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Fitness Watch Buying Guide

Fitness Watch Buying Guide

Track all your running stats, navigate the trails and stay connected. Here’s how to find the running watch to help you make strides.

What does a running watch do?

Hooked on the local parkrun? Or gearing up for a ridge running epic? A running watch has everything onboard to keep you motivated.

This handy gadget records all your vital stats. That includes split times, elevation, heart rate, even your running power.

Wanna go faster? The best ones also tell you exactly what to do to hit your goal. (If it’s raining your watch still harasses you to train - sorry).

Today’s running watches share a lot of features with smart watches. You can take calls, control music and check your calendar from your wrist.

Most look good enough to wear all day. Plus, you can record all your other sports. Handy if you want an all-round picture of your activity.

Is a smartwatch good for running?

Most smart watches have fitness and wellbeing apps included. So, is a running watch necessary? Here’s a few reasons why a running watch is worth it.

  • You sweat – Most smart watches have some level of waterproofing. That protects the watch itself, but what about the strap? Sweat destroys metal and leather surprisingly quickly.
  • Connectivity – Many running watches have ANT+. This allows you to connect a chest HRM or even bike sensors. Most smart watches don’t.
  • Built-in GPS – If your smart watch doesn’t have GPS, you’ll need to carry your phone too.

What should I look for in a running watch?

Running for fun? Speed? Fitness? The features on your running watch should support your running style and your lifestyle.

Here’s an explanation of the key features to help you decide.

Recording your run

At the very least, your running watch tells you speed and distance. If It has GPS, you can also see where you went.

Want to know exact altitude? A watch with an altimeter and barometer uses atmospheric pressure for an accurate reading.

Mapping and navigation

Mapping gives you freedom to run wherever you go. For trail runners, multi-band GPS lets you keep tabs on your location. Even off the beaten path.

If you enjoy exploring abroad, many watches let you add international maps.

Not just running? High-end watches support maps for all kinds of activity. Download golf-courses, trail centres, ski resorts and more.

Battery life

Running an ultra? Or planning on going off-grid for a few days? Or maybe you just forget to charge stuff.

Check the battery life quoted for normal use and GPS use. There’s normally a big difference.

Need more? Some watches use solar glass to top up the battery on the move.

Health stats

  • Heart rate – An optical heartrate sensor measures changes in blood vessel volume. It’s accurate enough for most and you don’t need a chest strap. Some runners still choose to wear a chest strap for increased accuracy.
  • VO2 Max – This tells you how well your body can use oxygen as you run. A useful measure of aerobic fitness.
  • Blood oxygen – A measurement of how much oxygen your red blood cells carry to your lungs. A low blood oxygen level can be an indicator of certain health conditions.
  • Sleep tracking – More advanced watches use sleep info to tweak your training plan. They can also coach you to a better night’s sleep.
  • Women’s health stats – Understanding your menstrual cycle can unlock performance benefits. Fitness watch apps make it easy to keep track.


It's not always running, is it? Here’s how your running watch can enhance all your workouts.

  • Activity profiles – Pre-set metrics to track specific activities. Track weight reps, swim laps and loads more.
  • Training plans – Most running watches let you load up training plans. The smartest ones dynamically adjust to your fitness level. And they won’t let you ‘forget’ a workout.

Durability versus weight

More rugged watches can take a beating on the trails. But there’s often a weight penalty.

Think about where you’ll be running. Do you need fast and light, or something that can stand a few knocks?


Expect a degree of waterproofing at any price point. At least to keep the sweat at bay.

The waterproof rating is shown in ATM or sometimes WR.

Most running watches are rated to at least 5ATM or WR50. That means you can wear it for running in the rain and swimming. Water sports and diving are likely to wreck it though.

More rugged watches can go to 10ATM. Fine for swimming and snorkelling. High-board diving and aqua diving would cause an untimely demise though.


Almost all running watches can pair with iPhones or Androids. The exception is the Apple watch which is iPhone only.

Dabble in cycling or triathlon? Connectivity with cycle tech is worth a look.

For example, the Wahoo Rival watch works perfectly with Wahoo turbos and bike computers.


Need your heart-rate data at elite-level accuracy? For HRM chest-strap users, you’ll need ANT+ to connect.

Transferring large amounts of data like maps on the reg? WiFi makes it much faster.

Safety features

Especially relevant for you lone rangers. Live tracking can give loved ones reassurance of knowing where you are.

Top-end Garmin watches can even detect incidents. They can then offer to text your location to emergency services.


Can’t run without your tunes? Hate faffing with your phone?

There’s two ways watches let you access music. Some have on-board MP3 storage. Some have streaming-service apps like Spotify.

On-board storage costs more but lets you leave your phone behind.

Lifestyle features

A running watch is a big investment. It’s likely you end up wearing it most of the time. Get your money’s worth with additional features.

Just check before you buy for compatibility.

  • Contactless payment – Pay wherever you can tap. Not all cards work with all watches so do your homework.
  • App integration – Hooked on Starbucks? Frequent Uber rider? Most major apps have smart watch integration - make sure your brand is compatible.
  • Productivity apps – We’re talking e-Mail, Calander, WhatsApp.
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