How to Pick the Best Running Watch

Posted on November 19, 2014

garmin running watch, nike running watch, gps watches, watch on wrist

GPS running watches are becoming an increasingly important component of the runner’s arsenal. The ability to precisely record a run or workout from your wrist, then review the data afterward can result in more effective training. Just as performance thresholds continue to improve in shoe and clothing technology, the running watch market is becoming equally competitive. This is great for consumers because there are now oodles of features available at different price points. While consumer GPS technology isn’t perfect, it has improved immensely over the past 10 years as even basic GPS tracking devices can provide relative accuracy for analytical purposes.

As with any goal-oriented activity, knowing why you run can help you focus and train more efficiently. Are you running for health reasons, self-gratification, to spend time with friends or a spouse, in search of a hobby, or just to keep yourself busy? Identifying your running goals can help you select the type of training program and gear you’ll need to reach those goals.

Finally, knowing how and where you’ll be running can help your selection process. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Someone living in a region with a lot of elevation change may require a very different feature set than someone living in a flat region. Also, consider the weather and environment you’ll most often be running in. Does your area get frequent cloud cover, or do you run in a downtown area with skyscrapers?

Why Should I Buy a GPS Running Watch?

There are lots of reasons to invest in a running watch, but don’t lose sight of what it really is–a training aid. It can’t force you to get outside, it won’t make you faster, and it won’t prevent injuries. A running watch is a tool, and it’s only as useful as the effort you put into learning about it. Running watches should help you:

Analyze smarter

Being able to visualize data from workouts and races can help you better understand your workouts, thus being able to improve your training strategy.

Train smarter

Being an informed runner is important. Having real-time information on your wrist can keep you motivated, allows you to tweak your training on the fly, and stay on track with your training progress.

Coaching and community

What does a watch have to do with coaching and community? A lot, actually. It’s important to have a place where you can connect and compete with others in the running community, as well as get answers to your questions. Most watch companies offer a built-in community or forum to ask product and training-related questions.  These communities can add a layer of accountability for those cold, rainy, or humid training days. Simply seeing that a friend squeezed in a run despite the rain can fuel that competitive edge and keep you honest.

What GPS Running Watch Features Do I Need to Consider?

There are two main considerations to make when picking out a running watch: feature set and price. They’re obviously highly correlated, with more (or more advanced) features meaning you’ll be spending a bit more cash. It’s very easy to get feature-crazy and lose sight of what’s important. You should feel confident that your watch is accurate, well-built and easy to use, and enables you to analyze your runs.

Ultimately, you need to determine which watch’s feature set and price can help you achieve your training goals. I’ve outlined a few of the most common features available in GPS running watches on the market today. (By no means is this list exhaustive–you could easily come up with hundreds of combinations of features, accessories, reporting capabilities, etc.)

Watch Hardware & Software

Of course, you want your watch to look good on your wrist.  But when choosing between looks or performance, durability, and features, make sure the latter wins out. How will the watch respond to physical strain and environmental exposure? Consider the external aspects of the watch–build, materials, controls, and fit to ensure reliability and comfort:

Water rating: How well will the watch hold up with during a sweaty long run, a soaking rain, the shower, or a swim in the ocean? Generally speaking, watches rated IPX7 (and above) will have you covered if your watch ever comes in contact with water. Beyond a brief soaking, I wouldn’t want to test IPX7’s limits. Generally, a waterproof watch will outperform a water-resistant watch. Check out Garmin’s water rating chart for more perspective.

Watch build: Consider the width of the unit, the circumference of the display, the wristband locking mechanism, the weight of the unit, etc. These kinds of specs all play a part in how comfortable the watch will sit on your wrist. If the unit is too heavy, it will become very noticeable during the run and may even swing around on smaller wrists. If the unit is too wide, you may end up smacking yourself in the face when your wipe sweat from your forehead. No bueno.

Display: Size matters. This one is pretty obvious, but often overlooked. You should be able to glance down at your wrist from 1.5-2 feet away and read every single number. Sure, you’ll eventually memorize the placement of information on your display after just a few runs, but it’s imperative that you’re able to quickly glance at your arm to get the information you need.

It’s also nice to have a crisp, well-organized display. With more and more features on watches today, you’re often doing more than just hitting stop and start buttons. Being able to decipher between a 3 and an 8 on your screen can avoid miscues down the road.

Another consideration around display features is screen customization. If you have specific training needs, chose a watch that let’s you control the information displayed on your data screen. For example, runners who train to improve their speed may benefit from cadence, timer, and lap data on their screen. Alternatively, runners training for distance (and less on speed) may focus on distance and overall time on feet. Being able to stray from default data screens can help you grow as a runner by being able to focus on specific areas of training.

Warranty/Repairs: Inspect the watch for weak points in the build. My first running watch, the Nike+ Sportwatch GPS, a fantastic entry-level product which served me well for over a year and a half, kicked the bucket after a simple locking mechanism rusted and ultimately failed. The watch still functions today, but I’m unable to secure it to my wrist. Having to replace the entire watch because of a weak external design element is frustrating, and that’s why it’s important to look for external locks, built-in USBs, and hinges that are more likely to fail.

Also, I highly recommend doing research before buying your watch to determine if individual parts can be purchased in the event something breaks. It wasn’t until after my watch broke that I found out that Nike does not sell replacement parts for its Sportwatch GPS. (Womp womp.) An important feature when looking for my new watch was being able to repair it myself. One huge reason I ended up purchasing a Garmin was due to the availability of replacement wristbands.

External controls: There are many types of external controls on the market today–bezel, button, hybrid bezel and button, and touch screen to name a few. Some runners despise the touch bezel, others love it. It’s hard to argue anything beats the satisfaction from a good ‘ol press of a button. Both the Nike Sportwatch GPS and Garmin 220 give you a firm confirmation that yes, you just successfully pressed a button. Many watches provide audio (beep), tactile (vibration), and visual confirmation (play/stop symbols) that a button was pressed. That way, even if you’re wearing headphones, you’ll feel the vibration and won’t have to worry that you may not have actually paused your run.

Backlight: During early morning runs, or post-work runs during fall and winter months, it’s incredibly helpful to have a powerful backlight.

Battery life: When comparison shopping for watches, check both the training and standby battery life specs. Most watch batteries are built to sustain a full marathon completion time–about 6 hours. Check to make sure that your watch’s training battery life can outlast your long distance workouts and races.

Pairing/data transfer: Many GPS watch companies are realizing that consumers want less wires and are introducing built-in Bluetooth and WiFi uploading capabilities. The most common transfer method is via USB, and not to dissuade, but this could become a weak point in the watch design.

Software updates: This one is also pretty self explanatory, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s important that the watch company is listening to and supporting users by occasionally updating software. Updates are released for bug fixes, map file updates, GPS improvements, language support, and sometimes even new features.

Fashion: There are many running watch styles, sizes, colors to choose from. I wore both my Nike and my Garmin to work, but I realize not everyone can do that. That said, do consider if you want your watch to function as a daily wrist watch as well. Some styles can be particularly unsightly, or inconveniently large for the workplace.



Accuracy: Imagine this–you’re closing in on mile 24 of a marathon, but your watch displays 26.1. Mentally, that’s a bitch. You see those numbers and your brain checks out. (WTF, I should be at the finish!?!) With the last ounce of energy, you start thinking about giving the race director a piece of your mind when you should be soaking in that final leg of your race, dammit!

While external factors affect GPS accuracy–weather, buildings, tree cover, and of course how well you care for your watch–GPS accuracy often varies between watch companies. If you want pinpoint accuracy for your training, don’t skimp on the price tag.

Speed: Do you really want to stand idle at your front door on a 23 degree morning for three extra minutes waiting for your watch to sync? NOPE. (More importantly, do you really want to be fumbling with your watch at the start of a race?) Make sure syncing is quick, or better yet, has a pre-cache feature that saves GPS locations for short-term use.


Data Tracking Features:

I consider the following as standard features that most running watches should offer: elapsed time, distance, current pace, average pace, lap distance, lap pace, lap time, calories, elevation, weather, timer, time and date.


Training Features

Advanced: Take your training to the next level with more advanced features such as: VO2max tracking, cadence/SPM, virtual pacers, coaching and training plans, the ability to download interval workouts or training plans, and auto pause run.


Dashboard & Community

Dashboard: All that data you’re collecting needs a home. Fortunately, most watch companies offer complimentary online dashboard to store, sort, and help you visualize your workout data. There are many different platforms (Nike+ and Garmin Connect are popular ones), all with varying scope and depth of reporting, training, and community features.

From my experience, Nike+ offers user-friendly features such as goal-setting, shoe-mileage tracking, challenges, leaderboards, trophies, milestones, Nike Fuel integration, and even heat maps to explore local running routes. It also has neat social sharing features baked-in, and a free app that tracks workouts if you forget your Nike+ watch. The dashboard is well-built, but feels very commercial due to heavy product placement and little-to-no customization capabilities.

On the other hand, Garmin Connect offers many of the same features as Nike, only with a much more powerful dashboard and activity log. Garmin actually allows you to create and customize unlimited dashboards with a variety of at-a-glance widgets. If you’re a data nut, you’ll love the charts, graphs, leaderboards, as well as the ability to manually enter, edit, and import and export workouts. There is a free app available to review your data, but unlike the Nike app, you cannot use the Garmin app to track your runs.

Import/Export: A bit of a warning here. It’s important to note that once you upload your data to Nike’s platform, they make it very difficult for you to retrieve your data. This is incredibly frustrating for people who may want to share GPX or TCX files with running friends, or upload to a third-party platform such as Strava or DailyMile.

My historical run data imported from Nike+ to Garmin Connect

My historical run data imported from Nike+ to Garmin Connect

Fortunately, some really, really smart people also got frustrated and built a tool to extract Nike+ data (here and here). With those files downloaded to your PC, you can then upload the workouts to other platforms and third-party sites. (You do have to provide your login info in order for the app to have access to your account, so I recommend changing your password before entering your info for security purposes.)

Community: Community is incredibly important in the running world. Garmin has a forum focused mostly on products and troubleshooting, while Nike has added very cool and useful training components to its array of community-based features. The latest is a running forum broken out by training distances–marathon, half marathon, 5k, etc.–and they also have geographic communities (NYC, LA, CHI so far). I also have to commend Nike on their awesome social media outreach–check out this post I wrote about their phenomenal social media support. Garmin chooses not compete in this arena and hasn’t invested much at all in digital/online support.



Compatibility: Consider whether you need a heart monitor, a foot pod for indoor running (where GPS is useless), bike mounts and more. Not all watches are designed to be compatible with accessories, so make sure in advance that your accessory can in fact be paired with your watch.


Price point

The majority of runners will find a watch in the $150-250 range to be more than suitable. Within this range, you’re looking for a reliable, a well-built product, and a feature set that matches your training needs.

I HIGHLY recommend using DC Rainmaker’s Product Comparison Tool to help narrow down your choices. This helpful tool allows you to select a price range (budget, moderate, high-end) that best suits your wallet, and then compares running watch feature sets against one another.

Think about it–you use your watch every time you run, and you need it to be accurate. You want it to survive both the hot, humid runs as well as the sub-zero, snowy runs. You want it to withstand awkward high-fives with race spectators, inevitable encounters with walls, signs, poles, thorny bushes, and pavement for those times our feet and our eyeballs just aren’t on the same page.

The more you demand of your watch, the more you’re going to pay. More expensive watches generally support advanced GPS functionality, customization of screens, and offer extensive reporting and accessory compatibility. If you want a single device that tracks multiple sport metrics, such as swimming and running, you’ll need to dip a little deeper into your savings. Same story if you’re a competitive runner who monitors more advanced metrics such as cadence, VO2max, and heart rate. More features, more money. Simple.

My closing advice is to shop for the long-term and be realistic about the features you’ll actually use on a daily basis. Choosing the right GPS running watch can help you learn more about your running habits, and understand how you can adjust your training to achieve your goals. Today’s GPS running watches can even encourage and inform you before, during, and after a run, as well as provide a layer of accountability. Ultimately, your watch should help you get the most out of your training by helping you become a smarter, more consistent runner.

Happy running!

How to Pick the Best Running Watch by

2 Replies to "How to Pick the Best Running Watch"

  • trav
    November 20, 2014 (11:31 am)

    Great post. I feel like I’ve attended an Apple Genius bar workshop on running watches. Worth the price of admission just for the links to the two Nike exporter tools. I wish I’d had those a year ago, but anxious to give them a go.

    • Zack Sylvan
      November 21, 2014 (4:12 pm)

      Trav, you’re hilarious. Sounds like I need to find a hookup for a Genius t-shirt.

      I never imagined it’d be a hassle to export my own data! But I also wasn’t going to abandon two or three years’ worth of run data to Nike. Thankfully, there are crazy smart people out there who turn their anger into breakthroughs to help others.

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