Is it time you got a runner's watch?

December 10, 2013 8:48 AM

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Is it time you got a runner's watch?

Running watches and I have had a stop-start relationship. I trained for six months with a very good one for the New York Marathon and it was my best friend until the 25km mark.

This is where the biggest crowds on the course line First Avenue, giving runners a boost as they head towards the Bronx. The race briefing people had warned us that when we get to this point, it’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of arriving onto Manhattan and to pick up your pace - costing you dearly later. So I looked down at my watch to check I was on track and inexplicably the screen was blank. It had been fully charged 25km ago.

I was glad I’d been anal enough to write my 5km splits up my arm in black pen, so I still had a pace reference. But I still kicked myself for being lulled into that false sense of security that a bit of blinking wristwear can bring.

I’ve had other run-ins - no pun intended - with technology during training and races. From not allowing enough time to pick up a GPS signal before the start gun fired (who knew six minutes wouldn’t be long enough in Sydney’s Macquarie Street?); to pausing the stopwatch at traffic lights - only to forget to start it again; to being unable to read the screen properly when training in the dark and so missing turn-around splits; to having to stop mid-run to ask a pedestrian the time of day because my watch was telling me everything but.

And yet - of all the gadgetry out there for athletes, the running watch is the one I persist with. When a new one comes onto the market, I’m as excited as an Apple fan at the launch of a new iDevice. Why? Because they are such good training aids. I love a kilometre split as much as the next runner; I like a pacing guide; I like to be able to set a distance when working through a program; I like instant feedback.

And now innovation has taken the running watch a step further with the built-in heart rate monitor and a whole lot more functionality - so much so that you could almost be justified in firing your coach. Almost.

This month adidas launched its Smart Run in Australia ($500 RRP). Users can track runs using GPS mapping, monitor their heart rate off their wrist, listen to their favourite music, and get real-time coaching via Bluetooth. All the new technology is packaged into a 80.5g unit with a silicon strap. I test-drove one recently and am now on the verge of upgrading my opinion of watches from “unreliable training aid” to “potential best friend (running)”.

So far the best bits are the fit and the heart rate monitor. I’ve used chest straps before and frankly, they were a bit too much of a palaver. Built-in monitoring is a breakthrough and the accuracy, adidas says, is 99 per cent. The monitor gives feedback by the second (this can be scaled back to save battery when doing really long runs) and the colour screen designates zones you’re working in, making training more efficient. The watch vibrates when you’re in the “red zone”, which is a logical feature because when I hit that level the other morning I wasn’t in a position to be looking at my wrist. A simple vibration was good enough. If I’d been hooked up to Bluetooth I might have had my music interrupted to hear my virtual coach telling me I was in the red zone and to back off - or stay there a bit longer.

I also love the swipe-style interface, similar to that used on an iPhone, and the black background display makes reading the screen a lot easier.

Being wireless, your workout syncs to the MiCoach platform as soon as you walk in the door, saving the bother of plugging the watch into the computer to download data and leaving more time for oft-neglected stretching.

It also has an accelerometer that counts every step so you can monitor your stride rate when running on a treadmill or otherwise out of GPS range. And on scheduled non-running days the watch can guide you through strength and flexibility sessions via numerous animations.

All this technology raises the question of battery life, and adidas acknowledged it’s an ongoing challenge. There’s no use having all this fabulous functionality if the watch can’t last the distance, so to speak, which may be an issue if you’re using the SmartRun with all its bells and whistles activated for more than five hours. The trick is to implement the manufacturer’s battery saving suggestions. I haven’t had any issues yet - certainly nothing as infuriating as a blank screen at the 25km mark.

It seems there’s no end to where technology can help runners. When you’re time-poor and working towards a goal, be it your first 10km race or an ultra-marathon, a running watch can be a great tool to help get you there. (Note the word help. It’s still worth getting to know what different pace rates and thresholds “feel” like, without technology’s help.)

And as a back-up, come race day I’d still recommend writing your splits up your forearm. Tattooing is in, after all.


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