So what's the deal with running watches? Do I need one? Can't I just use my phone?...
This is a common I question that I often get from new runners that are a bit hesitant to fork out the money for a watch. My answer is YES! If you're serious about running your best and optimizing your training, you need to have real-time and post-run data.
The good news is that you have unlimited options as wearable technology continues to advance. Multisport devices and smartwatches such as the Apple Watch have introduced an endless list of features, which has forced the older generation of run specific technology to evolve. The old school Garmin watches have been amongst several brands that have had to step up their game in order to keep pace with the functionality evolving in the market.
But when it comes to a running watch, what do you really need your wrist to be telling you? Do you really need to see your text messages, check Twitter and answer your phone mid-run? Maybe. The challenge that you're faced with when tracking your running with a GPS watch is understanding what information is essential. What's "nice to have", and whats just useless?
In this post, I won't nerd out on you with the tech specs of each device, rather I will give you a starting point and some things to consider before you go shell out the coin and join the cool kids. I'll give you the essential data that you should look for as a runner, some features that are good to have, and an idea of the price ranges you can expect to be in. You can spend a lot of money on bells and whistles or a more conservative budget can get you the essentials.
So let's get started and quit wasting "time". (Sorry couldn't resist)
Give Me The Goods
Most GPS running watches will provide you with multiple in-run data screens, plus piles of post-run graphs, charts and trends that you can view in an app and analyse until your eyes cross. But what do really need to focus on? In my experience, you can over-analyse your performance both while running and after, so I tend to keep my eye on a few key metrics.
Here's what I would suggest you look for (Essential Features):
Pace: Any GPS running watch will be able to provide you with your pace (During and after a run). Typically you will find it expressed as average pace or current pace. This will give you a good sense of how hard you're working and by using pace you can effectively manage your training effort to ultimately achieve the desired benefits you're looking for. Be careful with this however when monitoring your pace data in a run. It can fluctuate, and often is not providing you with real-time information which can suck you into speeding up and slowing down in an attempt to correct it. Using Lap Time helps to address this (see below)
Distance: This one is a no-brainer. You need to know how far you've gone, because many workouts in your plan will prescribe a target distance. You'll find this on every running watch and it's a primary metric you'll monitor. Post run data can also keep track of your run mileage over time which is beneficial and encouraging.
Lap Time: Being able to set a lap time allows you to measure the total time it takes you to cover a set distance. Typically this setting would be in Miles or Kilometers. This in addition to pace can help you to run/target a specific intensity. For example, your long run pace range might be 5:00 - 5:15 per KM. The lap indicator can help you monitor this over the course of the run and show you the averages and individual laps in the post-run data. For shorter interval work you can set the lap distance to match and some watches have a lap button that you can press and reset whenever you want.
Total Time: Your total running time is again something that should be on every running watch. This would be data that you would look for often in a run and could be used in conjunction with a workout target (i.e. 45-minute easy run) or in a race situation to track your overall time.
Heart Rate: The newest technology has the Heart Rate monitor located right on the watch and picks up your heart rate in real-time from your wrist. Older technology makes use of an external chest strap that communicates with the watch, which some say is more accurate, but it's definitely not as convenient or comfortable.
The important consideration in monitoring your heart rate is that unless you know your maximum heart rate, you're really not going to make full use of this information to train within specific aerobic zones accurately.
You can definitely observe trends over time as a way to gauge effort and how well you're recovering, but take that information with a grain of salt as there are a lot of factors that can play into your heart rate.
Sharks With Fricking Laser Beams
These are features that are what I would consider a bonus. They're certainly not essential, but they're nice to have. Similar to cars, these features are starting to become "factory" on many running watches, so look for them and if it's in your budget go for it.
Auto Stop: This feature pauses your run activity on your watch automatically when you stop moving. This comes in handy when you get stuck at a traffic light and have to wait. Your time won't keep going and skew your lap/pace data. Before I had this feature I always forgot to stop my watch at a light which always threw me off and distorted my post-run information.
Cadence: Some running watches will be able to detect and track your running cadence. It will be expressed as a max, min and average, plus shows your cadence during the course of a run. This is helpful data to look at as many of us need to improve in this area. Check out this video to learn more about cadence:
GCT: Stands for Ground Contact Time, and is the measurement of the amount of time you are in contact with the ground from foot-strike to toe-off. GCT decreases as your pace increases and this measure can help you get additional insight into your turn over and the efficiency of your stride.
Music: Some of the newest watches enable you to load hundreds of songs right into the device, freeing you up from having to carry your phone or iPod while running. Additionally, you can access playback controls, volume and track selection etc. The Garmin Forerunner 645 is a good example of this. Simply connect Bluetooth headphones to the watch and you're set.
Alerts: This featured enables you to set alerts when you run faster or slower than a range you input. For example, you could have an alert go off if your pace drops below a certain speed, or if your heart rate climbs above a certain threshold.
Calories: This is something you will see on a lot of running watches. Keep in mind that it's never an exact number, but does give you a good sense of approximately how many calories you're burning in a run. Once you've programmed in your weight, height and other personal information the device can use the data to estimate your caloric effort. For me, this is nice to know information but not overly useful, and is something I could live without.
Elevation Data: Another common measurement many running watches on the market can analyze from your run data, is the amount of elevation gained and lost in a run. This is good info to have and is most helpful when you're reviewing your post-run stats.
Speed: This is a simple measure that typically is helpful to look at post run. This data is displayed per km or miles/hour, as well as the overall average. By monitoring this, you can gain insight into the efficiency of your stride and of course your overall running speed.
Vo2 Max: Some running watches have the ability to predict and measure your Vo2 Max. Using your personal information, run data and heart rate measurements over time an approximate number is given. This method is far from perfect but can give you a general sense of any improvements you're making over time. For a better understanding of what Vo2 max is, you can read a past blog post where I get into more detail:
So now that you know what you can expect, what brands should you consider? In my opinion, there are a few well-known ones that have a solid track record. Above and beyond the features, the most important consideration is that these are GPS devices and therefore they should be accurate in how they measure your distance.
Also, the better watches (and the ones that I'll recommend) are reliable and fast to find a satellite signal. Lower quality GPS devices can leave you standing at the end of your driveway for an eternity as you wait for it to find a sync up.
Here are the brands I'll point you towards as a starting point: Garmin, Suunto, Polar, & Tom Tom.