How to Choose the Right Fitness Tracker
Run Circles Around Other Trackers
Even some of the best fitness trackers can’t keep up with serious runners. Many trackers count steps, measure sleep, and even vibrate when a push notification appears on your phone, but they can’t calculate pace, time, or anything else a runner needs to know. But there is a special class of fitness trackers just for runners, hybrid devices that are half running watch and half daily step counter. We’ve rounded up the very best.
While running watches can easily cost upwards of $200 (and above), not all of them do. We looked for a few devices at the lower end of the price spectrum, around the $100 mark, but also some of the higher-end models that cost a lot more. As you can see from our picks, there’s a big range so you can find something that meets your needs and budget, matches your style, and helps you get through all those miles.
We’ve also taken into consideration some of the essential features any runner would want from a tracker, and whether it offers heart rate monitoring, smartwatch features like push notifications, good battery life, 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 5, Coros Apex, and Garmin Vivoactive 3 come to mind. They have sleeker bodies and more attention to detail, such as stainless steel clasps, that elevate the look. With some models, you can swap the bands for something classier when the occasion calls for it.
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 Garmin Forerunner 735XT, offer battery-saving features that can be helpful during long runs (more on those features below).
Some of the trackers included here offer advanced metrics including ground contact time, stride length, and estimated recovery time needed after a workout. The Apex and Forerunner 735XT even estimate lactate threshold and VO2 max, but the latter requires a compatible chest strap for these metrics.
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 tend to eat up battery life, however.
More importantly, you need to ask what you’re going to do with your heart rate data. Many people simply don’t need to know their heart rate while they’re driving or cooking dinner. They can’t act on it any meaningful way, and it doesn’t tell them much about their health or state of being. Every so often, people try to use continuous HRM to manage stress. That can be difficult, because it means you have to notice a rise in heart rate, then act on it.
The point of having heart rate information on a runner’s watch is to use it for training. In this case, heart rate data is very valuable. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch Series 5 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 surprisingly 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 3 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 3 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 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 and Forerunner 735XT are the exception. The Coros Apex 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). The Forerunner 735XT has an option to turn off the optical HRM to extend battery life to up to 24 hours while still getting all the benefits of GPS.
Other considerations when buying a running watch and fitness tracker are whether it’s waterproof or simply splash resistant, if it offers 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.
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
Pros: Excellent for triathletes.
Optical heart rate monitor.
Tracks steps, sleep, heart rate, and an array of activities.
Supports push notifications.
Top-notch battery life.
Not comfortable to wear while sleeping.
More sporty than elegant.
Bottom Line: The Garmin Forerunner 735XT fitness tracker gives pertinent information to triathletes about their sports, including advice you don’t often see, like recovery time.
It’s comprehensive and easy to use but will set you back a pretty penny.
Garmin Vivoactive 3
Pros: 24/7 heart rate and stress monitoring.
Great features for runners.
Tracks wide range of activities.
Supports contactless payments.
Compact and fashionable.
Cons: May feel heavy and bulky to some.
Charger is proprietary.
Bottom Line: The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is an attractive, durable wearable that hits the sweet spot between fitness tracker and smartwatch functionality.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music
Pros: Holds up to 500 songs locally.
Measures steps, stairs, sleep, continuous heart rate.
Includes advanced fitness metrics: VO2 max, fitness age, stress.
Contactless payment and smartwatch features.
Cons: Can only reply to messages from watch when paired with Android.
No women’s health tracking.
Bottom Line: The Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music packs all the best features from running watches and fitness trackers into a timepiece you can wear anywhere.
Apple Watch Series 5
Pros: Always-on display. Excellent fitness tracking and heart rate monitoring accuracy. WatchOS 6 brings useful new apps. Smooth performance.
Cons: Expensive. No built-in sleep tracking. Battery life remains the same.
Bottom Line: The Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t feature any drastic changes, but an always-on display makes the best smartwatch you can buy even better.
Pros: Long battery life
Good outdoor screen visibility
Advanced fitness metrics including VO2 max, lactate threshold, and threshold pace
Excellent companion app helps you interpret data and offers training advice
Cons: No touch screen
Can’t change display brightness
Screen looks dull indoors
Bulky for smaller wrists
Bottom Line: The Coros Apex is a multisport GPS watch with excellent battery life and a data-rich companion app that offers a wealth of insights about your performance biking, running, swimming, and more.
Fitbit Charge 4
Pros: Built-in GPS
Robust companion app
More sleep tools
Fitbit Pay available on all models (not just Special Edition)
Motivating Active Zone Minutes metric
Cons: Lacks a color display
Screen wake can be finicky
Bottom Line: The Fitbit Charge 4 fitness tracker builds on its predecessors with the addition of standalone GPS, Spotify support, more sleep tools, and Fitbit Pay.
Fitbit Versa 2
Pros: Attractive AMOLED screen with always-on option.
Long battery life.
Lots of useful apps and fitness features.
Cons: Screen isn’t quite as bright as the original model.
Alexa responses are text only.
Bottom Line: The Fitbit Versa 2 takes everything we like about the original smartwatch and adds an always-on AMOLED display, a microphone for Amazon Alexa, and Fitbit Pay.
Garmin Vivosmart 4
Long battery life.
Automatic activity tracking.
Measures blood oxygen levels, sleep, stress, and body recovery.
Slim, sleek design.
Cons: Touch screen could be more responsive.
Uses proprietary charger.
Bottom Line: The Garmin Vivosmart 4 is an attractive fitness tracker with accurate, in-depth metrics and up to a week of battery life.
Pros: Includes optical heart rate monitor.
Thin, perforated strap.
Built-in GPS with variable modes to optimize battery life.
Tracks indoor activity.
Vibration alerts for push notifications.
Cons: Sporty design and colors not for everyone.
Can’t swap bands.
Bottom Line: The Polar M430 fitness tracker looks similar to its predecessor, the M400, but adds heart rate monitoring and improved indoor tracking.
More Inside PCMag.com
About the Author