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How & Why to Run Without a GPS

How & Why to Run Without a GPS

Throw on some shoes and go.

Running is often seen as this simple sport.

Yet, with the speed at which electronics are improving these days, you can make something so simple, convoluted.



Throw on some shoes and go.

Running is often seen as this simple sport.

Yet, with the speed at which electronics are improving these days, you can make something so simple, convoluted.


It has gotten so complicated that the term “running naked can just as easily mean you’re running without a GPS than without clothing!

Why would anyone want to do this? Wearing a GPS seems so ingrained in the minds of the modern runner, that it appears almost as crazy as running without shoes!

Yet, if you put away the GPS with the right expectations, you may be surprised.

Reasons to Run Without a GPS

A Weight, Lifted.
This is strange, but I must first list that my favorite part about running without a GPS is this feeling of having a weight lifted off my shoulders. I suspect this comes from not having something tracking my every single movement?

Runs have been canceled or postponed because of a dead GPS watch. Is that how dependent we’ve become on knowing our speed and distance? A GPS has a life of 6-24 hours on a full charge, depending on the model. You may plug it in every day or every few days. A simple stopwatch with a nickel sized battery has a lifespan of hundreds of hours. You may have to replace it a couple times a year, meaning there’s virtually zero chance of you finding a dead watch on your wrist.

GPS watches can be off by up to 5%, more or less depending on how clear the sky is, if you’re among tall buildings or trees, going under bridges, etc. The seconds on a stopwatch are always accurate!

GPS watches are barely practical for wearing while not running. Typically they are quite large, but style comes into play as well. It’s also unfortunate that the smaller models may tend to be more inaccurate and hold a charge for less time. A larger size may also be bothersome while running. On the other wrist, stopwatches tend to be very low profile and come in all shapes and sizes.

Pace Changes.
But effort does not. If you use a running calculator such as the McMillan tool to receive an estimate of your suggested paces, those paces are only valid during runs on the same terrain, in the same temperatures, and at your fitness level during the race. If you plug in an early spring flat road race, those easy paces are not valid for a very hot trail run with lots of hills.

The same goes for heart rate values and suggestions. However, an easy run is an easy run if you use perceived effort. Your easy pace will also change based on your previous run difficulty, fatigue level, the size and timing of your previous meal, the heat, the time of day, etc. It may be best to simply ignore pace and run “easy”.

How to Run Without a GPS

Now that you have some ideas of why you should run without the GPS and with a regular stopwatch instead, how do you go about doing this?

You don’t have to charge them, just replace the battery every few months.

A Signal.
You don’t have to wait to pick up a signal. Just hit start.

Run by Time and Effort.
Instead of running X miles at Y pace. Run X minutes at Y effort level. You can do a long progression run of an easy 60 minutes, moderate 20, and a hard 10 minutes at the end.

Logging the Workout
Since I only run with a watch tracking my duration, I’ve no idea the true paces or distances that I typically run. But, I do know that over a long period of time over various routes and terrains, what my average pace typically is. For my log, I simply record the time and a rough estimate of my distance covered, and I estimate a slightly slower pace. 

When to Run Without a GPS

Track Workouts.
GPS watches cut corners, because they take longer to track around a corner than you do to turn it. Now, imagine you’re doing Yasso 800’s around a track, and the GPS cuts every single corner. At the end, it will have tracked less distance than you actually traveled! A stopwatch on your wrist plus the track will be 100% accurate, every time.

Easy Runs.
These runs are meant to be done at a very easy and relaxed pace. I’ve noticed that I actually run slower if I head out for an easy 45 minutes rather than an easy five miles. I feel not having the watch track my pace lets me relax a bit, about my speed.

Most races are of an accurate distance, especially larger ones. However, like mentioned above, a GPS may be off by 1-5%. In addition, an accurate course is measured by the shortest possible route, which you may not take, especially if weaving around other runners. This means that your GPS will almost always track a longer distance than the course actually was. It can be frustrating if your own mile splits or total distance differ from the true course.

Trail Runs.
Depending on the accuracy of your GPS device and the thickness of the trees, you may lose satellite signals throughout a trail run, or never pick one up in the first place.

You May Also Like: The Art of the Easy Run / How to Adjust your Running for the Winter

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