With hundreds of great looking sports watches on the market, it’s no surprise that runners often feel quite overwhelmed when buying a watch for their training.
The high level of complexity in many of the features supported in the latest watches only adds to the confusion.
Having options is nice, but makes choosing one tricky.
As runners, it also helps to realize that we have our own particular set of needs and requirements, while a standard digital watch with stopwatch timer is fine for a recreational fun runner or occasional jogger, it won’t cut it for those striving for peak performance.
In this article we outline the features needed by serious runners who are looking to improve their physiological condition for better competitive performance.
We define the criteria for a runner that can be regarded as serious as one who:
- Races regularly, be it on an Olympic standard 400m running track, fun runs and road races on tarmac or cross country through mud and trails
- Most likely does frequent Interval Training
- Does several longer, slower runs every week
- Records their activity in a Training Diary
Unless you are training seriously, a complicated running watch is probably not necessary. If the extent of your physical activity is a couple of long run a week, then a cheap sports watch under $20 with basic stopwatch timer like the Casio Men’s Digital Sport Watch W756B-1AV should be just fine.
But runners who do take their training seriously can benefit from a more advanced watch. If you fall into this category then read on…
Like a recreational jogger, the serious runner’s most basic requirement is to track time over a run, but a serious runner also requires the ability to record and recall segments of a run or lap splits, both for their long runs and distance based interval training.
A countdown timer or interval timer can also be useful for athletes wishing to run time based interval training.
So the three basic features of a running watch are:
- A Stopwatch Chronograph
- Lap Storage and Recall for distance based interval training and long runs; and
- A Countdown Timer or Interval Timer feature for time based interval training
The Stopwatch Chronograph
The Stopwatch Mode or Chronograph of a running watch simply keep a running time in hours, minutes, seconds and fractions of seconds.
Cheap watch models usually only have start/stop and lap buttons that start, stop and pause the display without stopping the stopwatch. Few cheap watches have the memory capacity to store sessions or laps, so all times will be lost when the chronograph is rest.
Most good running watches can display two or more data fields on the screen. In the Chronograph mode, one half of the screen typically displays your overall time or split, the other your current lap time.
The more advanced the sports watches, the greater the ability you have to customize the real-time display and the larger the variety of data fields that can be presented.
When choosing a running watch, it pays to pick one with a digital display that is comfortable to read at arm’s length while on a run.
You will have to live with your watch for a long time, so it pays to compare a few until you are happy with the display.
The diagram shows the relationship between laps and splits
Lap Recall and Storage
Running watches with Lap Storage can save split (a snapshot of overall time)/lap (the segment of time since the last split) times in the watch’s memory. Some digital sports watches maintain a session history, while others can save laps in memory, but only store one session at a time.
Runners who wish to save their repetition times should seek a session history sports watch. Session history watches allow you to to cycle through a list of sessions ordered by date and time. Each session contains information about your workout such as overall time, lap times (if a multi-lap session), your best and average lap times and even heart rate and speed information over a lap, should your watch have the ability to measure heart rate and pace.
The number of sessions a watch can store typically ranges from 10 to 150 laps, but can be a lot more in the top line watches. While 150 laps of memory might seem like quite a lot, you’d be surprised how much you can fill over a week. The table below shows an example week.
|Monday:||Long Run – out and back, take split at half way (2)||2|
|Tuesday:||Jog out (1), 8 x 400m with 100m jog recoveries (15), jog back (1)||17|
|Wednesday:||Long Run – four splits along the course (4)||4|
|Thursday:||Jog out (1), 10 x hill reps and recoveries (20), jog back (1)||22|
|Saturday:||Jog out (1), fartlek 8x random repetitons (8), jog back (1)||10|
|Sunday:||Jog out (1), 8 laps slow (8), jog back (1)||12|
The amount of session storage you need depends on what you are comfortable with. The more storage capacity on the watch, the longer you can wait before updating your diary. If the storage capacity is small, you will have to update every few workouts.
The Timex Ironman 30-Lap Watch is a probably the minimum you should look for – it’s enough for most people’s speed sessions and a few long runs.
Countdown and Interval Timers
A Countdown Timer lets you set a time and when started – counts down to zero. The classic Countdown Timer lets you specify if you want the timer to beep and repeat the countdown at the end of the first cycle, beep and stop or beep and count upwards.
The drawback is that it runs over a fixed time interval. In practice, most timed interval workouts require varying length time intervals.
For example 3 minutes of running, followed by 2 minutes of recovery, repeated 8 times.
Unless you plan on doing a continuous session of equal-length efforts and recoveries, you’d have to do a lot of button-pushing to make this feature work.
Fortunately some watches have an interval timer like Timex Ironman Watch’s Interval Timer mode. It allows you to program different-length segments into the same cycle. A Countdown Timer or Interval Timer feature is not essential, unless you are doing fixed time repetitions, but it can be an extremely useful feature.
Some other things to look for are:
- A scratch-resistant watch face
- Buttons that are easy to press while running
- A comfortable band that is a good fit on the wrist
Some more advanced features you might also consider are:
- Heart Rate Monitor
- Heart Rate Zones and Alerts
- Long Battery Life
- Solar Power Battery Charger
- Training Measurement and Goal Tracking
- GPS Tracking
- Pedometer Tracking
- Altitude Measurement
- Pace/Distance Measurement
- Pace/Distance Zones and Alerts
- Customizable Display
- Calorie Measurement
- Cadence Foot Pod Option
- Computer Data Uplink and Software
Hopefully choosing a sports watch will now be much easier. Of course, what is mentioned here only scratches the surface of what modern sports watches have to offer. You will still need to shop around, but at least now you can quickly discard the watches that won’t be much use as a running watch.