What To Look For When Buying a Running Watch

Find the running watch features that are right for you

Watches are no longer just a tool for telling time. The amount and types of data you can track on your wrist alone is more comprehensive than ever. However, what you decide to wear when you run can be as simple as, well, nothing (plenty of runners run watch-free). Or, your watch can double as a connected mini computer with GPS, altimeter, and monitors for heart rate as well as a slew of other data collection points. Narrow down the best watch option for your next run.

First, Ask These Questions 

How “connected” do you want to be? Do you want to receive text, email, and phone messages while running?

If so, shop for a smartwatch.

How much data do you want? Looking for metrics like pace and distance? Or want all the metrics, like heart rate, stride cadence, sleep patterns, and more?

Start with GPS-enabled watches and scan lists of features (like the ability to read heart rate).

How big a device do you want on your wrist?

Know that some are designed to be sleek, while others are larger to house more tech.

How important is battery life?

Battery life is more critical for ultrarunners and long-course triathletes—or regular runners not wanting to charge every day.

Do you want your watch to connect to apps and stream music?

Diehard fans of working out with music, or folks wanting access to apps—whether it’s running to a playlist, or tracking runs for sharing on social networks—will need to look for more tech-laden, and often pricier smartwatch options.

Will you be running with this watch through winter, where you might be wearing gloves?

Consider a watch with actual buttons, versus a touchscreen (though there are gloves with touchscreen-friendly fingertips).

A woman wearing a smartwatch, crossing her leg over her knee.

Simple Chronograph

Some runners may only need a simple watch: one that provides lap splits, running times, and tells you when to turn around so you’re not late for anything. The chronograph feature lets you precisely time speedwork on the track, roads or trails, or simply log your overall training time. These types of watches are inexpensive, are often waterproof (and, therefore, sweatproof), and lightweight.

GPS-Enabled Watches

These add on a layer by providing your pace and distance, helpful in training and improving performance. It’s important to note that GPS is not infallible—even the best models are prone to overestimating or underestimating the distance of your efforts. They are usually accurate enough, however, to serve as solid guides for training, even if you’re in an unfamiliar place.

Some GPS-enabled watch models come in just GPS versions, or GPS with a heart-rate monitor. The price will be significantly different between the two.

GPS + Heart Rate Monitor

These watches are both GPS-enabled and can pair with a heart-rate monitor (which may come with the watch, or be added as an aftermarket purchase). It’s a powerful combination of features: The GPS track tells you how far, and how fast, you’ve run while the heart-rate monitor provides insights on how hard your body was working.

All The Data

The most tech-forward wrist-top computers are GPS-enabled, heart-rate monitor-compatible, and have the ability to gather all sorts of data, plus they pair with apps to provide real-time coaching (when paired with wireless, Bluetooth-connected headphones) and post-run data analysis.

Some are equipped to offer feedback on cadence (how many steps per minute you take while running), and some offer fitness tests that give you a rough VO2 max. Some even help you keep tabs on fueling, give you workout suggestions, and tell you when you need more rest versus when to get back out there. Finally, some app-paired wrist wearables skip the watch face and other ‘smart’ display info altogether to offer personalized, fitness-tracking data on everything from heart rate to run recovery and sleep quality.

Digital Doubt

If this flood of data makes you scream “nerd alert!” don’t fret: Many highly accomplished runners like to keep things simple with just a regular digital watch (or no timekeeping device at all), and an innate sense of how hard they want to push themselves. On the other hand, if exotic features like pulse oxygen measurements, tracking for sleep and breathing patterns, and all manner of biometric wizardry appeals, go for it. New features appear almost every day. While none of them are essential, any and all can provide insights that may improve your performance—or some added inspiration to get you out there again.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.