Training Without a GPS Watch



On May 6th, 1954, Roger Bannister toed the starting line at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England. A wind-whipped and stormy day suddenly calmed. Over 3,000 spectators craned their necks as the starting gun cracked. 3 minutes 59.4 seconds later, the crowd roared as Roger Bannister crossed the finish line, the first person to ever run a sub-four minute mile.

Though specifics of his training regimen are unclear, it’s rumored he did not train with GPS watch….


While the allure of using a GPS watch is strong – and nowadays they almost seem like must-have pieces of gear – in reality there are alternatives. Greg McMillan even recommends runners go gadget-free on occasion to re-calibrate their “inner” GPS. Our take is that while GPS watches are great for many people, they’re not for everyone.

Before we get into alternatives, let’s examine what makes a GPS watch such a great training tool.

Time, Distance, Pace/Speed

The hallmark of any GPS watch is its ability to tell you, in real-time, these 3 very useful stats. At any moment during your run, you’ll know how far you’ve gone, how fast you’re going, and how long it’s taken you. Afterward, this information is nicely summed up on the watch.

Heart Rate Monitors

These provide a window into your exertion level during a run. While not synonymous with GPS watches, they are a common feature.

Interval Workouts

Programmed on your GPS watch, interval workouts can be done virtually anywhere, eliminating the need to be at the track.

Tracking and analyzing workouts

Most GPS watches are able to download activities to a computer where they can easily be reviewed and shared on Facebook and Twitter.


How can we get these features without a GPS watch? One solution is to use a smartphone fitness app. While this is a good option for some runners, there are concerns that make them less than ideal.

Let’s discuss other workarounds.

1. Time

This one is easy. Just use a regular digital watch – we’re partial to Timex Ironman watches. If you don’t already own one, they’re inexpensive and easy to find. Make sure it has a stopwatch and lap memory.

2. Distance

There are two problems: how to measure distance while running, and how to measure total distance post-run.

While you run, there are a couple of options. One is to pre-measure your route in a car. Find landmarks at every mile or half-mile and use those as distance markers during your run.

A second, easier but less accurate method is to determine your average running pace. Head to the track, run at your normal pace for a long-ish distance, say three or four miles, and time your run. Divide your distance by total minutes ran and you’ll have average pace (4 miles / 37:22 minutes = 9:20 min/mile). The next time you run, just divide your current time by your mile/minute time and you’ll have distance. The problem is pace fluctuates road running more than on a track — hills, turns, stop lights, etc. can have an impact on pace. But this method is only meant for ballpark estimates.

Post-run, if you used the car method, you’ll already know how far you ran. If you used the track method, you’ll likely want a more accurate distance measurement. We like gmap pedometer or Map My Run. On these websites, you draw your running route on a map and it calculates the distance.

3. Speed/Pace

This one is tricky, and not even possible if you are using the track method we just described. With the car method, you’ll have a rough idea of pace if you can do the math in your head. Take your time and divide it by current mileage.

Since pace is so hard to determine, we recommend gauging the intensity of your run with our heart rate monitor workaround.

In other words, don’t worry so much about how fast you are going – focus instead on the type of workout you are doing (easy, tempo, interval, etc.) and monitor your intensity to see if you should slow down or speed up.

4. Heart Rate Monitor

Using heart rate zones – that is, determining your max heart rate and converting it into beats per minute zones of low, medium, and high intensity – is a common heart rate monitor tool. While not as mathematically satisfying as a heart rate monitor, there is a very easy way to accomplish the same thing: listen to your breathing.

Running with a partner, the classic way to do this is to monitor your conversation. If you can easily converse, you’re at a low intensity. As conversation becomes more sporadic and interspersed with harder breathing, you’ve reached medium intensity. All out huffing and puffing is high intensity.

Run alone? Listen to your breathing and imagine trying to talk.

5. Interval Workouts

Traditionally, intervals are done at a track with a stopwatch. With or without a GPS watch, this is still a great way to do intervals. But what if you don’t live near a track? Or just want to change up your routine?

We like counting telephone poles. Each gap is about 50 meters (more or less). If you’re doing 400 meter intervals, just count 8 telephone poles.

A second option is to forgo distance intervals and do timed intervals. If you know an 800 meter interval takes about 3 minutes and 20 seconds, run this amount of time off the track. The downside is you can’t measure your progress – and your reps might be shorter in distance if your pace slows. Our take: so what? Running a 765 meter rep instead of 800 won’t have a major impact on your training.

6. Tracking and Analyzing Workouts

Use a running log. Either an old-fashioned paper log or find one online. There are plenty to choose from. We like this one. It’s free and has plenty of data fields to populate.

A second advantage to online running logs is they auto-sum total mileage, time, and a variety of other information. We think that charts and graphs are great motivational tools.

To get the most out of your training log, we also recommend adding a few comments about how your workout went: was it easy, hard, did something unusual happen? This is rarely done on GPS watch activities — most people just download, review, and go. But reviewing comments are a  valuable way to figure what went right or wrong when analyzing your training.


We hope these suggestions give you some ideas about how to enhance your training without using a GPS watch. We’re also sure we missed some points and ideas. If you have suggestions, let us know and we’ll incorporate them into the article.

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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.