Watch It - Which Fitness Watch is Best?
As an avid endurance athlete, my go-to has always been my trusty Garmin watch. It's waterproof, has great battery life, and puts up with regular beatings - without skipping a beat. But with all the new fitness tech on the market, I wanted to see if my good ol' Garmin still measured up. Here's what I found...
"Fitness watches" is a very broad term. Just like everyone has different fitness levels and goals, there are different categories of watches, designed to help distinct groups of people. Each category has its own weaknesses and strengths.
I would say the the most popular fitness watch is the smartwatch. These watches are more like little phones for your wrist and are made by companies like are Samsung and Apple. They are more for health tracking than hard-core training, especially because their battery life and GPS accuracy tends to fall short - which are must-haves for serious endurance athletes - but if you are looking for an all-around fitness/health tracker that also is centered in productivity (and is more stylish), smartwatches are more up your alley.
Contrast that with GPS watches. These are designed less for their trendy looks or ability to respond to email, and more for the person who wants to train and track their progress - and who need GPS. Running, swimming, cycling, mountain biking, hiking, for example, all require GPS to track and monitor each workout session (if you're outside anyway). You'll see these watches from companies such as Garmin, Wahoo, Suunto, Coros, and Polar. Overall, these watches have a much longer battery life (about triple) than smartwatches, and are generally rich with other features to help you manage your metrics.
For the sake of this post, I'm going to focus on GPS watches, and came up with six specific metrics to measure each watch by:
Most GPS watches only need to be charged every 5 to 15 days and only take a couple of hours to fully charge. If you want to track your sleeping patterns, you won't want to charge it while you're sleeping at night. Here's a breakdown of the watches with the best battery life.
Coros Pace 2 - 20 days in regular mode, 30 hours in GPS mode, up to a whopping 60 days in max battery-saver mode
Suunto 9 - 14 days in regular mode, 36 hours in GPS mode, up to 28 days in max battery-saver mode
Garmin Fenix 6 Pro - 14 days in regular mode, 36 hours in GPS mode, up to 28 days in max battery-saver mode
Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL - 14 days in regular mode, 24 hours in GPS mode
Polar Vantage V2 - 7 days in regular mode, 40 hours in GPS mode, up to 100 hours of GPS in max battery-saver mode
Garmin Forerunner 745 - 7 days in regular mode, 16 hours in GPS mode, up to 21 hours of GPS in battery-saver mode
Price and Features
Price plays a big role in purchasing a watch, but in terms of fitness watches, you don't always get what you pay for. Generally speaking, though, the more expensive, the more feature-rich the watch, however, there are still some great entry-level watches, such as the Polar Unite and Garmin 35. You can get a good entry-level watch for under $200 and they are perfect for those who are just starting or are more casual in their training. More serious fitness folks will generally want more watch features, which equals more moolah.
All the watches below offer the basic fitness tracking we've come to expect (pace, steps, heart rate, distance). The watches priced $330 and above also had more advanced features as well (sleep tracking, VO2 max, calories, elevation gain/loss, stress, cadence, training zones, power, notifications (call, text, email). With a few also featuring auto swim stroke detection, Strava Segments, respiration rate, music, pulse oximeter, incident detection and activity tracking.
Price - $650
Features - 35 sport modes, music storage for up to 2,000 songs (supports Amazon, Deezer, and Spotify), warns you of incoming storms with built-in barometric reader, automatically detects swim stroke, PacePro and ClimbPro for pacing guidance and ascent info, pulse ox sensor (measures blood oxygen saturation levels), female health tracking
Price - $500
Features - built-in sport profiles, customizable data fields; pre-programmable workouts with customizable training zones, wrist-based heart-rate monitor, health metric tracking, phone notifications, pulse ox sensor (measures blood oxygen saturation levels), music storage for up to 500 songs, automatically detects swim stroke, compatible with Garmin cycling power meters, triathlon mode
Price - $500
Features - precision hill splits, reminders to fuel and hydrate, exceptional heart-rate monitoring, built-in cycling and running performance tests, syncs with Strava Segments
Price - $499
Features - touch-screen navigation, three battery modes (performance, endurance, and ultra), more precise GPS accuracy, intuitive navigation, create and upload routes, view and upload popular routes in your area, pulse ox sensor (measures blood oxygen saturation levels)
Price - $330
Features - Simple to understand and navigate, pulse ox sensor (measures blood oxygen saturation levels), average and max pace, syncs workouts (to Wahoo app, Strava, Nike Run, komoot, and more), 9 sport modes (including triathlon mode)
Price - $200
Features - Syncs with Stryd pods, wrist-based running power, create workouts in app, very light compared to other watches, fabric or silicone band, fitness insights
My trusty Garmin Forerunner 935 - It's been through a lot.
A watch's ecosystem is foundational to the overall usability of the watch. It is not just the watch’s app, but also the customer web portal, customer service support, and supported third-party apps (Strava and Spotify are big hitters here). The ecosystem usability and functionality is just as important as the watch itself.
Garmin, in it's wisdom, has developed the broadest and strongest ecosystem (so far). Having used the Garmin app and web portal for years - it's called Garmin Connect - I've never been at a loss for health and performance metrics. Other companies are narrowing that gap, with Polar’s Flow app and web portal nipping at Garmin's heels, and Suunto, Coros, and Wahoo bringing up the rear.
It's no surprise that these hard-core fitness watches are larger and heavier. The long battery life, number of features, and need to be physically tough all play a role in the watch's design. Some of the more feature-rich watches look too large and awkward, especially on small wrists. Fortunately, most brands (like Garmin, Coros, and Polar) make smaller versions of their most popular watches.
Most GPS watches are accurate within 1-3%, but over a long distance that can add up - especially if you're running an ultra-marathon with your partner and you logged 50 miles, but they logged 51.5 (narrowing my eyes and looking at my husband). Fortunately Garmin, Suunto, Coros, Wahoo, and Polar all perform equally well in GPS connection and accuracy. If GPS is at the top of your list, this post won't help you narrow down your best contenders, simply because they will all support your GPS needs really well.
My Final Opinion
For me, there wasn't a clear winner. Depending on what you're looking for, you have lots of great options!
If you're looking for a less expensive, but feature rich watch, the Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL is one you should look at.
If battery life and lots of features are what tickles your fancy, take a look at Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, Suunto 9, and Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL.
For running and triathlons, the Garmin Forerunner 745 comes out in front in terms of all-around best fit.
If you're looking for an ultra-endurance watch with a decent price-point and a some really useful features, the Suunto 9 is a great option.
For now, I'm sticking with my Garmin 935, but a Suunto just may be in my future. What about you? What is the watch of your choice?