ST Run: Watch your step while you choose the perfect device

Since the digital revolution of the 1970s, watches have progressed by leaps and bounds.

Gone are the days when running watches simply had a stopwatch with lap function in addition to telling time. Watches today are literally miniature computers that are jam-packed with a multitude of functions and capabilities, and certainly do much more than simply timing your run.

Choosing from myriad devices and their various functions may prove to be extremely confusing and overwhelming for some runners.

I hope this article will help you narrow down a suitable device based on your preference, so that you can focus on completing The Straits Times Run.

The most rudimentary device is the step tracker. As its name suggests, the main function of the step tracker is to tabulate the number of steps taken daily.

They are mostly simple and basic, but very durable, often waterproof, have a relatively long battery life and consist of a single unit lodged within a wristband or a clip-on.

Once calibrated to the user's walking style, these devices are also rather accurate in calculating energy expenditure.

Runner Banjamin Quek checking his watch for data on his run. Watches come loaded with a multitude of functions and capabilities, while doing much more than simply timing your performance. PHOTO: ONEATHLETE

By utilising satellite signals, watches with GPS are able to accurately pinpoint your location and provide real-time feedback on running speed, pace and distance covered.

You will also be able to view your running route online once your run data has been uploaded. Downsides to this technology include potential patchy signals, slow satellite signal locking, and the need for frequent charging every few days.

Many running watches are also equipped with the ability to monitor heart rate, either using a separate chest strap or directly from the watch via an optical sensor.

Knowing how your heart rate responds to exercise tells you how hard you are exercising, and allows you to set specific targets for exercise intensities.

Although wrist-based heart rate monitors are generally reliable during low to moderate intensity exercise, their margin of error increases significantly at higher intensities.

Conversely, chest-strap heart monitors measure electrical impulses from the heart through the chest wall and maintain accuracy even at high exercise intensities.

For most recreational runners who wish to track trends in heart rate, these differences are not deal-breakers. However, for elite athletes and those who train using precise heart rate ranges, chest-strap heart monitors are often the preferred option.

Banjamin Quek, managed by ONEathlete, explains why a good running watch is important to him: "Let's say I am training for 10km in 33min 20sec. That is an average of 3:20 per kilometre. I want a watch to be able to ensure that I am running at my targeted pace consistently.

"During the 2013 Nike Run, I noticed that my timing was ahead of targeted pace at the half-way mark, got motivated to maintain the pace for the remaining race, and won."

For runners who engage in other sports such as cycling and swimming, there are watches with the ability to detect cycling cadence and even swimming strokes. Those who hike are able to choose from watches equipped with functions such as a barometer, altimeter and compass.

With so many options, working out your budget is an important step. You will usually have to pay a premium for new-generation watches with more features.

However, a practical alternative is to simply use your existing smartphone in place of a watch. Most smartphones have comparable functions to those mentioned above, with the potential for many more when paired with the relevant apps. The main disadvantage is running with your smartphone that may prove to be rather bulky, depending on its size.

Ultimately, regardless of what you have chosen to help you with The Straits Times Run, my advice is to make sure you feel comfortable with it, and that it does not interfere with your run, physically or mentally. Not even today's watches are able to tell you that just yet.

•Dr Yeo Tee Joo is a consultant with the National University Heart Centre, Singapore and a member of the multi-disciplinary team at the NUH Sports Centre.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline ST Run: Watch your step while you choose the perfect device. Subscribe