Am I The Only One Running Without A GPS?

Information overload! Image via

This post originally ran on July 30, 2012. 

I have a confession. I’ve called a 6 mile run, 6.5 miles. I’ve also called a 10 mile run, 9 miles. Yes, when I report to you all each week that I ran 40 miles, that figure could actually be 37 or maybe even 42! The world will never know because at the moment, I refuse to run with a Garmin. Or Nike+. Or even the Bia, whose Kickstarter campaign I still supported. Am I a luddite? A fan of the imprecise? Crazy?

Um, no, no and no.

I believe there are real benefits to running by time or without a watch at all. Some would argue that those just starting out or those learning to build mileage shouldn’t pay attention to pace or distance. I would extend that a bit further and argue that most runners could benefit from running by feel on their easy days. When you start to enter competitive running territory, pace and mileage become a bit more important. But there are even elites who swear by easy days that sometimes feature 9 minutes per mile runs. Many Kenyan runners are also reported to begin their long runs as slow as 12:00/mile and gradually get down to those historically faster paces as the run goes on.

With all of this said, I have a few questions for you Salty readers and GPS users.

What time is it? Question time! Image via

Why all the rage for GPS watches? I’ll admit that at times, I am intrigued by pace. Knowing how fast I am going (say, on a treadmill) can give me a boost of confidence, if I’m going fast. What happens if I am going slow? I can certainly try to pick it up and see what happens. Is having a GPS comforting? Or is it a double-edged sword? There are days when the body just wants to slug and knowing how slow I’m going can really get me down and also cause me to perhaps run faster than I should (which can be a very bad idea!) I also think the allure of having your pace sitting on your arm can cause neck problems from staring at the watch constantly. It’s hard to find the flow of the run and get lost in thought when you’re fixated on a tiny watch screen.

If two runners ran for 60 minutes, but one person covered 8 miles and the other person covered 6.5 miles, is there a significant difference? The distances may be different but it’s quite possible the effort was the same for each runner. If this is the case, I would argue that there is no significant difference and thus, running for time reigns supreme over running for miles. As such, it is helpful to have a mileage goal for the week. Yet, the mileage should just be  an estimate. Really, it’s an insignificant number. The time put in is what is significant.

Oh, the numbers we live and die by. Image via

What if after you ran a 10 minute marathon PR, you were to find out that half of your Garmin-paced miles from the past three months of training were significantly off? Or in other words, how do you know if your GPS is correct? For the amount of complaints I hear about lost signals, low batteries, and differences between two runners’ watches, I start to wonder how helpful these devices can be. I’ll admit that my running by feel philosophy didn’t develop immediately. Even last year, without a GPS, I would time my runs and then use gmap pedometer to see what my pace was for most of my runs. It wasn’t until this past winter that I really stopped worrying about easy run paces and just ran for time because I saw my performances continue to get better. How did this happen? I believe I was more relaxed.

Running zen?

So, I want some answers! I want to hear from runners who enjoy their GPS and aren’t a slave to pace. I don’t think I have caved in just yet because I know that I would become obsessive. Nonetheless, I’m not advocating to throw away your prized investment. Rather, I’d like to suggest how you can incorporate some of the running by feel techniques that I’ve picked up over the years into your training.

You can still use a watch, just use it for knowing the amount of time on your feet and to estimate distance. You can also still use the GPS, just put it on a setting where you can’t see the pace until after the run is complete. This may be a bit challenging in the beginning but trust me, you’ll feel so much better on your easy days. For some added fun, leave the watch at home, starting it there, run, then come back when you feel like it and see how long you went. You’d be surprised!

Don’t wear a watch or GPS to race. I haven’t done so in years. Why? I like getting into the race, not my pace. I also like being surprised at the end. Plus, being bad at math, I tend to not even be able to add up my splits when they are calling them out.

Look! Magdalena Lewy-Boulet is not wearing a watch. Image via

Assign yourself a standard easy pace. Mine is 9:00/mile on good days and 10:00/mile on achy, slow days. I use those paces to approximate my weekly mileage, taking my time spent on my feet into account more than the actual distance run. On days that I’m feeling extra snappy, I might even use 8:30/mile as my pace to record in the log.

Do at least one “pace” run each week. Anything over three risks entering an anal-retentive, stressed-out zone, at least in my opinion. I do mine at the track once a week so it doesn’t require a GPS. Sometimes if I am running with people on my long run, I’ll ask for the splits but I’m just fine not being the one wearing the Garmin (Thanks, Salty!).

Here’s one happy Garmin runner! Image via

So, what do you think? Are there any non-stressed, happy GPS users out there? Or better yet, who else is out there running without a GPS?  Are miles really that important or is time on our feet the real measure of our workload as runners?


I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Count me in the GPS camp. I wouldn’t call myself a stressed runner by any means, but I would never forego the Garmin during training. Okay, once in a while I run without it, but 99% of the time, my Garmin is my most treasured running gear. I am way too Type A to estimate my mileage and my training paces!

    All of my training runs – whether easy or a harder workout are scheduled by time and pace, so it is important to me to know whether I am hitting my designated paces or not. If I didn’t know, how would I have confidence in my training? Maybe if I weren’t training to hit a specific goal race time I wouldn’t care – but I always have numbers on the horizon I am trying to shoot for.

    I also love the ability to track my heart rate with my Garmin. I do not run by heart rate, but I do monitor it to see where I am at for the given day. I also rely on it to easily execute speed work. I don’t have a track nearby, so I can just set my Garmin for intervals and go. This weekend I ran 12 x .25 miles; .25 recoveries. I just set my Garmin and it beeped at me over those 6 miles when to push; when to slow down and recover.

    Finally, I find it to be a great tool in races. It is not 100% accurate, but I know that going in. I can still use it to ensure I don’t go out too fast and to remind myself to pick it up during the middle miles when I inevitably drop pace.

    1. Sounds like it works for you, Mint! I think the hardest part is finding what works. Were you always training at certain paces?

      1. No – in fact, I used to run too slow. Coach has sped me up over the last 2 seasons and it has been making a big difference.

  2. I really believe that sometimes we have to leave the electronics at home and just run. I’m Type A too, but the data can just be oppressive sometimes. My garmin broke last summer just as I started a new phase in training and I had one of my best runs when I just said run 10 at 7:10 effort. I knew the effort by then and just went. Maybe I only ran 9.87 or maybe I only averaged 7:13, but who cares? The training stimulus was the same and I didn’t sweat it – I couldn’t sweat it with no watch! It was so freeing. Why I didn’t continue to do that periodically, I do not know. That being said, even last year I almost always left all watches at home for easy days. I was working so hard on hard days that I really needed to make sure I behaved on easy days. Plus, when I was pushing the stroller for a lot of those runs it would have been extra bad for me to obsess about pace. Maybe I am mentally weak when the Garmin’s around or something, but it’s a tool I have to use in moderation lest I go crazy or overtrain.

    Here are some good links on the subject:

    Camille Herron had a great post that touched on this: I

    Greg also touched on it last week:

    Lastly, watch this. It’s hilarious!

    1. I guess my problem is that I don’t think running without a watch/GPS = running stress free. To me, they are completely separate issues. If you are a slave to your watch and checking it every few seconds, yeah, you should probably take a break. But having info does not mean you are NOT enjoying your run or running stress free.

      1. For me it helps, but I totally get that others are more capable of not being a freak when their watch is on their wrist 🙂 I like Ginger’s suggestion to have the watch, but turn off all the potentially stress-inducing displays so you have the data without the impulse to stare at it.

        Ha! I almost forgot! This will demonstrate my relationship with my watch. I was at mile 8 of a 10 mile race and underperforming just a tad and saw my coach on his bike. He yelled at me for staring at my watch and “running by the watch. He turned around and I looked at the watch again and he caught me and really started screaming at me. Then I thought I was out of site range and checked again and he caught me again!!! Haha! He was not happy and rode behind me for a mile yelling at me about it. I couldn’t believe how hard it was not to look at it even with my coach next to me telling me not to do it! I’m an addict! Haha. So, yes I am far more likely to run stress-free without it than with it. But again, that just might be because I have a problem 🙂

  3. I just posted on this recently. I am totally with you. I actually have two GPS watches (one a gift, one free for my blog) sitting up in a drawer. I just don’t need one and I am much happier without. And a bigger confession—it drives me crazy to see people obsessively looking at their pace every two minutes during a run. Give it a break!

  4. I’m definitely in the GPS (Garmin / RunKeeper) camp. Running for time as a concept is fine, but in practice I believe that knowing your distance is more practical. Every race you will ever run (or that the vast majority of us will) will have a set distance…only a very few count time. So in training for a 10K, Half, or Full Marathon, you are not out there to just run for a period of time…you are there to cover a distance.

    I can say that display two values on my Garmin, and don’t tend to change screens during the run. I have distance on the top, and time of day on the bottom. The pace for any given day is just that day’s pace…I very seldom will adjust my tempo beyond that day’s comfort level to adjust it or hit a goal.

    Personally, I love the feedback of knowing how far I’ve gone during a run. When I’m feeling a bit down, it is nice to know how much I’ve already covered. Having a GPS watch with me, also let’s me vary my course on a whim. I never need give it second thought as to how far I’ve gone or am going, because it keeps track of all that for me.

    I have little doubt that one day I may well “run naked” (so to speak), but I love logging my miles and pace, and sharing that with my other runner friends. My paces and distances are neither fast nor long, but their mine, and I’m proud to own them.

    1. That’s great Michael! I have good patches of training where I can go without obsessing, but then I might hit a rough patch and find I need to leave it home more often than now. We all gotta do what works for us! Keep up the good work!

    2. “Having a GPS watch with me, also let’s me vary my course on a whim. I never need give it second thought as to how far I’ve gone or am going, because it keeps track of all that for me.”

      bingo! this is why I love it. I find it especially useful for trail running, where I am less likely to have a set course that I know the approximate distance of, and my pace can vary so much it can be hard to back-calculate an estimated distance from my time. and I do the same thing, leave it on distance and time of day… sometimes I “cheat” and check my pace but I’m getting better at not doing it! I do like a naked run every once in a while but it’s probably only like once every two months.

  5. I never let my GPS watch dictate how my run is going or how my run went. I run with it by feel just fine. For many runs, it’s good to have it with me so I know when I need to turn around or run a different street. I don’t get caught up in my pace on every run. I love having it, though, whenever I am doing a tempo run or intervals, etc. I’ve actually run a few races without it and had a better performance, but even in races I don’t catch myself looking at it too much.

    I’m never a slave to it though and it frustrates me to no end to hear people say they “need” it. No, you don’t.

  6. Honestly, the only time I ever feel like I want GPS is when I want to vary my course – which is almost every run over 5 miles. I get bored easily with the same scenery over and over again.

    Also I find it can actually be pretty hard to gauge distance by feel in NYC. In the boroughs block sizes can vary and the crush of buildings and people can make you feel like you’ve gone a zillion miles when you’re barely across town. GPS empowered me for my long runs to go wherever I feel like going and not worry about whether I’m going to make my mileage minimums. And in as far as mileage minimums, I agree with Michael – if I’m training for a race I want to know I’m putting in the miles to make it happen.

  7. Great feedback all! Though I wish there were more running for time peeps 😉 Traditionally, there have been two camps, those who run for miles and those who run for time. When you run for time, it doesn’t matter how far your route is so essentially, you can go wherever if you have a general idea of the area you are in. Out and backs are often boring but can help when running somehwere new.

    I have only been using the running for time method during the last four or five months, with three of those months on and off due to injury woes. I’d like to start reporting my training in time only but I do think reporting it in mileage/kilometers is helpful because it is somewhat the universal language of runners. I guess I will be a good guinea pig for running for time if I can make it to a few fall races injury free! Too each her own, though. It is nice to hear from some GPS users that are happy and non-stressed! But have you ever run without a watch? If so, did it have the opposite effect and stress you out?

    1. I don’t think it would be a bad thing to report your runs in time instead of mileage, in fact I’d encourage it. Do what you think is right – the awesome part of what we’ve done with Salty Running is that it’s a place where different kinds of runners can learn from each other. I think there’s a lot to be said for your methods!

      1. I will try the time reporting this week! Even though I’ve been running for time, I do like seeing a miles number for the week. Hence, why I haven’t taken the full leap. But we’ll see how it goes!

    2. That is funny because my coach switched me over to running by time as opposed to miles, but he still gives me prescribed paces, so I guess I land in both groups! Before I had my GPS, it was all by miles and I had to figure out long runs by driving them first and then mapmyrun came out I used that. I found it WAY less stressful to just pop on the GPS and go!

      I have not felt stressed running without a watch, but I would if I had to all the time in training now after being so used to getting all my data. Heh – I have finished a long run before, uploaded my data, and gone back out for another .5 because I knew I was close to a certain number (such as 60 miles for the week). Yes, I am THAT lady. 🙂

      1. Haha but see it works for you. I think believing in your training method is what breeds success, not necessarily the training method itself. Ryan Hall’s coaching by God method is a testament to this!

  8. Shhh don’t let anyone know, but more than half my runs are “run for time”. Ironic since I am a triathlete – which is by its very nature a race-focused sport. More ironic since I am building Bia aka: Garmin crusher.

    Cycling is my real love. I had to train myself to be a runner. I couldn’t “learn” my body and fall in love with running with my pace and distance glaring at my from my GPS watch. And I didn’t have the personal discipline to not look at it if it was on my wrist. However i do at least 1/3 of my runs with it because the data is a great tool in teaching me how to pace myself correctly at the start of a race. I often go out too fast and I have trouble feeling my “too fast” because I am so revved up on race day. It’s also been a great motivational tool seeing my total milage increase and seeing how track work has helped my over all pace improve. That motivation has been pivotal for me to keep putting in the time on the run (when I’d sometimes rather hop on my bike).

    So what’s girl to do? Clearly I can’t design a product that I wouldn’t want to use half the time. So the solution on Bia will be a “Run Naked” mode. The watch will track your distance and pace for your training log, but when you are running, all you will see is the amount of time you have been out for — and the actual time of day.

    1. Run naked mode will be so nice instead of having to turn off alarms and figure out what data to display that won’t cause perma-stare at the watch face. Bia: brilliant as always 🙂

    2. Honored to have you comment, Cheryl! I know I’m going to be seeing Bia a lot come spring and if there’s a watch I’m going to get to take the plunge, it would be this one!

  9. personally, i tend to run with others who have a Garmin and i am typically a distance runner. trail miles lend themselves to that sort of “naked” running, anyway. when i am on my own, i use MapMyRun with my phone and almost never check it unless i need to get *at least* so many miles in. it is definitely as accurate as a Garmin (or, at least, no more inaccurate).

    while i do find my time over a run interesting, almost every route is by the seat of the pants, so comparing last week’s 15-miler to this week’s would be all but meaningless. it would be akin to saying that your 3:00 finish at the Blue Ridge marathon is the same as your finish on at the Columbus marathon.

    that being said, if i am doing speedwork on a track, i’ll use my simple sport watch to monitor pace on laps. i do monitor my time frequently. when i am doing a tempo run, i would use my heart rate monitor to monitor a certain pace/range. i can set an alarm to go off if it ever goes below a certain minimum heart rate so that i don’t have to keep checking.

  10. I used to be the biggest opponent to GPS. Now, I’m just against Garmins and other wrist-adhered supercomputers that look way less cool than a Casio calculator watch.

    I only started using GPS because my wife feels much better if I carry my phone when I’m out running in the woods, and my phone happens to have GPS. So, you know, running, they have an app for that.

    I used to only wear a simple Timex running watch that I bought on clearance for $25 at Target in 2006. Now, I have a glorified fanny pack to carry my phone and have ditched the watch.

    The nice thing about that is I don’t get obsessed with my pace mid-run. I just run by feel and let pacing bygones be bygones.

    I by no means think the GPS is the end all and be all of running bliss. It’s miscalculated mileage and downright skipped portions of runs that I most certainly completed. It’s a trumped up watch that also happens to tell me about how far I went and helps me with the math of how fast I ran. And if I ever need to call for a ride home, I can do that too.

    1. I have used my cell phone at times last fall and found the apps to be really neat but one time it said I ran 15:00/mile pace for an entire run and I then gave up. Maybe I just downloaded the wrong app. Nonethless, I like yours and Mike’s approach…seems to be a balance between the two schools of thought!

  11. I have had my GPS for about 3 years. I have done a pace alert a few times during races (and a couple of training runs), where it yells at you if you are going slower than pace. I honestly found that experience to be stress inducing and not very helpful – I would just get flustered and in the end, ignore it!

    I do like being able to take a more measured approach and kind of monitor my pace. On this morning’s run, I knew I was just having an off day and my pace was really off at the beginning. The splits confirmed it and I was able to pick it up for the last couple of miles. As others have pointed out, being able to mix up my route is a big one. I really like that “beep” that I get when I hit a mile marker – it can be such a confidence booster! Finally, the programming it for intervals and tempo runs is awesome.

  12. I’m a fellow run-for-time person. I estimate most of my regular-paced miles to be around a certain pace (faster if I’m feeling peppy, slower if I’m doing a recovery run) and then assign a daily mileage from that. I’m sure the “true” mileage is probably over or under what I’ll write down in the log, but that’s okay as long as I’m consistent with the way I record.

    I do have a GPS, but I only use it for workouts, and even then only when I’m preparing for a race. It’s great for that purpose, but otherwise it’s too much unproductive feedback/noise!

    1. Wow, Cathleen! I’m shocked at how similar our methods are in regards to estimating paces and mileage. Great to hear!

  13. I don’t run for time and approximate how far I’m going. I know when I’m working hard and when I can push and I know when my body just doesn’t want to move. I’ve ran 19 marathons in the past 3 1/2 years without injury and just ran Boston. I run on the treadmill a few times a year to do speed work and to understand my pace better. Each season I get better by working hard on increasing my long runs, some sort of speed work and trails. If I had to wear gear, it would totally stress me out, I think it would be harder to hear my body. My body and mind are in agreement, I want to keep running faster, so I keep pushing it and it keeps happening.

  14. I think this post is older, right? Anyhow, still relevant! Basically I started running with a nike gps and found out that my ipod was completely inaccurate, surprise my 10 min miles were more like 11 or 12 min miles. I was so disheartened but didn’t want to justify buying an expensive watch, or rather my husband didn’t want to (I am a SAHM). Anyways, I was a slave to the same route after that, I didn’t run with anyone…
    I did want a watch… I wanted to know that I was improving because I tend to think I can race faster than I think i can due to off calculations and then I blow up in a race.
    So after much (harassing) my husband about getting the cheap garmin, he finally gave in. I have had so much freedom with it. I can go on lengthly trail runs with friends (who don’t have garmin watches) and be able to tell them how far we went. We don’t have to stay road bound or take the same route, we can be impulsive and adventurous if we want to! When I do easy runs I only look at my watch to see really how far I have been going or to see the time if we have a time limit. If I am curious about splits or whatever, I can look later, but usually I don’t. So I would say I am quite the opposite, I tend to ignore my watch for the most part when I run, I get to know how far I went, try new things and do what I love.

  15. I don’t have one and don’t plan to get one. I already know the distance of my runs prior to heading out. And if I want to be fancy, I use map my run app. That’s good enough for me.

  16. As the founder of a company that creates fitness tracking apps for performance endurance athletes, I can’t help but comment on the clever title.

    No. You’re not the only one without a GPS.

    I’ve heard the phrase in club running – “I’m here to complete, not compete”.

    If you are a “complete” – get out there and enjoy the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Leave the watch at home.

    HOWEVER… if you are a “compete” – we suggest using all the tools available to improve performance, and this include GPS, and more importantly.. *good* apps that can address the concerns you pointed out.

    “If two runners ran for 60 minutes, but one person covered 8 miles and the other person covered 6.5 miles, is there a significant difference?”

    Yeah. And we can quantify that. Down to a number. And more.

  17. I am a huge fan of my Garmin GPS 305 Forerunner. Does my GPS stress me out and cause me to run too fast during my training runs? Not at all. My half marathon PR, set a little over a month ago, is 1 hour 53 minutes, about a 8:35 to 8:40 minute per mile pace. But you should see me during my training runs. I give a whole new meaning to the words Long, Slow Distance.

    Ok. I do try to throw in a few miles at half marathon goal pace here and there. Sometimes I even try to run quarter miles at my 5K pace, which is around 7:45 minutes per mile right now. But either way, as others have mentioned, the Garmin GPS is there to jot all of that information down for you.

    Owning a Garmin GPS means that I don’t go to a boring oval track for my speedwork. I go to my favorite state park, complete with deer, birds, and trees. I can start my quarter mile of 5K pace whenever I see that the path is completely clear of the dog walkers with their long leashes.

    In a half marathon in April of this year, I tried something a little different. Instead of running with a goal pace, I ran with a goal heart rate. I knew that my heart rate would go up just a bit as the race went on. So, I had sort of a target heart rate range for each mile of the race. Nothing concrete, but some guidelines. This worked well when I was running the hills. After all, you don’t want to go as fast climbing a steep hill as you would running on a flat part of the course. But how much slower should you take the uphill? Well, that’s easy. Just keep you heart rate at about the same rate.

    I got a PR in that race in April. But I probably had a little left in the tank when I crossed the finish line. So, a month ago I ran another half marathon without my heart rate monitor (but with my GPS watch, keeping track of my pace) and I set another PR.

    I would totally recommend a Garmin GPS to any runner. And I don’t even own stock in Garmin.

    By the way, if I want to break 1:50 in the half marathon, I am going to have to do what I believe Mint’s coach suggested, run more the easy runs a bit faster. I imagine that my 11 minute miles are a bit too slow. Too bad, I enjoy running slow.