Tips on Buying an Athletic Watch

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Looking to buy a high-performing athletic watch? Make sure it works out before you work out, by keying in on these expert tips.

"A lot of neat features [are available], but [some] aren't necessarily what a high school athlete needs," says Jay Curwen, vice president of sales for Highgear®, a company that manufactures fitness watches for New Balance. Before buying a watch with all the bells and whistles, Curwen suggests first determining what you need.

The Basics
The first thing to scope out is the watch's material. Curwen says most athletes want something lightweight, like plastic. "You don't want a heavy piece on your arm when you're running, so most lines [use] a plastic face and plastic housing, [so the watch] is as light and unobtrusive as possible." But Jay Jacobson, senior media relations director for Garmin, warns against the material being too light. He says, "I've seen some watches out there that were built for athletics but can't stand up to athletes. You don't want to sacrifice [durability]." Before dropping any dollars, Jacobson suggests trying on the watch and asking a sales rep how well it will hold up in competition.

Another key: resistance to elements, especially water. "You definitely want something that is more than just weatherproof," Curwen says. "More often, you're trying to avoid water intrusion from rain and sweat." Both Curwen and Jacobson recommend models that can withstand being submerged under water for a period of time. Look for a watch that's rated IPX7 or waterproof to 20 meters.

The Extras
Obviously, fitness watches keep track of more than just time. Besides reporting your mile split time or how long you've been in the weight room, some watches include wireless heart rate monitors, while others can track where on the planet you're running.

Two types of heart rate monitors are currently available. One uses a chest strap, and the other features a touch sensor. When you place your thumb and index finger on two sensors on the watch's face, a touch sensor provides an instant reading, which Curwen says is geared more towards fitness-oriented athletes. But, he says, "a high school athlete, like a cross-country runner, definitely wants to be looking at chest strap models," because they transmit your heart rate to the watch continuously. "You [can] look down at any time and see what your heart rate is," which is especially important in zone training for runners and endurance athletes.

Another new feature of fitness watches is GPS capability. For example, the Forerunner 405, the new GPS watch from Garmin, has a high sensitivity GPS receiver built into the watch band. Jacobson says, "Once that GPS receiver acquires [signals from] three or more satellites orbiting the earth, it's able to lock on [to you] and track your movement, speed, elevation and distance, whether you're in the city or in the forest."

Other considerations
Both experts stress the importance of a watch's battery life. Jacobson says, "You want the battery to stand up to the type of training you do." He thinks the Forerunner 405 is ideal for long distance runners, because it can last up to eight hours in GPS mode and two weeks in Powersave mode. It also has a rechargeable battery.

Most non-GPS watches are powered by batteries that need to be replaced. According to Curwen, the more you use certain features, such as heart rate monitors and sensors, the faster the battery life depletes. But he says, "Most monitors have a small metal plate in the back, and you can screw it off and replace the batteries pretty easily."

Finally, you want to pay attention to price. Curwen says a watch with a basic heart rate monitor should cost between $60 and $80, depending on whether it uses a chest strap or a sensor, and whether it includes additional features. GPS-enabled watches can run as high as $400. Curwen notes that if you don't need the GPS function, you shouldn't have to fork over a lot of cash. But, he says, if you're really focused on heart rate training zones or running on unfamiliar trails, "you're going to need to spend a little bit more, because the programming involved is more advanced."

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