Sport Watches 101
Sport watches are built specifically for sport and active use. They're not only built using sweat-resistant, waterproof, and dust-resistant materials (such as silicone or PVC), but they include features (GPS tracking, heart rate monitor, stopwatch, etc.) that are required for sports, running, and resistance training.
You can find sports watches as low as $10 at Wal-Mart or Target, but those tend to be cheap—both in terms of build quality and functionality. If you're looking for a stopwatch, alarm clock, and date/time functions, you can find decent sports watches for up to $50.
However, if you're looking for quality, a decent smartwatch/running watch/sports watch will run you as much as $100. It will have basic features (heart rate monitoring and GPS functionality), but not much else. Over $100, that's when the watches start getting good. For up to $300, you'll find more functionality, including accelerometers, heart zone training, interval session programs, and connectivity with smartphone apps and computer programs. Over $300, the watches are fully functional, including VO2 Max readings, vertical oscillation, indoor/outdoor tracking, and even tips on improving run form.
For the average person, a top-of-the-line watch isn't necessary. A GPS watch with heart rate monitoring should suffice, though you can consider spending a bit more to upgrade the functionality of the watch. However, for professional athletes, it may be better to spend more ($300+) to get a watch that can keep up with your rigorous training.
Types of Sports Watches
Sports watches tend to be digital, thanks to the broad range of features required for full functionality. Digital watches display the time clearly, and they offer a much more versatile design that makes it easier to integrate other features like GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, and intervals.
However, analog sports watches do exist. They are built with the same rugged case, glass, and band as a digital sports watch, but they use a classic quartz movement to keep the time. They don't always offer the same broad range of functions, and tend to be less common than digital sports watches.
Thanks to the popularity of "classic" analog watches, many sports watches today are incorporating analog timekeeping and displays with digital functionality. The time display is an analog movement, but there are digital features (day, date, GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, etc.) available in the watch. This is a stylish choice, but it still offers a decent range of functions.
Sports watches may be alike, but they're not all the same. In fact, there are a surprising range of watches for various sport and recreational activities:
- Diving watches – Diving watches can be either analog or digital, but they will always have a highly visible, bright-colored, well-illuminated face with large numbers. They will be water-resistant up to 300 meters, and they can be made of a broad range of materials: from stainless steel to silicone to titanium. They don't always have a full range of functions, but tend to be more built for reliability and durability than versatility.
- Mountain climbing watches – Mountain climbing watches are built specifically for climbers. Some of the most popular features in a climbing watch include: altimeter (telling your altitude above sea level), barometer, digital compass, storm alarms, temperature gauge, weather trend indicator, and GPS positioning. They are usually made of silicone, polyurethane, or other non-metal materials.
- Fishing/Hunting watches – Fishing/Hunting watches are built for use by those who spend time in the great outdoors. They tend to include GPS tracking, but many come with sunrise/sunset alerts, shot detection, weather trends, moon phase calendars, and the ability to track/plan your route. They're not waterproof like diving watches, but they're water-resistant and durable.
- Running watches -- Running watches are built specifically for runners, including features like: distance run, run time, heart rate monitor, GPS route tracking, calories burned, compass, heart rate graphs, and temperature. Marathon and long-distance runners will find these watches very handy when analyzing performance. They can be used for cycling as well as running, and watches with GPS positioning and map interfaces (like the Garmin Epix) can be used for hiking as well.
- Interval watches – With the popularity of CrossFit and High Intensity Interval Training, there are a number of timepieces built specifically for interval training. These watches are usually digital, and they allow you to set the length of your long and short intervals, the number of intervals, the rest periods between, and the length of the workout. They are used to help you track your time and stay on top of your interval training.
- Swimming watches – For professional swimmers, swim watches are a handy training tool. Not only are they highly water-resistant (or waterproof), but they come with features that are useful for swimming: drill locking, stroke type, stroke count, swim time/distance, SWOLF score, accelerometer, and compatibility with fitness tracking apps and software.
GPS Watch vs. Fitness Tracker vs. Smartwatch
GPS watches, fitness trackers, and smartwatches are all the rage when it comes to tracking workout or run performance. These watches are often promoted as being the "way of the future" for your exercise.
However, you'll find that there are a few subtle differences between these watches. While they can all provide similar functionality (telling the time, tracking your running distance, connecting with your smartphone, and monitoring your fitness), they each serve a slightly different purpose:
GPS Watches are typically designed for runners, cyclists, hikers, and anyone who needs to be sure of their location on a map. GPS watches will track your movements, display your distance and speed/pace, and provide better GPS connectivity than your smartphone. They tend to have large buttons that are easier to use than a touchscreen, giving you the ability to cycle through your display interface.
GPS watches can be used for sports beyond running, as they may include a triathlon mode, swimming mode, and cycling mode. They tend to have built-in ANT+ receivers that can be paired with heart rate monitors for more accurate monitoring, or cycling sensors to display speed and cadence. GPS watches may feature a number of apps that allow you to expand the functionality of your device.
Fitness Trackers are designed for running and general activity, but not usually for a specific sport. They track running distance, run speed, step count, calories burned, heart rate, and sometimes GPS positioning. However, they don't offer the same range of functionality as a GPS watch, and they tend to be simpler (and cheaper).
Fitness trackers are often narrow bands worn around the wrist. They may not even have timekeeping capabilities, but are simply there to monitor your activity performance. Some are compatible with smartphones or computer programs.
Smart Watches are designed to be more "tech-forward" than exercise-friendly. They come with a full range of features—everything from email access to internet capabilities to dozens of fitness tracking apps—that allow you to monitor a broad range of exercise metrics. They're fully compatible with your smartphone, and they work with the fitness tracking apps to help you stay on top of your workouts.
However, they're much more fragile than your average sports watch, and they tend to be a lot pricier (the Apple Watch will run you anywhere from $330 to $1,300). They're built for form rather than function, and they lack the durability of sturdier sports watches and fitness trackers. The bands, especially, are prone to damage from sweat and water, and the glass isn't as scratch-resistant as well-built sport watches. Worse, impact can destroy the fragile tech integrated into the watch.
Running vs. Sport Watches
The term "sport watch" is used to describe ALL active watches, including hiking watches, climbing watches, cycling watches, and, of course, running watches.
Sport watches generally come with a broad range of generic "sport" features: GPS tracking, day/date, chronograph, and heart rate monitor.
On the other hand, running watches are built specifically for running, so they incorporate features specific to your runs: route recording, pace, distance, heart zone training, interval sessions, calories burned, performance graph display, and so on.
As a casual runner, you may not NEED a running watch specifically. You may be able to get by with just the generic features included in a sports watch. However, for those who are trying to improve their running performance by tracking run-specific metrics (like pace, run time, route, etc.), the features included in a running watch may come in handy.
Sports Watch Band Materials
Sports watches come in many different styles, but the look of the watch isn't as important as what it can do or how long it will last. Before we get into the functionality of sports watches (see the next section), you need to understand the types of watch materials to choose from:
Stainless Steel – Stainless steel is the most commonly used material, thanks to its durability and fairly low cost. It's lightweight, resistant to corrosion (from sweat and water), and makes for a strong, impact-resistant watch. However, it's easily scratched, which makes it less than the best option for heavy outdoor/sports/active use.
Ceramic – Ceramic is a highly durable, heat-resistant material, one that is used to protect NASA space shuttles from heat damage. It's very pricey and has an unusual appearance, but it's fairly resistant to impact and wear. Luxury sports watches are often made using ceramic.
PVD – PVD watches are really made of steel, with a layer of oxides, nitrides, or carbides deposited on the surface of the steel using physical vapor deposition (in a vacuum). They have a very masculine appeal, and the build is as durable as stainless steel watches. However, they're not resistant to scratches, so they will often wear out/fade more quickly than stainless steel.
Titanium – Titanium is another high-end material that is used to make luxury sport watches. It weighs about half as much as steel, but it has twice the strength and durability. However, it's not an easy metal to work with, so repairs to titanium watches are challenging and costly. Expect to spend about 30-40% more on a titanium watch than on a simple stainless steel watch.
Carbon Fiber – Lightweight, super strong, and very durable, carbon fiber is a material commonly used in sports equipment—not just watches, but everything from golf clubs to tennis rackets to racing boats. It's a sleek, stylish material with a matte black finish. However, it's not as versatile as some of the other materials listed here.
Silicone – Silicone is soft, flexible, and rubbery, with just the right amount of elasticity to make it the perfect material for active and sports use. It may not be the most stylish or luxurious material, but it's durable, inexpensive, and easily adapted to any watch design. It's a synthetic material that will hold up under a lot of heavy use.
Resin – Resin is a material similar to hard plastic, and it's as lightweight and durable as silicone but as versatile as regular plastic. It's usually molded while liquid, then dried and cured into the desired watch band/case shape. Resin watches tend to be more three-dimensional than silicone watches, and are usually more stylish without being pricier.
Textile/Canvas – Textile and canvas aren't the most commonly used materials for sports watches, but they can be incorporated into running, rowing, and other active-use watches. Textiles and canvas are durable, and they are a stylish option if you're looking for something for casual wear as well as active wear.
PVC/PU – PVC and polyurethane (PU) are both synthetic materials used for watches (specifically watch bands). They are lightweight, durable, flexible materials that offer good versatility in terms of style, color, and texture. They're also very inexpensive.
Best Sport Watch Features to Consider
If you're considering buying a sports watch, here are the features you DEFINITELY want your watch to have:
Chronograph – Also known as a stopwatch, this is a must-have for any workout you do. A chronograph will help you know how much time you've spent training, running, or playing, and will give you the most accurate way to measure a specific amount of time.
Alarm – Having an alarm on your sports watch will help you know when it's time to wake up, time to hit the gym, or time to get back to work. All digital watches come with alarms, but you may want to consider one if you're going analog or analog/digital. It's just helpful to have an alarm right on your wrist!
Day/Date – This is another feature built into most digital watches, but it's an important one to help you know what day of the week—thus what workout day of the week—it is.
Heart Rate Monitor – No matter what type of activity you'll be engaged in, you want to make sure you're hitting the workouts hard. A heart rate monitor will enable you to track your performance and keep your heart rate above the minimum. The longer you keep your heart rate up, the more calories you burn.
Water Resistance – This is a MUST even for those who never intend to swim. Your exercise will cause you to sweat a lot, and you may end up running or training in the rain. Anywhere from 5 to 10 ATM (5 to 100 meters) will be more than enough to keep your watch working in any wet or rainy condition.
Calories Burned – Whether you're lifting weights, running, or playing sports, the point of working out is to burn those calories and push your body to its limits. A calorie counter built into your sports watch will help you know exactly how hard you've been working.
Large, Clear, Bright Display – Whether you're running, swimming, cycling, or hiking, you want a clear view of your watch's display. The readout should include large numbers on a screen that's bright even in low-light environments.
Bright Backlight – If you train at night or low-light environments, you'll need a backlight to illuminate the screen.
Long Battery Life – While many simple sports watches have batteries that last for years, your average GPS watch has a battery life of 5 to 12 hours. Some models (like the Garmin Fenix 3 HR) can last for up to 50 hours, with some (like Suunto's Ambit 3) hitting 100 to 200 hours before needing to be recharged.
The features listed above will come in handy for all outdoor, sport, and athletic activities. However, if you're planning on engaging in a specific type of exercise or activity (interval training, distance running, mountain biking, hiking, etc.), here are a few more specific features to consider:
Multi-Sport Mode – If you're planning on doing multiple types of activity (running, swimming, cycling, interval training, etc.), you'll want a watch that can handle it all. Multi-sport mode allows you to switch between sports easily, and provides you with customized interface/tracking features for each type of activity.
Activity Tracking –To stay on top of your fitness progress, you'll want an activity tracker that can pair with your smartphone or computer to display and monitor your activity statistics.
Pedometer – Getting in those 10,000 steps per day isn't easy, but it's important for staying healthy! With a pedometer (step counter) built into your watch, you'll be able to see how many steps you've taken each day.
Accelerometer – If you're cycling, running, or engaging in sprint training, you'll need an accelerometer to track your speed and distance.
Underwater Heart Rate Monitor – For swimmers and triathletes, this is a must-have feature. It will help you to monitor your heart rate while swimming or training, helping you stay on top of your performance overall.
Route Navigation – Hikers, runners, and cyclists will love this GPS feature! It allows you to not only plan a route for each workout, but lets you know how far you've come and how much you have left to go.
GPS Positioning – This isn't a must-have if you never leave the gym, but any outdoor runner, mountain biker, or hiker will want this feature! You'll never get lost as long as you have a watch that lets you know your GPS position.
Heart Zone Tracking – To improve your fat burning, cardiovascular endurance, or stamina, you need to get your heart rate into the right "zone". Too high, and you could go from fat-burning to high intensity endurance training. Too low, and your intense workout could end up little better than a slow jog. With heart zone tracking, you can set how high you want your heart rate to be, and your watch will let you know when you've hit that target heart rate. It will also alert you if your heart rate rises above or drops below the target zone.
Connectivity – Many GPS watches come with ANT+ compatibility that allows you to pair them with chest strap heart rate monitors and sensors (which have been proven more accurate than wristwatch sensors). Others are Bluetooth-compatible or Wi-Fi-enabled, which allows you to connect them to your smartphone for fitness tracking and data transfer. For those who want to be part of a larger "fitness community", connectivity is a must-have.
Intervals – For CrossFitters, resistance trainees, and HIITers, this is a must-have feature. The interval timer allows you to set your watch to beep when it's time to switch from low to high intensity intervals (or vice versa). That way, you don't always have to check your watch in the middle of your training session, but the pre-set intervals input by you will keep you focused on your workout.
Lap/Split Times – For runners, this will help you to track your lap time so you can keep pushing yourself to complete those laps/distances faster.
Indoor Run – For those who spend a lot of time training on treadmills rather than outdoors, the indoor run option allows them to track their treadmill performance.