval training with a chrono watch or stopwatch. Simply use the lap button to record the time of each interval.

Unless you have access to a track, chrono watches are going to be most useful for timed intervals. However, if you are running on a track, most watches will let you review laps if you need to record times during distance intervals. 

In a similar vein, there are interval timer apps available, and some even allow you to program the different times for your intervals and put together an entire plan. You can also always use the timer on your cell phone if you don’t happen to have a watch.

You could even purchase a basic interval timer that lets you program timed periods for hard intervals and recovery periods. Like a GPS watch, it will beep or vibrate when the time is up. 

They are very cheap—less than $20 if you don’t want to save your program or just slightly over $20 if you do—and therefore much more cost-effective than a GPS watch, and you don’t have to worry about losing or damaging a very expensive device.

If you think that you might get distracted by your phone or all the bells and whistles of a GPS watch, a low-tech interval timer could be a great option for you.

See our favorite cheap watches here

Interval training with GPS watch

Interval training is substantially easier with a GPS watch because you can do them either by time or distance. I actually normally do a combination of both. The fast intervals I do based on distance—¼  mile or ½ mile typically—and the slow intervals I do based on time. If I ran hard for two minutes, I’ll recover for two minutes.

Most GPS watches allow you to program intervals on your watch or upload them to the watch so that you don’t have to think about it during your workout. You’ll just run what you planned before.

You can set up distance or time intervals on your GPS watch, and the watch will track the intervals for you, beeping or vibrating after each segment is completed. I find this particularly helpful because you can focus on running hard and not be staring down at your watch.

Finally, as I hinted at before, you can run distance intervals anywhere with a GPS watch versus a chrono watch where you need a track. This can allow you to take on different types of terrain during your interval training.

For example, I knew that the course for my first half marathon was quite hilly, so I did all of my interval training on hills, and my GPS watch made that possible. The other thing I like about my GPS watch is that it records the intervals so I can look at my times later and see how things went.

The Wired Runner