Friday, February 15, 2013

Tested: Timex Ironman Race Trainer Mid-Size HRM

This week's review: the Ironman Race Trainer Mid-Size heart rate monitor watch from Timex.

Good size for  my 6.5" circumference wrist &  7.75" circumference hand
(measured around palm, not including thumb, - the way you measure for gloves).
Excess band secured by a retainer with a nub that fits a hole in the end of the strap.
Reasonably reliable, but does come loose occasionally.

What it is: A wristwatch with an ANT+ chest strap that provides heart rate data as well as recording workout duration and split times.

Why you want one: For training by heart rate or merely data collection and comparison purposes.

Display is clear and I found setup fairly easy.

The unit is quite thick - catches on things and feels bulky at times.

The band and buckle are substantial as well, contributing to the bulk. 

Duration used: 2.5 years (received as a birthday gift in July 2010)

Price paid/purchased from: My husband bought it for $145CAN + tax at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

The included chest strap is rather old tech, even for 2010.
It does provide a good range of adjustment through the slider on the soft elastic portion.

Inside of the strap - non-breathable plastic with limited flex directly against your skin.

What rawks: It's been a reasonably reliable HRM that wasn't ridiculously expensive and is rated waterproof to 100 metres. The batteries are user-replaceable, but last a good long time - I think I've replaced the watch battery once (sort of twice; keep reading) and the strap battery once (caveat: it sat unused for most of 2012 while I just used the watch for timekeeping). The watch is fairly straightforward - I haven't had to refer to the manual since initial setup, and even then it was only for some of the more complicated bits - and daily operation is relatively easy and intuitive. If you choose you can use Timex's Data Xchanger USB widget to sync data to your computer using TrainingPeaks - the widget is sold separately, or you can get it included if you buy the "Pro" kit for an extra $50 (it also seems to include an upgraded strap). The watch itself has been fairly sturdy, having been smacked off/by various hard objects and surfaces and sustaining only superficial scratches. The Indiglo nighttime lighting is easy to use and works passably. I'll give a quick run-down on the rest of the watch's extensive features:

- Time (normal) mode displays the date and time in the format you choose - 12/24hr clock, numerical day/month/year or 3-letter abbreviation day of week, date and month. The watch allows you to set two different time zones, between which you toggle by holding the start/split button - handy for those who travel or frequently make phone calls to far-away places. There is an optional hourly chime and 3 alarms that can handily be set to sound on either a single day of the week, weekends only, weekdays only or every day.

- HRM setup options include user's weight (in pounds or kilos) and maximum HR, which are used to calculate calories burned and percentage of max HR. You can choose whether your HR is displayed in beats per minute of % of max, set up training zones based on testing (or it will set them automatically based on max HR), and select whether or not the watch gives an audible signal when you're out of your desired training zone.

- The Recovery function shows the amount your heart rate dropped after completing your workout (based on when you hit the stop button in Chrono, Timer or Interval mode). You can select 30 seconds, 1min, 2min, 5min or 10min as the interval at which it records. I find that 1min is generally the most telling. It will also display your HR in beats per minute when you hit stop and the final bpm value, e.g.: Recovery = 33 / 156-123.

- Chrono, or the standard stopwatch function, allows you to choose the position in which various pieces of data are displayed. Make your heart rate the main display, choose where/whether to show total time, split time, etc. Hitting start/lap records HR data automatically, and holding the "set" button once you're done automatically stores the workout data. Hitting the start/split button with the chronometer running gives you a split each time you press it, up to 50 laps. It will record your average HR for each lap, as well as your overall average, lowest and max HR for the workout.

- Timer mode is a simple countdown timer that allows you to set your desired time in hours/minutes/seconds, has an optional halfway point audible alert, and lets you choose whether to simply stop, repeat or change to Chrono mode once time has elapsed. Great if you want to run for time without looking at your watch, if you want to set a minimum warmup time before a speed workout, or use repeat mode to have an audible reminder of when to eat or drink during long training sessions or events. To my knowlege, though, no HR data will be recorded in this mode and resetting does not save workout data.

- Interval mode allows you to specify up to 5 time-based intervals that can repeat up to 99 times each - you can also specify a desired HR zone for each interval, which will trigger the audible alert (if enabled) if you're outside that zone. It records HR data in this mode and can run concurrently with the Chrono or Timer, but each mode will record a separate workout. I've used this for doing speed workouts when no track was available in this fashion: run warmup with Chrono so I can see when I'm at 10mins or so (could have used the Timer for this, but didn't think about it then), switch over to Interval mode and hit go with Int1 set for 5:00 and Int2 set for 3:00, each repeating 5 times. This had me run hard for 5mins then do a recovery jog for 3mins, repeating five times. Afterward, I ran another 10mins cool down via the Chrono. Interval mode automatically records your average HR for each segment as well as your average, lowest and max HR for the whole workout. To my knowledge, there is no way to set it to repeat Int1 a set number of times and then move on to repeat Int2 a set number of times - if you want to repeat a single time (e.g.: 4:15) simply set Int1 for 4:15 with the desired number of repeats and set all other intervals to zero. With the watch running in Interval mode, it will show you the remaining time in the current interval, the interval number and the repeat number (e.g.: I3:RPT2 on the top line with 03:21 on the second, larger line).

- Review mode lets you see the recorded data from your last 10 workouts - as more workouts are recorded, the oldest one is bumped out of memory unless you choose to lock it in by holding the stop/reset/set button (in which case the oldest non-locked workout will be bumped). It will display total time, average lap time, best lap time (and which lap it was), average HR for each lap/interval, average HR for the workout, lowest HR, highest HR and your Recovery for that workout. In my above example of a 1-hour non-track speed workout, I ended up with two workout files: the Chrono file showed 1:00:00 elapsed time (40mins speed workout + 10min warmup + 10min cool down) with average, low and max HR for the workout plus recovery data, and the Interval file showed 40:00 elapsed time (5:00 + 3:00 repeated x 5) with average HR for each interval and average, low & max HR during the 40mins of the speed workout, plus my recovery while doing my cool down jog. Each workout also gives an approximation of the number of calories burned.

- Sync mode allows you to download the data to your computer wirelessly through the Data Xchanger USB widget. I can't comment on its function as I didn't bother with the widget.

Simple snap-in strap attachment at both sides for lefties and righties.

The strap's standard-size CR2032 battery is easily replaceable with a coin.
The watch itself uses the same battery, but requires a tiny philips screwdriver and a steady hand.

What sucks: While I stated above that the watch has been quite sturdy, there are a couple of major issues that are worth noting carefully. The first unit - purchased for me as a birthday gift - developed condensation under the crystal after the first time I took it for a swim. It was replaced by Mountain Equipment Co-op's Rock Solid guarantee, but our only options were to make a trip out of our way to exchange it directly at a store; wait through an approximately 2-week turn-around to mail it back to their distribution warehouse and have them mail the replacement back to us; or pay for a new unit and wait 1 week for it to be mailed to us while we returned the faulty one by mail for refund. The new watch worked as advertised and did not permit water entry, but I've had ongoing issues with the chest strap chafing when worn under my bust despite application of lubrication. Moving it further down seems to eliminate the chafing, but makes it more likely that the watch will lose the signal from the strap even when I have taken care to wet it. Even when riding the trainer in my living room with no fan, no bouncing and sweating buckets, the watch loses signal at least 2-3 times per hour. When it is receiving a signal, I've still got some ridiculously high or low readings, especially while running; I'm not sure if it's more affected by bouncing with my stride, but I'm positive I'm not doing my easy and recovery runs at 92% of my maximum heart rate - this has persisted through battery changes in both strap and watch. I'm pretty sure the refresh rate on the sensor is quite poor as well, as it has continued to display my heart rate for up to 3 full minutes after removing the strap! The buttons on the watch itself are hard to operate confidently with gloves or through multiple layers of clothing - I've been taking my phone with Endomondo running in my pocket all winter as a backup since I've had about a 30% success rate at getting the watch to start and/or stop properly in severe cold that requires bundling up. If you're travelling and don't have access to a computer, the 10 workout memory may not be sufficient, particularly if you're doubling your memory usage through using Chrono and Interval functions concurrently - you'll most likely have to manually record your workout data so you don't lose any. There is no way to delete a particular workout, which means accidentally starting the chronograph or interval timer and resetting will result in an "empty" workout that you can't be rid of until it drops out of memory - this occupies one of the 10 workout memory slots needlessly. The calculation of calories burned is ridiculously optimistic no matter how low you set your weight in an attempt to compensate; this online calculator gives an average of around 60-75% of the figure indicated by the watch for the same values. The head unit and band seem to be a bit bulky given this was designed for smaller wrists and catch repeatedly on cuffs and other objects. The available colours schemes are really girly, making it a rather emasculating choice for men with small wrists/hands and a plain annoyance for females (like me) who would rather avoid all the pink and lavender. The battery in the watch is user-replaceable, but despite my extremely careful methods (I'm pretty good with electronics, right up to and including successful brain surgery on a first-generation Xbox) the Indiglo would not operate at all after performing a battery change. My greatest source of annoyance comes from the watch band, though - the molded synthetic encases the head unit, meaning it can't be replaced with a nylon + hook-and-loop strap (my preference) for comfort, or to keep the damn thing on your wrist when it snaps...which took less than 22 months of use (around April 20th, 2012)! Infuriatingly enough, it happened just as I was going to start training with heart rate data again after taking a break over the winter and spring. My only option was to mail it to Timex with a credit card number to pay an amount they would arbitrarily determine once they had it, which looked like it would be approximately $45. As a result, I was without a watch for approximately a month, during which time I was given no indication that they had received it or how much I would be billed. They eventually charged me about $25 and sent me what appears to be an entirely new unit, with Indiglo working and no workout data stored. If the strap continues breaking approximately every 2 years, I will only be able to get it replaced once more, as Timex clearly states that "Watches older than 5 years are not repairable due to unavailability of parts." It's worth mentioning that the original quality control issue I experienced with this watch wasn't a fluke, either - in order to be able to continue recording at least some workout data (overall and split times), I purchased a Mid-Size Ironman Sleek 50-lap from WalMart. I used it daily for the month that my Race Trainer was out of my hands, but ended up having to return it - fortunately for full refund - after condensation turned up under the crystal following a swim (it had been in the pool somewhere around 17 times, but since it was rated water resistant to 100 metres I don't think swimming it in is unreasonable). That means two out of three Timex watches (well, I suppose actually four with the replacement) had water seal problems...and these are marketed to triathletes, bearing the Ironman name. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking, but apparently can't handle anything wetter than a lick.

Broken after less than 2 years of use.
Click on photo for large size that shows similar cracks developing along the rest of the band.

Snapped at what should have been a known stress point.
UPDATE JULY 2013: The new strap snapped on me, after just over a year! It broke in a different place this time, possibly after undergoing more strain as I now wear my watch on my right wrist instead of my left (since breaking my left wrist last August), but there was no specific incident that led to the failure - it happened while I was asleep!

Woke up in the morning to find my watch loose in bed..

Since it broke the morning of a race, I ended up using Krazy Glue to mend it. The fix held through that day and a swim the next afternoon, but half of it had let go afterward. I have since applied another, more generous coat (which you see in the photo above), which has survived a 10 mile run, an easy cycle and another night in bed. Only time will tell if this is truly a viable option, and I think I may be in the market for a new wristwatch soon.

What I'd like to see: Better heart rate monitor function, realistic calories burned algorithms, a user-replaceable band (or at least one that isn't so bloody fragile), a watch that functions fully after user replacement of the battery, less girly colours and better options for service from Timex.

Indiglo display is easy to read when lit, but only lasts 2 seconds unless you hold the button to lock it.

What I'm saying: While I do like the variety of the data the watch records and the format in which I am able to review it, there are so many issues that crop up on a recurring basis that I can't recommend it for purchase. Furthermore, there are clearly some major quality control issues at Timex that would make me hesitate to buy more of their products. I will most likely look elsewhere for a replacement when this unit dies (or the strap breaks again past the 5 year service period).

Sleek 50-lap bought to stand in while Race Trainer being repaired allowed water entry after 1 month of use. 

For further edification: See the review by or this one from

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