Best Running Watch for 2017

As a cross country coach and long-time distance runner, I often get asked:  "What is the best running watch?".   This is such a hard question to answer when there are so many uniquely personal attributes and capabilities that are available today.  Yesterday's fancy running watches had a digital chronograph capability with a metronome-style pacer beep.  Running watches today are so much more.  They are smart watches and overall fitness trackers that have the capability of GPS, continual heart rate monitoring, and so much more. 

So what's the best running watch?  The one that enhances your fitness routine!  I've listed some key features of 2017's top running watches below, along with a side-by-side comparison of the best fitness and running watches that you can buy:

Garmin Vivoactive
FitBit Surge
TomTom Spark 3
Garmin Fenix 3
Garmin Vivoactive HR
FitBit Surge
Tom Tom Spark 3
Garmin Fenix 3 HR
Batt. Life?
13 hours w/ GPS
13 hours w/ GPS
11 hours w/ GPS
20 hours w/ GPS
Workout Log
Garmin Connect
FitBit App
TomTom MySports
Garmin Connect
running, biking, swimming, skiing, snowboarding, golf, rowing, paddle boarding
running, biking, hiking, elliptical, weight lifting, spinning, yoga, treadmill tracker
running, biking, swimming, treadmill runs, gym workouts, indoor cycling
running, biking, swimming, skiing, snowboarding, golf, rowing, paddle boarding
Color Options
Black, White, Slate
Black, Tangerine, Blue
Black, Aqua
Grey w/ black band, Silver w/ red band
Touch, Color
Touch, LCD
High-Res Chroma Color
Water Resistant?
Waterproof to 50 meters
Water Resistant
Waterproof to 40 meters
Waterproof to 100 meters
Other Features
Golf yardage, swim stroke count, call and text notifications, sleep monitor, calories burned
Calories burned, floors climbed, sleep quality tracker, activity minutes, call and text notifications, best app - by far, conducive to social fitness challenges
Compass, optional bluetooth headphones, calories burned, active minutes, sleep tracker, audio performance feedback, customizable straps, interval and race mode (workout PRs), lowest price
3-axis compass, altimeter, barometer, Golf yardage, VO2Max estimator, swim stroke count, Sapphire lens, steel case, call and text notifications, sleep monitor, calories burned

GPS:  If the ability to precisely track your run distance and location is important to you - then GPS is a must.  GPS data will give you a detailed map and pace information for your workout log.  It's a lot more accurate than step counting / distance estimation, and should be a feature that runners looking for accurate workout data.  The only downside of a GPS feature is that it will drain battery life quickly.  The best watches on the market will give you 10+ hours of life when using GPS which will endure most events outside of 50+ mile ultras!


Heart Rate:  When I first started with heart rate training watches, all of them used a chest strap.  The straps would wirelessly submit heart rate data to the watch.  I found these to be semi-reliable, uncomfortable, and another piece of gear to maintain.  Now the best running watches utilize technology which takes your heart rate from your wrist, on the underside of the watch.  I've had a watch with this technology for over 2 years now and have found it as accurate as the chest straps, with the added bonus of getting continual heart rate data pre and post workout.  Like GPS, I now view heart rate capability a must-have for the serious runner or fitness enthusiast in a top-end watch.  Heart rate also provides additional benefits such as accurate calorie burned calculations.


Workout Log:  This feature is hard to measure when looking at only the watches, themselves, but it's a BIG factor for me.   The ability of the watch to quickly download your data in a user-friendly format will play a big part in your training and success.  I used to manually record all of my workouts in a daily log from a written book to a multi-tabbed spreadsheet.  My workouts are now quickly downloaded to my tablet in a format that I love.  I now have the FitBit Surge, and while I think Garmin has superior products, FitBit beats Garmin with their app, user interface, social connectivity, and workout log.  If this factor is important to you, research the watch's download method, app and workout log format to see if it matches your expectations.


Battery Life:  Just a few years ago, the best running watches were charged for your workout and put back in your gym bag after the run.  Running watches today are worn around-the-clock.  They are smart watches, fitness trackers, and activity monitors.  The best fitness and running watches will last several days or weeks on one charge when the GPS is not in use.  With GPS in use for several 30-45 minute workouts, your watch may need a charge every week (as my FitBit Surge does).  The Garmin Fenix 3 has the best advertised battery life of 20 hours of GPS use per charge.


Water Resistance:  If your running watch is worn all day, every day, for all of our activities, then how important is it to you that you can get it wet?  This is one of the features that I wish that FitBit Surge had - I can't take it swimming.  The Garmin and TomTom watches listed above all are able track swimming workouts; take them kayaking; rafting; or submerge them in the course of your adventures.  These watches are also able to count your swimming laps and strokes which is pretty cool.  If this feature is a must-have for you, look carefully at the watch's features.


Social Connectivity:  Nowadays, sharing on social media has become a near-standard feature of our fitness and running data.  And while I think that social media can be a time-suck, it can also be a HUGE motivator for us.  The idea of sharing running and fitness workouts often pulls us through the workout itself!  I think FitBit is leading the pack here with the daily goal challenges and group encouragement.  I believe that Garmin is catching up, but there's still a gap.  Consider this aspect, if this is an important factor for you.   


Bells & Whistles:  Some of the 'extra' features of today's best running watches are unbelievable.  Some watches have a built in compass, weather forecaster, altimeter, barometer, accelerometers that can sense and decipher types of movements.  For example, if I twist and pull my wrist to view the Surge in the dark it will turn the backlight on for a few seconds.  If I briskly walk, run, bike, or jump on the elliptical, it will automatically sense the type of activity, my elevated heart rate, and enter these workouts into my daily log.  I love gadgets and I sometimes let the bells and whistles overshadow the core watch capabilities that important.  Be careful to weigh the value of the 'extra' features according to your want and needs for a running watch.


There are so many choices out there for running and fitness watches.  Best of luck in your decision.  There are many good choices, it's hard to go wrong.  The best running watch for 2017?  The one that helps you accomplish your plan!        

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