Best Running Watch, including Garmin, Polar, & Suunto
This article is a concise guide to the best running watches available today at differing prices and functionality. As well as recommendations for the best watch, I also have a few that are worth considering in spite of their flaws, and some to avoid.
- The Garmin 310XT is great value for money and has all the features you're likely to need.
- If the 310XT is too big and you want something more watch like, then the Garmin 610 is great, and it's often available refurbished at a great price.
- The Garmin 620 is a lovely watch, but it's more expensive and you can't get your current pace from a Footpod.
- The Garmin 920XT is the first of the Garmin watches to support downloadable apps using Connect IQ. This provides the type of extensibility you get with apps on a smartphone, and could be revolutionary.
- I rather like the Suunto Ambit2 R, which has some nice features at a reasonable price. The more expensive versions of the Ambit2 are worth considering, but I would avoid the updated Ambit3. (The biggest change with the Ambit3 is to use Bluetooth sensors rather than Ant+. At the current time there is far better sensor support for Ant+ than Bluetooth.)
- Consider using a Smartphone; if you already have one they are a cheap option and can have outstanding GPS Accuracy.
For a lighthearted look at running watches, check out If Running Watches were Sports Cars?
Here's a table of these features for each of the watches I recommend (all have GPS). For details of the meaning of each column see the reviews referenced in the table.
|Weight (oz)||Size (CM3)||Display (mm)||Resolution (Pixels)||
|Garmin 920XT Review||6.0||2.2||35||29 x 21 (609mm2)||205 x 148 (30.3K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/HRM/Alert||Yes||24||40||Yes||Map of current route||Yes||Record||Yes|
|Garmin 620 Review||6.5||1.5||20||25.4 (round) (507mm2)||180 diameter (25.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/HRM/Alert||Yes||10||10||No||No||Yes||Record||Yes|
|Garmin 610 Review||6.4||2.5||41||25.4 (round) (507mm2)||128 diameter (12.9K total)||Fair (IPX7)||Yes||Yes||Footpod/Alert||Yes||8||8||No||Back to start||Yes||Record||No|
|Garmin 310XT Review||5.9||2.5||63||33 x 20 (660mm2)||160 x 100 (16K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Footpod||Yes||20||20||No||Map of current route||No||No||No|
|Suunto Ambit2 R Review||5.8||2.5||30||29 (round) (661mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod||Limited||8||25||No||Back to start map||Yes||Record||Yes|
|Garmin 910XT Review||6.8||2.5||49||33 x 20 (660mm2)||160 x 100 (16K total)||Good (50m)||Yes||Yes||Footpod||Yes||20||20||Yes||Map of current route||Yes||Record||No|
|Polar V800 Review||7.6||2.8||31||23 x 23 (529mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (30m)||No||Yes||Footpod||Limited||13||50||Yes||Back to start||Yes||Display||Predictive|
|Motorola Motoactv Review||1.2||20||32 x 26 (832mm2)||176x220 (38.7K total)||Poor (~IPX7)||No||Yes||Footpod||Limited||6||6||No||Full color maps||No||No||No|
|TomTom Cardio Runner Review||5.0||2.2||30||22 x 25 (550mm2)||144 x 168 (24.2K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes (optical)||Internal/Footpod||Yes||8||8||No||No||No||No||Yes|
|Garmin Fenix 2 Review||4.7||3.2||32||31 (round) (755mm2)||70 diameter (3.8K total)||Good (50m)||No||Yes||Internal/Footpod/HRM||Yes||15||50||Yes||Map of current route||Yes||No||Yes|
|Polar M400 Review||3.5||2.0||24||23 x 23 (529mm2)||128 x 128 (16.4K total)||Good (30m)||No||Yes||No||Limited||8||8||No||Back to start||No||No||No|
|Garmin 10 Review||4.1||1.3||33||25 x 24 (600mm2)||55 x 32 (1.8K total)||Good (50m)||No||No||No||Yes||5||5||No||No||No||No||No|
3 What to Look for in a Running WatchThere are several features to consider when looking for a runners watch.
- GPS. GPS provides an easy measure of how far you've run, which is critical for your training. While it is possible to map out a run afterwards, this tends to be tedious and is typically less accurate than GPS. However, GPS is not accurate enough to display your current pace. The Garmin 910XT, 310XT and 610 can display current pace from the Foodpod while using GPS for distance.
- GPS Accuracy. I've Analyzed the Accuracy of GPS watches, and I've found that there are wide differences in accuracy. The Garmin 10 and Polar M400 are especially poor. Interestingly, adding a Footpod to the 310XT improves their accuracy noticeably. I've not tested all the watches yet, but more devices will be added as time allows. (My testing methodology requires me to run 100s of miles with each watch.)
- Current pace from a Footpod. A Footpod can be used to provide pace and distance. Displaying pace from the Footpod provides a far more accurate indication of current pace than GPS, which is important for any training program that requires running at a specific pace. Unlike GPS, Footpods need to be calibrated to provide accurate pace/distance, but this is relatively easy. For most runners, once the Footpod is calibrated it will display the right pace across a wide range of paces.
- Weight. None of these devices weigh enough to have a noticeable impact on running performance, but the weight can be noticeable.
- Size. The size of these devices varies widely, and the larger devices can feel a little bulky, especially if you have a smaller wrist. I've provided the size as the volume in cubic centimeters to give a single number to compare.
- Waterproofing. Even if you don't swim, having good waterproofing is important to prevent your watch being destroyed by the rain or sweat.
- Heart Rate Monitor. Heart Rate is important information when training, though it is important to understand the limitations of heart rate based training. Having a Heart Rate Monitor that will record your heart rate is particularly valuable for evaluating your training.
- Optical heart rate monitoring is more convenient, but does not work very well.
- While the chest strap based monitoring is remarkably reliable, you can have problems with chaffing and poor reception in some situations, but there are Fixes for Heart Rate Monitor Problems.
- Cadence. A display of Cadence is a critical training tool and newer watches are able to use an internal accelerometer to provide Cadence without any accessories. Other watches may need a Foodpod or the newer Garmin watches can use the running dynamics heart rate strap. A Cadence alert will help you stay in the right cadence range, and is a useful feature.
- Data Upload. The ability to record your workout and store it in a training log such as Dailymile or SportTracks is vital. All of the recommended watches here have that ability. I'd strongly advise even a new runner to store their data so that they can look back over the months and years to understand their progress. A watch that can upload to a PC makes recording your workouts much easier.
- Battery Life. How much battery life you need depends on how long you run for. It's best to have a watch that will last quite a bit longer than your longest run.
- Altimeter. An altimeter will measure the atmospheric pressure and give you altitude. This is more accurate than GPS, but will require calibration to adjust for weather related pressure changes.
- Navigation. The primary purpose of GPS in these devices is to measure distance, but some of them can also provide navigation. This navigation varies from a simple compass needle showing the direction to return to the start to a display of the route you've just run or a preloaded course. The Motoactv and Fenix 2 can display preloaded maps showing roads and names.
- Training Effect. This is a measure of how hard a training run is as a numeric value of 1.0 to 5.0, based on an analysis of Heart Rate Variability.
- Heart Rate Variability. There is a growing interest in the possibility of using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to evaluate training stress. While only one device will display HRV, there are several that will record HRV for later analysis.
- GPS Pre-cache. Some newer watches will download the predicted positions of the GPS satellites for faster initial acquisition. This pre-cache works remarkably well, and the data is usually downloaded automatically when the watch is connected to the internet. However, the data is only valid for a few days, so after that time the device will fall back to the usual approach of scanning for satellites.
4 GPS Accuracy
5 Using a Smartphone
Main article: Running With A Smartphone
Most smartphones have a GPS built in and support various applications that allow them to function as sports watches. These phones can have remarkable levels of GPS Accuracy as well as many other advantages.
6 Watches for Ultrarunning
Choosing a watch for an ultramarathon requires some tradeoffs and there's no simple answer. The main factor is battery life, and some runners will want navigation.
- The Garmin 310XT, Garmin 910XT, and Garmin Fenix 2 will show an outline of your run and allow you to load a course outline to follow. The Garmin 920XT has a map display, but Garmin has crippled the 920XT by removing the ability to zoom the display.
- The longest battery life that's available with good GPS is 24 hours with the Garmin 920XT, or 20 hours for the Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT. If you need longer than 24 hours, which is common in 100 mile races, you end up with some compromises.
- You can turn off GPS and use a Footpod, which boost the battery life of most Garmin watches to several days. Obviously you lose navigation and while the accuracy of a Footpod can be better than GPS, the Footpod does not do so well if you're taking Walking Breaks or running on twisty single track.
- Some watches can extend the battery life by only taking a GPS fix less frequently. This can be acceptable on a straight course like the Keys 100 or Badwater, but it can be appalling on twisty trails.
- The Garmin 920XT gives 40 hours in extended mode, and it has some mapping capabilities, but the lack of zoom cripples this functionality.
- The Suunto Ambit2 R gives 25 hours in extended mode and the more expensive Ambit2 gives 50 hours. There is some map capability, but it's not as good as the 310/910.
- The Polar V800 gives 50 hours in extended mode, but has no map display.
- The Garmin Fenix 2 will give 50 hours in extended mode, but it has mediocre GPS Accuracy even in normal mode and it has the occasional "lost satellite reception" problem.
- You can extend the battery life a little by avoiding using the backlight or changing the display. Showing the map on the 310/910 seems to drain the battery quite fast. I've had 37+ hours out of the Suunto Ambit2 R.
- Another option, depending on the race, is to have two watches and swap part way through.
- Some runners will recharge their watch during a race, but that seems to be more hassle than it's worth as you have to carry a battery pack and the cable. (You can't charge the Garmin 920XT while it's in use, but you can charge the Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT.)