If you want to get the most out of your wearable tech, it’s worth investing in a running-specific GPS watch, as opposed to a band that tracks general activity. Here are nine of our favourites – ranging from entry-level to supreme performance. – By Ryan Scott
The first Apple Watch was viewed largely as a fun accessory for your iPhone, and lacked some key features that runners wanted. The Watch Series 2 has built-in GPS tracking and waterproof construction, which instantly makes it a one-watch solution for runners.
This second iteration is still an extension of your iPhone, but now you can leave the handset behind when you set out for a run, and not miss a step. The native Workout app records your latitude and longitude points directly to the watch, to give you real-time distance and pace, and to chart a map later of where you’ve travelled.
Our tests found the GPS to be on par with more advanced sport-specific watches, and the optical heart-rate monitor was precise when strapped on snugly.
– 5 hours battery life
2. Polar M200, R2 494
A brainy smartwatch that boasts advanced functionality not commonly found at this price – many of the connected features typically found in expensive smartwatches have trickled down into more affordable options. The M200 is an all-day activity tracker with a built-in heart-rate sensor, accurate GPS, and basic phone notifications. It also downloads workouts (such as intervals) and monitors your effort during your training session.
Lastly, for those who forget where you started a new route, there’s a back-to-start function, to help you return to your hotel or parked car.
– 6 hours in GPS mode
– Sportsmans Warehouse
3. Polar V430, R3 495
A running-focused watch from Polar that still accommodates a whole lot of other sports options, and adds an optical heart-rate monitor to the super-popular but discontinued M400. While many upgrades have turned to touch-screen functionality, the M430 has kept things simple, sticking to an extremely effective five-button operation. Testers enjoyed the one-touch start option, and the quick connection to GPS – no longer will you hold up your running group because you’re waiting for a satellite connection.
An interesting change to the wrist strap is the addition of a series of holes – not just for aesthetics, but to make the watch lighter, which results in less bounce and therefore more accurate optical heart-rate readings.
– 8 hours battery life, with an option to power down the GPS to extend battery longevity
– Sportsmans Warehouse
4. Garmin Forerunner 235, R5 300
Whether we were deep in the rocky Cederberg or on the mountain slopes that surround Cape Town, we locked on to a satellite quickly with the Forerunner 235. It gathers pings from both the GPS and GLONASS constellations of satellites, strengthening its signal in challenging situations.
The wrist-based heart-rate monitor was the only unit that worked perfectly for all our testers, regardless of skin tone, hair, or body shape, and special algorithms in the watch suggested how long we should rest before our next hard workout.
Testers raved about how easy it was to wirelessly upload runs and all-day activity stats to both iOS and Android phones. And to sync with Strava, MapMyFitness and Endomondo – no watch is better at getting friends to support you, or rivals to hate you.
– 11 hours battery life in GPS and HRM mode
5. Garmin Forerunner 935, R10 999
The watch has GPS, a heart-rate meter on the wrist, new training features – which allow you to adjust exercise and recovery – and weighs only 49 grams.
“With similar features to the Fenix 5, the Forerunner 935 is aimed at athletes focused on performance and results,” says Garmin Brazil director Martín Cosentino. “It not only provides information on how your body is responding to training, but also data for each activity – and allows them to be sent automatically to Garmin Connect. It’s still customisable with free applications, data fields and Connect IQ store services.”
The watch automatically analyses previous levels of exercise, and provides insight into how your body is responding. The new training-effect metric compares the aerobic and anaerobic benefit of a workout. The Forerunner 935 can be paired with the Running Dynamics Pod, which allows athletes to see six running-dynamics metrics: cadence, length of steps, time and ground balance, oscillation, and vertical ratio.
– 24 hours of battery in GPS mode
6. Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR, R4 499
If the Suunto Sport Wrist option (p58) is too large and its many functions seem daunting, the Trainer Wrist is smaller, cheaper and still includes a lot more under the hood than most watches do when they drop a notch in price. Even at just 66g – and a lot slimmer than the rest of the Spartan range – it still has the optical heart-rate monitor built in, 80 pre-installed sports modes, and 24/7 tracking.
Sound familiar? That’s because it really isn’t lacking much of what the Sport option has, even though the waterproofing capability is down from 100m to 50m. (You’ve got to wonder – how many of these watches ever make it deeper than three metres of water?)
– 10-hour battery life in training mode
– Cape Union Mart
7. Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR, R8 999
No longer requiring a heart-rate strap, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR has an optical heart-rate monitor built into the back of the watch. The watch also features 24/7 activity tracking, to give you a complete picture of your daily movements.
The Spartan series comprises big, durable watches, with long-run battery life and an impressive array of features including customised sport modes (80 are pre-loaded), mapping, training insights, and charts. The new optical HR sensor was built in partnership with Valencell, a leader in biometric sensors, and we found it routinely delivered measurements that we’d expect.
Plus, recent software updates have dialled in GPS tracking, even in challenging conditions.
– 12 hours battery life in training mode
– Due South
8. Fitbit Surge, R4 799
Fitbit are big players in the general activity-tracking game, but the Surge is their top-end offering; it makes the leap into the GPS category, and really does differentiate this option from the rest of their range. The Surge doesn’t rely on your phone for GPS – basic GPS functionality is built in to the watch.
The one-touch start for run mode is welcome as a simple navigation option, but don’t wait around expecting the GPS to connect to a satellite, like our testers did – you need to tap again to fire up the GPS. And be patient: the Surge connected slowest out of all those tested.
Testers also used the much-unheralded but easily accessible pause button to great effect. There’s little more frustrating than leaving the clock running while you fumble around trying to find the pause button.
9. TomTom Spark 3 Cardio with music, R3 999
With a built-in music player and long-running battery, you’ll rock through any distance. While some other watches (like the Apple Series 2) also play music, the Spark 3 does that and saves you cash, if you’re not interested in lots of battery-draining smartwatch features.
Navigating menu options on the Spark 3 is a breeze, thanks to the four-way joystick on the strap. Strapless heart-rate monitoring is accurate via the optical sensor, and – as you would expect from navigating giant TomTom – this new version also enables uploading of GPX routes from your apps, so you can get out and explore new regions.
– 5 hours battery life with GPS and music playing