How To Choose A Running Watch

Should you spend £30 or £130 on a running watch? And what's a countdown timer anyway? Here's all you need to know


Posted: 8 August 2002
by Sean Fishpool

The kind of watch you need depends on the kind of runner you are. If you never race, never do speed sessions and all your runs are leisurely lopes, you don’t even need a watch. But most of us – whether we run a mile in 12 minutes or five – like to check our progress at least once in a while.

The most basic thing to look for is a memory function to record mile times in races or lap times in speed sessions. Many running watches also have countdown timers. These aren’t essential, but a good one can help a great deal when you’re doing repetitions.

On top of that, the watches vary in terms of extra functions – some more useful than others. They cover the board from dual-time clocks to a pacing option on one watch which you can set to beep 150 times a minute. The good news is that most of the models are surprisingly easy to use, with prompts on-screen telling you which mode you have entered and what happens if you hold down a particular key. We've created a plain-English guide to watch functions, below, which should help you decide what you need.

Don’t be so dazzled by functions that you forget the real basics – is the screen readable at arm’s length, and are the buttons easy to use on the run? A watch that tells you your aunt’s birthday will lose its shine if you accidentally hit the stop button when you want to record a lap.

The chances are that the watch you choose will also be water-resistant, and have a stopwatch, a wake-up alarm and an electroluminescent backlight (the sort that lights up the back of the screen evenly, usually with a bright blue glow).

We reviewed 8 good running watches in April 2002:

  • Adidas FX100 £80
  • Adidas SF100 £50
  • Nike Triax 300 £99.99
  • Nike Triax S Series Stamina 100-lap £99.99
  • Polar S610 HRM £180 (with heart-rate)
  • Timex iControl Triathlon 30 and Ironman 50 £33-£48
  • Timex Ironman 100 HRM £100
  • Timex Rush VO2 £34.99

What does it all mean?

Chronograph/stopwatch

The stopwatch mode (or ‘chronograph’) times your runs in hours, minutes, seconds and fractions of a second. On cheap models, it just uses a start/stop button and a lap button which pauses the display without stopping the stopwatch, so you can check your time at a mile marker or the end of a lap. On most of the watches here, though, the screen is split into two: one half shows your overall time and the other shows your current lap time. You could calculate lap times in your head, but even the slowest runner will find a built-in lap timer useful for racing and training.

Memory

Good watches store your lap times so that you can look at them afterwards. Their capacities vary from 10 laps to 120 laps, and most allow you to store as many sessions as you want within that limit (eg a 120-lap memory could store 10 x 12-lap sessions or 60 x 2-lap sessions). When you enter the memory recall mode, each session has a header page showing the date of the session (and sometimes its overall time). You choose the session you want to view, then scroll through lap by lap. Some watches also highlight the session’s best lap and calculate your average lap time. Once you’ve finished viewing, you can choose whether to delete the session from the memory.

A hundred-lap memory is more than most of us need, but you’d be surprised how much you can fill. Imagine you do all your training on a two-mile loop with a five-minute jog there and back, and you only remember to fill in your training log once a week. Here’s how many laps-worth of memory you might need:

Day Session Laps used
Monday: Jog out (1), 2 laps easy (2), jog back (1) 4
Tuesday: Jog out (1), 12 x 400m with 100m jog recoveries (24), jog back (1) 26
Wednesday: Jog out (1), 4 laps steady (4), jog back (1) 6
Thursday: Jog out (1), 10 x hill reps and recoveries (20), jog back (1) 22
Friday: Rest 0
Saturday: Jog out (1), 3 laps fartlek (3), jog back (1) 5
Sunday: Jog out (1), 8 laps slow (8), jog back (1) 10
Total:   73 laps

In practice, most runners probably store no more than three or four sessions at a time, using a maximum of about 50 laps in total. And you could get away with less memory by writing down the details of each session straight after you’ve finished it, freeing up the storage space for next time. Nike’s 26-lap Triax watch (not in this review) is a good example of the basic amount of memory you should look for – it’s enough for all the full mile splits in a marathon and for most people’s speed sessions.

Countdown timer

If you do speed sessions based on effort over time rather than distance, a countdown timer function helps. They vary in sophistication, and in truth, most aren’t so great. The classic version lets you set a single time and specify whether 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. Unless you plan to run a continuous session of equal-length efforts and recoveries, you’d have to do a lot of button-pushing to make this kind of timer useful because it’s so inflexible. A timer that lets you programme different-length segments into the same cycle (eg, catering for a repeated session of 5 minutes fast, 2 minutes slow) is better.

If you want a good session that even a basic timer can manage, you need a fixed distance to cover. Then you can run, for example, 12 x 400m setting off every two and a half minutes. You’d put the timer onto a continuous loop, and it would keep going in the background while you were using the stopwatch mode to time your laps.


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Discuss this article

I am going to buy a watch on friday for use when running, I would like to limit myself to about £30, anybody reccomend any, I hear Timex Ironman are good?
ta
Posted: 13/08/2003 at 17:56

I have the Timex Rush VO2. It has the standard watch, alarm, stopwatch with 50 splits, indiglo light PLUS (most useful item IMHO) two timers so if i want to do a training session of say 3 minutes fast and 1 minute recovery, i just set the two timers, hit the go button and don't have to look as it beeps every 3 and 1 minutes. It cost around £25-30.
Available with rubber strap or a velcro strap.

Posted: 14/08/2003 at 13:34

I have a timex ironman 30-lap, which apparently should be about £35 but bought end of last year mail-order for about £15. Saw a recent ad in RW advertising it for £20-odd.

Works great, had no problems and it's easy enough to read and to use : for that price, can't be bad - does Time, Day & Date, Alarm, countdown timer with various options, and lap splits, plus indiglo night mode.
It comes in men's & women's models, which I think are the same apart from size and colours, but be sure which you're getting if buying one over the phone.

From my experience, most benefit I get is from the lap splits. I went for 30, thinking that should be plenty for anything I can imagine doing (unless doing ultra's or lots and lots of intervals, max I could think of was for 26.2 of them !). A 10 lap split(say) watch wouldn't handle mile splits in marathons & halfs.

Might have a go at what you suggest, Dangly, using the countdown timer. Thanks for the tip - it'll be in the instructions no doubt, but I read them on day 1 and never since.
Posted: 14/08/2003 at 14:02

I have a timex triathlon 30-lap, which apparently should be about £35 but bought end of last year mail-order for about £15. Saw a recent ad in RW advertising it for £20-odd.

Works great, had no problems and it's easy enough to read and to use : for that price, can't be bad - does Time, Day & Date, Alarm, countdown timer with various options, and lap splits, plus indiglo night mode.
It comes in men's & women's models, which I think are the same apart from size and colours, but be sure which you're getting if buying one over the phone.

From my experience, most benefit I get is from the lap splits. I went for 30, thinking that should be plenty for anything I can imagine doing (unless doing ultra's or lots and lots of intervals, max I could think of was for 26.2 of them !). A 10 lap split(say) watch wouldn't handle mile splits in marathons & halfs.

But might also have a go at what you suggest, Dangly, using the countdown timer. Thanks for the tip - it'll be in the instructions no doubt, but I read them on day 1 and never since.
Posted: 14/08/2003 at 14:04

Interesting - wonder why it did that ?

Only difference between these is that my watch is a triathlon not an ironman, and a 'But' !
Posted: 14/08/2003 at 14:06

I don't think the triathlon has the twin countdowns, Andy. But if you find that it does, can you let me know how :-)

I'd second the lap timer comment though - definitely go for 30 or 50 laps and not the 8 that I have. Annoying even in a 10k.

I'd also recommend the plastic/rubber strap to the velcro one, as you can wipe it clean. The velcro ones get a bit yukky with sweat after a while, and also shred the sleeves of any long sleeved tops you may wear in cooler weather.
Posted: 14/08/2003 at 14:46

I got a Nike Triax 120, as the name suggests it has 120 memories and saves as many of them as you want in its own run (untill you move onto the next run) it saves as many runs as you want untill you use all the laps. When you recall each Run (displayed as Run-1 or Run-2 etc) it gives you the date of the run, alll the lap/split data, total time, average lap time and best lap time. It has 5 coundown timers too.

Oh and it looks pretty good.

All for £49 from my local indoor market, a little over budget but hey, I like gadgets...

Thanks all
Posted: 19/08/2003 at 14:02


XB
Which indoor market is that, Dave?

XB
Posted: 20/08/2003 at 15:52

its in burnley tow centre, the "stall" is at the right hand side about halfway along. The guy also sells mobile phones and unlocks them etc.

The watches are in the middle of the store front and have an orange star with "all nike watches £49" (or was it £49.99)

It does a couple of other things too, like dual time, 7 alarms and a manual counter (-999 to 999).

Are you in the area?
Posted: 21/08/2003 at 09:58


XB
I live in clitheroe and work in rawtenstall, so Burnley isn't off limits. I've justified a new watch to myself now for the hard bit...justifying it to Mrs XB.

She has just spent £90 on a handbag so I could use that in my closing arguments!

Cheers

XB
Posted: 22/08/2003 at 13:58

XB - 90 quid on a handbag! You should be able to get a new pair of shoes aswell!

And this is from a woman.........
Posted: 22/08/2003 at 14:01

...and one who can count...
Posted: 22/08/2003 at 17:36

I have just bought a timex ironman watch from Argos @ £26.99 (£3 off). It has 2 countdown timers and 50 lap memory. I wanted to get something that combined the Timex VO2 dual timer and the ironman lap memory. Not tried it yet but looks ok, rubber strap too. Catalogue number for anyone interested is 254/3101.
Posted: 28/01/2004 at 14:14

If you aren't bothered about a brand name then Aldi are still have their HRM for £14.99 in my local store (Leicester). If there is a store near you the this seems an absolute bargain bearing in mind the functionality you get.
Posted: 28/01/2004 at 17:57

I would like to buy a Running watch around £50 with a distance indicator on it. Any suggestion or recommecdation please.
Posted: 21/10/2004 at 18:46

Have a look on EBay they have some really good deals.
Posted: 22/10/2004 at 13:37

i have been running for years, i now have the motivation to race more reguarly. this means buying a watch for the first time. after checking the timex triatilon 30 laps sounds good. where from?
Posted: 07/09/2005 at 11:34

Hello All,

 I have a Nokia phone - Sport 5500 which has a pedometer, distance, laps etc on it, and a handy graph of speed against time - but synchronising it to the PC so I can post my training to my blog is a bit ropey.

 Does anyone know a good watch that you can sync easily to a PC?

 Thanks,

Darren.


Posted: 24/08/2008 at 12:21

Hi Guys

I'm also looking for a training watch need something that measures the mileage and also gives me pace i'm running at those are the 2 main things i'm looking for possibily heart rate as well - any ideas


Posted: 10/02/2009 at 14:58

hey yall,

I'm looking for a watch that keeps track of my lap pace & speed & time & maybe a heart rate monitor as well ~ any ideas?


Posted: 18/06/2011 at 22:15

Lidl next week

http://www.lidl.co.uk/cps/rde/xchg/SID-63A9072B-31D7D4BD/lidl_uk/hs.xsl/index_22249.htm


Posted: 05/07/2011 at 21:45

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