What's the best running watch for you?

What’s the best running watch for you?

Looking to boost your running fitness? Want to compete with your friends online? Curious how far you ran in that 58 minutes? Then it’s time for a run watch.

Maybe you’re looking for a no-frills option with a simple lap timer. Maybe you’re after some high-tech features: GPS tracking, Bluetooth Smart compatibility, accelerometers – the list goes on. Or maybe you’re having a tough time deciding between Garmin, Suunto or Polar.

No problem. Use this run watch guide to figure out what features are essential to you, based on the type of running you do and the goals you have, and then choose your new wrist-mounted run buddy.

1) Time

If straight-up time-tracking is all you’re after, go simple. Most dedicated sport watches feature a “lap” function, which means you can measure the time between two points by pressing a single button. Opt for something with “elapsed time,” “lap timer,” and a simple alarm for morning runs.

Consider a simple sport watch for running if:

  • You’re looking to spend very little money
  • You want the most basic run data
  • You want to measure your time between two points or around a track
  • You’re into minimalism

2) GPS tracking

By leveraging the incredible space age power of satellites, GPS watches track your running route, pace and elevation. They also open you to the world of social activity apps, including Strava and Garmin Connect. Not only are apps like these a stellar way to archive your workouts, but they frequently offer challenges, awards for accomplishments and pre-built training programs. Plus, they’re a fun, easy way to compete with your running friends/nemeses.

Look for watches with GPS tracking if:

  • You want to track distance, location and pace while running
  • You want to upload your running routes and data to social apps like Strava or Garmin Connect
What's the best running watch for you?

3) Heart rate

Heart rate monitors indicate how hard you’re working at any given moment. When you want to improve your fitness, heart rate is very valuable tool for determining if you’re going too hard, not hard enough, or whether you need rest. Most heart rate functions let you determine different heart rate zones for accurate training.

You can measure heart rate via a lightweight chest strap (the most common way) or by an optical heart rate monitor that casts light onto your wrist. Optical heart rate monitors are excellent for tracking your heart rate throughout the day, but they’re not as accurate or versatile as chest strap monitors.

Keep in mind that there are dedicated heart rate monitor watches that do not feature GPS functionality – a good option if you’re not concerned with speed and distance functionality, and want to save a few bucks.

Consider watches with heart rate functionality if:

  • You want to improve your fitness and performance
  • You follow a training schedule that incorporates zone and intensity training
  • You want to accurately measure exertion and intensity while running

4) Multi-activity

If you plan to only use your watch for running, a dedicated running watch is the way to go. However, if you dabble in cycling or swimming, a watch with multi-activity functionality adds huge value. Multi-activity watches usually switch between different activities with a simple click of a button (fantastic for triathletes).

Multi-activity watches often feature compatibility with cycling sensors – check if a given watch is compatible with cadence, speed or power sensors.
Watches that can track swimming should feature a dedicated “swim” mode. Depending on the watch, watches with swim functionality will often feature tracking for indoor or outdoor swimming, stroke type, and pace.

Consider a multi-activity watch if:

  • You frequently run, bike and swim
  • You’re a triathlete
  • You’re an activity generalist who does a bit of everything

5) Programmable workouts and training

Many running watches can help keep you on a programmed pace during your run. By pre-programming a workout, you can determine how fast or hard you want to run during a workout based on heart rate, pace, time or distance. Some watches feature audible or haptic (re: vibrating) alerts to remind you to increase or decrease your pace.

More sophisticated watches let you create scheduled training plans to help you prep for a race or running goal. These features often include “rest” notifications, which recommend rest days based on your heart rate data and performance.

Consider programmable workouts and training schedules if:

  • You have a specific running race or fitness goal in mind
  • You need a little extra motivation to pick up the pace while running
  • You frequently do intervals while running
What's the best running watch for you?

6) Smart notifications

Text messages, emails, and social notifications on your watch? Yes, it’s a thing. Many running watches can pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth or other means to display notifications. Many (but not all) watches with Bluetooth Smart compatibility offer smart notifications.

Consider smart notifications if:

  • You simply must check your texts or emails while running
  • You plan on using your running watch for everyday use (you can stay synced to your phone at all times, like a Pebble or Apple Watch)

7) Accelerometers

If you frequently run on treadmills or elliptical trainers, seek out the accelerometer feature. Why? GPS signals track movement, so when you’re on a treadmill, they’re unable to track your speed and distance. Accelerometers measure the acceleration of the device itself (smartphones, for example, feature accelerometers to track orientation and movement), so they can track your running pace and distance regardless of whether you’re moving through space or if the signal is poor.

Watches with this feature typically need to “learn” your running style on a few runs with GPS before they’ll work on a treadmill run.

Many GPS running watches feature an internal accelerometer, or can be paired with accelerometer sensors. Accelerometers external to your watch can offer precise and sophisticated run data, including ground contact time and stride analysis.

Consider an integrated or external accelerometer if:

  • You frequently run on treadmills or work out on the elliptical
  • You’re looking to analyze and improve your stride (remember, this usually requires an external accelerometer)
  • You want constant pace data in areas with inconsistent GPS signals

8) Battery life

The overwhelming majority of GPS running watches feature rechargeable batteries. Simple time pieces leverage a good ol’ fashioned watch battery, which can last for years.

When it comes to rechargeable batteries, expect the battery life of the device to range anywhere from 8 hours to 50 hours when in GPS/run mode. If you’re looking to tackle ultra-marathons, opt for something with a longer battery life. Some higher-end run watches let you choose how often the watch checks in with the satellite (more frequent checking means more battery life used).

Consider watches with long battery life if:

  • You’re a long-distance monster who runs for hours, and hours, and hours at a time
  • You’re looking to use your device in areas where a recharge won’t be possible for days on end

Note: battery life is part of the tech specs for each watch on mec.ca; use the compare function to see how different watches stack up in this area.

9) Aesthetics

On the topic of everyday use, the question of aesthetics arises: do you want to use your running watch for everyday non-running use? Are you okay with wearing a “sporty” looking device at school or the office? Or would you prefer to opt for something classier and more casual looking?

The good news is there are options for more “discrete” looking running watches.

This topic is pretty subjective, but if aesthetics are important to you:

  • Consider the design and size of the watch you’re interested in
  • Look for watches with inter-changeable wrist bands, to slightly customize the look
  • Savour the fact that your everyday watch is also steathily a run watch
Jonathan Johnson

Writer, resident coffee addict and spandex expert. Tirelessly seeking the perfect writing/riding playlist.