If you are a dedicated runner, there is no shortage of devices to choose from. Today’s watches track everything from calorie burn to VO2 max.
The more fully featured watches are on the expensive side, while others are more affordable. Most of these devices have heart rate monitors built in and some will assist you with your swimming and cycling needs too.
For most accurate tracking of activity, you will want to purchase a watch with on-board GPS. This ensures you get the most accurate location and distance information. They’re a real step up from most ordinary fitness trackers.
Below you’ll find our pick of the top GPS smartwatches on the market, along with quick descriptions of some of the many features they offer.
Garmin Forerunner 235 | Garmin Vivoactive HR | Garmin Fenix 3 HR | Garmin Forerunner 735XT | Apple Watch Series 2 | TomTom Spark 3 Cardio | Garmin Forerunner 35 | Polar M600 | Fitbit Surge | Garmin Forerunner 630
Garmin Fenix 5
The new Fenix line is lighter and sleeker than previous models and more feature-packed.
The Fenix 5, Fenix 5S and Fenix 5X come with an optical heart rate sensor, GPS and GLONASS, a bunch of multi-sport activity modes, daily activity tracking, and smartphone notifications. The 5X is the daddy of the bunch and also offers mapping features.
In terms of sizes, the 5S is down from a diameter of 51.5mm on Fenix 3 to 47mm. The 5S is Garmin’s first Fenix watch designed with the female sports enthusiast in mind. It sports a smaller footprint for smaller wrists – 42mm diameter. The Fenix 5X has a 51mm diameter to accomodate the additional functionality.
You will need to wait a bit longer, though, to get your hands on one of these gadgets. Due to be rolled out in Q1 2017, Fenix 5 and 5S will come with a suggested retail price of $599.99, while the Sapphire versions of the two and Fenix 5x will go for $699.99.
New Balance RunIQ watch
Sports footwear and apparel giant New Balance has teamed up with a number of other big tech names to develop the gadget — namely Google for software, Intel for hardware and Strava for run monitoring.
The rugged but smart looking fitness-focused device has been designed for consumers who live more active lifestyles. With built-in GPS for course tracking, you’ll be happy to know you can leave your phone at home. The watch will dish out information on pace and distance, while a heart rate monitor will keep track on your vitals in real time.
RunIQ is available now on Amazon, but it ships in 1-2 months.
Best for runners
Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great choice for runners looking to step up their training. In addition to keeping tabs on your runs, this GPS watch will provide you with some more advanced features such as a recovery advisor and VO2 Max.
The watch features Garmin’s Elevate wrist heart rate technology. It will help you to heart-rate zone train, and like most Garmin devices, it will keep tabs on the all-important resting heart rate.
Forerunner 235 can also be used for 24/7 activity tracking and will count steps, calories and distance throughout the day. The move bar with vibration alerts motivates you to move when you’ve been sitting too long.
You will also find some smartwatch features such as smart notifications and audio prompts, as well as customisation options and excellent battery life.
All in all, this is a well rounded device for the price. It will easily meet the needs of most runners.
Best for multi-sports
Vivoactive HR takes all the features from the first generation tracker, but upgrades it with a heart rate monitor and a sleeker new design.
The device counts steps, intensity minutes, monitors sleep, and now with the addition of a barometric altimeter – the number of floors climbed. Vivoactive HR uses 24/7 wrist-based heart rate data to calculate calories burned as well as the intensity of fitness activities.
Built-in sports apps include running; cycling; golf and swimming plus added support for paddle boarding and skiing. The watch also continuously monitors for periods of sustained activity. This is essentially auto-recognition for running, swimming, cycling and elliptical. The built-in GPS means there is no need to pair it with your phone in order to map your movements.
Best for outdoors
The Fenix 3 is a beast of a watch and features everything you would ever want for fitness training and outdoor navigation. The device is perfect for those who are into multi sports and want to be able to track everything.
You can use it for cycling, open water swimming, cross country skiing, climbing, indoor run/bike/swim, hiking and much more. In addition to heart rate tracking from the wrist, the watch provides advanced running metrics including vertical oscillation and vertical ratio, VO2 max and a recovery advisor. Outdoor navigation includes things like 3-axis compass, altimeter and barometer and TracBack feature.
And finally, the Garmin Connect software is top notch, whether you are utilising the smartphone app or the even more comprehensive web dashboard.
Best for triathletes
This GPS multisport watch is for athletes who want in-depth data as they train and compete. Forerunner 735XT is Garmin’s first multisport watch with Elevate heart rate technology to measure heart rate at the wrist.
Thanks to a smaller form, the 735XT is well suited to get you through your workout. It even doubles as an activity tracker to count your steps, calories and sleep.
The watch lets you change things up with ease thanks to built-in activity profiles for running, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, paddle sports, trail running, hiking and strength training. So you don’t waste any time, for triathlon races the auto multisport feature lets you switch sports with just one press of a button.
Post-race, you will have time to delve into the very detailed statistics in Garmin Connect that include running dynamics, VO2 Max estimate, lactate threshold, race predictor, recovery advisor and underwater heart rate for swimming.
The Apple Watch Series 2 delivers solid improvements over its predecessor, including water proofing up to 50 metres, on-board GPS, a 50% faster Duel-Core processor, a better display and a few other updates.
The big news is that the device is now water resistant up to 50 metres and can be used for monitoring open and pool water swimming. The company has developed all-new algorithms to count laps, track average lap pace and auto-detect stroke type to measure active calorie burn.
Apple has attempted to make the watch a more serious rival to Garmin and Polar by including built-in GPS. This means the watch will record precise distance, pace and speed for outdoor workouts such as walking, running or cycling, without needing an iPhone.
The device offers so many other things in addition to being a fitness tracker, its health and fitness features should be viewed as a bonus rather than the main reason for purchase. As a fully featured smartwatch, there are few wearables on the market today that can rival Apple.
For runners who like listening to music
TomTom recently released an upgraded version of its excellent Spark watch. The Spark 3 builds on the comprehensive features of the original device and is still the only GPS running watch that lets you stream music without your phone.
In addition to GPS and on-board storage for 500 songs, you also get multiple sport tracking, 24/7 activity and sleep tracking and a heart rate sensor.
It terms of added sensors, the watch now includes a compass in case you get lost when running on a new trail. You can also use TomTom fitness watch to see where the path has taken you, and upload new routes to explore different places.
This water-resistant device excels in ease of use and the metrics that it churns out are excellent. If you are after a no-nonsense featured packed running watch and activity tracker, you won’t go wrong with Spark 3.
For runners on a budget
Forerunner 35 is Garmin’s new kid on the block. This is an upgrade to the Forerunner 25, and while it not by any means Garmin’s best looking tracker, it offers all the basics for intermediate runners at a budget price.
This means you will get an optical heart rate monitor on your wrist, and metrics such as pace, distance, time and heart rate zones. The built-in GPS tracks how far, how fast and where you run.
All-day activity tracking counts steps, calories and intensity minutes and reminds you when to move. Garmin has thrown in some smartwatch features for good measure, such as smart notifications, live tracking and music controls.
Best Android wear
The Polar M600 is an Android Wear smartwatch designed to suit an active lifestyle. The watch retains the signature look and feel of other Polar products. Inside the thin and attractive casing is a built-in GPS, and underneath the module is an optical heart rate monitor.
The M600 will keep tabs on your activity 24/7 and provide you with practical support to help you achieve your individual daily activity goal. The watch can measure pace, distance, speed and other metrics when running and cycling. It’s also swim-proof and can withstand even the roughest of weather.
The onboard GPS, heart rate tracking via six LED lights, built in music (4GB of storage is on-board), third party apps and other smartwatch abilities make this an attractive option.
Best for 24/7 activity tracking
Fibit Surge was released in early 2015. The Fitbit website refers to it as the ‘ultimate fitness superwatch’. This device marks the San Francisco company’s first foray into serious running watch territory.
The Surge is not quite as beautiful as some smart watches, nor is it subtle like some activity trackers, but it is very user friendly. Once you have done the initial set-up – strap it on and you are ready to go. The device records all the usual statistics such as steps taken, distance travelled, calories burned, stairs climbed, active minutes, caller ID and sleep.
The Surge basically tries to fill the void between a fitness tracker and dedicated sports watch. While it is not the fastest or most accurate GPS in the world, it gets the job done with little hassle. Also, it has a great app to go along with it.
For in-depth running data
This is the daddy of the running watches if you are after in-depth statistics. To start off with a negative, you will need to pair it with a chest strap if you are after advanced data. But it is well worth the hassle if you are serious about your running.
For example, once Forerunner 630 learns your lactate threshold, you can apply it to your heart rate training when setting up zones. To give you a better idea of what days you should aim for a tough workout, the watch provides you with a stress score based off your heart rate.
Forerunner 630 measures your VO2 max and can predict your race times giving you a target to aim for. It also lets you know when its time to back off your training because you have been overdoing it.
This is a watch that is predominantly for the hardcore runner who also wants access to some smartwatch features. And as you would expect, the advanced features are reflected in the price!
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