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How to Choose a GPS Watch for Running and Training

Tuesday November 26, 2019
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GPS Watch Background


Small electronics that track the distance and speed of athletic efforts have a relatively short history and are occasionally misunderstood. The field is remarkably broad and diverse. As scientific training methods and strategies become more metric-dependent, the devices that collect and analyze said metrics have taken over the market. Nowadays most people are familiar with smartwatches but perhaps not aware of the vast amount of data that they can collect and utilize to enhance and track their training.

If you are considering a smartwatch and are an athlete, we encourage you to look into our GPS watch reviews. If, however, you are not interested in a smartwatch but still want to track your outdoor activities, consult our overview of outdoor electronics.

One of our testers contemplates whether she should have tracked this journey to the top of Tasmania's Mount Ossa with a GPS watch.
One of our testers contemplates whether she should have tracked this journey to the top of Tasmania's Mount Ossa with a GPS watch.

The devices we tested and describe here target a wide range of sports. We focused on running in our review update, but cyclists, hikers, swimmers, skiers, triathletes, mountaineers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types will find a device here for their pursuit. Some of the devices we tested are suitable for all of these activities. To help you sort through the field, we'll outline the different types of products available, describe the features, attributes, and accessories that will influence your choice, and walk you through how you might choose a watch for different sports.

Types of GPS Watches


The unifying theme in this article and our comprehensive review is the presence of GPS receiver technology. To put it simply, a receiver knows exactly where on earth the device is. With computing power and temporal data, the watch can deduce speed and distance. Software, other sensors, and accessories take this raw data and generate a whole host of useful information for the consumer. In light of that, we can divide the entire field into three main categories.

Simple GPS Watches


In this category, the GPS information is used to track your position for training purposes only. The device collects this information and displays speed, distance and other data that you can view in real-time on the watch and analyze further after your activity in the software platform (whether an app, website or program) that necessarily accompanies the watch. If your pursuits are always on trails or roads, this sort of device is more than adequate. These devices just have the basics, namely, GPS, speed, distance, time, probably an optical heart rate monitor, a step counter, alarm, and stopwatch.

The pricer Garmin options topped every metric in the test.
The pricer Garmin options topped every metric in the test.

Watches for Training and Smartwatch use


Recent years have seen the melding of GPS training watches with smartwatches and fitness trackers. Some GPS watches also have smartwatch features, some have sleep tracking, and some have both.

If smartwatch capability is as important to you as activity tracking, then you might want to read our GPS watch reviews that have ranked the watches with a heavy features score.

Watches that include Navigation


Watches in this category have all the same functionality as a more basic device, but the GPS signal can also be used to navigate. Usually, these watches also have a wide range of smartwatch features. If your passions take you off-trail, this kind of device may serve you well. The most basic form of watch-based navigation is some version of a track back feature. Imagine you wandered into the wilderness and weren't sure how to get back to your starting point. (Don't do this.) If you initially tracked your effort with your track back-equipped watch, you could simply activate this function, and your wrist would direct you back along your path. Some manufacturers call this "Back to Start."

These watches usually track your route in real-time and show the route on the screen using a bread crumb trail that you can follow. There are no background maps in these watches but usually, the bread crumb trail (just a line on the watch screen) is easy enough to follow. These watches usually enable you to load a route (e.g. a gpx route from another source) onto the watch that you can follow.

There are also watches that are in the high-priced segment that have background maps. These are the creme de la creme watches and you will pay the price for them but in return, you receive a full navigation feature similar to in a car. You will not just have the line to follow but the background map with trails, topography, streets, etc.

The Forerunner 935 can map your activity track as you go  so you can use it to travel off-trail back to your starting point.
The Forerunner 935 can map your activity track as you go, so you can use it to travel off-trail back to your starting point.

How to Choose a GPS Training Watch


The first thing you should do to narrow down the field is to consider where you fall into the categories above and what you are willing to spend. Are you only interested in a watch that will help track your training, or do you want one that you can wear into the office? Do you plan to stick to the track, roads, and trails, or are you hoping to navigate some less charted terrain? Wherever you land, you can find a device that will suit your needs, but be prepared to pay more for watches that do more. The main factor in the pricing of GPS watches is the number of features that the watch has to offer.

Other Instrumentation and Sensors


Next, you will want to consider other instrumentation within the device. By definition, all GPS watches track three-dimensional position using the Global Positioning Satellite system, and they also keep track of time. Beyond that basic function, consider whether you need a built-in barometric pressure sensor. While GPS position data for latitude and longitude is quite accurate, altitude data from GPS triangulation is not as useful, especially in steep terrain. So, some devices collect more sophisticated and accurate altitude position data by sensing barometric pressure. This same sensor can be used to infer changes in atmospheric pressure associated with changes in weather. Almost all devices equipped with a barometer also have a thermometer, and virtually all of them display this temperature data.

To accurately capture your days in the backcountry  choose a watch with a built-in barometric altimeter. Take advantage of those bluebird days and calibrate often!
To accurately capture your days in the backcountry, choose a watch with a built-in barometric altimeter. Take advantage of those bluebird days and calibrate often!

If barometric pressure sensing and time recording are your only needs, you may be a better candidate for an altimeter than for a full-featured GPS watch. In that case, head over to our standalone altimeter watches review to find out who's crushing that category.

Data Collection and Platforms


After sorting out what you want from your watch based on the information above, consider how you hope to manage the data your device generates. All the devices we tested display at least a little real-time and summary information on the screen itself. Beyond that, most watches will upload data for review on your computer or app.

Assuming you're a data nerd like we are, which watch has a data platform that will suit you best? If you already have a fitness tracker, we recommend sticking to your current brand if possible. The learning curve will be short, and all of your activities can be collected and recorded together.

Perhaps you are trying to choose between the Coros Apex and Garmin Forerunner 945 — both outstanding, fully functional watches that scored toward the top of our test group. Many consumers will wind up choosing the Garmin because they already have one of Garmin's other devices, maybe for their bicycle, and it's easier to keep their data all in the same format.

But what if one of the watches in our review sings directly to your soul, but you already use another device from a different manufacturer? Take heart, young runner. You can always use Strava, Training Peaks or another platform to collect all your various data streams in one place.

Social Networks


Maybe you don't already have a brand or platform loyalty, but you might have friends who do. If you have a fitness community that inspires and motivates your activity, linking your digital record books can provide further stoke. Or, conversely, maybe you want to avoid any possibility of your boss seeing that you tracked an activity while you should have been at your desk. (Of course, on all platforms, you can control who sees your activities and which information you display.)

Strava and Training Peaks have a robust user base and collect information from all platforms. Most of the manufacturers in this review have apps that will seamlessly integrate with these platforms. (Read: you don't have to upload or push files yourself.) But in this rapidly evolving industry, we recommend that you make sure your particular watch choice will integrate with your chosen sports social media and/or training platform if that's important to you. Ask around among your friends and training partners. Perhaps one social media platform is more widely used in your circles, and that could, in turn, inform your choice of training devices.

There are many different options for sharing your data. Shown here  Garmin Connect is one widely used platform.
There are many different options for sharing your data. Shown here, Garmin Connect is one widely used platform.

Accessories


Many users will be content with the instrumentation inside their GPS watch. However, there are certain categories of information that can only be gathered with an additional accessory that links to your watch wirelessly.

The high-end devices, including the Forerunner 945 and the Coros Apex, already track a bevy of running metrics, but they can capture even more data when paired with the manufacturer's running dynamics pod. Essentially, this pod captures detailed information about your gait and stride so you can understand and improve your running form. We didn't test these pieces of gear, but for those who want to analyze their running at a micro-level, it's an exciting option.

Heart rate is the most common data collected by a GPS watch accessory.
Heart rate is the most common data collected by a GPS watch accessory.

If you plan to use accessory sensors with your GPS watch, note that there are two major systems for communicating between the watch and the external sensor. Historically, most of the dedicated athletic devices used what is called ANT+ communication protocol. This is essentially a radio frequency with proprietary coding to guard against cross-contamination, for instance, in busy races. As long as the device is designed to process the data, ANT+ devices work with all ANT+ accessories and vice versa. The alternative to ANT+ is Bluetooth. Brands such as Polar tend to only use Bluetooth.

Right now ANT+ is slightly more common on dedicated fitness devices. However, because of Bluetooth's brand-recognition, it is predicted that Bluetooth will continue to have a foothold in the market. What does this mean for you? If you already have a training device and accessories, note which communication protocol is in use and consider your next purchase to standardize for yourself. If you are starting from scratch, the market is still wide open.

Design


Once you have assessed your needs and wants, consider at least briefly the size and weight of the device you choose. Many manufacturers make products in a range of sizes, so if one of our reviews catches your eye, but you're put off by the product's size, check to see if you can get the same feel and function in one of their other products.

In general, the smaller watches in our review are more basic and have fewer features than the beefier models. That said, some manufacturers such as Apple, manage to pack a ton of features into a smaller watch by reducing the battery size. A reduction in battery size, however, directly results in a shorter battery life, which will not work for events that require longer battery life for their GPS tracking, such as iron-distance triathletes, endurance athletes (ultra runners, randonneurs) or long day hikers require.

The Garmin Forerunner 645 Music packs a ton of features into a light  compact package  which earned it high marks in portability.
The Garmin Forerunner 645 Music packs a ton of features into a light, compact package, which earned it high marks in portability.

GPS for Specific Sports


What do you get up to in the great outdoors? Your favorite activities will influence what you should look for in a GPS watch.

Running


Runners have the most options. Running is one of the simplest forms of training, and it's the simplest to track of all endurance sports. You'll want your watch to display pace, distance, time, perhaps some lap data for comparison and possibly a huge set of other metrics, which are only available in the higher-end watches. All of the watches in this review are appropriate for runners and record at least the basic runner metrics and dynamics.

Track your running efforts with any one of many products on the market.
Track your running efforts with any one of many products on the market.

Cycling


If you are primarily a cyclist, check out our comprehensive bicycle computer buying advice and review. However, if you also run or climb or ski, you can now most certainly use a wrist-mounted GPS device. First of all, you can add a shim and strap your watch to your handlebar for easy viewing. If you only need speed, time, and distance data, you have the same needs as a runner. However, if you wish to monitor bike-specific data, like pedal cadence or pedal power, you will need a more sophisticated tool and external sensors. We did not directly compare any of our wrist-mounted GPS trainers to the dedicated cycling computers, but it is conceivable that the most advanced of the former would surpass the functionality of at least some of the latter.

Many of these devices are as good or better than most dedicated bicycle computers in tracking cycling data.
Many of these devices are as good or better than most dedicated bicycle computers in tracking cycling data.

Swimming


Swimmers have particular needs. All need a device that is waterproof with an easy-to-read display. Outdoor swimmers need a model that will track distance and speed with GPS in addition to collecting stroke rate information. To measure indoor swimming distances, the watch needs to know your pool's length and must have a motion sensor sensitive enough to monitor each arm stroke as well as the acceleration associated with pushing off the wall. The best products on the market can do all of this and more. While we did not officially test for swimming acumen, we did regularly wear our watches while training for our iron-distance triathlons. Usually only the mid to high priced watches have swim metrics and tracking and should you want to track your heart rate, we recommend you pair the watch with a manufacturer-recommended swim heart rate tracking chest strap.

Triathlon


Triathlon tracking requires a watch must do all the tasks noted above. It's also nice if it can be programmed to seamlessly switch between sports and compile the data for review in sum and by individual sport. Again, the Ambit3 Sport has shown to be excellent for triathletes.

Alpine skiing is all fun  all the time. But gathering a little information can add to the experience.
Alpine skiing is all fun, all the time. But gathering a little information can add to the experience.

Skiing


There are many types of skiing, namely, alpine, nordic and backcountry. Watches that record all of the metrics for various types of ski activities will usually fall into the higher-end of the price range. The most basic watches, generally will not offer the data recording for skiing.

If you are a skier, you might want to consider avalanche transceiver, which we also review here. It can be that your GPS watch will interfere with your avalanche transceivers. Please thoroughly research this prior to making your purchase.

For maximum safety of you and your partners, ensure that your GPS watch can be configured to reduce or eliminate the signals that could potentially interfere with your avalanche beacon. For instance, one of our test editors, an internationally certified mountain guide, and avalanche instructor, uses a GPS watch to record only barometric altitude and time data when it really matters. The most important thing is to know your technology, know yourself, and err on the side of making sure your transceiver is going to work when you need it.

Using a wrist-mounted GPS device to track your backcountry skiing exploits can be fun and informative. But above all else  make sure your device won't interfere with your or your partners' avalanche beacons.
Using a wrist-mounted GPS device to track your backcountry skiing exploits can be fun and informative. But above all else, make sure your device won't interfere with your or your partners' avalanche beacons.

Mountaineering


Mountaineering and backcountry skiing have similar device needs. However, many times mountaineering takes place without avalanche transceivers. In this context, the above concerns with signal interference are eliminated.

Alpine climbing and mountaineering aficionados will appreciate the data collected  but really take advantage of the navigational aspects of some devices.
Alpine climbing and mountaineering aficionados will appreciate the data collected, but really take advantage of the navigational aspects of some devices.

Rock Climbing


While few rock climbers train with a GPS device, we predict this will change. Many climbers own a GPS training watch to track their skiing, running or mountaineering efforts, and they may wish to track exertion and time data similarly. In our testing, we have found that GPS data is virtually useless on a cliff, but altitude information can be interesting.

Few rock climbers think to record their efforts. That may change. At least consider using your device for monitoring your climbs. You will be surprised with what you can learn about your training.
Few rock climbers think to record their efforts. That may change. At least consider using your device for monitoring your climbs. You will be surprised with what you can learn about your training.

Hiking


Hiking on flattish trails isn't much different from running or Nordic skiing. However, hiking off-trail and in rugged environments is more akin to mountaineering or backcountry skiing. Assess your habits and choose a watch that is suitable.


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