4 Alternatives to Chip Timing
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.
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 familiarize 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 RaceGorilla (formerly CloudTimer) offer an app-based timing solution which charges a per-event fee, starting at €39 for events with up to 75 participants. The app offers cross-platform support and comes with a publicly accessible live results page for each event as standard.
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 organizers, 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 license-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 team 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
Which is essentially the stripped-down version of the barcode-based timing procedure we went over earlier for Parkrun.
Here's what this would look like for a 10K race:
As mentioned in the barcode section, to make this work well it is crucial to ensure people's race numbers are taken down in the correct sequence. So, if participant with bib number 1024 crosses the finish before participant with bib number 467, it is important for the second official to reflect this in their respective positions in the finish queue. Often, a separate team member may be employed at the finish line to make sure finishers line up in the right order in front of the second official.
To help streamline this tricky second step in the process further and to avoid errors, a so-called pull tag system is sometimes used. This involves the second official ripping off a perforated tag from the race bib that carries the race number on it, instead of writing down a race number on a piece of paper. As long as the tags are collected in the right order, they can be more easily matched with finish times at the end of the race.
GPS-based split timing
Before we wrap up the discussion on timing, it is worth taking a quick look at GPS. Most of what we touch on below is discussed in greater detail in our live tracking & race day app feature, so if you'd like to learn more about using live tracking technology as a timing proxy, make sure to check out that article.
As you likely know, GPS is a satellite-based positioning system that is used to track the position of GPS devices with an accuracy of a few meters. When you go out running with your Garmin or Suunto watch, the watch uses GPS to estimate where you are and calculate how fast you're going.
GPS tracking is now increasingly being used in races to track participants, either through dedicated GPS devices that participants carry or through GPS-enabled apps that participants activate on their phones. And because you can program the GPS service to record the time of crossing of any GPS coordinate along the course, in theory you can use GPS to automatically time checkpoint or finish line crossings.
Generally speaking, using GPS for timing is not a very practical solution for most races. It is too expensive, less accurate and too network-dependent when compared with things like timing apps.
If you are thinking of using GPS tracking in your race anyway - which means you're likely putting on an ultra-endurance event where you plan to distribute hardware GPS trackers to all participants for safety reasons - configuring your system to auto-record checkpoint times, for example, is a superbly wise idea. It will not only save you the cost of buying additional timing app licenses, but it will also help lift the burden of recording intermediate times off your volunteers' shoulders.
Gun time vs race time
There's a pretty important question we've so far left unanswered: "How will these solutions give me true participant race times, i.e. the time from when each participant crosses the start line to when they cross the finish line?"
The answer is, none of them can.
The best you can hope for with any of the solutions we discuss in this article is gun time results, i.e. the time from when the race starts for everyone (=the "gun" goes off) to the time each participant crosses the line.
Recording true race times, takes two timing points: one at the start and one at the finish. Doing so, is only practicable with RFID because the crossing density at the start is so high to make any other solution unworkable. That is why true race times are widely known in the industry as chip times - the kinds of finish times only a chip timing system can truly deliver.
There's no reason to despair, however. Most races, even the majority of those using RFID chip timing, only give out gun time results (for an RFID system to produce chip times you need to track start times which often means a separate RFID system at the start and, hence, double the cost). Gun times are not only what official results are always based off of, they're also good enough for most participants, particularly if the start line is only a few people deep (meaning most people get to cross the start line within a few seconds).
If you're only happy with being able to provide true and accurate race times for each of your participants, RFID is your only viable choice. Sorry!
Backup, backup, backup
Whether you're using the most advanced RFID system on the planet or a pen and a piece of paper, it is always wise to consider a backup to make sure all your participants get a race time at the end of the day. Professional timers do it and you should do it too.
Some of the systems and procedures we discussed above can indeed play the role of backup for other solutions in the list. For example, you can choose to go with a race timing app or NFC tag setup as your primary system for recording finish times and put a couple of volunteers on full manual as backup to reduce the possibility that a time is missed by your primary timers.
Or you can have a fully manual pull tag system as your primary solution with a time-stamped camera set on record at the finish line as a backup you can refer to if there are disputes or missed times.
The point of a backup system is not to double the work, which is why a simple camera setup is ideal for most races' needs. You will only need your backup system to recover at most a handful of finish times, so you shouldn't expect your backup to be capable of providing a full set of results. This should be the job of your main system.
Depending on your expectations prior to reading this article, you may think at this point that these alternatives are a bit too much and you'd rather stick with an RFID timer. That's perfectly fine. Many people would rather pay a professional to get this very important responsibility off their plate on race day.
If you do decide to hire a professional timer, you can check out our race timers directory for good matches in your area. If cost is your main objection against hiring a race timer, but still want the robustness and automation of an RFID system, you may also want to take a look at our guide to building your own RFID chip timing system.
If you do choose to go with one of the solutions discussed above, you should know that they work and that many races use them - so don't be afraid to try them if you think they're right for you. You can always get lots of support and more expert tips on all these solutions from our community of race directors on Facebook who have used these systems successfully in many of their own races.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I ask a timer to manually time my race?
Yes. Many race timers still time races manually using the same methods described in this article to help bring down the cost of timing for race directors. A good race timer will be able to advise you whether manual timing would be suitable for your race, and can take on that job on your behalf, if you want, so you can focus on others things on race day.
How much does chip timing cost?
There's many different ways race timers charge for chip timing services. Some will charge a simple per-participant timing fee (subject to a participant minimum), others will charge a minimum starter fee that includes a number of participants with a per-participant surcharge for every participant beyond the number the starter fee covers.
Typically, for gun time results (=race timed at the finish line only using a common start time) you should expect to pay around $500-$700 plus $1-$1.50 per participant. For additional timing points, either at the start or at intermediate checkpoints, add $300-$500 per timing point.
Do I have to use chip timing for my race?
No. There's no rule, either written or unwritten, that obliges you to use chip timing for your race. It is true that some runners will expect some races to be chip-timed, but you don't have to use chip timing to time your race.
All you have to do is provide race results (if your event is a race). And you can provide accurate race results using chip timing or any of the alternative methods described in this article.
How big can my race get before I have to use chip timing?
The size of your race is only one component in calculating whether you will need to use chip timing or whether other alternatives would still work. It's really the density of finishers, not the absolute number of participants, that determines when you should consider switching from manual to chip timing.
For a short race, like a 5K, any field larger than 150-200 participants will probably mean you will have multiple people crossing the finish line at around the same time, which can be too much for manual timing methods. For longer races, like marathons or ultramarathons, you can afford to manually time a larger number of participants, as you should expect these to be have been spaced out over that distance as they approach the finish line.