Choosing a GPS running watch

By: Mark Rai

With so many running watches to choose from, deciding on a suitable one is often a tricky and confusing thing for most runners. We are definitely spoilt for choice which isn’t really a bad thing after all! Let’s get started. The most popular brands among runners are Garmin, Polar, TomTom and Suunto. All these watches track Distance, Pace, Time, Heart-Rate, Splits, Calories and Activity Tracking. The mid to high-end watches track more features like running dynamics, have data fields that you can customise, and some may have built in optical heart-rate monitors, bluetooth, wifi and smart notifications to name but a few.

Things to consider before buying a GPS watch:

What is your budget? We all know just how heavily priced these watches can be. If you intend keeping fit, running parkruns, doing one or two runs during the week, or want to move away from your phone based app tracking, any entry level GPS running watch would be fine here. No point in overspending on features you would never use. Choices here include Garmins FR35, Garmin FR25, Polar M200, TomTom Runner 3 and Garmin FR15. These track the basics well without breaking the bank.

What is your long term plan/goal? If you plan on running marathons or ultra-marathons it’s pointless getting a watch that won’t last in the battery department. Most mid-level watches will do the trick. Garmins FR230 and FR235 are still solid in this category with the only difference being the 235 having the optic/wrist based heart-rate monitor. Other options are Polar M400, TomTom Runner 3 Cardio, Suunto Spartan Trainer, Suunto Spartan Sport and the newer Polar M430.

If you intend running the Comrades Marathon, slightly high-end older models like the Garmin 920XT (24hr battery), Polar’s V800 (13hr battery), Garmin Fenix 3 (20 hr battery) and Garmin FR630 (16hr battery) are also ones to look at for and come loaded with features.

If it’s the latest and best GPS running watches you crave then you should consider looking at the Garmin FR935 (24hr battery) or Garmin Fenix 5 (24hr battery). These are very similar watches with the same software. The 935xt has a plastic bezel and the fenix 5 has a stainless steel bezel with the option of a sapphire mineral crystal glass. These watches are fully loaded with features with too many to mention here. Also consider looking at Suunto Spartan Ultra and the Garmin FR 735XT.

Look at features specific to your needs. Certain models allow you to create interval training, to increase your speed or running dynamics to improve your running technique.

Will you use it for other sports?  If you are into swimming and cycling as well, then consider looking at multisport watches.

Do you want to view your runs on your phone/PC? If your budget allows for it, try to get a watch that has at least bluetooth smart or wifi that can sync wirelessly to your mobile app and 3rd party apps like Strava and Training Peaks etc. Here you can analyse your data, create and download pre-planned coaching lessons, and set-up goal specific training plans to help you achieve your running goals and share your progress with like-minded runners. There are also “segment” features which shows how you compare to others on certain stretches of road.

So whether you are training for your first 5km, half-marathon, or marathon, a GPS running watch can help you improve your performance and fitness. Keeping in mind your long term goals, thinking about the features you want, and considering your budget will help you to make the best choice for you.

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