Person looking at their fitness watch outdoors

How to choose a fitness watch or fitness tracker

If you want to boost your workouts or keep track of your activities, it’s time for a fitness watch. These kinds of watches go by lots of different names – fitness trackers, training watches, GPS watches, sport watches – and can have loads of high-tech features. Many have modes to use with multiple activities, like running, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing or hiking.

To find the right watch for you, you’ll need to decide what’s the most important for your goals and activities. Start by thinking about these questions, then read on to learn more:

  • What do you want to track? Time, heart rate, different activities – the list goes on.
  • Do you need GPS? Key for tracking routes, distance, speed and more.
  • Are you planning to use it for swimming? If so, look for special swim modes.
  • What kind of special features do you need? Maybe music, notifications or a touchscreen?
  • What about battery life? Long battery life is something to consider for long days out.

What do you want to track?

Maybe you’re looking for a no-frills option with a simple lap timer. Maybe you’re after some high-tech activity tracking features: heart rate tracking, multi-sport modes, pre-programmed workouts – the list goes on.

Time tracking

If straight-up time-tracking is all you need, go simple. Most 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 an alarm for morning runs. Interval timers are also useful, since they let you set two timers that repeat (great for walk/run programs where you run for 2 minutes, walk for 1 minute, etc.). A simple sport watch might be for you if you just need basic time data and you’re looking to spend less money.

Heart rate tracking

Heart rate monitors indicate how hard you’re working at any given moment. When you want to improve your fitness, heart rate is valuable tool to determine 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 or by an optical heart rate monitor on your wrist. Optical heart rate monitors are excellent for tracking your heart rate throughout the day, and are now nearly as precise as chest straps (with a variance of only a few beats per minute). That said, if you’re a swimmer, a chest strap is still the number one choice when you’re in the water.

Tracking multiple activities

Multi-activity watches allow you to switch between different activities with a simple click of a button (fantastic for triathletes or anyone who wants to track multiple activities within a single recorded workout). Multi-activity watches are often compatible with cycling sensors – check if a given watch is compatible with cadence, speed or power sensors. Some watches also have a swim mode.

Tracking workouts and pace

Many watches can help keep you on a programmed pace. For example, you can pre-program a workout to determine how fast or hard you want to run based on heart rate, pace, time or distance. Some watches have audible or haptic (re: vibrating) alerts to remind you to increase or decrease your pace. It’s a handy feature if you do a lot of interval training or have specific fitness goals in mind.

More sophisticated watches let you create or download 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.

Do you need GPS?

If you want to track your route, distance, speed, pace or elevation, you’ll need a watch with GPS tracking. By leveraging the power of satellites, GPS watches can track all these things and more. They also open you to the world of social activity apps, including Strava and Garmin Connect. Apps like these are a stellar way to archive your workouts, and they frequently offer challenges, awards for accomplishments and pre-built training programs. Plus, they’re a fun, easy way to share routes with friends (and maybe provide a bit of healthy competition too).

Location sharing and heatmaps

Some Garmin GPS watches have live tracking features, which mean you can send your location to other people. Another handy feature to have is the ability to see heatmaps through apps like Garmin Connect. Heatmaps show you the popular routes that other watch wearers use, which is helpful when you’re travelling to a new area.

Accelerometers for treadmills

GPS signals track movement, so if you’re on a treadmill, they’re unable to track your speed and distance. If you do a lot of treadmill running, get a watch with an accelerometer. Accelerometers measure the acceleration of the device itself, so they can track your running pace and distance regardless of whether you’re moving through space.

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, like foot pods.

Are you planning to use it for swimming?

If you want to track your swims, look for watches with a dedicated swim mode. Swim tracking watches have features like lap counters, stroke identifier, average speed, and strokes per minute (your swolf score, which is a measurement of your swim efficiently). You’ll likely want to track the total distance you swim, and the best ones can track both indoor and outdoor swims; for indoor, you select from a list of pool lengths. Some new watches can even track your heart rate in the water. Of course, any watch you choose to swim with needs to be waterproof.

What kind of special features do you need?

Watches can be more than just fitness trackers. You might be interested in a watch that comes with some extras:

  • Music: Some new watches come with the ability to store music in the watch. The bonus of this is that you can leave your phone at home and still have a full soundtrack for your activity. Bluetooth compatibility can also allow you to pair your watch with wireless headphones.
  • Text messages, emails, social notifications: Many watches can pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth or other means to display notifications. It’s handy for everyday watch use (you can stay synced to your phone at all times, like a Pebble or Apple Watch).
  • Alarms: Some watches come with an alarm feature you can set.
  • Payments via watch: Before you plan to leave your wallet at home, check with your bank to see if the specific payment method on your watch (such as Garmin Pay) is supported in Canada.
  • Touchscreen: Some people prefer touchscreens over buttons on watches. Pick up a pair of touchscreen compatible gloves to keep tapping and swiping in cold weather.

What about battery life?

Most GPS running watches feature rechargeable batteries. When in GPS mode, battery life can range anywhere from 8 hours to 50+ hours. Garmin’s latest GPS watches even feature integrated solar panels to greatly extend their battery life; for example, the new Garmin Fenix Solar watches can go up to 36 days between full charges in expedition GPS mode (infrequent GPS check-ins) with three hours of sun a day.

If you’re looking to tackle long runs or rides, opt for something with a longer battery life. Some higher-end watches let you choose how often the watch checks in with the satellite (more frequent checking means more battery life used). Long battery life is also useful if you plan to use your device in places where a recharge won’t be possible for days on end.

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.