RFID chip timing systems have been the gold standard for mass-participation race timing since the early ‘90s. So much so that it may feel sometimes like there’s no alternative.
Well, there is – and you may have a legitimate reason for needing one:
- You may want a cheaper solution. Although the cost of buying or hiring RFID systems has been moving in the right direction, they are still a fairly expensive solution, particularly for smaller events or races on a budget.
- Your may want to record times at remote or inaccessible locations. Dragging antennae and timing mats up a mountain may not always be possible or straightforward.
- You may just want a backup solution for peace of mind. You can use any of the alternatives described below as your main riming system or as backup alongside your RFID system, if you choose.
For all these reasons and more, we looked at all the options available to you besides RFID timing system and how you would use them to time your race (both as main or backup systems).
So read on! And if you have any questions about anything in here or want some more tips on race timing, come have a chat in our race directors group.
Want to have a go at building your own chip timing system instead?
Check out our Guide to Building an RFID Race Timing System
What you need to time a race
Before we go over your options in detail, it helps to spend a minute to understand what bits of information you need in order to time a race.
Whether you’re using an RFID or other chip timing system, a timing app or go completely manual for your timing, your objective in timing a race is to record the same two pieces of information for every participant:
- Their race number
- Their finish time
If you have these two pieces of information, you have a list of race results: who crossed the finish line when.
RFID chip timing systems accomplish this in a very elegant way. When a participant crosses the finish line, the RFID tag is read by an RFID reader which transmits the tag’s ID to the timing software. The timing software figures out what race number the ID corresponds to and adds a timestamp for that race number. Time and race number: done.
Race timing apps and systems based on scanning barcodes or NFC tags, as we will see, usually need a bit more help from the user to make this work. In some cases, the user may need to tap in the race number and then the time is recorded by the app automatically. In other cases, a race official may need to scan a participant’s tag or barcode to get their data into the system.
Whatever the solution, in all cases you end up with the two same bits of info – a time and a race number – and getting there accurately and without errors is the aim of race timing.
With that, let’s look at your options…
Race timing apps
Race timing apps, in their simplest form, work a lot like a pad and hand chronometer would, by letting you punch in finisher bib numbers the moment a runner crosses the finish line. What you would do is sit at the finish line and when a runner crosses the line, tap your phone or tablet. The app would then automatically pop a window for you to enter the finisher bib number and record the time.
More complex apps offer richer functionality. This may include the ability to load start lists into the app before the race, so you can tap bib numbers on your screen to record times in a single tap instead of having to enter bib numbers manually. Quite a few apps will also upload live results for you as soon as you have them and some will even integrate with your existing RFID or NFC chip systems (we’ll look at NFC chips in a moment).
There are a number of apps out there, both free and paid, than can help simplify the task of timing participants in your race. Below we list some of the most popular.
Webscorer PRO is a subscription-based premium race timing app available on iOS and Android that integrates with Webscorer’s registrations and results management platform. Webscorer includes support for NFC chips, as well as a RFID chip reader should you want to use it with your existing RFID chips.
A lot of work has gone into making Webscorer one of the best and easiest-to-use race timing apps available internationally. As a bonus, Webscorer comes with a large library of video tutorials to help familiarise you with the app before you purchase.
If you’re looking for a middle ground, RaceSplitter offers support for online start lists, wave starts, live results and a great interface to work with. RaceSplitter comes with an extensive support site with a wealth of tutorials to get you started.
Dutch company CloudTimer offer an app-based timing solution which charges a fee by participant, starting at €0.50, which may be a good solution for smaller races or one-off use. The app offers cross-platform support and comes with a publicly accessible live results page for each event as standard.
The Rufus Timing App is brought to you by the people behind the Macsha timing systems and it basically leverages Macsha’s timing software, Rufus, in an app you can use either with an RFID gun reader or standalone in the usual race number punch-in fashion.
Macsha note the gun/app combo can provide a hand solution for checkpoint timing, finish-line timing for smaller events or as backup for larger events.
RaceClocker is quite unique among race timing apps in being a cloud-based web app. That means there is no app to download on your device and you can access all race timing functions by logging into RaceClocker.com through your web browser.
The limitation there is that you need a stable internet connection to avoid any mishaps (although you can continue to work on RaceClocker and re-sync your data when your connection is restored). The upside is that you can login from any device, upload results instantly from anywhere and then edit data from the comfort of your desktop.
You can download the free version of RaceClocker and use it on any number of races for up to 10 participants or upgrade to RaceClocker Unlimited which offers, uhm, unlimited participant entry.
Sports Timing Solutions, the company behind STS Pro Score, has a solid track record in delivering high-quality free tools for athletes and race organisers, alongside its regular chip-timing services.
STS Pro Score can handle multiple wave starts and split times, and is an excellent choice should you be considering a free race timing app for your race.
If you’re looking for a basic race timing app on Android, try out this simple free app by Dalmith.
All timing apps above are either licence-free or come with multiple device licenses, so if you’re going to use them, make sure you use a backup (or two, depending on how paranoid you get about these things).
If you don’t fancy the idea of using a race timing app or expect closely-packed finishes, a barcode system might be the right solution for your race.
Barcode timing systems are particularly well-suited for race series and have been deployed in the field with great success, most notably in the UK by Parkrun, UK’s largest free-for-all 5k racing series (now rapidly expanding to the US and elsewhere).
The way barcode systems work is by issuing every participant with a unique barcode before the race which can be used for all future eligible events. With that barcode, participants can register and show up for a race without the need for a race bib – their barcode is their ‘bib number’. All they need to receive a finish time is to present their barcode, which can be simply printed on a piece of paper or worn in a wristband or keychain, at the finish line.
The way the system works is in three steps:
- A race official records successive finish times at the finish line. This can be done with a simple lap stopwatch. In contrast to the timing procedure used with race timing apps, the official does not have to record participant bib numbers at this stage, only finish times.
- A second official hands finishers a position token which records each runner’s finish position (usually in a scannable format). Note that it is important that every finisher receives a token and that position tokens accurately reflect finish position. After this step, provided position tokens are handed out in the right order, participants can do whatever they like as long as at some point they present themselves for Step 3 to a race official.
- A third official records each finisher’s unique barcode and position token.
What we described above is the procedure used by Parkrun. In theory, you can do without Step 2 provided you can line people up in the right finish order before taking down their barcodes in Step 3, which would be possible in smaller and sparser races.
Barcodes and QR codes are easy to generate and print. Reading barcodes is also very straightforward: if you can’t afford or don’t need a dedicated barcode scanner, you can probably do ok with a smartphone barcode-reading app.
Some things to consider before adopting a barcode system for your race are the following:
- Since barcode systems record times and participant positions separately, they rely on both lists being complete and accurate. A single error or omission in one can bump around the whole stack of finish times, affecting all subsequent times. So you should seriously consider doubling up on all steps with a backup official (or an altogether separate backup system; more on that later).
- Even if you use barcodes for timing, it may still help to issue participants with race bibs, just so your tean can easily make out who’s in the race and who isn’t.
NFC chip timing
NFC stands for Near Field Communication and it is the technology behind contactless payments. NFC chips are a type of low-frequency (therefore short read-range) RFID chip that are cheap to acquire, easy to configure and – perhaps best thing of all – can be read by any smartphone with a suitable reader app.
When it comes to timing a race, you’d use NFC tags in a very similar way to barcodes and QR codes, that is, to identify participants by scanning their tags. So, why bother with NFC tags at all and not use barcodes?
Well, although NFC tags are a bit more expensive than barcodes, they do offer a few benefits over barcodes which may make them a better choice for your race:
- NFC tags are more rugged than barcodes, which are typically printed on paper and then, at best, laminated. For that reason, and because they rely on radio rather than visual identification, they survive dirt, scratches and water much better than paper-printed barcodes.
- NFC tags are much better suited than barcodes for low-light or night conditions. This is again because barcodes are read visually and therefore rely on light, particularly if read through an ordinary smartphone (rather than a dedicated barcode scanner).
- Although smartphone apps exist for reading both barcodes and NFC tags, barcode/QR code reading apps need to be opened and get access to the phone camera, whereas NFC-reading apps can operate in the background, continuing to read tags on contact with the phone even when the phone is locked (so much so, that you can set up unmanned timed NFC checkpoints in remote locations by having participants scan their tags on an old NFC phone at the checkpoint).
Not only that, but most timing apps we discussed above come with NFC-ready. So you can use your race timing app as an NFC reader and benefit from all the additional cool features race timing apps provide, such as live results uploads, entry list management etc.
So, although subtly different from barcodes, radio makes all the difference for NFC and can open up a whole new range of capabilities for your race timing.
Manual race timing
Manually timing a race may sound a bit “last century”, but it is still a very widely practiced form of race timing – even among race timers!
There are many slightly different ways to time a race manually. However, all of them pretty much boil down to the same three steps:
- One official records successive finish times, most likely through a simple lapped stopwatch
- Another official records successive bib numbers
- The two lists are combined to produce race results