How To Buy a Sports Watch and Level-Up Your Training

There is a myriad of sports watches available to runners today. Where to begin? We’ve spoken to some of SA’s top trail runners to get their input and collated some tips as well as watch models to suit your needs, budget and fitness level.

Ryan Sandes Trail Running In South Africa With A Garmin Sports Watch Made For Trail Running.
The sports watch is a great training (and safety) tool for seasoned running pros (like the above pictured Ryan Sandes) and newbies alike. How to find the right one? That takes a bit of work but we have some guidance for you! PC: Craig Kolesky / Red Bull Content Pool

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR WHEN SHOPPING FOR A SPORTS WATCH:

1 – BREADCRUMB MAPS

According to Addo 100-miler record holder, Matt Healy, breadcrumb maps are a feature he would never hit a trail without. “A lot of sports watches nowadays — the more high-end watches — that I might use when running ultras or out on the trail offer ‘fuller’ maps where you can see topography and details but to be honest, for me the main feature to look for is breadcrumbs,” Matt says. “Just knowing that you have a map that is pre-loaded on your sports watch and you can follow a line, really keeps me relaxed when racing because at any time if I feel that I am off route and haven’t seen a marker in some time I can go through my maps and my interfaces and check that I’m still on route. In terms of running a new trail in training or when in a new area this feature is also really important for safety and peace of mind.”

2 – A GOOD APP TO PAIR WITH YOUR SPORTS WATCH

Outside of the sports watch model (or brand) make sure you do your research into the related App. “You want something user-friendly,” Matt says, adding that being able to make your own GPX files quite easily, especially for training, is a big plus for him. “If I’m doing a long run and want to work in a certain amount of elevation gain, it is nice when you can plot your route and see the topography and work in your vert that way.”

3 – CUSTOM INTERFACES ON YOUR SPORTS WATCH

Many watches feature activity and training-session-specific interfaces, ranging from road running to the treadmill, trail, gym and beyond. According to Matt, having the ability to custom-make an interface is useful for training. “That way you have only the metrics you want to see during a particular workout — be it heart rate, elevation gain and descent, whatever.”

Matt Healy Sets His Sports Watch Before The Start Of A Trail Running Race In France. For Matt, Bread Crumb Maps Are Crucial In A Good Sports Watch.
When you press start, you want to know that you’ll have the battery life to get you to the end. It also gives peace of mind on the day-to-day not having to plug your watch in every night. PC: Jonathan Ferriera

4 – SPORTS WATCH BATTERY LIFE

Another thing to consider is how often you are going to be training and going into GPS mode. “This is super important when you are running the longer stuff – stressing about your sports watch dying on you is not worth it,” Matt says. 

Got it? Good.

Now that you know what to look for here are a few of the watches some of SA’s top trail runners are currently using:

BEST SPORTS WATCHES ACCORDING TO THE PROS

GARMIN FENIX 7

The Garmin Fenix 7 is packed with advanced training tools to help you optimise your training and perfect your strategy for race days. Amongst other things, it features solar charging capabilities, a real-time stamina meter and a touchscreen. As we’ve come to expect from this trusted name in tracking, the GPS accuracy as well as map packs is amazing. 

“Aside from the mapping – which is world-class – I’ve been super impressed with the battery life and solar power,” says SA trail running ace Ryan Sandes, who recently set an FKT alongside Ryno Griesel for circumnavigating Lesotho. “I only had to charge my watch twice over the 16 days of that run,” Ryan says. “In addition, this sports watch has a flashlight on it. Initially, I thought this was quite gimmicky, but used it so often during Navigate Lesotho when I was trying to change batteries in headlamps and looking in my bag for something and that type of thing it was beneficial. Even now when I go to the loo in the middle of the night I no longer need to turn on the light…hahaha.” 

Garmin Fenix 7 Sports Watch
If it is ultimate functionality you’re looking for, the Garmin Fenix 7 is a do-it-all machine. PC: Garmin

According to Ryan another feature he likes is the user-friendly interface of this sports watch as well as being to track his sleep and overall health. 

This sports watch wasn’t designed solely for trail runners, however, it has a range of features and training tools for hiking, climbing, cycling, golf and swimming, among others.

SUUNTO PEAK 9

“I love the size of this watch,” says Toni McCann who has been blazing a trail in Europe recently. “It’s much less bulky than its counterparts, it tracks my heart rate more accurately on my wrist than any other watch I’ve ever used (within 10 bpm of an HR strap) and its battery life is great with up to 120 hours on endurance mode.” According to Toni, she has also found the GPS tracking and elevation are more accurate than some other brands she’s used in the past. “One of my favourite things about having a Suunto watch though is the Suunto App,” she adds, explaining how it has amazing map functionality that you can use to plot routes, see heat maps of frequently used trails, and save and transfer directly to your watch. “I use this a lot when travelling and looking for new trails to run that is safe and ‘real’ trails. nothing worse than ending up on a ‘path’ where you thought there should be a trail and there’s not.” 

How To Buy A Sports Watch And Level-Up Your Training
Suunto’s Peak 9 cuts a very fine figure. PC: Suunto

Toni recommends this sports watch for anyone who loves to travel and needs a solid navigation partner, great battery life for those long mountain missions and who likes to pack light.

GARMIN FORERUNNER 745

“I run with the Garmin Forerunner 745,” says Admire Muzopambwa, who finished second in the Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100 and third in the Karkloof 100-miler, his first ever 100 miler. “I like how it syncs with various apps which helps a lot with my training — my coach simply sends my training files directly to my watch. In addition, it has a great health status and weather forecasting which is super useful if you’re in the mountains and there might be a storm coming in,” he says. According to Admire, in addition to the soft silicone arm strap and affordability of the unit, one feature he likes too is the fact that you can load music onto it.  

Admire Muzopambwa Shows Off The Forerunner 745 Sports Watch.
Admire Muzopambwa is an advocate for the value-minded Forerunner 745 Sports Watch. All you need, nothing you don’t. PC: Admire Muzopambwa

“I can recommend this sports watch to anyone who is tackling a race or project that is going to last longer than 16 hours…The battery life is exceptional! The weather forecasting would also be invaluable to many other adventure sports, even fishing.”

Ready to hit some other adventures where your sports watch will no doubt come in handy, click here to find out more about some adrenaline-fueled activities in the Western Cape.

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