The 5 Best Smartwatches for Runners

An overview of high-tech watches for all endurance and adventure pursuits

A Serious Training Partner for Endurance Athletes

Garmin Forerunner 935
$500 and up (depending on features); garmin.com

The Forerunner 935 with wrist-based heart rate is the ultimate training companion for the serious runner and triathlete. It’s look says all business. It is loaded with every training feature along with the 24-hour full-tracking battery life of Garmin’s highest-end Fenix 5. But it’s also 45 percent lighter than the Fenix 5, at a minuscule 49 grams. (It swaps the stainless steel bezel of the Fenix 5 for fiber-reinforced polymer and leaves out the new quick release strap change of the Fenix 5.) With all other specs and hardware identical, the Forerunner 935 is more comfortable and has better wrist heart rate accuracy on smaller wrists (and is offered at a lower price) than the Fenix 5.

Key features include a barometric altimeter for vertical accuracy, 24/7 Elevate wrist heart rate with the option of using Garmin chest straps. breadcrumb route following, a full suite of training and physiology features including VO2Max and Race Time Prediction estimates, Training Load and Training Status.

All screens are extensively and easily customizable. Button-activated, it has a high-resolution color accented screen and a full suite of phone connectivity features, including notifications and music control.

 

All-Day, Any-Task GPS/Heart Rate Watch for People on the Go

Apple Watch Series 2 Nike+ Run Club
$369 and up (depending on features); apple.com 

The Apple Watch is for the all-out, all-day multitasker who also runs frequently. The new Series 2 model adds GPS, swim-worthy water resistance, and a much brighter screen to the original model’s deep iPhone connectivity, wrist heart rate sensing and multitude of apps. Heart rate sensing is greatly improved and on par with any dedicated GPS watch.

All your favorite phone run apps are available to run standalone—no phone required—on the Series 2: Nike+ Run Club, Runkeeper, Strava and more. Any compatible Series 2 run app can be loaded on any Series 2 watch.

The Nike+ Run Club version features very comfortable band choices with Nike Volt yellow highlights and custom watch faces. The run apps follow a common theme so far: a single screen of data and very limited customizability of data shown. The app choice is yours: Any available watch run app can be loaded on any Series 2 Watch. The new screen’s brightness and visibility on the run can be outstanding but depend on the contrast of colors and font sizes selected by the app makers. The Nike+ app is outstanding in its Volt yellow and black contrast. (Don’t worry—the apps are generally free so choose the data and visibility which suits you best.)

Is the Apple Watch as full-featured as others here? No, not yet, but what you get off the run in your daily life includes the ability to make and answer calls from your wrist (with your phone stashed away), full use of Siri to command and dictate to your phone, turn-by-turn directions, and thousands of apps for any purpose.

A multitude of easily changeable fashion bands along with different case colors are available, the build quality is outstanding and a smaller 38mm size is available so there should never be any “style” reason to swap it for something fancier. This said, you may swap it for a more capable training watch, and you will charge it more frequently than the other dedicated GPS watches reviewed here.

Apple has tuned the software and hardware since release, improving battery life. Apple says you will get up to five hours of workout time with the GPS and heart rate sensor running and 18 hours of all-day use. Our testing indicates approximately five hours of GPS and HR sensing with no phone along and close to 30 hours of all-day use, including 80 minutes of GPS/heart rate-tracked running with light notifications, phone, watch app use and message traffic.

A GPS/Heart Rate Watch and Complete Training System

Polar M430
$229; polar.com

The brand-new M430 GPS watch is a great value in a fully capable, run-focused multisport watch with wrist heart rate sensing. If you want your watch to focus crisply and simply on the workout and less on what your phone and rest of your life is up to, it is a great choice. The M430 lags others in smartwatch features as it lacks music control or 24/7 heart rate monitoring at this time, but it does track activity and sleep and also offers phone notifications.

Backed by Polar’s long history in fitness monitoring and GPS, the brand has done its homework with the M430. The watch is soft and comfortable on the wrist, the six LED optical heart rate sensors (as opposed to the typical two or three) are rock-solid reliable, even on a thin wrist as Polar carefully balanced weight, fit and sensor layout.

The crisp monochrome screen resolution and high-level visibility matches Polar’s top-of-the-line V800 model. The workout screens are easily customizable via the app and include a vast array of options.

An outstanding, scientifically based workout and activity logging, training and physiology platform is available free via Polar Flow. It includes cumulative training load, race time prediction, a VO2Max estimate test and training plans that adapt to your actual run data. Battery life is rated up to eight hours in the best GPS mode with heart rate, and can be extended to up to 30 hours with the one-minute GPS sampling option.

 

Sleek and Playful Multisport Companion

Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR and Special Editions
$499 and up (depending on features); suunto.com

The Spartan Sport is the watch for serious multisport athletes with a playful side. While the Forerunner 935 takes training oh-so-seriously, the multisport Suunto takes a lighter and more focused approach. From its colorful watch style choices, including classy, wear-all-day, special-edition versions, to its modern watch interface and its back-end tracking and sharing platform at movescount.com, the entire experience is well-designed, streamlined and elegant, even if currently somewhat less complete than the Garmin in terms of hardcore training features. Smartwatch features are limited to phone notifications.

This is Suunto’s first wrist heart rate watch, and it includes the well-regarded Valencell optical heart rate sensing technology. A large and relatively heavy watch, its fit is accommodating and free of sharp edges when tight, with decent heart rate accuracy and comfort even on smaller wrists.

Battery life is adequate at up to 12 hours in full-training mode, up to 30 hours with one-minute GPS sampling, and up to 10 days in time mode. It features a large and very high resolution 320×300 color touch screen, controllable via buttons in workout mode.

Up to four data fields are easily visible on each always-on, easily configurable screen, but to conserve battery life in time mode, the superb watch faces are fairly dim. It differs from its top-end cousin, the Spartan Ultra, in not having a barometric altimeter and thus fewer vertical and weather-prediction features. Nonetheless we found its GPS-based vertical tracking fine for most uses. Mountain- and adventure-focused Suunto includes breadcrumb-route navigation and a run or “move” in Suunto-speak can be automatically animated into a one-minute movie over a topographic landscape, complete with any pictures taken along the way and stats, all easily to relive or share.

 

A Versatile Watch that Keeps it Simple and Plays Music

TomTom Adventurer
$350; tomtom.com

Fairly priced, the outdoor-focused, wrist-heart-rate-sensing Adventurer offers a good, basic multisport setup with a focus on outdoor pursuits including running, trail running, swimming, skiing and hiking. It is a great choice for those whose sporting life is varied, but crave some technological simplicity to track it all. Each sport mode is well thought out, but there is minimal available customization of data fields. It features a barometric altimeter, compass, slope-gradient measurement and breadcrumb-route loading (any GPX file). It can even tabulate your downhill ski runs. Unlike any of the others here, it also includes an onboard 3GB music player and free wireless headphones.

The Adventurer is controlled via a very tactile joystick-type button and has a sharp monochrome screen. The head unit of the watch snaps out of the easily replaceable band for charging and handlebar mounting (with a separate clip). Battery life is rated at up to 5 hours while operating onboard music, GPS and heart rate features, 11 hours with GPS mode alone, and up to 24 hours in hiking mode with lower GPS sampling. External Bluetooth heart rate and other sensors, such as for cycling cadence, can be paired. It includes an intervals mode, activity tracking and a movement-based sleep mode, but it cannot receive phone notifications at this time.

 

Sam Winebaum

Sam Winebaum is a 1:38 half marathoner on a good day and didn’t mind at all entering a new age group in 2017. A tech gadget and shoe geek forever, he is the editor and founder of Road Trail Run blog and has been running for 45 years, holding a very-dated marathon PR of 2:28.