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 5 | Garmin Forerunner 935 | Apple Watch Series 2 | TomTom Spark 3 Cardio | Garmin Forerunner 35 | Polar M600 | Fitbit Surge | Garmin Forerunner 630
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 5 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. 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 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, while not the easiest to navigate, 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. It features new performance monitoring tools and a host of sensors. The watch is able to track a number of cardio activities such as running, swimming and cycling automatically. Or you can opt to transition between sports by pressing a button.
Where the watch stands out most, is in its detailed analysis of performance. According to Garmin, the Forerunner 935 aggregates past training results and then uses that data to evaluate the amount of effort users exert during fitness sessions, i.e. if you are slacking off or overdoing it. It does this through two new additional metrics, training load and training status.
Training load looks at users’ exercise activity over the last seven days and compares it to the optimal range for your fitness and recent training history. Training status does the same thing with a more short-term view, and lets you know if you’re training productively, peaking or overreaching. Additionally, the training effect metric tracks and reviews the aerobic and anaerobic benefit of a training session.
There are also other advanced dynamics for running, cycling and swimming, including FTP, VO2 max, cadence, stride length, ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio. Some of these metrics are, however, only available when the watch is paired with Garmin’s new Running Dynamics Pod, which clips right onto your waistband.
All things considered, Garmin’s latest wearable is a nice marriage of style and functionality. A slightly beefed up version of the 735 that came out last year, it offers a slightly lower price and smaller form-factor than the Fenix 5 series, while not compromising on features.
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
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 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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