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How to Choose a Running Watch

From early morning road runs to epic endurance tests in the mountains, the right running watch will provide the data you need to track, measure, and ultimately improve your performance.

Running watches run the gamut from basic time-keepers to sophisticated micro-computers; finding the right one for you is a function of where you run, how you run, and why you run. You’ll want to take into consideration your training goals (more ambitious goals may demand more sophisticated metrics), terrain you typically run in (e.g., altimeter functions on hilly or mountainous trails), and your general affinity for tracking data (some of us are numbers geeks, while others simply aren’t).


There are two ways a watch is able to tally your time: first, as a simple timer that gives you a count of elapsed time; and second, with split-time tracking, which allows you to measure specific segments of your run. This is usually displayed in a chronograph form which indicates some combination of current split, last split, and elapsed time. Whether you run on a track, an out and back route, or have the luxury of mile-marked trail, knowing your splits keeps your pace consistent. Many watches also feature alarms that may be set to give you an audible signal letting you know if you’re on pace. Timex and New Balance running watches run the gamut from simple chronographs to those offering advanced functionality.



Pedometer capability takes a simple running watch to the next level. It works by measuring distance using your foot strike; combining timing with distance allows you to keep consistent track of your pace. Most runners will greatly benefit from this feature. The pedometer often combines with an odometer to give you a running tally of your mileage.


While a pedometer will tell you how far you’ve traveled in a horizontal plane, it won’t tell you how many vertical feet you’ve climbed. If your idea of a training day is a jaunt up your local ski run, seeing 1.7 miles on your watch isn’t all that impressive, especially if the elapsed time is seemingly slow. However, if your watch indicated that in that 1.7 miles you also climbed 3000 vertical feet … well, that is a whole different training profile. An altimeter function provides vertical gain and loss. Many watches are also able to show you how fast you are climbing or descending in feet/hour.


Suunto Ambit2 Heart Rate MonitorIf you want your training to become an exacting metric, buying a watch with GPS is imperative. GPS (global positioning satellite) enables your watch to chart your exact route, speed, and pace. GPS watches, often geared towards backcountry skiing and mountaineering, can be bulky and expensive; however, most companies offer lighter, more basic running-friendly models such as the Garmin Forerunner 10, the Suunto Ambit2 R Watch,  or the Tom Tom Runner GPS Watch.

Heart Rate Monitor

Unless you have been running long enough to be in complete tune with your pace and RPE (rate of perceived exertion) you most likely rely upon your heart rate monitor to give you feedback on the session du jour. While some watches claim to be able to calculate heart rate from your wrist, the most effective ones do so using a heart rate strap worn under your running clothing across your chest. Polar pioneered the field more than 30 years ago, but all of the previously mentioned companies offer several models of heart rate monitor watches that track your level of exertion and can even calculate calories burned. The ability to read the signals transmitted by a heart rate chest strap also means that many of these watches can be paired with “pods” attached to your bike or your shoes to transmit speed, distance, and cadence data, adding to the functionality of your watch.

Training Program and Computer Compatibility

If you are a data nut, no matter which features you elect in your watch, you’ll want to be sure that it records your data and is capable of downloading it to your computer. Gone are the days of hand entering data on spreadsheets.

Most running watches that record training data are able to download to either PCs or Macs. Some companies like Suunto, Garmin, and even Timex have their own sites in which you are encouraged to log your information, and may offer tips and protocols to enhance your training. You can also share your data with other runners, creating a virtual training group.


Additional Features

While you may not be wandering far enough from home to warrant the use of a compass, if you are taking the foray into ultra-running or if the night is the only time that you have to run, additional features may become your best friends. A backlight is even useful during Ironman if you aren’t going to finish in daylight hours. Programmable alarms are ideal if you need to be reminded when to hydrate or eat.

Water Resistance & Battery Life

Even if you’re not using your watch for swim cross-training, you’ll want to look for a watch that is water-resistant to at least 50 meters. This ensures that rain and sweat do not enter and corrode the internal mechanics of the watch.

Watches come with two types of batteries, either a standard watch battery or a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The former are most popular on watches with simple time keeping and split-recoding functions while the latter are necessary for GPS-enabled devices. Most watches last about 6-8 hours on a full charge, so if you run daily, you’ll want to be sure you turn your watch off after use and plug it in at least every other day to recharge.


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