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How to Choose a GPS Watch for Running and Training

Trail running and watch testing in the Llangannucco Valley of Peru's Cordillera Blanca.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Saturday August 29, 2015

Are you at all athletic, and do you every pursue your physical fitness passions out of doors? Do you wish to quantify your efforts in any way? A GPS (Global Positioning System) equipped, compact electronic device, usually worn on the wrist, may be for you. Our team of fitness, outdoor, and technology experts has tested dozens of the best products on the market and, along the way, learned a great deal more about what is available. Please read on for further information and advice for choosing your own GPS watch.

GPS Watch Background information


Small electronics for tracking distance and speed on athletic efforts have a relatively short history and are somewhat misunderstood. The field is remarkably broad and diverse, especially considering the relatively small market to date. Certain demographics of athletes are more accustomed than others to using devices like these. If you are a devout road cyclist, for instance, you likely have friends and acquaintances to ask about features and function of a device for recording your efforts. Also, you have our excellent OutdoorGearLab Buying Advice for bicycle computers to consult. Others, like mountaineers and backpackers, are far less accustomed to tracking their activity with GPS technology. These consumers have much to gain with little previous knowledge or experience. To put it another way, many of those that could benefit from a GPS watch may not have thought much about it in the past, much less know how to choose one. Additionally, it is possible that a GPS watch isn't even the best choice for you. If you have gotten this far, but feel that a GPS watch isn't exactly what you are looking for, consult our overview of outdoor electronics.


If you wish to use a GPS device on foot, perhaps even in addition to on your bicycle, this is the place to find your information. To be clear, the devices we tested and describe here are targeted at a wide array of sports. Runners, cyclists, hikers, swimmers, skiers, mountaineers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types will find a device here for their pursuit. Some of the devices we tested are even suitable for all of these activities. in order to help you sort through the field we will, below, outline the different types of products available, describe the criteria by which you might choose for different sports, and then outline various features, attributes, and accessories that will further influence your ultimate choice.

Types of GPS Watches


The unifying theme in this article, and in 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, speed and distance can be deduced. Further, with storage capacity, on-device computing power, and post-processing software, the user can review where, how, and how fast he or she traveled. Software, other sensors, and accessories take this basic, raw data and generate a whole host of useful information for the consumer. We'll elaborate on all this further. For now, note that we can divide the entire field into two different categories.

Simple Training Watches


In this category, the GPS information is used to track position for training purposes only. The device collects this information and displays speed, distance and other data for real-time and post-event monitoring of your athletic activity. If your pursuits are always on trails or roads, this sort of device is more than adequate. These devices are not to be underestimated. They may have just the basics, or they may be full-function, highly featured training tools or anything in between. The primary limitation and defining feature in this initial split of the field is the presence or absence of navigation features.

Four simple GPS trackers. Left to right: Strava app on an iPhone  New Balance GPS Trainer  Garmin Forerunner 110 (replaced for 2015 by the Forerunner 210)  Nike+ Sportw#tch GPS.
Four simple GPS trackers. Left to right: Strava app on an iPhone, New Balance GPS Trainer, Garmin Forerunner 110 (replaced for 2015 by the Forerunner 210), Nike+ Sportw#tch GPS.

Watches for Training and 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. If your passions take you off of trails and roads, this kind of device may serve you well. The most basic form of watch-based navigation is some sort of "track back" feature. Imagine the scenario where you head out into the wild and you don't know how to get back. Maybe visibility decreased or perhaps you simply forgot where you came from. If you initially tracked your effort with your watch, and it is equipped with a track back feature, you can simply activate this attribute and your wrist will direct you back along that path. More advanced, but just as useful, is some sort of pre-trip route planning feature. Many devices allow you to map out a route while at home, and then follow that route using your watch. Finally, even if you do not anticipate needing the navigation features, many of these more advanced devices have other features that will appeal to higher end users. You may choose a device like this even if you will never leave the road.

Summit of Mount Hunter in the wild Alaska Range.
Summit of Mount Hunter in the wild Alaska Range.

How to Choose a GPS Training Watch


The first thing you should do, to narrow down the field, is to consider whether you will ever want navigation features. Watches that navigate and track are more expensive than those that just track, but the utility can be significant.

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. Essentially, at this point, you are evaluating whether you need a barometric pressure sensor built in. Some devices collect more sophisticated and accurate altitude position data with a barometric pressure (atmospheric air pressure) sensor built in. GPS position data for latitude and longitude is quite accurate. For a variety of reasons, altitude data from GPS triangulation is not as useful, especially in steep terrain. Because of this, some devices have a barometric altimeter built in. This same sensor can be used to infer changes in atmospheric pressure associated with weather change. Interpreting this information is difficult, but useful to those practiced in the skill. Finally, in order for a barometric sensor to generate useful information, it's raw data must be correlated against air temperature. To do this, all devices equipped with a barometer also have a thermometer, and virtually all of them display this temperature data.

Weather can be tricky in the mountains. Make sure that even on blue bird days  you're calibrating your watch whenever you can!
Weather can be tricky in the mountains. Make sure that even on blue bird days, you're calibrating your watch whenever you can!

Incidentally, if you only need barometric pressure sensing and time records, you may be a candidate for one of our reviewed Altimeter watches. Basically, in that category, the unifying theme is air pressure sensing. The device may or may not have GPS capability (and therefore some of the tested device roster overlaps with the GPS watch category). A model that does both quite elegantly is the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak, which is essentially the same as our Editors' Choice winning GPS watch with the addition of a barometric sensor.

Data Collection and Platforms


After sorting out your own preferences and needs on the above, consider how you will wish to manage the data your device generates. All devices display at least a little real-time and summarizing data on the screen itself. Beyond that most, but not all, watches will upload data for review on your computer. Some use proprietary data interfaces while others can swap data to other formats. In this age of the "quantified self" most consumers will want to upload and save the data they generate on their precious athletic endeavors. If this is you, rule out any and all devices that won't upload information.

If you are interested in saving and reviewing your data after your workout and on your computer, consider the ways in which you can do that. With every device that uploads data, you can review it yourself and you can compare it to others. For your own review, you have the most options. Each device has its own proprietary data management, and most can also upload to one of a few non-discriminating interfaces. Some data interfaces, like the one from Suunto, require an internet connection to store and review your data through their cloud-based system. Nike and Strava data is also collected and stored exclusively in the cloud. Garmin users have the option of on-computer software or a cloud-based system. Other devices and companies have different combinations of these options. And some devices and platforms allow for cross-posting of information. The web browser version of the Strava App, for instance, will compile data from virtually all brands and devices on the market. In our testing, only the Nike and New Balance products didn't work with Strava. Finally, Suunto, Nike and perhaps other manufacturers, have smartphone apps that will collect rudimentary training data without the dedicated device and compile it all together. Basically, you can use the Suunto MovesCount or Nike+ app on occasions when you do not have your dedicated watch and the data will be integrated and combined with the information you generate on more formalized, better-equipped missions.

Strava has various appeal to our readers. You may choose to use the phone app to collect data  the online database for storing your info  and/or the social network for comparing with others.
Strava has various appeal to our readers. You may choose to use the phone app to collect data, the online database for storing your info, and/or the social network for comparing with others.

In order to choose a data organization platform, consider a couple things. Do you already use a fitness device? For example, if you already track your day-to-day activity with a Nike+ FuelBand SE, we recommend that you get a Nike+ Sportwatch GPS for monitoring and recording your runs. The learning curve will be short, and all of your activity can be collected and recorded together. Perhaps you are trying to choose between the quite similar Suunto Ambit 3 Sport and Garmin Fenix. With minor differences, these two models are very much alike. If anything, the Suunto is a little more sophisticated. Many consumers, however, will choose the Garmin because they already have one of Garmin's other devices, maybe for their bicycle, and wish to keep their data all in the same format. However, if you do find yourself with devices from a variety of manufacturers, you can use something like Strava to collect all of the information in one place.

Social Networks


If you don't already have a brand or platform loyalty, perhaps you have friends who do. If you have a fitness community that can inspire and motivate your activity, linking your digital record books can provide further stoke. In this time of rampant social networking, everyone wants a piece of the fitness community pie. We could write an entire review and buying advice article on the various fitness data platforms and communities. Each has its pros and cons. The biggest criteria for any one consumer is how a platform may inspire greater performance or training discipline. The primary mode of inspiration is in comparing one's own performances over time and one's own performance to that of others. All allow this, but your community's preferences matter. Strava has a robust user base, has a clever way of staging virtual races, and collects information from all platforms. The primary drawback is that, unless you are using the Strava phone app or a Garmin device, it requires extra steps to get your data compared with other Strava users. Nike's system is proprietary and exclusive, but useful and widely used. Both Garmin and Suunto have social networks. Ask around with your friends and training partners. Perhaps one platform is better for you, 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


Before we wrap up this article with a discussion of what works best for different sports, we must discuss accessories. Many users will be content with the instrumentation inside of their GPS watch. However, there are certain categories of information that can only be gathered with a wirelessly linked accessory. If you wish to track your bicycling, running, or walking speed indoors, you will need an additional sensor. Those on foot inside, where GPS signal is unavailable, will track speed and distance with a foot-mounted motion sensor. This same sensor can be used outside to complement, and increase the accuracy of, GPS data and to monitor step cadence. High-end runners frequently track, and train with, step rate data. For tracking indoor cycling, you can equip your bicycle with a wheel-mounted speed sensor. In order to monitor pedal cadence on a bicycle, whether indoors our out, you can purchase an aftermarket crank-mounted cadence sensor. High-end cyclists also often wish to track the power they generate. This is an expensive system involving sensors integrated into bicycle drivetrain components. These power meters will transmit their data, wirelessly, to your compatible training device. Garmin makes an external temperature sensor for some of their devices. Finally, and by far the most common, many athletes will track their exertion with a chest-mounted heart rate band. This lattermost accessory is so ubiquitous that many models come packaged with one. In fact, many devices can be purchased on their own or packaged with a heart rate strap.

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 will 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" in busy races, for instance. As long as the device is designed to process the data, ANT+ devices work with all ANT+ accessories, and vice versa (exception: Suunto makes some accessories using its own version of ANT. These accessories only work with Suunto devices. But modern Suunto devices will pick up signals from both "Suunto ANT" and ANT+). The alternative to ANT+ is "Bluetooth Low Energy" (abbreviated BLE). The BLE standard is developed and promoted by the same outfit that standardizes telephone Bluetooth accessories, but regular Bluetooth and BLE are not currently cross-compatible. All of this may soon be a moot point. With more and devices using smartphone compatibility, standard Bluetooth communication is fast becoming the norm. With Suunto's latest GPS watches, the Ambit 3 series, for instance, the manufacturer has now completely abandoned all of the ANT technology and uses normal Bluetooth.

Right now, as noted, ANT+ is slightly more common on dedicated fitness devices like the models we tested. However, because of Bluetooth's brand-recognition and a BLE foothold in the world of pedometers and other casual activity monitors, it is predicted that BLE or even standard Bluetooth will "win out" in the long run. What does it 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. Despite predictions that one of these platforms will win out over the other, you currently have at least a few options for each sensor type in each ANT+, Bluetooth, and BLE.

Portability


Once you have assessed your needs and wants, consider at least briefly the size and weight of the device you choose. By far, the above criteria are the most important to consider. In the end, however, size and weight may break the tie. For instance, in our recent and historical testing, two Suunto Ambit models (the 2 and the 3 Sport) have performed very well. The Ambit 2 is full featured, but more bulky than the slightly less versatile Ambit 3 Sport. For the vast majority of Ambit 3 Sport users the omitted features will not be missed, but everyone will appreciate the slimmer profile.

GPS for Specific Sports


In order to fully summarize our recommendations, allow a brief synopsis to practitioners of each of the following sports.

Running


Runners have the most options. Running is one of the simplest forms of training, and tracking it is the simplest of all endurance sports. You'll want your watch to display pace, distance, time, and perhaps some lap data for comparison. You may or may not wish to review your data afterwards. You may or may not wish to track your heart rate, and even less likely, your step cadence with a foot motion sensor.

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 only 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 simply 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 bicycle specific data, like pedal cadence or pedal power, you will need a more sophisticated tool and external sensors. The latest version of the Suunto Ambit, for instance, will readily process data from a power meter and the display and recording can be customized for cycling. 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 very specific needs. All need a device that is very waterproof with an easy-to-read display. Outdoor swimmers need a model that will track distance and speed with GPS signal in addition to collecting stroke rate information. In order to measure indoor swimming, the watch needs to know your pool's length and 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 test for swimming acumen, our Editors' Choice Suunto Ambit 3 Sport has gained favor as a swimming and triathlon tool.

Triathlon


In order to track triathlon training and events, a watch must do all of the above tasks. 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 Ambit 3 Sport has shown to be excellent for triathletes.

Alpine Skiing


You are far less likely to actively track the data while alpine skiing. Most, however, are curious to review that data after the fact. Alpine skiers, then, look for excellent post-event processing and accurate speed, distance, and elevation data. Choose a model that has lots of storage memory and that uses a barometric sensor for altitude information.

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.

Nordic Skiing


Nordic skiers' needs are quite similar to runners. You want to know distance, speed, time, and often heart rate.

Backcountry Skiing


Backcountry skiers wish to track distance, speed, altitude, and occasionally various other performance metrics. The steep terrain necessitates barometric altitude measurements. Because backcountry skiing is inherently off-trail, navigational features are much appreciated. Finally, consider interference with your avalanche transceiver. All electronic devices interfere with avalanche transceivers. Devices transmitting and receiving radio signals in close proximity to the avalanche transceiver interfere the most. GPS, ANT+, Bluetooth, and BLE are all radio signals. For maximum safety of you and your partners, ensure that your GPS watch can be configured to reduce or eliminate some or all of these signals. For instance, our lead test editor, an internationally certified mountain guide and avalanche instructor, uses something like the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak to record only barometric altitude and time data when it really matters. He thinks critically, and sometimes justifies recording heart rate and GPS data. The most important part is to know the limitations.

Many of these devices have application while backcountry skiing. Just be careful of the effects of electromagnetic interference on your avalanche transceiver.
Many of these devices have application while backcountry skiing. Just be careful of the effects of electromagnetic interference on your avalanche transceiver.

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 radio interference are of course 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


Virtually no rock climbers train with a GPS device. We predict this will change. Many climbers will own a GPS training watch for their skiing, running, or mountaineering efforts. They will 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 trails and in mountainous environments is more akin to mountaineering or backcountry skiing. Assess your habits and choose a watch that is suitable.

Hikers can use a GPS watch  no question.
Hikers can use a GPS watch, no question.

Jediah Porter
About the Author
Jediah Porter is a full-time part-timer. He works as a mountain guide and for OutdoorGearLab and as a substitute teacher. Guiding work requires an even mix of rock shoes, approach shoes, ice boots, and ski gear. Off the clock, he climbs and skis. He also engages in binges of mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and trail-running. He goes by Jed and takes pride in using the right tool for the job, unless he doesn't have that tool. In which case he improvises. "If you don't have it, you don't need it". He has lived most of his adult life in the Eastern Sierra and tries to get to Alaska (for big mountains) and the East Coast (for family) once each year. Jed's web site is www.jediahporter.com

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