Running App vs. GPS Watch – Do You Need a GPS Watch to Run?

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If you’re new to running, getting a GPS watch might simultaneously excite you and make you nervous. It’s a pretty fancy device, even if you get an entry-level watch.

But do you really need to spend that money when you’ve already got a phone? After all, running apps can track and log your runs like a watch.

There’s no right or wrong answer when choosing a running app vs GPS watch. You’re the one who’ll be using it, so it comes down to personal preference much of the time.

That being said, if you’re unsure which one might suit your goals, we’ve compared the pros and cons of each. It’ll give you a better idea of which is better for you!

Do You Need a Device to Run?

There’s a simple answer to this question—no! As long as you have shoes that protect and support your feet, you can run. In fact, if you embrace the barefoot movement, you can even run without shoes!

If you’re a casual runner and don’t care how far or fast you ran, then you don’t need any kind of device.

But if you want to track any metrics—whether that’s just your time and distance or get into the nitty-gritty of running details—you’ll need some kind of device.

Running App vs. GPS Watch – Which Is Better?

So if you’ve decided you need a device to track your running metrics, you’re probably wondering what’s better – a running app vs GPS watch.

Here’s what you need to know about the pros and cons of running apps and GPS watches.

The Pros and Cons of Using a Running App

Running apps may be the more natural choice for new runners. After all, most people have a phone, and many running apps are free! And if you aren’t sure if running will become your new favorite hobby, begin with a running app. You can always upgrade later.

Here are the pros and cons of using a running app to track your running metrics.

Pros

Affordable (and Easy to Find Free Ones)

The biggest advantage to using a running app is that you can find many excellent free ones, and even the paid ones will be affordable. You can find many choices whether you own an Android or an iPhone.

Paid apps usually offer more detailed metrics and may include built-in workouts. Free apps usually offer more basic metrics, but they’re still a great way to keep track of your runs and compare them later.

Super Easy to Use

There’s not much complicated about a running app. Most of them are user-friendly and can be opened and used pretty much immediately once they’ve been downloaded. Some may require you to create an account, but that’s about as complicated as it gets!

If you like to share your workouts on social media to stay accountable, an app might also be the easier choice for you. Many of them offer one-click sharing!

Cons

Harder to Carry

If you’re using an app to track your runs, you’re going to have to find a way to carry your phone along with you. A running belt can be a good option but it may take some time to get used to. You could use an armband instead, which is more convenient but may be uncomfortable.

You could carry your phone in a pocket, especially if you’re wearing tights, many of which come with phone-specific pockets. We don’t recommend wearing loose pants—there’s too much risk of falling out if you’re wearing loose pants.

Whichever way you carry it, there’s one big disadvantage to this—it’s difficult to grab your phone and check your metrics as you’re running.

Shorter Battery Life

Let’s be honest—most of us use our phones almost constantly. There are often updates happening in the background, and notifications coming through for everything from messages to social media.

When you add a running app to the mix, it only drains the battery faster. The phone will need to connect to satellites to use GPS, so, likely, your battery life won’t last as long as usual when you’re using it for your running.

Less Accurate Metrics

Your running app may be fine for measuring time, distance, and pace. But if you’re looking for more detailed metrics, an app is probably not the way to go.

The phone can’t accurately measure your heart rate because it cannot measure your heartbeat—unlike a watch with a built-in heart rate monitor. That means that it’s going to be less accurate when it comes to metrics.

Most apps ask for weight, height, body fat percentage, and other details to track your heart rate. They use these details, plus time, distance, and pace, to estimate your other metrics based on averages. They’re likely to be inaccurate though, similar to treadmill metrics.

Not Resistant to Weather

Your phone won’t be safe if you get caught in the rain or run through a big puddle. If it’s in a waterproof pocket, you’ll be alright, but there’s always a worry that your phone might be damaged.

May Use Data

You may spend data on your run as your phone connects to satellites. This might not be much, but over time it adds up. Admittedly, it’s still less than the price of a running watch, but it could be a con for some people.

Lower GPS Accuracy & No Navigation

Phones have notoriously worse GPS accuracy than watches. Not only can it take some time to connect to satellites—leaving you waiting around in the driveway so you can start your run—but when they’re in a pocket or belt, they can easily lose signal, leaving you with inaccurate distance and pace metrics at the end of the day.

Most phones don’t have multi-bad GPS, so they’re more likely to struggle to regain signal if they lose it, missing out on seconds or even minutes of data.

Note that most running apps don’t offer any kind of navigation. The one app that does turn-by-turn navigation, RunGo, is exclusive to Apple users!

Our Favorite Running Apps

Think a running app is the best thing for you right now? Here are ones we recommend trying.

The Pros and Cons of Using a GPS Watch

A GPS watch is a great investment. But is it necessary for you right now?

Here are the pros and cons of using one of these in comparison to an app.

Pros

Convenient to Carry

You don’t need to make any plans to carry a watch. You just strap it on like any old watch, and get going. There’s no risk of dropping it, either.

This also makes it quite a bit easier to check on the go. Just lift your wrist and glance down, rather than trying to get a phone out of a pocket if you want to see your metrics.

Better GPS Accuracy

Most GPS watches use multi-frequency GPS, which means they can connect to various satellites, like Galileo and GLONASS. This means there’s much less chance of them dropping signal, and even if they do, it’s much faster to reconnect, so your data stays as accurate as possible.

Many of them also offer breadcrumb trail navigation, which is a handy feature that allows you to retrace your steps back to your starting point. It’s worth noting that while some watches do offer turn-by-turn navigation, these are usually high-end options.

Most apps don’t offer any kind of navigation, so watches win out here.

Better Battery Life

Even if you get notifications on your watch, the battery tends to last longer than that of a phone. You’ll most likely be using your watch for telling the time, checking out message or email notifications on the go, and tracking your workouts.

Most GPS watches allow you to switch battery modes to extend the battery life. This is a handy feature if you plan on going for long trail runs or training for a marathon.
That means you’re typically using it less than a fitness app on your phone. You also won’t need to charge it as often as a phone or carry a power bank as backup.

Advanced Features

Running apps are a little short on the metrics, but a running watch offers a rich array of metrics to study. It does depend on the watch you choose, but many of them offer advanced running-related metrics, like:

  • Cadence
  • Running power
  • Vertical oscillation
  • Ground contact time
  • Recovery time
  • Sleep tracking

Many watches also use this information to provide workout recommendations for the following day based on your recovery. Some come with virtual coaching advice to help you improve your metrics.

Better Accuracy

Most smartwatches use advanced optical heart rate monitors. This heart rate sensor sits directly against your wrist, about a finger width above your wrist bone. It then measures your heart rate by illuminating your blood flow with the LED’s.

This is much more accurate than a running app when measuring anything to do with the body. That means heart rate, calories burned, and all the more detailed running metrics.

Watch sensors have become much more advanced in recent years, which means if you’re looking for accuracy in terms of metrics, the watch comes out way ahead of any running app on the market.

Waterproof

This is often overlooked, but if you live in an area with plenty of rain, a running watch could be your better choice. Most of them are waterproof or at least water-resistant to some degree.

If you get caught in the rain, splashed by a car driving through a puddle, or get wet any other way, your watch should be perfectly safe. Some of them are even suitable for showering with!

Built-In Safety Features

Most smartwatches have some kind of built-in, automatic safety features. They use their various sensors—accelerometers, gyroscopes, and so on—to detect unusual impact and unusually fast decelerations.

When detected, they send a notification to either an emergency contact or emergency services. This means if something has happened, help will be on the way as soon as possible, even if you’re incapacitated.

This is a huge advantage over the phone—possibly the most significant difference.

Exclusive Apps

When you buy a running watch, most of the time, it comes with its own exclusive app. Garmin users will be able to take advantage of the Garmin Connect app, and those who use an Apple Watch can also use their app.

However, most watches also allow you to connect to a third-party app like MapMyRun. So, for example, if you’ve been using Strava before, you can connect any new watch—Apple Watch, Garmin, COROS, etc.—to it and keep your old data.

Sometimes, when you buy a phone, you’re lucky enough to get a watch, like many of the Samsung offerings. These smartwatches have a multisport mode that comes with activity tracking.

This can be a great starting point for new runners to get used to wearing a watch and tracking their metrics instead of just an app.

Cons

More Expensive Than an App

Price is the biggest downside to a GPS watch compared to a running app. Many apps are free, and even the paid ones don’t come close to the price of a GPS watch—even an entry-level one.

If budget is a concern for you, then you should begin with a running app. You can always save up for a watch, but even the cheapest ones come in at around $200.

That being said, they’re made to last in most cases. So while you’re spending a bit more money, you’ll likely get many years of use out of a watch. But it can be a definite con if you don’t have the money to spend.

Can Be Complicated

Running watches require a bit of setting up before you can run with them. In many cases, they’re set to “everything on” when they arrive, which means your battery may take a beating until you manage to locate and disable all the little functions that aren’t important or useful to you.

You may also need to learn the ins and outs of the watch before using it. Some of them can be complicated—more so than a running app, by far!

Our Favorite GPS Watches

Thinking of investing in a GPS watch for your running? Here are the ones we love and highly recommend.

Overlapping Features

Some features overlap between phones and watches. If these features are important to you, you may need to shop around for watches that include them, but they shouldn’t necessarily influence your choice.

  • Music
  • Contactless payment options
  • GPS
  • Navigation
  • Health tracking
  • Lifestyle features
  • Supported apps

Final Thoughts

The debate of running app vs GPS watch isn’t a hard one if you know what your goals are for your running. If you’re still trying to figure out if running is something you actually enjoy and will continue with, a running app is the best start.

If the running bug has already bitten, it comes down to your choice. Are you happy to carry a phone when you run, or would you prefer something as convenient as a watch?

Choose a GPS watch if accurate metrics are important to you, if you want the most convenient option, or if you want advanced safety features.

Choose a running app if you’re on a very tight budget, you don’t need to know all the fancy metrics, and you already know you’ll carry your phone when you’re running.

Of course, if you’re in the market for a new watch, you may as well go for a running one from the start. And lastly, there’s no harm in using both!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.