3. Consider skipping the smartwatch. Do-it-all devices like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch are nearly as feature-packed as the more focused athlete-specific fitness watches. But If you’re a fitness wonk who wants to get hyper-specific, precise data on things like elevation and blood oxygen, or you’d like dialed-in training advice based on that data, you probably want an advanced Garmin or Suunto. But there’s also a case to be made for skipping the jack-of-all-trades smartwatch if you’re just a park-lapping everyman, too. As Kai Ng, a USATF and RRCA-certified running coach based in New York who’s also known as Run Coach Kai, advises: “If you are a new runner, you should really focus on listening to your body first, rather than zeroing in on app and text notifications.”
Just a note: these aren’t fitness trackers…they’re fitness watches
All fitness watches are fitness trackers, but for this list, we excluded anything that you couldn’t wear on your wrist and that didn’t have a screen. Plenty of these passive fitness trackers, like the Whoop band or the Oura ring, can offer you reams of fascinating (if debatably useful) data—but they lack key training functions and aren’t intended to be useful in real-time while exercising. Doesn’t mean we don’t think they’re valuable, particularly if you’re looking for sleep and recovery tracking without wearing a beefy teched-out watch.
The Best Fitness Watch, Overall: Garmin Forerunner 245
Garmin’s best-in-class GPS and workout-first focus make its top-tier fitness watches are staples amongst athletes who are good enough not to pay for their gear (see below). But for most people, the brand’s mid-range Forerunner is the right choice. Ng says that he often recommends the Garmin Forerunner 245 as an entry-level fitness watch. “I’m currently wearing the Garmin Forerunner 735XT my wife gifted me since I’m dabbling in the world of triathlons, which I love,” he says, “but it doesn’t stand up against the 24-hour GPS battery life of the 245, which is one of the most important features when purchasing your first or next watch. Especially if you enjoy long hikes and ultra-running.”
Ng also loves the Forerunner 245’s trustworthy heart rate monitor, and the fact that Garmin fitness watches are compatible with training plans that can be uploaded through the Garmin Connect app. “I write custom training programs for my athletes and they love how the entire workouts sync directly to their watches,” he says. “It tells them when to warm up and for how long, or when to pick up the pace and what pace to target. It’s like I’m right there coaching them.”
The Best Upgrade Fitness Watch: Garmin Fenix 7
Among the subset of people who enthusiastically discuss their triathlons, plural, and or find themselves tackling backcountry in all four seasons, the Garmin Fenix 7 is king. The fitness watch’s features (and price) are overkill for the casual athlete, but hard to find elsewhere: enhanced GPS systems and topo maps for plotting out routes, brawny build quality for handling squalls and snow, every kind of sensor you could ask for (including an altimeter and pulse oximeter), endless customization, and a battery life—57 hours with GPS on, 18 days without—that makes the Apple Watch look like a mayfly. One more differentiator: the Fenix 7 also offers three sizes (42mm, 47mm, and 51mm) and a Solar model in case you’ll be in the woods for a while.
The Best Budget Fitness Watch: Fitbit Charge 5
Fitbit effectively invented the modern fitness tracker in 2009, and despite having its turf taken on by the world’s biggest tech companies over the ensuing decade, the company continues to find niches in the category. Case in point, the Charge 5 combines casual athlete data and basic smartwatch functionality into one nicely-priced, slim-and-streamlined package. The bright-in-all-conditions AMOLED screen shows real-time data like heart rate, skin temperature, and pace. For people who might need a reminder to unclench their jaw (everyone), the Charge 5 also provides a daily physiological stress management score and daily readiness score (based on activity, sleep, and heart-variability) to let you know if you should go hard at the gym, or take that yoga class instead. One note: rumor has it that an updated Charge 6 will be coming down the pipeline in fall of 2023.
The Best Mid-Range, Multisport Fitness Watch For Athletes and Triathletes: Garmin Forerunner 945
Garmin’s Forerunner 945 is the definition of the fitness watch sweet spot, built particularly for swimming, cycling, and running. As Priority Fitness founder Ben Kessel, an endurance and strength and conditioning coach with 20 years of professional experience, puts it: the Forerunner 945 offers “anything and everything a driven athlete could want,” while still being user-friendly enough for beginners.