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The 7 Best GPS Running Watches Money Can Buy
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This guide to the best GPS running watches of summer 2019 provides picks for the best running watches for all activities and also offers tips and advice to know before you buy.
Terms to Know
Data Versus Training on “Feel”
How the Data Is Derived
- Editor’s Pick: Garmin Forerunner 945
- Best Budget Pick: Timex Ironman GPS
- Suunto Spartan Ultra
- Apple Watch 4
- Fitbit Ionic Adidas Edition
- Samsung Galaxy Active
- Polar M430
Two decades ago there were no GPS running watches. You looked at a map, drove the route with your car, rolled it out with an engineer’s wheel, estimated your distance with Badger miles, logged your miles on a track or just won Ironman World Championships without looking at a watch like Dave Scott. Now watches track literally every step you take. They can tell you when it’s time to breathe, track how many times your heart beats in a minute, offer workout tips, take your phone calls. You can order pad thai and crispy dumplings from your watch. I just did it.
At the core of this revolution, for the purposes of this review, is the satellite-based navigation system called the Global Positioning System (GPS), first developed by the U.S. military in the 1970s and currently maintained by the U.S. Air Force. It was opened up to civilians the following decade, originally with limited accuracy (see: “selective availability“) until 2000, when President Bill Clinton’s administration dropped these restrictions. A few years later the first GPS running watches, like the Garmin Forerunner 101, became available. GPS works using a network of 24 operational satellites flying 12,550 miles from earth, at least four of which are visible to a user’s device at any given time. The receiver in your watch or phone communicates with these satellites via radio signals — that’s why you don’t need “service” to know your location — and then uses trilateration to determine your location. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.
The question, of course, is whether you need 24 operational satellites, 31 total in orbit just in case, outfitted with 3-Panel Improved Triple Junction GaAs Solar Arrays, 1900-watt capacity, monitored by by the U.S. Air Force’s 2nd Space Operations Squadron and the Air Force Reserve’s 19th Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado — collectively, Team Blackjack — to have a great run?
If you’re Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible III ripping through Shanghai to relieve the supervillain Owen Davian of his life, absolutely you do. If you’re a weekend warrior or a marathoner, then it depends whom you ask, but everyone we talked to (runners, coaches, an Olympic champion) agrees that even if you’re not making use of the data GPS watches can provide in the moment, there’s great utility, and fun, in logging the data as a record of your performance over time. With this in mind, we surveyed the best GPS running watches out there, which exist on the spectrum of offering the most basic info about distance and pace to functionality like making payments and, yes, ordering Thai takeout.
Terms to Know
ANT+: A wireless technology that allows devices to communicate with each other, for instance, a watch with a power meter for cycling or running.
Cadence: How many steps you take per minute. This is an important metric because a faster cadence usually means you’re running faster (obviously), but it’s also associated with a shorter stride, which usually means less impact and potentially fewer injuries.
Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC): A measure of the extra oxygen your body requires to recover and return to normal after a workout.
GPS: Global Positioning System. A satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the U.S. government, which provides geolocation and time information.
VO2 Max: A measure of maximal aerobic capacity, or maximal oxygen consumption. The more oxygen you can use the more energy you can produce. It’s expressed in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute adjusted for body weight in kilograms, or ml/kg/min.
Lactate Threshold: A biomarker of fatigue in exercising muscle. There are nuances to the definition, but often it’s used interchangeably with OBLA, or the onset of blood lactate accumulation, which is when lactate starts building up and your effort or pace can be sustained for a limited time period.
Wrist-Based Heart Rate: Rather than measuring with electrodes like a chest strap, wrist-based or optical HR monitors work by photoplethysmography (PPG), or blasting light into your body to see how it interacts with flowing blood. Using some cool technology and algorithms, the watch can figure out your HR.
Heart Rate: How many times your heart beats per minute. Your pulse. The amount of blood pumped to supply oxygen for your body.
Heart Rate Variability: The variation in time between each heartbeat. This is controlled by the ANS, or autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” mechanism and relaxation response. In a high-stress situation, the variation in HR is low, while in a more relaxed situation the variation is high. High HRV generally indicates that your heart can switch between the two modes efficiently, which is a sign of good health.
Stride Length: How far you travel with each step.
Training Load: Total volume of training in a given period.
Vertical Oscillation: How much you’re traveling vertically with each step.
Vertical Ratio: A measurement of efficiency calculated by dividing your vertical oscillation by your stride length.
Data Versus Training on “Feel”
We live in the era of big data. Think about your work: Most decisions are data-driven decisions (“follow the data”) which makes sense when you’re talking about selling products to customers, but you’re a person and not a business model. It’s important to keep this in mind when you strap a GPS watch on your wrist and hit “start workout” because running isn’t a test. Ideally, it should be, first and foremost, fun (that doesn’t mean you won’t suffer) and any data that you collect should help cultivate your interest in the sport and improve, not stress you out — unless you’re a professional athlete.
“Running, at its core, is such a simple sport but we often make it much harder than it needs to be,” says Ben Rosario, coach of Northern Arizona Elite in Flagstaff, a professional distance running team known for working with some of the best runners in the country. “Introducing sort of advanced data, beyond just the basic ‘I ran this far and it took me this long,’ into your overall running experience has a place, but I would suggest that it be only after you are really hooked. You’ll know when that is. Fall in love with the sport before you fall in love with the data.”
You know if you felt good on the run. You know if you felt tired. You know if you felt fast. Get acquainted with this internal source of information. It’s valuable. Then start logging the data, which Rosario suggests is the best way to make use of it, as opposed to thinking about it in real time. Is your average pace getting faster? Are you logging more miles each week? You can track this with the companion apps that come with the watches on this list and/or use a third-party app like Final Surge or TrainingPeaks.
Jes Woods, an NYC-based Nike running coach and ultramarathoner, generally agrees. “The key numbers to look at first are time, distance, and pace,” she says. “Most training plans, for any ability level and race distance, are built around these key numbers. An easy example would be going for a 30-minute run at 9:00 minute per mile pace during week one of training and progressing to the same time, 30 minutes, but at an 8:30 minute per mile pace during week five of training.”
Woods also suggests incorporating heart rate and looking at heart rate zones. “Training in heart rate zones means training at varying percentages of your maximum heart rate,” she says. “Simply put, it tells you how hard you’re working.” The idea is that your heart is a pretty important muscle, and by looking at how hard it has to work you can understand how fit you are. If you’re getting more fit you might see your heart rate on easy runs decreasing, and during harder workouts, you’ll be able to spend more time pushing yourself in higher heart rate zones.
It’s important to recognize that data will only tell part of the story, and plenty of great athletes often abstain. Adam Chase, an ultrarunner with more than 25 wins, frequent columnist in running publications and member of the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, gathers a lot of his data from his perceived effort, or, how much it hurts. “As a trail and ultrarunner I know that the trail conditions, altitude, grade, length of run, weather and many other exogenous factors govern the pace, so having a watch tell you your speed or lack thereof is somewhat irrelevant and can even be frustrating,” he says. “That said, looking at total miles and feet of gain for the month or year is kind of fun and the gamification of training runs and Strava ego stuff is a pretty valid motivator.”
But Chase points to his resting heart rate data as a measure of whether he might be overtraining. “If it is higher than normal that means I’m either overtaxed from prior workouts or fighting something,” he says. “Either way, I should probably ease up on the effort for a day or two until I’ve recovered and my resting rate drops down to normal, which is around 35 or 36 these days.”
In other words, as the other athletes suggest, it’s more about logging than looking. Data as reference, not necessarily a guide to workouts. Go out and do hard runs, easy runs, fartleks (alternating easy and hard); log the data and look at it later.
Of course, as we suggested there’s always a caveat, which is when you’re trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics. “One of my favorite sayings is that ‘feelings don’t dictate outcomes,'” says Gwen Jorgensen, 2016 Olympic triathlon champion and two-time world champion, who now has her sights set on winning the marathon at the Olympics. “But I do track my RPE (relative perceived exertion), which might be something as simple as saying that I felt great when I woke up or how I felt throughout a given workout.”
If for whatever reason there’s an exact time you want to hit, you may want to pay closer attention to the data. Even then, it doesn’t need to be complicated. “Using a journal and tracking your workouts can be a great tool to track your progress, but don’t get caught up in comparing every workout,” Jorgensen says. “Improvements often take time, and a lot of mileage, and outside stressors can affect results.” She tracks her workouts and HR and logs it in TrainingPeaks to review with her coach.
Finally, no matter how useful you find the data, considering leaving the watch at home occasionally and just running somewhere beautiful. “Remind yourself about the pure joy of running,” Rosario says. “Maybe even do that for a few days in a row. Then, when sufficiently refreshed, you can strap on your GPS unit and your heart rate monitor and go back to becoming your own little science experiment.”
How the Data Is Derived
Data acquired from GPS gets you most of your important information about how far you ran and how fast, which can be cut up in many different ways (e.g., average pace). Increasingly though, watches offer a suite of other metrics, like heart rate (with a strap and wrist-based), heart rate variability, VO2 max, lactate threshold, exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC) and even assessments of the symmetry of your stride and your running power.
Traditionally, VO2 max requires breathing into a mask that collects very precise information about inspired and expired air while exercising at increasing loads until you reach maximum capacity to determine how much oxygen your body can use to create energy. Likewise, measuring lactate threshold requires continuous blood testing during exercise. So how are little computers on your wrist offering these same measurements?
They are making very good estimates. Specifically, these data points are calculated using some pretty fancy math and science under the hood, which is derived from actual lab experiments. Garmin (along with other brands, including some Suunto products) relies on a Finland-based physiological analytics company called Firstbeat to deliver all of its insights. Firstbeat uses a big library of laboratory assessments of physiological signals (respiration, energy expenditure, etc.) as a foundation to build indirect ways of acquiring the same information with a high degree of accuracy using only what’s available from your GPS running watch.
For VO2 max, for instance, Firstbeat uses your heart rate and running speed at multiple points in a workout to estimate the number that they say is 95 percent accurate compared to lab measurements. (If you’re interested in digging into the science, their white papers and publications are all available here.) Another key measurement, heart-rate variability, can be used to draw a variety of conclusions about how your body is dealing with exercise and how much time you need to devote to recovery.
Generally speaking, the more you’re paying for your watch, the fancier the technology you get. Much of this data, like VO2 max and lactate threshold, won’t do you any good during your run, but you can use it as a marker for improvement (higher is better). Advice on recovery can be helpful since it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish overtraining as you increase your volume of workouts from day-to-day fatigue from work or stress. Like everything here you want to get acquainted with how you feel first and then use data to see how it compares to your perceptions. If your watch doesn’t have advanced metrics about recovery, a general principle to consider is that if you’re overtraining, your resting heart rate will be higher than it usually is because your heart is working extra hard. In that case, pump the brakes on training and dial it back up after some rest.
Note: We’ll continue testing these watches over the course of several months to provide a long-term assessment.
- Editor’s Pick: Garmin Forerunner 945
- Best Budget Pick: Timex Ironman GPS
- Suunto Spartan Ultra
- Apple Watch 4
- Fitbit Ionic Adidas Edition
- Samsung Galaxy Active
- Polar M430
The Best GPS Running Watches of 2019
Garmin Forerunner 945 With Music
Editor’s Pick: When you get into the $500 range, you have pretty high expectations unboxing a watch. The first thing you notice about the Garmin 935 is how staggeringly light it is for its size, thanks to the plastic construction. This is Garmin’s most premium running and multisport watch before you get to the Fenix series, while offering most of the same features. And it’s packed with features, from telling you the weather and how many steps you’ve taken that day to tracking all the relevant metrics throughout a triathlon, including your transition times, and controlling music on your phone.
Beyond the individual features of the watch, one big advantage of a Garmin is that the company has been in the running data biz for so long and with such zealousness that there are advantages to joining the club. For example, Garmin is compatible with lots of third-party products and apps, from Final Surge and TrainingPeaks to external sensors and power meters (it’s own and others) that connect via Bluetooth or ANT+ protocols. And the 945 features the option to download playlists from your Spotify account (if you have premium), meaning you can head out on a run sans phone. Garmin also partners with Firstbeat to deliver insights into your workouts that other watches offer but not with as much detail — so you’ll get your VO2 max and lactate threshold, but also insight into how hard you’re training and whether you need to lay off or push harder.
The phone app and Connect IQ web app are also robust, with a really granular look at all your activities, plus the ability to plan workouts that you can export to your phone. Want to run a marathon? No problem. There’s a 16-week plan that tells you exactly what to do.
Battery Life: Up to 10 hours using GPS and Music
Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, WiFi
Key Features: Wrist-based HR, accelerometer and gyroscope, thermometer, Garmin Connect app, compass, altimeter, multiple measure of fitness (VO2 max, lactate threshold, etc.), multisport, waypoints, running workouts
Timex Ironman GPS
Editor’s Pick: Timex is is a storied brand, and iconic one in the multisport world thanks to their association with Ironman. The Ironman GPS is currently the most expensive watch in their Ironman collection and the least expensive watch on this list. With a simple digital display, stripped-down design, and an intuitive interface, it tells you almost everything you need to know about your workout, including pace, distance, splits, and so forth. There are also a couple of neat features beneath the hood, like “out and back functionality” (alerts you when you should turn around) and race mode, which tells you when you’ll finish and the distance remaining. Connect to the desktop app after your workout (and within four days, otherwise they get deleted) to view your workout summary/log and a map of your route. It’s a great watch for the basics, but as our coaches and athletes pointed out HR is a key metric, so if you can spend another $100, upgrade to the Polar M430.
Battery Life: Up to 12 hours
Connectivity: Micro USB
Key Features: Timex Connect desktop app, compatible with TrainingPeaks, multisport workouts, auto lap feature (every mile), race mode (estimated finish time and distance remaining), eat and drink alerts, speed and pace alerts, out and back functionality, alarms, run records, Indiglo
Suunto Spartan Ultra
This set of reviews is by no means apples to apples, but rather a survey of some of the best GPS running watches out there intended for the entire spectrum of athletes, from beginning runners to those with an insatiable thirst for data. Where this watch fits in the picture is that it’s much more than a running watch: It’s a multisport computer that’s suitable for monitoring pretty much anything, from running to adventure racing. This makes it extremely versatile, but it’s also reflected in one of the Spartan Ultra’s few downsides, which is that it’s large and might be a bit heavy for an everyday runner. It also doesn’t have wrist-based HR, so if you don’t like wearing a chest strap you may want to look at another option.
Back to the good stuff. Among the more interesting features are handy tools to help you navigate to a “point of interest” or find your way home. You just load a route from the companion app, Movescount, onto the watch and receive guidance when you get outside; you can also use the “breadcrumbs” feature to navigate back should you get lost on a particularly hairy trail run. While the Movescount phone app is pretty straightforward, logging into the website is a richer experience, complete with detailed breakdowns of your runs. For instance, the map will show you your route with different colors indicating where you were working the hardest across a variety of metrics (HR, cadence, etc.), as well as a detailed picture of every lap (default: one mile) you ran. You can also access “heatmaps” of where people are running in your area and all over the world, which is extremely useful if you’re new in town or traveling and looking for interesting places to run.
Battery Life: Up to 26 hours using GPS
Key Features: SuuntoLink desktop app and Movescount app, chest-based HR, storm warnings, accelerometer, altimeter, compass, multiple faces, perceived exertion tracking, point of interest navigation and routes, notifications, compatible with other sensors, multisport exercises, recovery insights, sleep tracking
Apple Watch 4
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Apple Watch. It provides the same sort of delight (if you’re an Apple fan) that you get with your first iPhone or putting in your AirPods for the first time: it’s a beautiful and intuitive piece of design you wear on your wrist. In terms of overall smartwatch functionality, you can read about that elsewhere, but in short it mirrors your iPhone in the most important ways and then has a lot of additional benefits (some more useful than others), like being able to control your phone’s camera, request a car with a single tap, play music and so forth.
The fitness tools live inside the native “activity,” “workout,” and “heart rate” apps (plus any third party apps you add). The first is a ring-based tracker for how much you stand, move and exercise; you set daily goals and when the ring closes when you’ve met them. The others are exactly what they sound like, and all of this action ends up in the Health app on your phone, which is meant to give a total picture of your health — you can theoretically store information there about everything from medical records to sexual activity — and is less sports-specific. In fact, to log and display your workout data in a meaningful way you’ll need to use a third-party app like Strava, HealthFit or Workout Exporter, which you can use to transfer to a robust tracker like TrainingPeaks. And here’s the most important thing to know about the Apple Watch for running: It’s first and foremost a great smartwatch, and second a running watch — but if you’re open playing around with it to find the right apps, it can also provide the insights you’re looking for to log workouts effectively.
Battery Life: Up to 18 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi
Key Features: Optical HR, barometric altimeter, accelerometer and gyroscope, full suite of apps, custom faces, cellular service (optional)
FitBit Ionic Adidas Edition
Along with the Apple Watch and the Samsung Gear Sport, the Fitbit Ionic feels the most like having a little computer on your wrist thanks to the large and colorful touchscreen display, which is super intuitive with a combination of buttons, taps and swipes. The main differentiator with the Adidas edition is on-screen workouts; they take you through a handful of exercises like “dynamic warmup” and “power pace” that aim to make you a stronger runner. This feature is actually quite useful, as any committed runner who has gotten both older and lazier knows that just running for exercise can lead to imbalances and injuries, especially resulting from a weak core.
Recording your runs is straightforward and the data syncs via Bluetooth to the FitBit app (you download it at setup), which provides a really nice display of your workout, complete with a map, mile times, HR zones and calories burned. The only downside appears to be that there’s no easy way to move your data to a third-party service like TrainingPeaks or Final Surge. It’s also worth noting that there are some weird native apps like Pandora and Starbucks, which feels uninspired, though some people may find it useful. Overall, though, this is a great everyday running watch with some fun built-in perks.
Battery Life: Up to 10 hours using GPS
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, USB
Key Features: Optical HR, accelerometer and gyroscope, altimeter, on-screen workouts, custom faces, color LCD display with touchscreen.
Samsung Galaxy Active
The optimal review would pair this tracker with the Samsung Galaxy (which we’ll do for the long-term review), but the Galaxy Active is also compatible with the iPhone and that’s how we tested it. The Galaxy Active has a beautiful display and a really fun user interface. Press a button or swipe across the touchscreen to check your phone notifications, calendar, calories burned, total steps, heart rate, workout options, and so on (it’s customizable). Touch screens tend to mix poorly with sweaty fingers, but the two buttons on the side of the Galaxy Active mean start and stop are easily accessible.
This watch throws elbows at the Garmin and Apple leaders with its Spotify partnership; as a Spotify premium subscriber, I could save running playlists directly on the smartwatch and listen to them without an LTE connection or my smartphone nearby. And if you head out on a run, but forget to start the watch, it’ll automatically keep track and record it anyway. No more missed miles in your training log.
This friendlier-priced (read: cheaper) version of the Galaxy Watch also adds a Calm integration, meaning you can meditate directly through the Samsung Health app. If you’re a Samsung diehard and you want a digital watch to match, the Galaxy Active is a great option, and thanks to the Spotify addition, it’s a stellar running option.
Battery Life: Up to 90 hours of mixed use
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC
Key Features: Optical HR, compatible with some third party apps like Strava, accelerometer, barometer and gyroscope, multiple workout options, payments
The Polar M430 packs a lot of features into a reasonably-priced watch that’s quite specifically designed for athletes. Day-to-day use is fairly intuitive, from getting a good fit (easy to find a comfortable, snug position) to the rich presentation of your data and maps in the Polar Flow app. Flow has some very useful features beyond logging data, like the ability to build out structured workouts or download a training plan right to the watch, which beats entering it manually into your Google calendar. The M430 also has a unique feature called “fitness test,” which measures your VO2 max in a five-minute session while you just lie down, the idea being that you do it every so often to measure your progress.
Battery Life: Up to 30 hours with low power GPS
Connectivity: Bluetooth, USB
Key Features: Optical HR sensor with continuous monitoring, accelerometer, fitness test, vibration alerts, multiple watch faces, smartphone notifications, compatible with 3rd party services (TrainingPeaks, Strava, etc.), running stride sensor (additional purchase), running programs, cadence, stride length
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