Best tech for new ultra-runners

New to ultra-running? The array of tech – watches, straps, torches, and more – can feel almost as daunting as stepping up to that start line. I remember being overawed by the massive choice of potential tech you can buy, combined with the fear of investing serious money in something that might not deliver when I needed it most.

Here are my top picks for ultra beginners if you’re looking to bag a bargain in the January sales…

GPS watch

Late summer 2018, my Garmin Fenix died. It had served me well, but couldn’t cope with the latest software updates. I’d been using Garmins since I first got into running ultras, so considering something else felt like a big deal. I liked the Garmin Connect app, and was loathed to ‘lose’ my Garmin data. I’ve also been a long-time Strava Summit member, so that made it easier to switch to using Strava as my main place to record my running and fitness.

After some thought, I chose a Suunto 9 Baro. Three things took me towards Suunto:

  1. Battery that lasts the distance
    At the time, the battery life outstripped the latest offering from Garmin (they’re now on a par with each other). Before I start an ultra, I set it to ‘running’ mode and add either the event’s distance or time. The 9’s software then brilliantly calculates battery usage to eke out as much power as possible, prioritising GPS until extremely low battery. It’s never let me down to date; the Suunto always has some left in the tank when I cross the finish line.
  2. Big, clear display
    I am now well into reading glasses and need a big display to read what’s on my watch face, particularly if I’m looking at it on the move. Suunto’s display also has good contrast, meaning it stands up to day or night, fog or bright sunlight.
  3. Built to endure
    Talking to other ultra-runners, I was told that Suunto make robust watches and their customer service goes the extra mile. In the last 18 months, I’ve not seen any faults with it, and I’m impressed with the quality, particularly on the bezel. It only has a few surface scratches, despite wearing it 24/7 as an activity and sleep tracker.

Head torch

I’ve used Petzl head torches since I started running, and I love their reliability. Last year, I updated to a rechargeable ReActik model and it’s brilliant. I race with a spare rechargeable battery (an extra purchase), which clips easily into place. I also race with my original Petzl as a back-up and for making battery changes that bit simpler during the night – I always wait too long before changing the battery!

Three thoughts on choosing and using the right head torch:

  1. Battery life #1
    When you’re running an ultra, you can’t run the risk of losing power. Battery life is a result of light intensity, so I tend to use a low-light setting on road or open trails, and only up the intensity when the route becomes more technical.
  2. Battery life #2
    Having a simple strategy to conserve torch battery is one thing, but what about knowing when you’re just about to run out? That’s another real benefit of Petzl head torches; they can be paired with the MyPetzl Light app so you can check on battery life in real-time.
  1. Design is important
    When you’re wearing something for more than six hours, you want it to remain comfortable. Look at the weight, head fit and how easy it is to toggle between settings while wearing it. I’ve been looking at the new Petzl Swift RL, which seems to have less fiddly on/off buttons than my ReActik but maintains the same fit design and power. Little things do make big differences in ultras.

Good luck with your purchases – and happy ultra-running! Let me know what your favourites or new discoveries are in the comments below…

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