By Carl Valle
I wanted to include sports watches in my Top Training Gear List for 2018, but made the promise not to include anything technological. Instead of including my favorite sports watch in a technology review or similar, I make a strong case here to support my desire for every athlete I work with to have a watch—especially a sports watch. Most coaches see watches as nice-to-have, but I believe the first purchase after sports apparel and a water bottle is a good sports watch.
It doesn’t need to be fancy or pricey to be effective; it just needs to be a reliable model that is worn every day. Sure, smartphones may have made watches superfluous, as telling time isn’t a big deal anymore, but I still demand watches for serious athletes. If you are on the fence about using a sports watch or having your athletes wear one, this blog will share enough reasons to convince you that a sports watch is the ultimate tool for performance.
Why the Smartphone and Wearable Market Can’t Defeat a Sports Watch
The wristwatch is arguably the first modern wearable. Sure, the pocket watch was a predecessor, but the game changed when somebody connected a small strap to make it a timepiece for the wrist. Having a watch was a big deal last century, but watches are now more than minute-by-minute updates of time—they are tools. Many wearable products fight over the small amount of real estate on the arm, and companies realize the hard way that the space on a wrist is competitive. Smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung went back to the watch as a way to extend the power of their devices, but the effort only reinforced the fact that watches are timeless (pardon the pun).Organizing an athlete is easy when you know time down to the second, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
So, while anyone can grab their smartphone from their pocket or glance over at their desk to check the time, it’s never going to be the same as having a sports watch that you can literally go into battle with. Remember, the real reasons watches evolved were not for fashion purposes, but to win wars. In World War I, aviation was the next military innovation, and watches were the foundation of modern warfare. Today, the military still uses watches as the cornerstone of organization, and sport has many parallels with war in regard to teamwork and training effectiveness. If you want to improve your program with a simple change, here are the reasons why sports watches are indispensable for athletes.
A Watch Makes Time a Priority
Responsibility and accountability start with discipline, and showing up on time to training prepared and ready is everything. Time—how we use it and how we respect the time of others—separates the good teams from the winning teams. If an athlete doesn’t value time, nothing else really matters. Results come from using the best training and respecting time, and showing up on time is important enough to decide who is on the podium and who just participates.
While gifted athletes may be chronically tardy, the majority of athletes are not once-in-a-lifetime talents. A coach will wait for a Usain Bolt to train, but they won’t cater to the other 99% of athletes, especially in team sports. Showing up on time is half the battle, and when athletes are tardy in team training or meetings, everything that comes afterward doesn’t have the same impact.Showing up on time is important enough to decide who is on the podium and who just participates, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
When an athlete commits to wearing a watch, I see the change almost immediately. Wearing a watch pushes an athlete forward with their commitment, because it shows the world that they know what the time is. Some athletes will still show up late and make excuses, but the beauty of a watch is the wearer can’t claim ignorance, even in the modern era of smartphones. When you wear a watch, it’s a physical and symbolic gesture that time is a priority, and it’s like publicly handcuffing yourself to the concept that time is valuable. Sports watches provide that benefit, and having an athlete wear a watch has had a major impact I did not expect.
After the responsibility of showing up prepared and on time comes training. Moving from macro to micro, a sports watch is now valuable for providing simple needs like keeping rest intervals honest and following guidelines on basic training and rehabilitation protocols. Organizing an athlete is easy when you know time down to the second, and athletes can be independent in their training by having a simple sports watch.
While I realize that sports training is not the same as preparing candidates for the military, the similarities of teaching independence and following directions are the reasons I love making sure every athlete invests in a watch. Plenty of watches exist that can perform simple stopwatch functions and countdown timing, and focusing on time—whether how fast someone is running or how long to wait—is the soul of most sports training programs.
Wearing a Watch Is Practical
I have been in the sports technology game for a while; long enough that I have seen countless companies fail to make their product convenient and comfortable. The primary issue is that most wearable solutions compromise results by trying to be cute or innovative, when they simply need to refine. Wearing a piece of technology isn’t an easy task, as decreasing the size of sensors is very challenging and sometimes what is left is an awkward design.
Watches have had enough lead time to give engineers a better grasp of what is possible, and the results are, for the most part, a great solution for what people need. While many sports technology options are bands, they are stuck in a limbo of not being a full-time solution—they’re usually an adjunct wearable to a watch, but not a replacement. Some smart companies realize that a watch is still important and telling time can turn a sleep device into a great option, but not everyone is executing on that front.
Sports watches are the best example of practicality, as an entry-level watch is likely to be water-resistant, have illumination, and provide an easy-to-use interface of a few buttons to do most of what athletes need during a day. Even if your watch doesn’t collect a single step, heartbeat, or location, the watch is still practical enough to have value. Entry-level watches that use small replaceable batteries are great because you don’t worry about charging them and reliability is the ultimate form of practicality. Some watches are self-charging, making them even better for those that simply want function to always be ready. Many military watches are similar to sports watches and use movement from walking for power, and those models are excellent for all types of athletes.Wearing a watch is like publicly handcuffing yourself to the concept that time is valuable, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Due to the overall simplicity of a watch, even with additional features, just glancing at the face does enough to make a difference in training and life. Convenience is hard to quantify, but keeping your phone in your pocket and freeing up your mind from unnecessary distractions is why a watch, especially an analog watch, is a great decision. Smartphones are extremely distracting, and instead of having to pull one out to get the time and risk being rude, glancing at a watch is far more accessible.
Sports Watches Provide Biofeedback
When upgrading a watch beyond the basics, options include accessing instantaneous information on how fast or where you are moving, and heart rate and heart rate variability. You can get more specific information such as weather conditions, and oxygen levels if you are a diver. Biofeedback is extremely effective in improving performance or rehabilitation, and those that want to unplug can calibrate what they perceive to be true when they train and compete without a watch.
Even if you don’t have the athletes look at the data during training, analyzing it later along with subjective indicators is a huge benefit. Having access to real, objective information is an obvious benefit, but watches act like hubs for data, and it’s far better because they are not distracting. A few smart sport glasses still exist on the market, but the reason they don’t connect with athletes is that they are information overload. Continuous data is really important, and if it is vital it needs to be presented in a way that allows an athlete to be cognizant of their surroundings without too much interference. Glasses can be excellent biofeedback tools and necessary in some instances, but a good watch can provide enough data at a glance to make a difference as well.
I wrote about feedback years ago, and it’s a clear benefit that both the research and experience of coaches agree on. Instant feedback works. The research on velocity-based training (VBT) or just ballistic training demonstrates that the simple measurement of a metric that matters will increase the success of the training session. Explosive training is an easy example for most coaches, but the speed of the barbell doesn’t need to be the only biofeedback option.
I have found that simple running and practice sessions are also great autoregulation opportunities for coaches when athletes are allowed to make modifications to training based on how they feel and some quantitative feedback. For example, warming up and finishing with a very short conditioning session can direct a team to either hammer down or go easier based on very concise information. Recovery rates, not just raw output, are just as good for seeing the cost of doing business.A sports watch can add more precision to a training session, especially a simple interval session, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A sports watch is not a replacement for a coach, but it’s an extra layer of help and is indispensable when a coach is not available. For example, many programs are understaffed and a sports watch can add more precision to a training session, especially to a simple interval session.
Other feedback doesn’t necessarily need to increase output, as the value of keeping the body calm during training is also essential. You can conserve resources, such as energy and emotions, with a simple heart rate monitor. Many athletes in conditioning need to mirror the same concepts as sprinters learning to be explosive and perform without unnecessary tension.
Fluid movement comes from a combination of contraction and relaxation, and while it’s an easy throwaway word to some, relaxing a muscle is the ultimate biofeedback. While EMG may not connect directly to a watch, generally using simple HR data and other measurements is a great way to manage effort along with what is felt internally. Biofeedback doesn’t replace subjective feedback; it can actually enhance it.
Good Sports Watches Are Programmable
Have you ever set either a traditional or digital alarm clock? Congratulations, you just programmed! While we see more coaches use Excel or some other software to program, the average coach isn’t a technology expert (even if they are a millennial). On the other hand, the typical athlete or coach can program a watch to do more than just wake them up.
You can now program most watches, either directly on the watch or through a web portal for customization. The best example of this is the Suunto Ambit, an award-winning watch that, in my eyes, is one of the most valuable tools for an athlete who takes their training seriously. The Suunto company built a simple programming language, that anyone can learn instantly, in order to allow users to customize their watch functions. A user can build a simple app and even share it in a community.
The future is going to be programming, so if statistics or data don’t thrill you and you think that coaching or training is just about barbells, think again. The good news is that you don’t need to be a genius with technology, as the best solutions are intuitive and made for coaches, not engineers. Programming a sports watch is not as much about the clicks, buttons, or even taps—it’s about the thinking behind the programming, training-wise. Using a sports watch to program a workout or even a cooldown session is an act of applying a training session into an organized routine. Sports watches make coaches think about the practical side of the training, and just having one opens the eyes of everyone involved.
Watches Build Culture and Confidence
This last reason for athletes to own a sports watch is perhaps the most important. Having a watch that looks great and functions well is something to be proud of. It sends a message to the world that you believe in the value of time and you are confident in the value it represents.
Owning a watch is not a life-changing event, but it does tell the public that you can lead. The reason? How many people approach somebody wearing a watch to ask for the time? Plenty. Even in the era of smartphones, people ask the time. Athletes training outside in the rain or during a long session will not always have a phone nearby. Swimmers use a pace clock, so they seem to use watches less than endurance runners, but nearly any athlete can benefit from having a watch.
Culture means the establishment of a central belief and way of acting in the context of teams and sports. Business, communities, and even countries all have some form of culture, but most coaches care about having an environment that enables their plan to succeed. Culture is an easy discussion point on paper, but making a tangible change or improvement requires more.
While plenty of “cause” wristbands exist that remind us about various diseases, a sports watch distills life to the simple fact that an athlete has a job to do every minute of the hour. When time is valued within a group, the culture changes dramatically. I have seen both ends of the spectrum as an athlete and as a coach, and those that focus on time as the enemy instead of other teams or competitors tend to win in the long run.Those that focus on time as the enemy instead of other competitors tend to win in the long run, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The final choice with coaches and athletes is design and style. Form and function are very connected with sports watches, but several trade-offs exist. The first consideration is the size of the watch, as a smaller and simpler entry-level watch usually has very little power to collect physiological or performance data, but it doesn’t interfere with the realities of barbell gripping. I have only known one or two athletes who preferred not to lift while wearing a sports watch, but generally, most athletes are not in a situation where the watch encumbers them. I have seen plenty of watches on athletes who bench and weightlift (snatch or clean and jerk) without problems.
Some contact sport athletes need to practice without a watch, but generally having a watch in training works for most athletes. For events like the shot put, an athlete can train with the watch on their non-throwing arm. Overall, it’s not a big deal to train with a watch, but it’s up to the coach to decide when watches are inappropriate, mainly in team sports. Competition is a different story, and it’s up to the governing body that oversees the rules and allowances within their jurisdiction.
Recommended Resources for Sports Watches
I prefer not to choose brands for something as personal as a sports watch; however, due to the fact most endurance sports use them, DC Rainmaker is the leading review site for sports watches. Triathletes are the biggest market for sports technology, and plenty of online reviews exist.A sports watch distills life to the simple fact that an athlete has a job to do every minute, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
It doesn’t matter if you are a coach, an endurance athlete, or a power athlete, a good sports watch is a wise investment. Don’t take price as an indication of value, since plenty of simple watches are enough to make a difference in training and may extend to other areas in life. I have made sports watches the priority now, and I recommend everyone put in the effort to evangelize one of a coach’s greatest tools.