Advanced and Basic Fitness Trackers for Runners

Advanced and Basic Fitness Trackers for Runners

Apr 29, 2022
Staff, Courtesy of Garmin
Today’s fitness trackers aren’t just narrow silicone bands that count your steps and estimate how much time you’ve spent sleeping or walking—many pack all the health metrics and connectivity of a high-end smart watch . In fact, as trackers add new smart functions and take on a more traditional watch-shaped profile, the line between the two categories has become blurred. Both types include sport-specific features like activity tracking and GPS workout modes, as well as sensors to monitor everything from your active heart rate to your overnight blood-oxygen levels. These features can track your health, help you achieve your fitness goals, or just encourage you to spend more time in motion.
From daily active minutes to advanced sleep metrics and period tracking, there’s a wide range in the functionality and price of fitness trackers, which makes shopping for the best one such an individual pursuit. In this guide, we cover the best fitness trackers—and fitness-tracking smart watches—along with tips and advice for finding the best one for you.
Best Fitness Trackers
Most Versatile Smartwatch: Apple Watch 7
The Expert: I’ve been testing, reviewing, and writing about running and cycling gear for more than a decade; in that time, I’ve had the chance to test dozens of fitness trackers and smart watches. I’m also something of a data nerd, with a year-round tan line from wearing my Fitbit or Garmin for everything from GPS tracking ultramarathons to counting dance steps on my wedding day. As a product reviewer, my work has appeared in Runner’s World, Bicycling, Popular Mechanics, Wirecutter, Baby Center, and more.
What to Consider When Choosing a Fitness Tracker
Health and Fitness Features
Step-counting accuracy is one of the most important features a fitness tracker can have, but most trackers have reliable accelerometers that can be further recalibrated to track your steps, stride length, and distance with more accuracy if needed. Even the most basic fitness trackers can also calculate your basal metabolic rate, or the rate at which you burn calories, using your “active minutes” and activity data; however, this number is greatly aided by a heart rate sensor, which also makes it easier to grab sleep data. The most advanced health trackers, like the Oura Ring, will even take your body temperature to calculate more data, like your expected cycle date.
Run-Specific Metrics
Runners who want to track their sleep, steps, general activity, and 24/7 heart rate—as well as their dedicated workouts—will likely want a watch or tracker with accurate, built-in GPS. Some, like the Garmin Forerunner 945, will even track your running metrics in depth and build custom workouts for you, as well as generate maps and routes on the fly. These features can be as fun and useful for your training as they can be unnecessary and exhaustive, depending on your intended use of the tracker. If you want a cheaper tracker to track your runs and sync to Strava but don’t need all that functionality, look for any base-level model with built-in GPS.
More Ways to Track: Waterproof Fitness Trackers • Advanced GPS Watches • Running Watches Under $200 • Fitness Trackers for Kids
Social Features and More
Some smart watches put both a fitness tracker and the functionality of a full computer at your wrist. These bonus features include app access, message and calendar notifications, and music streaming and storage —as well as virtual payments through Garmin or Apple Pay. If you want a tracker that offers these functions, you can find most of them available through an Apple Watch, Garmin, or some Fitbits; for a more streamlined health and fitness tracking experience, look to the Fitbit Inspire 2 or Oura Ring Gen 3.
How We Selected These Fitness Trackers
I chose the fitness trackers and smart watches here based on my personal experience with many of them, in addition to test input from the extended Runner’s World team. I also reached out to fellow data-obsessed runners and fitness nuts in my social media circles, and scoured reviews online. The resulting recommendations are designed to take into account the range of features and uses that people are seeking from their trackers. These are the best 10 models I’ve found based on accuracy, user experience, features, and value.
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Can send and receive calls
Apps apps apps
Sleep Tracking: Yes
Water Resistance: Up to 50m
This smartwatch is priced far below Apple’s other watches but still offers a feature-packed tracking experience, with all your activity stats displayed through a simplified version of Apple’s Fitness app. The watch has GPS tracking, maps, music, and health metrics. It has the ability to send and receive calls and measure heart rate and sleep metrics. It also has a bright colorful display with an easy-to-use interface that will feel familiar to Apple users. The biggest drawbacks to the SE as compared to the Apple Watch 7 (below) are that the SE has a smaller display, doesn’t charge or process as fast, and has a heart rate sensor that is one generation behind, among a few other small differences—but for basic tracking with all the GPS and social perks of an Apple Watch, it’s a great bargain.
Best Smartwatch-Fitness Tracker Hybrid
Battery Life: 7 days (5 hours in GPS mode)
GPS: Built-in
Our Expert Caitlin Giddings on the Nuances of Fitness Trackers and Why Built-In GPS Is the Way to Go
Photo by Trevor Raab // Want to achieve your fitness goals? Get a fitness tracker or smart watch.
RW: What’s the difference between a smart watch and a fitness tracker?
C.G.: Traditionally a fitness tracker has consisted of a band that measures your steps and other health stats, while a smart watch has tracked your fitness while also providing social notifications, calendar reminders, and other app-connected features. However, recently the line has started to blur and “fitness trackers” have taken on more watch-like appearances and functions. I included both here as a nod to the significant overlap—if you’re looking for the most traditional fitness tracker experience, check out the Fitbit Inspire 2.
RW: What’s the difference between built-in and connected GPS?
C.G.: Built-in GPS means you can track your pace and distance with great accuracy directly from your tracker or watch without having your phone with you while you’re running, cycling, or swimming. Connected GPS means you can track through the tracker or watch only while it’s synced with a nearby phone. Having experienced both, I would recommend built-in GPS if you have any plans to use the GPS functionality of your tracker—however, it’s also worth noting that on-board GPS will generally add to the size and cost of the device.
RW: What does “water-resistance up to 50 meters” mean?
C.G.: Technically this means the watch or tracker can withstand five bars of pressure, or 50 meters of water pressure. However, more practically speaking, this just means the watch can handle swimming in the pool or taking a shower. It’s not even recommended that you dive into a body of water with a tracker of this resistance rating due to the pressure of entering the water—and it’s certainly not safe to scuba down 50 meters deep with one.
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