Run Circles Around Other Trackers
Many runners have found that even some of the best fitness trackers don't know how to keep up with their active lifestyle. Many trackers count steps, measure sleep, and even vibrate when a push notification appears on your phone, but they can't calculate pace time or anything else a runner needs to know. But there is a special class of fitness trackers just for runners, hybrid devices that are half running watch and half daily step counter. We've rounded up the very best.
While running watches can easily cost upwards of $200 (and above), not all of them do. We looked for a few devices at the lower end of the price spectrum, around the $100 mark, but also some of the higher-end models that cost a lot more. As you can see from the chart above, there's a big range so you can find a device that meets your needs, matches your style, and helps you get through all those miles.
We've also taken into consideration some of the essential features any runner would want from a tracker, and whether the device offers heart rate monitoring, smartwatch features like push notifications, good battery life, and more.
Runners' watches usually have a sporty look, which isn't ideal for a device you want to wear 24/7. They often have a chunky face and a silicone wristband that can withstand sweat. That's not what you want as eye candy on your arm when you're out networking over cocktails.
However, a few hybrid fitness tracker-running watches actually do have a more sophisticated look than many others. The Apple Watch Series 2, Apple Watch Nike+, and Garmin Forerunner 35 come to mind. They have sleeker bodies and more attention to detail, such as stainless steel clasps, that elevate the look. You can swap the bands, upgrading to leather when the occasion calls for it.
A few essential features runners look for in a tracker are the ability to accurately track total running time, distance, pace, and lap time. It certainly helps if the watch comes with GPS, as stats for outdoor runs are much more accurate when GPS is used to calculate them. Having GPS also means you can usually see the route of your run after the fact.
Some of the trackers shown here measure a whole lot more than that. The Garmin Forerunner 735XT, a triathalon watch, also captures ground contact time, stride length, and estimated recovery time needed after a workout. When worn with a compatible chest strap, it even estimates VO2 max estimate and lactate threshold. It's by far the most expensive watch on this list, but you do get some very advanced information about your runs with it.
When you're not running, you expect a tracker to keep an eye on your steps and sleep. Most of the devices on this list include a sleep tracker.
Don't get suckered into buying a runner's watch with built-in heart rate monitoring before you learn what it does and how it works. There are different ways heart rate monitors (HRMs) are used and implemented.
Some trackers have an optical HRM built right into the device. This reads heart rate through your wrist. Devices that don't have a built-in optical HRM—like the Garmin Forerunner 15 and the Polar M400—still work with a connected chest strap any time you want heart rate data.
A chest strap HRM is one that is typically only worn during exercise. It wirelessly (via Bluetooth or ANT+) connects with a compatible running watch so that you have real-time heart rate data while you're in motion.
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With an optical HRM, you never have to put on a chest strap if you don't want to, although trackers with optical HRM usually still support chest straps. The reason is that many athletes still prefer chest straps because they are more accurate. The other major distinction is whether the optical HRM offers continuous heart rate monitoring or only during activity. Continuous monitoring lets you see your heart rate at any moment, making it easy to look up your resting heart rate every day. Continuous HRMs tend to eat up battery life, however.
More importantly, you need to ask what you're going to do with your heart rate data. Many people simply don't need to know their heart rate while they're driving or cooking dinner. They can't act on it any meaningful way, and it doesn't tell them much about their health or state of being. Every so often, people believe they will use continuous HRM to monitor stress, and if that's the case, fine. But that means you have to notice a rise in heart rate and then act on it, and no tracker on this list is equipped to help you with that chore.
The point of having heart rate information with a runner's watch is to use it for heart rate training during exercise. And in that case, heart rate data is very valuable. But a lot of people are lured into buying a device with continuous HRM without thinking about what they will do with the data. Be sure you really think about it before you buy a device that's more expensive and has a shorter battery life just because you believe you want to know your heart rate all the time.
For more, see the best heart rate monitors we've tested.
Push Notifications and Apps
Push notification support is surprisingly abundant among hybrid devices. Typically what happens is that the tracker vibrates when a notification appears on your phone, and the first few lines of the message show up on the tracker itself. The Garmin Vivoactive is a favorite for push notifications because you can read more than just the first few lines if you scroll through the alert.
The Vivoactive also has the benefit of tapping into Garmin's app store, ConnectIQ. Compared with the Apple App Store and Google Play, Garmin's store is tiny. But having an app store at all means you can add custom widgets and screens to your device. There is a screen, for example, that shows multiple time zones of your choice around the world.
Battery life is a big deal among fitness trackers. You want a device to last more than a day or two, and if you're preparing for a long race, you need to feel reassured that your tracking won't poop out at mile 25.
The battery life estimates above are for general step-counting mode. Once GPS is enabled, battery life changes dramatically. But all the devices here have a long enough battery life during activity to last a long race…maybe not an ultramarathon, though. The Forerunner 735XT is the exception. There's an option to turn off the optical HRM to extend the battery life for up to 24 hours while still getting all the benefits of the GPS. With the optical HRM running, you can expect to get about 14 hours, which is still plenty of time for a triathlon.
Other considerations when buying a running watch and fitness tracker are whether it's waterproof or simply splash resistant, if it offers remote music controls, and what other activities you can track with it. In the in-depth reviews linked from this article, you'll find those details, as well as our own hands-on assessment of how well the devices fair in real-world conditions.
Swimming more your thing? See our favorite waterproof fitness trackers.
%displayPrice% at %seller% With continuous heart rate monitoring, GPS, and broad appeal, the Fitbit Surge is the best all-day fitness tracker to date. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Fitbit Charge 2 does everything the Fitbit Charge HR can, along with new idle alerts, automatic activity tracking, guided breathing sessions, interchangeable bands, and the option to connect your phone for GPS. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Garmin is one seriously trusted name among data-loving athletes, and its Forerunner 15 is the best hybrid sports watch-activity tracker we've tested. The price is right, too. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Garmin Forerunner 735XT fitness tracker gives pertinent information to triathletes about their sports, including advice you don't often see, like recovery time. It's comprehensive and easy to use but will set you back a pretty penny. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Garmin Vivoactive is a smart activity tracker that can keep pace with even the most active lifestyles. From its integrated GPS to its dedicated app store, there's a lot to like in this svelte smartwatch hybrid. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Apple Watch Nike+ boasts sporty styling and some exclusive features that make it a solid alternative to the Series 2 smartwatch, especially for runners. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The clip-on Lumo Run tracks runs and coaches you on how to improve, making it a great value for intermediate level runners. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% If you've already mastered the basics, the Polar A360 is an advanced fitness tracker that gives concrete recommendations on how to improve your health. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music fitness tracker provides continuous heart rate monitoring, GPS with route tracking, excellent battery life, and music streaming, all wrapped up in a lightweight, waterproof design. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Polar M400 fitness tracker logs your outdoor runs with GPS and measures how much activity you get all day long. It's a compelling choice for runners, but a little too chunky to work as an all-day wearable. Read the full review
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