Best Watches and Activity Trackers for Runners
updated January 1, 2019
As a runner, you have activity tracking needs that go beyond those of the average fitness enthusiast. You need a wireless tracking device that can provide you with the detailed feedback required to make you a better athlete. While there are dozens of devices out there that claiming to give runners all the feedback they need to succeed, not all of them measure up.
In this article, we’ll shine a spotlight on the best sports watches and the best activity trackers for runners.
Best Running GPS Watch and Activity Tracker
The best running tracker on the planet right now is the Garmin ForeRunner 630. If you’re a marathon runner, an ultra distance runner or anyone who lives for running, you need this device. The 630 is an update over Garmin’s ForeRunner 620, bringing you all of the latest and greatest running analytics.
The Garmin ForeRunner 630 has four control buttons on the sides of the device. It has a touchscreen that is very responsive. The default watch face is very attractive, providing you with time and date and an indication that Bluetooth is on. Around the left curve of the screen is a move bar. Swiping to the right will pull up all of your activity data, such as steps, distance calories. You can also see on this screen the percentage of your daily goal that you have achieved.
Swiping throughout the features on the watch will bring up a calendar, weather app and music controls. The watch also has a very good notifications feature. In terms of your running data, the Garmin ForeRunner 630 allows you to track your VO2 max, your recovery advisor, your race predictor, your lactate threshold. The watch comes with settings for running, cycling, indoor running and an ‘other’ category which allows you to add other sports in.
You can add sensors and accessories to the 630. The watch also has WiFi, which allows you to sync your data as soon as you get into a recognizable WiFi signal zone. The 630 has both GPS and GLONASS. This not only allows you to map your running or cycling circuit, but it makes all of your sensory data far more accurate. It also has Ultra Track mode which will track your route without using up the battery power that is required for GPS and GLONASS.
In terms of advanced metrics available when you pair with a chest strap monitor, you’ll get feedback on your vertical oscillation, ground contact time, cadence, vertical ratio and ground contact time balance. If you are running on a treadmill, the 630 will estimate your running pace, cadence and distance.
The Garmin ForeRunner 235 is the less beefed up runner’s watch from Garmin. Unlike the 630 it is not a touchscreen device. You have 5 buttons as controls. The 235 will measure your heart rate on your wrist. It does this by way of an elevated heart rate sensor. This technology is proprietary to Garmin. The sensor will give you accurate results for running, walking and cycling. However it is not overly reliable for weight training or Crossfit type exercises. You do have the option, though, of pairing the 235 with any ANT Plus chest strap heart rate monitor.
The optical heart rate sensor runs all day long, so you are able to get constant heart rate monitoring with this device. The Garmin ForeRunner 235 is water resistant to 50 meters. That means that you don’t have to take it off when you jump into the water. The watch, though, does not track any of your swimming activities, which means that it cannot be used to collect your triathlon data.
This watch is so lightweight that you will hardly even know that it is on your wrist. The screen is much larger that the former 220 and now features a high resolution display. It is clear, crisp and multi color. It also comes with a backlight so you can view it at night.
Syncing to your Smartphone is by way of Bluetooth 4.0 or via a USB to PC or Mac web app. Even though Garmin claim that you’ll get a full 7 days battery life from the 235, the heart rate sensor tends to soak up a lot of juice. You are more likely to find yourself recharging after 3-4 days.
As an activity and sleep tracker, the ForeRunner 235 will monitor your steps taken, calories, distance traveled, heart rate and sleep activity. It has a cool auto-goal feature to custom your goals to your current activity level, features move alerts and a move bar and has daily alarms.
As a sports watch, the 235 will track all of your running workouts. It will map your route, provide details on your pace, speed and distance, and your running cadence. You will also get a VO2 max estimate as well as your distance and pace when running indoors.
In addition to GPS, the 235 has GLONASS. There is no Ultra Track feature, however, on the 235. This watch has a built-in dedicated app for cycling, which you can pair with a speed and cadence sensor.
Are you shopping for a wireless fitness tracker? Find out how the best of the best rate in our Top 10 wireless fitness tracker reviews for 2019.
The Tom Tom Spark Cardio Plus Music is a GPS watch. It allows you to map your route when running and cycling. It also provides cadence, speed and distance information when running. In addition, it will track your swimming workout, being water resistant down to 50 meters.
The Tom Tom Spark Cardio Plus Music has a built-in optical heart rate sensor. That means that it will measure your heart rate through your wrist. The device is also an activity tracker, allowing you to track your all day activity (steps, distance, calories burned, activity minutes) along with automatic sleep tracking.
A unique feature of the The Tom Tom Spark Cardio Plus Music is that it has 3 gigabytes of internal storage. That means that you can transfer music from iTunes and Windows Media Player directly onto this device. You can then stream that music directly through Bluetooth headphones.
The Microsoft Band 2 has made some major design improvements over the original Band. It now has a full color, touch screen curved display that is very clear to view and easy to use. The new band is also far more flexible. The watch now has a round silhouette, making it far more comfortable to wear on the wrist. The upgraded display is fitted with Gorilla Glass 3, meaning that you no longer require a screen protector.
The Microsoft Band 2 has an amazing 11 different sensors built into it. It has an optical heart rate sensor, an accelerometer, a gyrometer, a GPS, ambient light, skin temperature, a capacitive, galvanic skin, UV sensor, microphone and barometer sensors. It also has a vibration motor for alarms.
Microsoft have impressive software both on the device and on the mobile app. The Micosoft Band 2 is one of the few devices on the market that works on all 3 major platforms. The on-device software is easy to use and it is customizable.
The Surge is Fitbit’s highest end device. It is water resistant up to 50 meters. It tracks your all day activity, your sleep, your sleep quality, your REM sleep, your continuous heart rate and your resting heart rate. It will also provide your GPS location and control your music playback. FitBit market the Surge as their superwatch.
The Surge has an ambient sensor on the front which will tell if it is dark or light out, and will automatically turn on or off the backlight. It will also relay your phone call and text message notifications. The device fits comfortable on the wrist and has a secure, rugged clasp. It’s band is made of soft touch rubber. The display is small and is navigated by two buttons on the right side of the device. You also swipe through the touchscreen to get to the page you want.
On the underside of the Surge, you have the heart rate sensor and the proprietary charging port. The heart rate monitor is always on, meaning that your heart rate is constantly being monitored. This is great when you’re exercising, as you’ll probably want to know what your heart rate is consistently. However, it does tend to churn through the battery power.
The Surge is one of the best devices to feature all day fitness tracking. The battery on the Surge will last for about 5 days. Some people may find that the Surge is a little too big and bulky. It also lacks some of the high end features that serious runners may be looking for, such as interval training. The accuracy of the heart rate monitor tends to fluctuate during workouts. The FitBit Surge is not water proof.
The Polar M400 is a merging of a GPS Watch and an activity tracker. This device pairs with a Bluetooth AMP chest heart rate monitor to provide you with full and accurate heart rate monitoring. In GPS mode, you will get around 8 hours of battery life. If you’re not sucking up the juice through GPS, however, it will run to a very impressive 24 days.
The Polar M400 works with the Polar Flow app. This app has undergone constant upgrades recently and it now is a very impressive application. You can sync the device via either Bluetooth 4.0 or USB. You can charge the M400 with any USB, meaning that you don’t have to worry about losing the one that comes with the device.
The M400 has move reminders and an alarm function. It does not, however, have silent alarms. The M400 will show the percentage of your daily goal achieved, along with the time and date on the homescreen. Throughout the day it will track your steps, distance, calories and sleep. During activities, it will monitor your distance, workout duration, route, average / maximum pace, calories, speed, training benefit (what your workout actually accomplished), heart rate and heart rate zones, average and maximum heart rate, altitude and provide you with laps data. The app gives you a lot of control of this data, allowing you to view a huge array of statistics derived from it.
The on-device software on the M400 is straight forward, and easy to use. You can click through and engage with a number of different sports profiles. Another great feature about this, and all Polar devices, is that your daily goal is not based solely on steps taken. It will give you a goal based on an aggregate barometer of your activity. This allows it to take into account your other training, such as your weights workout or Crossfit WOD.
The screen of the M400 is easily viewable in sunlight. One glaring omission on the M400 is that it does not contain a standard stopwatch. It also does not provide very detailed sleep analysis. Despite these negatives, the M400 is a very good device for serious running athletes, coaches, trainers and serious fitness enthusiasts. If you want to wear a fitness watch all day that looks like a fitness watch, and want as much analytical data about your workout that you can possibly get, then the Polar M400 is the device for you.
Serious runners and other dedicated fitness enthusiasts are spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting an activity tracker that will give them the detailed analysis that they need to make progress. There are a lot of companies out there who are catering specifically to this market segment yet, with two of their models featuring in our list of 5 best fitness trackers for running, it is clear that Garmin make the best watches for running. The offerings we’ve featured from Polar, FitBit, Tom Tom and Microsoft will also do the job that you demand.
My name is Jim Roose. I'm a former competitive power lifter and gym owner. I've bought millions of dollars of fitness equipment over the last 20 years. This site is my way of giving back to the fitness community that's done so much for me. Every article on here is carefully researched and written by me. Leave a comment if you have any questions.