Fitness and endurance sports are more accessible than ever; whether you’re running a marathon on your balcony or just trying to squeeze in 10,000 daily steps, it’s never been easier to track your progress with wearable technology.
Not all running watches are created equal: there are huge variations in functionality, compatibility with 3rd party apps, battery life, weight, design, and pretty much every other variable one can think of.
With such diversity in the market and seemingly endless iterations of the evergreen smartwatch, it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. Whether you’re in the market for a swish timepiece that’ll let you plan a 50 mile bike ride whilst you answer WhatsApp messages, or a simpler bit of kit to track your resting heart rate and changes in VO2 max, picking the right device comes down to tailoring it to your specific needs.
Fitbit are the doyenne of wearable technology, having branched out from clip on sleep and step trackers to full blown smart watches over the last decade. The Versa 2 is Fitbit’s answer to the Apple Watch, right down to the iconic square design, but at a more accessible price. Unlike other Fitbit offerings, the Versa 2 supports 3rd party apps and even enables contactless payment via device, it also supports on-device music storage and – unlike the Apple Watch – has native sleep tracking. However, what the Versa 2 succeeds at in being a jack-of-all-trades it fails by being a master of none: multiple other smartwatches perform the same functions as the Versa 2 with better integration with smartphones. Another drawback is that it lacks a GPS chip and relies on your phone’s GPS so potentially it isn’t the tracker of choice for hardcore endurance sports enthusiasts. This being said, it’s still a great entry level running watch for those looking for something more reasonably priced.
Ideal race: Richmond Runfest 10K
Our rating: 6/10
Apple produces phenomenally popular timepieces, outselling the entire Swiss watch industry in 2019. First launched in 2015, Apple have quickly eclipsed competitors by producing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink devices. With the notable lack of any native sleep tracking apps, and the ability to receive regular notifications from iPhones, the Apple Watch is perhaps better suited for those looking to stay connected and less concerned with tracking recovery.
Smaller and lighter than the Series 3, the Apple Watch Series 5 has ironed out some of the creases found in earlier devices and introduced new features. The new always on display which is useful for keeping track of time during workouts – something which was notably absent from earlier generations. Other interesting additions to WatchOS 6 is the Noise app, which warns wearers when they enter noisy environments, and advanced haptic feedback making the device itself much more responsive.
Ideal race: San Francisco Half Marathon
Our rating: 7.5/10
The Polar Ignite is a sleek smartwatch that falls at the lower end of the price range, competing with the Apple Watch Series 3 and Fitbit Versa, whilst aiming to provide the features of a higher-end watch. Both the Nightly Recharge (similar to the Garmin’s Body Battery) and the FitSpark virtual coach are used to tailor workout programmes for the wearer and definitely are ahead of the game in terms of bespoke exercise recommendation. One small drawback, however, is the lack of GPS accuracy, which is disappointing, and a relative lack of responsivity to haptic feedback. However, unlike the Fitbit Versa, the Polar Ignite’s GPS system is inbuilt rather than reliant on a phone, making it that little bit easier to track runs and rides on the go.
Ideal race: Superfeet Sandman Triathlon & Duathlon
Our rating: 8/10
Garmin are a household name, having been producing GPS technology for the past 30 years. From handheld GPS eTrex devices to multisport smartwatches like the Fenix 6. The Fenix 6 is a top end smartwatch, promising to build on Garmin’s previous smartwatch offerings and add a host of new features – and it does that. An excellent choice for those who are really serious about fitness, the Fenix 6 offers amazing GPS accuracy, colour topographic map displays, a 46 day battery life when set to ‘expedition mode’, and a sensitive barometric altimeter for the serious hikers among us. The only slight drawback is that it is absolutely enormous, maybe a little too heavy to be watch of choice for those in the market for something a little more lightweight. This being said, the Fenix 6 provides all sorts of advanced training metrics and trip-routing which makes it perfect for serious trail runners and those tackling ultra distances.
Ideal race: Snowdonia Trail Ultra Marathon
Our rating: 9.5/10
The Casio Pro-Trek WSD-F30 is tough, as in tested to military spec for temperature shock and waterproof to 50m tough, making it the most outdoorsy watch listed in this article. The design itself harks back to Casio W-Series and G-Shock watches. More suited to hikers than gym bunnies, the WSD-F30 doesn’t have any HR or sleep tracking capabilities but instead focuses on tracking trekking, kayaking, and a host of other outdoors activities. What is slightly confusing though is the relatively poor battery life; the WSD-F30 will last maybe 48 hours in the woods which is fine for tackling the Manitou Incline but less useful for mammoth treks like the Annapurna Circuit. On a more positive note, the barometric altimeter is incredibly useful for adjusting training to altitude, the GLONASS-GPS-Galileo system ensures accurate coverage, and magnetic declination calibration makes for an accurate compass which comes in handy if you’ve taken the wrong turn on your trail.
Ideal race: Santa Barbara Red Rock Endurance Run
Our rating: 7/10
With the Forerunner 945 Garmin kept everything that was right about the 935 – the design, the feel, more metrics than you can shake a trekking pole at – and totally revamped the innards, providing a plethora of next-generation features such as a pulse oximeter, Garmin Pay, and support for music storage and playback via Spotify. The Elevate HR sensor improves upon the accuracy of previous Garmin HR sensors – even when tracking underwater – and seeks to strike the balance between a solid running watch with GPS navigation (with added GLONASS and Galileo support) and an everyday smartwatch to free wearers from their phones. The wide variety of sport modes available – encompassing everything from yoga to snowboarding – makes it a great all-round sport watch for multidisciplinarians.
Ideal race: Wild Tri
Our rating: 10/10
The Finns are known for producing some of the most durable tech in the industry – we’ve all seen the jokes about indestructible Nokia 3210s – and the Suunto 9 Baro is no exception. Suunto have made battery life management their forte, and the 9 Baro can track up to 120 hours of continuous running, miles ahead of Garmin’s 32 hour maximum. This watch is most definitely geared towards ultra runners, with the ability to sync with Suunto Planner for route creation, allowing for easy navigation during long distance outings; the navigation app also uses a barometric altimeter to track elevation gain. Unique battery management modes with real time battery-life stats allow wearers to adjust settings to ensure the most useful balance, for them, between performance and longevity. Another useful addition to the Suunto 9 Baro is FusedTrack, which aims to provide GPS data in areas where there is no existing data (yes, you read that correctly) by using the accelerometer and altimeter to fill in the gaps and it does so to a surprisingly accurate degree. Suunto are evidently appealing to a niche audience, so maybe this isn’t the perfect device for career cyclists and triathletes, but it does absolutely fit the bill for those among us whose idea of heaven is a 250mi race through a desert.
Ideal race: Ultra X Jordan
Our rating: 9/10