State-of-the-art smartwatches are great in some ways but aren’t perfect for every activity.
This is the problem I faced when I was looking for something specifically for running. Despite the “features” on the label, some brands “get it” while others seemed to add fitness tracking as an afterthought.
Even within the more specific niche of activity trackers, not every device is optimized for running. There are a variety of factors to consider (which I will get into below). Bottom line, by reading this article you should get a good idea of what you need, why you need it, and where to buy it.
Criteria for Evaluating a Good Running Fitness Tracker
Nothing is worse than a fitness tracker that promises to track, but is inaccurate. Almost all trackers have some degree of variance, but some are much better than others overall.
Can you look at your wrist can get the key stats while running? That’s a pretty obvious standard for me, personally. Believe it or not, some fitness trackers don’t get this. There is nothing worse than having to stop your run to check your heart rate or splits.
It’s nice to track progress over time. The best running trackers will store past workouts, even syncing with cloud storage for historical tracking and data over time. Seeing progress personally helps keep my motivation high over time, so I absolutely love to spec this out before buying.
For runners, easily getting a good heart rate reading and other advanced stats sets a great running tracker over just a “decent” one.
A comfortable fitness tracker is critical when you are sweating through mile 6 of your run. Some trackers chafe and irritate the skin over time. This is one of the key attributes that I check.
For some, budget isn’t an issue. But, for those of us that are on limited budgets, a fitness tracker can vary wildly in price. From the sub $100 price point, all the way up to $400 for a high-end device.
If you are getting a tracker specifically for running, you don’t necessarily need to “pay” for all the other features. Take a close look at what you actually need in a fitness tracker. While it might be fun to text on your wrist, do you really need that? Maybe yes, maybe know. Just be aware that this can change the pricing.
What do I mean by this? Any other “wow” factors that make an activity tracker stand out from the competition.
In terms of “extras”, one of the popular extra features is GPS tracking. This is particularly useful for running planned (but not memorized) routes. The key here is whether they can operate independently of your smartphone. It kind of defeats the purpose to have also carry your smartphone with you in order to use GPS on a run.
Plays Well with Others
There is definitely an advantage to staying within the family when it comes to trackers, but it’s not always a deal-breaker. Depending on your needs, the Apple Watch (paired with iPhone) or Samsung device (paired with Samsung phone) should at least be evaluated.
As a side note, things like “battery life” are still important but not specific considerations for running. All activity trackers have more than enough juice to last 24 hours, meaning that a tracker with more than half of its charge left should be more than sufficient for even the longest runs.
Top 5 Recommended Activity Trackers for Runners
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
The Forerunner 735XT is my favorite go-to activity tracker for runners. Rather than been an activity tracker that also works for runners, this Garmin is designed specifically with the Runner’s use case in mind. It’s also not bad on the eyes, with a smart touch-screen design (31.1mm) that also happens to be lightweight and ergonomic on the wrist.
Key features include over 7 days of battery with regular daily use, a built-in heart rate monitor (something lesser Forerunner’s don’t have), and even a “predicted race times” calculator.
Other more advanced features include VO2 max, running cadence/oscillation, a virtual pacer, step counter, and eve a “stress score”. These extra Garmin features really set the 735XT apart from other brands, especially the ones with more mass-market appeal.
The main drawback with the 735XT is the price. It’s not cheap. But if you are a serious runner, it’s the ultimate gadget to aspire to.
See How Garmin Forerunner 735XT compares to others:
Garmin Vivoactive HR
If something simple, straight-forward, and affordable is what you are looking for, then the Garmin Vivoactive HR checks all those boxes.
It’s roughly HALF the price of the Forerunner 735XT check this listing for pricing. It doesn’t have the same level of advanced built-in tracking, but for many runners, these have debatable utility anyway.
This GPS-enabled device boasts a battery live of up to 8 days, comes with a touchscreen, and built-in heart rate monitoring. In short, it hits all of the essentials that a runner needs.
While you don’t get some of the super-advanced features, I really like the Vivoactive HR as my budget recommendation. If this is your first running activity tracker, I’d highly recommend starting with the Vivoactive and then seeing how you feel, instead of buying a higher-end product and only using a few features regularly.
See how Vivoacive HR compares to others:
A good alternative to the Garmin brand is the Polar brand tracking devices. The M430 GPS Running Watch is one of my favorites specifically for runners.
The nice thing about the M430 is that it can last for 3-4 weeks of workouts on a single charge (or 30 hours of continuous workouts, depending on usage).
The new 430 version (based on the original M430) now has a standard built-in heart rate monitor, in addition to the cadence tracker, calorie tracking, and other base features. Another added benefit is a sleep tracker, although I’m skeptical most users would leverage this. Personally, I wear my dedicated running watches specifically on runs and not necessarily to bed.
The M430 also comes in as an affordable option, competitive with the Garmin Vivoactive, and sometimes cheaper at this listing.
See how Polar M430 compares to others:
Fitbit Charge 2
If you are looking for a good running tracker that you can ALSO feel comfortable wearing around all day, the Fitbit Charge 2 hits the mark. It has many of the core features a runner would want but also is a good general-purpose smartwatch.
The Charge 2 has a functional touchscreen interface, built-in heart rate monitoring, distance tracking, steps tracking, pace tracking, calorie-burning, and sleep tracking.
The other advantage of a more established brand like Fitbit is that they are in it for the long haul, constantly adding new features, software updates, and apps. It’s also one of the best-selling activity oriented smartwatches on the market, with hundreds of positive reviews on major sites like Amazon (some strength in numbers, right?).
While the Charge 2 is certainly not cheap, it’s an excellent mid-range value. While it lacks some of the dedicated high-end features found in the Garmin products, it’s also a device that can more fully integrate into your life, whether you are running or not. You can check this listing here for the latest prices.
How does Fitbit Charge 2 compare to others
Last – but certainly not least – the AppleWatch 2 is worth mentioning. While it appeals to a very wide audience of users, it still functions as a great running watch. It might not be dedicated enough for purists and the price point is admittedly high, but it’s still a solid option to consider.
One of my top reasons for mentioning the AppleWatch is that the iOS app ecosystem (not to mention the out-of-the-box features) is NOT to be overlooked.
Looking towards the future, a healthy ecosystem of third-party integrations is the surest sign of good tech investment. While other watches and trackers may have similar or better horsepower, an activity tracker is only as good as the functionality.
Not to mention the seamless integrations between other iOS devices (one of the reasons Apple products are so pervasive).
The AppleWatch 2 has a built-in heart rate sensor, gyroscope, accelerometer, pace tracker, distance tracker and general activity tracking. The main drawback is that it’s not cheap, but you can check this listing for the latest pricing updates NOTE: For runners I would definitely recommend the “sport” band, as the metallic options are overly cumbersome.
See how Apple Watch 2 compares to others
Comparison Table – Key Specs Compared
To get an overall summary comparison, check out my table below:
|Garmin Forerunner 735XT||High End (check here)||7+ Days||31.1 mm||- Heart rate monitor (wrist based) built-in|
- Stress score
- Step counter
- Virtual pacer
- VO2 Max
- Predicted Race Times
- Running dynamics (cadence, oscillation)
|Yes||Yes (50 m)||Yes|
|Garmin Vivoactive||Budget (check here)||8+ Days||28.6 x 20.7 mm||- Heart rate monitor (strap sold separately)||Yes||Yes (50 m)||Yes|
|Polar M430||Budget (check here)||24+ Days||33.8 x 33.8 mm||- Heart rate monitor (built-in)|
- Cadence tracker
- Steps counter
- Calories burned
- GPS route mapping
- Sleep quality
|Yes||Yes (30 m)||No|
|Fitbit Charge 2||Mid Tier (check here)||5+ Days||38 mm||- Heart rate tracking (built in)|
- Distance tracker
- Steps tracker
- Pace tracker
- Calorie burn
- Sleep tracking
- Activity tracker
|AppleWatch 2||High End (check here)||18 hours||38.1 mm||- Heart rate sensor (built in)|
- Distance tracker
- Pace tracker
- Activity tracker
|Yes||Yes (50 m)||Yes|
Final Take – Consider the Options
As a final consideration, you really can’t go wrong with any of these top 5 running activity trackers.
My Top Pick Overall: That said, for pure runners who just need a well-dedicated running tracker, you can go wrong with my top selection the Garmin Forerunner 735XT available here.
My Top Budget Pick: If you are trying to stay under a reasonable budget, I would definitely recommend the Garmin Vivoactive HR available here as an excellent entry-level activity tracker for running.