How To Choose A Running Watch

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.