If you’re a serious runner, you need a fitness tracker that can do more than count steps, measure sleep, and vibrate when a push notification appears on your phone. The good news is that many fitness trackers these days can now track your cadence, pace, and other stats that were once reserved for special running-focused wearables.
We’ve rounded up the very best run-friendly wearables, and as you can see from our picks, there’s a wide price range so you can find something that meets your needs and budget, matches your style, and helps you get through all those miles. Wearables with running features can easily cost upward of $200 (and above), though not all of them do. We looked for a few devices at the lower end of the price spectrum, along with some of the higher-end models that cost a lot more.
We’ve also taken into consideration some of the essential features any runner would want from a tracker, like a built-in GPS and heart rate monitor, as well as smartwatch features like push notifications, downloadable apps, and more.
Runners’ watches usually have a sporty look, which isn’t ideal for something 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 6, Coros Apex, and Garmin Vivoactive 4 come to mind. They have sleeker bodies and more attention to detail, such as stainless steel clasps, that elevate the look. With most models, you can swap the bands for something classier when the occasion calls for it.
The Essentials for Running
A few essential features runners look for include 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. GPS can drain battery quickly, but some watches, like the Coros Apex and Polar Grit X, offer battery-saving features that can be helpful during long runs.
Some of the trackers included here offer advanced metrics including ground contact time, stride length, and estimated recovery time needed after a workout. Many also estimate your VO2 Max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise, a metric used to measure cardiovascular fitness. Apple recently rolled out a Low Cardio Fitness feature for the Series 6 that can notify you if your VO2 Max falls into a low range.
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 can track your light and deep shut eye.
Most trackers have an optical heart rate monitor (HRM) built into the device. This reads heart rate through your wrist. There are different ways HRMs are used and implemented.
With an optical HRM, you never have to put on a chest strap if you don’t want to, although many trackers with optical HRM usually still support them. A chest strap HRM 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. 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 can eat up battery life, however.
The point of having heart rate information on a runner’s watch is to use it for training, but this information can also help signal potential health issues. The Apple Watch SE and Series 6 offer irregular heart rate and rhythm notifications, and the latter also has an FDA-approved electrocardiogram (ECG) function that generates a PDF of your heart rhythm you can share with your doctor.
For more, see the best heart rate monitors we’ve tested.
Push Notifications and Apps
Push notification support is 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 4 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 4 also has the benefit of tapping into Garmin’s app store, Connect IQ. Compared with the Apple App Store, 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.
See How We Test Fitness TrackersSee How We Test Fitness Trackers
The battery life estimates below are for general step-counting mode. Once GPS is enabled, battery life changes dramatically. All the devices here have a long enough battery life to last a long race…maybe not an ultramarathon, though. The Coros Apex is an exception. It can last up to 24 days with normal use, 24 hours in full GPS mode, and 80 hours in UltraMax GPS mode, in which the GPS switches on for 30 seconds every two minutes (the rest of the time, it uses motion sensors and machine learning algorithms to track you).
Other considerations when buying a running watch and fitness tracker are whether it’s waterproof or simply splash resistant, if it offers onboard music storage or at least 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. And if you want to keep track of your weight, check out the best smart bathroom scales.
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