Watches, GPS and other kit

Anthony has sunglasses and a running watch; photo by David Knight

Anthony has sunglasses and a running watch

Timing and distance measurement

Most runners need a watch with a stopwatch function to measure how long you run. Look for a watch with the following features:

  • a large display, so that you can see it while you are running, and a light so that you can see it in the dark;
  • a stopwatch with a lap function, preferably one that can store 10 or more laps in its memory;
  • water resistant, for running in the rain;
  • easy to press buttons, so that you can press the lap button during a race or on the track.

A number of manufacturers make watches specifically designed for runners.  The price of these watches can vary from £20 to more than £100, depending on the brand and functions.

Sports watches with a stopwatches are useful for races, so that you can check your speed at each mile marker.  They are also useful if you train on the track where you need to monitor carefully the speed of your efforts, and your recovery times between efforts.  Some runners use a repeat “countdown” function which enables them to programme their watch to bleep at regular intervals, to pace themselves while they are running (e.g. every 25 seconds if they are running 100 second laps) or to regulate their recovery times.

Heart rate monitors

The use of heart rate information in training is discussed in detail in Chapter 10.  Heart rate monitors can also be used to track your progress as you become fitter; to check for overtraining (by measuring your heart rate when you first wake up – see Chapter 8), and to help you judge your pace.  They are, however, expensive; and they are certainly not a necessary piece of equipment unless you choose to base your training on heart rate training zones.

Heart rate monitors consist of two components: a chest strap (sensor) and watch (receiver).  The straps are interchangeable across the main models, and can be bought separately when you need them for around £30.  The watch usually has the normal functions of a sports watch, as well as the heart rate functions.

Serious runners may want a heart rate monitor that can download stored data from the watch to a personal computer, using either a special interface unit or a sound link.  This allows the runner to store and analyse the data from each session.

Some heart rate monitors estimate the number of calories expended in each workout, based on your gender and weight.   This can help to provide additional motivation, although the calculations are not very accurate.

The inexpensive Garmin Forerunner 110GPS watches and pedometers

You can now buy rwatches that measure your speed and distance using GPS satellite signals. (This is the same technology as is used by satellite navigation in cars.)    In the early days these watches did not work well in built up areas, such as London or Manhattan, because they could not always lock on properly to the signal; but now they seem to work pretty much everywhere.

I’m a bit of a data junkie, so I love my GPS watch (I have the Garmin Forerunner 310XT).  I like to see how far I have run and how fast, after every run.  Each run is automatically downloaded to my laptop, where it goes into my SportTracks running log.  On my laptop, I can see the route I ran traced out on a Google map, and I can plot how fast I ran each mile, or how my heart-rate varied according to my speed.

These watches are expensive, and you definitely do not need one to start running.  I promised myself I would buy a running watch when I had first run 10km in less than 40 minutes (and bought one the same day).

A cheaper alternative to GPS watches is running watch that estimates distance (and speed) by counting the number of steps you have run.  The most basic pedometers work by counting the number of steps taken, and then multiplying by the average stride length (which was entered in advance).  This approach is notoriously inaccurate, because your stride length depends on how fast you are going, how tired you are, and the terrain on which you are running.  The estimates of the distance run therefore varied enormously.  More fancy speed and distance monitors use a small sensor that you tie into your shoelaces, which measures the acceleration of your feet.  Nike makes one of these which you can attach to your iPod.  This is much more accurate than assuming a constant stride length, but it is less accurate than GPS.

Other kit

Apart from shoes, clothes and a watch, there is not much that a runner needs.  However, you will find a range of useful items in your local specialist running shop.  Some especially useful products are:

  • a wrist wallet, or a small shoe pocket which interleaves in your shoelaces, to carry your door key or car key and some spare money for emergencies;
  • a bottle for carrying water on long runs; this can be either a doughnut shaped bottle which goes round your hand (made by Runners’ Aid) or a bottle which fits into a specially designed belt around your waist;
  • a reflective vest, and wrist and ankle reflective straps, for running at night; (you can get ankle straps with flashing lights on them in some bike shops);
  • an identity tag to identify you in case of emergency, including any emergency medical information (e.g. allergies, blood group); RoadID sell them over the internet, specifically aimed at runners;
  • plasters for blisters – these are different from the normal plasters you get in chemists, as they are specifically designed to promote healing of blisters. You can put one of these over a blister and run immediately without noticing it at all. You can also use them to avoid blisters:  I usually put on one before a marathon in the place where I would normally get a blister.  Recommended brands of plaster specifically for blisters are Compeed and Second Skin)
  • Vaseline (or another lubricant) which is used to prevent chafing in long runs;  runners often apply copious quantities of Vaseline to the nipples, between the thighs, and under the arms towards the shoulder blades, all of which are areas that can run.  You can also buy special plasters designed to go over nipples to stop them from rubbing against your shirt or bra, though ordinary surgical tape or plasters do the job just as well.

6 Responses to Watches, GPS and other kit

  • Martti Toivonen:

    You might add also the use of a smartphone for tracking one’s running. The ones with ant+ capability can even be used for recording the heartrate. I personally use a small smartphone with endomondo app and am very pleased with it.

  • Martti Toivonen:

    Since I wrote the above I have found out that both Polar and SportsTracker make heart rate monitors that can be connected to a smartphone.

  • I agree there are a lot of great $99 GPS watches on the market and Tech4o makes great accelerometer watches for people in cities or without good satellite coverage.

  • Mike Frost:

    In my experience most of the footpods (speed / distance sensors that attach to the shoe) currently on the market are at least as accurate as GPS watches on most terrain (particularly if calibrated), and better at responding to changes in pace – so allowing you to manage your pace more effectively as you run. They do not have some of the issues associated with GPS that can affect pacing (e.g. temporarily lost signals under bridges etc). The Nike + footpod is not particularly good but Garmin and Polar footpods are and well worth considering as an alternative to a GPS or (in some cases) as an addition.

  • Cesarzuelan runner:

    I wear a Suunto ambit 3 and just loved to see the trail from my laptop after running. Also exported to google earth and see the path with all the inclinations. Having a watch is a super tool to keep the motivation level up.

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