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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.
Essential reading: Compare sports watches with our interactive tool
For most accurate tracking of activity, you will want to purchase a watch with GPS. This ensures you get the most accurate location and distance information and are free from your phone. They’re a real step up from most ordinary fitness trackers.
Below you’ll find our pick of the top watches with GPS, along with quick descriptions of some of the many features they offer. While compiling this list, we’ve examined functions and features carefully and thoroughly. We try to test every device personally, but where not possible we took user reviews into consideration and dismissed devices with bad customer reviews and low ratings. This left us with the following selection.
Garmin Forerunner 235 | Garmin Fenix 5 | Garmin Forerunner 935 | Apple Watch Series 3 | TomTom Spark 3 Cardio | Garmin Forerunner 35 | Polar M600 | Garmin Forerunner 630 | Fitbit Ionic | Garmin Vivoactive 3
Best for runners
If you are looking purely for a runners watch, Garmin Forerunner 235 is the best value for money device you can purchase right now. 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.
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.
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. It offers a slightly lower price and smaller form-factor than the Fenix 5 series, while not compromising on features.
The Apple Watch Series 3 delivers solid improvements over its predecessor, including LTE compatibility, a faster processor/wireless chip and a barometric altimeter.
Built into the display, there is now cellular connectivity. The watch uses the same number as your smartphone. Although you still need a SIM, the Series 3 features a small electronic SIM card.
In terms of fitness, there is a new barometric altimeter sensor. This means the watch is finally able to count floors climbed and estimate your altitude. You, of course, get all the great features of the predecessor versions including GPS, all day heart rate and more
Other changes are to do with the heart rate sensor. You are now be able to see your current heart rate just by raising your wrist due to a new complication on the watch face. There is the addition of a “recovering heart rate” which shows how fast your heart rate drops after a workout, and the watch alerts you when it detects an abnormal spike in your readings.
For the first time, the Apple Watch will also be able to tell you your resting heart rate. This is a great addition and obvious omission in the past, as your resting heart rate is perhaps the most important indicator of your health and fitness.
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.
For 24/7 activity tracking
With its blocky, retro design, Ionic is not exactly a looker. But at least it packs some decent specs under the hood. You’ll find 8 different sensors inside including an altimeter, 3-axis accelerometer, digital compass, GPS, optical heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor, vibration motor and a new relative SpO2 sensor for measuring blood oxygen levels.
When it comes to features, this is a smartwatch that puts fitness first. It includes everything you would expect from a Fitbit device, along with capturing real-time stats on 20 different types of activities including swimming.
There is on-board storage for music too, smartphone notifications and Fitbit pay. The App Gallery has Strava, Accuweather, Flipboard, Starbucks and more, and Fitbit will open its SDK for third-party developers in September.
Vivoactive 3 is the successor to the Vivoactive HR, a Swiss knife of activity trackers. Garmin has realised that it needs to introduce a less bulky form factor if it is to appeal to a larger demographic. And on that count, the Vivoactive 3 does not dissapoint. With a classy new design, it closely resembles Garmin’s Fenix and Forerunner line.
Apart from the design, the main news here is the inclusion of Garmin Pay, a first for the company. Which means Garmin customers can finally pay for purchases with their timepiece. The new functionality is enabled by FitPay and supports Visa and Mastercard debit and credit cards from major issuing banks.
There are 15 built-in sports profiles, including new ones for snowboarding, cardio, yoga, eliptical and stair stepper. Vivoactive 3 will also let you mix it up by creating customized workouts. Other new features include VO2Max and stress/workout tracking.
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