a sports watchA sports watch is a runner’s second most important tool (after shoes.) Choosing the right one can be a harrowing experience, and it is easy to choose the wrong one. It took me until I was 24 years old to find a sports watch that I really liked, and it has lasted longer than any of my other watches. The next time you are looking for a sports watch, bear these 5 tips in mind.

  1. Number Size: The most important thing to me is how large the numbers are. When I am running, I don’t want to have to search for the numbers; I want to be able to glance down at my wrist and read them.
  2. Button Size/Position: The size and position of the buttons to access the various features of the watch are the second most important attribute that I look for. Having buttons that are difficult to find or difficult to push makes it harder to track your workouts and splits.
  3. Water Resistance: You should never settle for anything less than water resistent to 100 meters.
  4. Laps and Splits: Having lap times and split times are important for training and can help you break down your race performances later to see where you need to improve. They also help jog your memory as to the specifics of a workout for when you are recording it in your training log after the fact.
  5. Other Features: I put other features together, since I have fairly simple needs and other features are just a bonus. An alarm or two, count down timers, and workout memory are all nice features and ones that I use.

This list is the order of features that I look for in a watch, and they serve as a good guideline. The first item on most people’s list should be fit, because if a watch is not comfortable then you will never wear it. If you have a small wrist, you may have to give up large numbers or buttons to avoid getting a watch that does not fit right. Most watch bands can be replaced, so if a sports watch does not fit quite right you can always get a more comfortable watch band (or steal one from a watch that does fit well) in order to improve the comfort level.

You might think that at least 100 meters of water resistence would be a given, but I have had two watches that have died on me. One got wet in a rainstorm and just stopped working, and another got submerged slightly on a run which lead to barely readable numbers. It then violated the first rule that I look for in a watch, which is to make sure that I can easily read the numbers.

Another feature that you tend to take for granted is that a sports watch is going to have lap and split memory. I always assumed that any watch that had a chronometer feature (which is a given on a sports watch) and that could show you your lap and split times would be able to remember them until the end of the workout. It was not until my current watch that I had one that could store multiple workouts. My last watch, which I have since given to my wife, had nice big numbers but could only display a lap and split time when you push the button. Once you go for your next one, that split is lost forever. I reviewed the watch a couple of years ago, and determined that the watch was fine on random runs but not for any sort of interval work.

The watch that I reviewed also had a “databank” feature, which was completely worthless. When I met my wife, I suppose that I could have recorded her phone number into the watch since I was probably wearing it at the time. It never even occurred to me, though, and I probably would have forgotten the phone number while trying to figure out how to enter it. I did a much better job just writing her phone number down when I got back to the gym. Watch out for features like this, especially if there is a chance that they will impede usability.

Some nice features that you can keep an eye out for are large lap memories, multiple workout storage of those lap memories, countdown timers and programmable interval timers, and pace guides. Some watches will allow you to enter how far your race is and how long you expect it will take you. When you press the lap button every mile (or kilometer) you can see how far on or off pace you are.

If you get very fancy, you can find some watches that come with GPS tracking, or that interface with your iPod and tell you how far and how fast you are running, your heart rate, and a thousand other features that you have to pay a lot of money for. The simple ones work for me, and I have rarely play with watches that have these other features. I had a heart rate monitor once that interfaced with a bike computer (that you could wear as a wrist watch) but I rarely used it.

How well does your watch measure up against these feature lists? Are you happy with the one you have, or are you ready to shop for a new one?