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How to Do Interval Training with a Watch

It’s no secret: interval training is a key component to any good fitness program. Running is no different.

If you want to develop speed and increase your endurance, then it is time to grab a watch and get out there for regular interval sessions. In this article, we’ll talk about intervals, with an emphasis on how your running watch can help you get the most out of your efforts.

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 time. 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 8:00 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  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 stretches of running faster, you’re allowing your body to handle more fast running, which better stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles.

Trains You to Push Harder for Longer

In addition, Gaudette mentions 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 hard 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 a hard effort for a short period of time and forcing 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. That is, intervals are a great way to lose weight! 

In fact, a British Journal of Sports Medicine review found that interval training assisted people in losing 29% 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 take up oxygen more efficiently. You will 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 should include intervals in your training plan, let’s discuss the two basic versions of intervals: time and distance.

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, say, 200 meters), run/walking training, or HIIT.  

What are distance intervals?

Distance intervals are defined by running a particular distance, no matter how long the time it takes. If you have access to a track, it is easy to measure distances by meter. But if you don’t have a marked track, you can use other markers. Run hard for the next three telephone poles, the next six mailboxes, or to the fourth intersection. However you are setting up your distances, a single interval is typically less than a mile. Anything longer than a mile and you’ll be getting into the territory of strength work instead of speed.

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 a 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 affordable—less than $20 if you don’t need the function to save programs, 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.


  • Easy, low cost way to get started
  • Fine for time-based intervals


  • Hard to do distance-based intervals

See our favorite cheap watches here

Interval training with GPS watch

If cost is not an object, interval training is substantially easier with a GPS watch. Even the most basic models allows you to easily use time or distance to set your workout. 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 run 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.

And to be honest, things went in great in that race. Intervals were a big part of my training, and helped me hit my goal. Start working intervals into your training plan, and you’ll be hitting your own goals in no time.


  • Allows you to do time and distance-based intervals
  • Can program full intervals workouts on the watch
  • Many watches have pre-programmed workouts or you can customize what you need


  • GPS Watches are expensive
  • Can be complicated to set-up and use

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner