The Ultimate GPS Watch Buyers Guide


We’ve created this guide to help find the best GPS watch that’s right for you. Today’s GPS watches come in a range of prices and styles. They are also more specialized than ever before, with certain models designed specifically for runners, cyclists, triathletes, and hikers of all skill levels.

Depending on what you are willing to spend, how you plan to use it, and the features you want, trade-offs must be made. While GPS watches are great at a lot of things, no watch is universally perfect.

Our buyers guide is divided into 3 sections that we feel these are most important to consider when choosing a GPS watch.


GPS watches start at around $100 and can run as high as $800 or more. We’ll cover what more expensive watches buy you – and sacrifice in budget models.


GPS watch primarily track time, speed/pace, and distance. This makes them good for a variety of different activities. But many can do a lot more. Biking, swimming, trail running, hiking, skiing, rowing, kayaking – basically, anything done outside can be tracked and recorded with a GPS watch. We’ll break down which watches excel or fall flat for common activities.


The types of features a GPS watch has vary greatly. Ultimately, they’ll drive all the other factors we’re going to discuss. While every GPS watch can give you real-time speed, distance, and time data, more advanced models can support accessories like heart rate monitors or bike speed and cadence sensors; some are waterproof while others can create interval and advanced workouts. We’ll explain GPS watch features and point out differences between brands and models.


Runners used to measure their runs by hopping in a car, retracing their running route, and using the odometer to mark mileage.

Google maps and the rise of websites like Gmap Pedometer and Map My Run allowed runners to keep their car in the garage.

Prior to that old-fashioned pedometers are semi-accurate provided you don’t mind calibrating them, doing some math, and dealing with their finicky-ness.

Now with GPS watches, metrics like: distance, pace, speed, calories, elevation, heart rate, cadence, along with boatloads of other data are instantly available with a quick glance at your wrist.

Garmin Forerunner 101
Garmin Forerunner 101 (circa 2003)
Garmin Forerunner 230 (current)

Today’s watches are small, can quickly pick-up a satellite signal, and offer tons of features and training aids. While Garmin remains the big player on the market, more and more companies are coming out with competing models.


Most GPS watches are accurate within 1% to 3%.

This translates to a hundredth to three-hundredths of a mile per mile, plus or minus. To use a real world example, a GPS watch would measure a 10 mile run as anywhere between 9.91 miles to 10.09 miles. While not exact, it’s still very close.

But it’s not 100% accurate.

Most people get hung up on this when running a road race. With a GPS watch, “your” distance won’t be the same as race distance. Partly, this is due to races being measured on the tangent, but it’s also due to GPS accuracy issues.

GPS watches have unfortunately become the bane of race directors who must constantly answer angry racers who claim they ran 13.25 miles in a half marathon.


GPS watches rely on satellites to work, meaning you need to be outdoors.

Nearby obstacles like tall buildings or thick tree cover – even cloudy days – impact accuracy, sometimes causing the watch to lose their satellite lock.

Some watch makers have solved this problem by adding foot pods (basically a shoe-mounted pedometer) and bike speed and cadence sensors (similar to traditional bike computers), eliminating the need for GPS. These can be used in place of GPS indoors and can supplement it outside.

Many GPS watches also have an accelerometer built in. These not only work like an activity tracker, they also calculate distance and pace treadmill running.


Depending on your technological prowess, there might be a learning curve  using a GPS watch. While watch companies have done their best to simplify GPS watches – the easiest to use are budget models with few features – this is lost as the number of features grows.


Generally, GPS watches fall into 3 price ranges: budget ($100-$150), mid-range ($200-$350), and high-end ($350+). While some watches are sold bundled with accessories like foot pods or heart rate monitors, for the purposes of this guide, cost is based on the watch only – or the lowest price if the watch is only sold bundled with accessories.

Budget GPS Watches

Up to $150

GPS Watches in this price range typically do the bare minimum, meaning they track time, distance, pace/speed, and calories burned. They automatically create laps and look like a typical sport watch with standard functions such as time and date, alarms, and a stopwatch.

Many of these watches (but not all!) are also waterproof. So while you can take them swimming, they don’t have features that make them anything other than expensive stopwatches.

Battery life tends to be ok, averaging about 10 hours in activity mode (i.e. while you’re exercising), longer if wearing it like a regular watch. Many GPS watches also double as activity trackers for all-day wear.

Click here to see our favorite budget GPS watches

Mid-range GPS Watches

$150 to $350

Like budget watches, most of these are waterproof and have an average battery life of up to 12-15 hours. Two new features to this class of GPS watches are interval workouts, where you can create time- or distance-based intervals the watch tracks for you; and wrist-based heart rate monitors.

These GPS watches are usually geared toward a specific type of person like a runner, multi-sports athletes, or hikers. Usually, there isn’t a lot of overlap between the types of activities they’re best for.

Click here to see our favorite GPS watches for runners

High-end GPS Watches

$350 & up

Expanding on budget and mid-range functionality, high-end GPS watches can do the basics and a whole lot more.

These watches also tend to be feature-rich and work well for a wide range of athletes. Most function well as triathlete watches – they have multi-sport and customizable activity profiles. Many track open water and pool swimming.

Battery life of around 20 hours or more is common. They can track elevation, some with a barometer for added accuracy. When outside, they have strong navigational aids like waypoints and breadcrumb maps.

Most have comprehensive training aids like advanced workouts and the virtual partner feature.

See our favorite multi-sport GPS watches


In this section, we’ll discuss the features that make a GPS watch excel at certain activities. We also feel that experience level should be considered, so we’ve broken down several activities by skill, knowing that newer athletes won’t benefit from the advanced features found in high-end watches.

There is also a fair amount of overlap between watches. While it’s true no watch is ideal for every activity, many GPS watches are very good at more than one. In the end, all GPS watches can do the basics: track pace/speed, distance, and time. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Walkers and Beginner Runners

A basic watch that tracks time, distance, and speed is sufficient. Anything more advanced likely won’t be needed. And all watches on the market do this. So choose based on what you are willing to spend, style, and any extra features you think you might use in the future.

Intermediate Runners

If you no longer consider yourself a novice runner, you’ve likely discovered the benefits of interval training and heart rate monitors. Heart rate monitors are great for gauging workout intensity. Interval workouts are programmed on your watch ahead of exercising and alert you at specified times or distances when to start and stop your interval.

We like using a GPS watch for intervals for two reasons. First, they keep track of each interval for you. This is especially useful when doing short, but numerous intervals. Second, a GPS watch frees you from the track (or counting telephone poles if you are old school). Intervals can be done anywhere as the GPS tracks your distance.

These GPS watches will also download workouts to your computer, providing a great way to analyze your runs and track them in a log.

Experienced Runners

GPS watches in this category can create very detailed, custom workouts in addition to standard interval workouts. This means you can create a workout like this: 15 minute warm-up, 800 meters at 6:30, 60 second rest, 400 meters at 6:15, 30 second rest, 10 minutes at 7:00, 15 minute cool-down.

And almost all of these watches have very customizable screens that allow you to display the data fields you find most important.

These watches often have unique features specific to their particular brand. For example, Garmin’s Forerunner 935 is one of Garmin’s only watches to have the Virtual Racer training aid.

Casual Cyclists

When cycling it’s important that a GPS watch displays speed in miles (or kilometers) per hour. Luckily, every watch on the market does this. If you’re a regular cyclist and want something more robust, check out the features in the intermediate and advanced sections.

Intermediate Cyclists

GPS watches designed for intermediate cyclists should have some bicycle-specific accessories and features.

The most common is a bike speed and cadence sensor. This accessory measures bike speed when the GPS unit isn’t functioning – like going through a tunnel or indoors on a bike trainer. They are very similar to traditional cyclometers in that they measure the number of wheel rotations to calculate speed and distance. The cadence part of the sensor measures how fast you crank the pedals.

Look for watches that can be customized for different bikes. This comes in handy if you own bikes with different sized wheels; it saves you from having to readjust the wheel-size setting when using the speed and cadence accessory on different bikes.

Advanced Cyclists

GPS watches best for advanced cyclists should be compatible with a power meter. Most have a quick-release mount.

A power meter is a great tool to measure power output at any given moment while cycling. This metric provides an instantaneous picture of how much force you are exerting while pedaling. A cadence sensor tells you crank rotation, but it doesn’t indicate power (i.e. there is a big difference between pedaling uphill and cruising downhill).

A quick-release mount allows the watch to be popped off a wrist strap and moved to a bike mount. Although it’s more suited for triathletes transitioning from swimming to biking to running, the quick-release mount is an easy way to move the watch between a bike and wrist.


These watches should be waterproof to at least 50 meters. While every GPS watch can withstand rain and sweat, not every watch is waterproof enough to make swimming feasible.

One thing to note: GPS signals aren’t strong enough to be picked up underwater. This means unless you utilize the bathing cap method (i.e. stick the watch in the back of your swim cap where it’s less prone to be obstructed by water), these watches are nothing more than glorified stopwatches. Still, if you swim often, it’s a nice perk to take your GPS watch in the water with you.

Advanced Swimmers

As GPS watch makers have become savvier to the needs of swimmers, some GPS watches (like the Forerunner 735XT) can track distance during pool and open water swims.

When swimming outdoors with these watches, the accelerometer is combined with any GPS signals it picks up (i.e. when your wrist is above the water mid-stroke) to better gauge distance and speed. Indoors, the accelerometer automatically counts strokes and laps. By setting pool length on the watch, distance and speed are calculated.

In addition, the accelerometer will identify – with varying degrees of accuracy – your swim stroke.


These watches are very similar to the advanced and expert cyclist watches in that they have quick-release mounts, compatible bike accessories, custom bike settings, and lots of customizable data fields.

One more feature common to these watches is multi-sport. This quickly transitions the watch from one activity to another, meaning that with the touch of a button the data fields will change to what’s appropriate for that activity.

A simple example is when transitioning from biking to running. The display will change speed from miles per hour (biking) to minutes per mile (running). But since these watches are extremely customizable, you can adjust the fields to whatever you prefer.


We’re looking for watches with a long battery life that display elevation. While elevation tracking isn’t a necessity, we wanted to include it as a key feature as many ultrarunners run through mountainous terrain where knowing elevation is important.


While there are many GPS units on the market geared towards hikers and campers, for our purposes we’re going to consider watches for more casual hikers. Here, we’re taking one thing into consideration: elevation. Granted, GPS elevation isn’t all that accurate – but it does provide a general idea of altitude.

Advanced Hikers

These watches have the ability to track elevation with a barometer, a method more accurate than GPS elevation. They also have sensors to detect temperature. Except for the Garmin fenix, the temperature sensors for these watches are built into the watch, making them less accurate due to close body proximity. The fenix can be paired with an external sensor for more accurate readings.

Cross-country and Downhill Skiers

When downhill or cross-country skiing, it’s important that GPS watches are able display metric rather than imperial units. Kilometers and kilometers per hour are typically the distance and speed measurements used in these sports. Fortunately, every GPS watch on the market is able to switch between metric and imperial units.



We’ll explore some of the most common features available on GPS watches. This will help you decide which features are important to you and what to look for when choosing a GPS watch.



Most watches run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and hold enough power to last for up to 10-12 hours per charge in GPS mode. This means that, in theory, you can work out with the watch for 10 hours before it needs to be recharged.

Although true battery life will vary. Factors like how it’s used (the backlight significantly drains the battery), storage temperature and humidity (leaving it in a hot car = not a good idea), and the overall age of the battery influence how long a battery lasts per charge.

While 10 hours of juice is common for most watches, there are some exceptions. The Garmin Forerunner 935 and fenix 5 have a battery life of more than 20 hours.

Waterproof vs. Water-resistant

Every watch is sweat and rain-proof. But not all watches are waterproof enough to swim.

As we discussed earlier, GPS watches lose satellite signal under more than a few inches of water. For most purposes, a waterproof GPS watch used when swimming is really only as good as a stopwatch.

If you swim outside, the bathing cap method (sticking the watch in your cap) will stay above water enough to maintain a GPS signal. But you lose the ability to view the watch while swimming. A few models (Garmin Forerunner 910xt and Tom Tom Multisport) that we’ll discuss below use accelerometers to bridge this gap.

When looking at a watch’s waterproof ability, make sure it clearly states water-resistant to at least 30 meters. A few watches are water-resistant to IPXC7 standards; this confusing piece of terminology just means that the watch can be immersed in water and survive, but it can’t be submerged for long periods of time. In other words, don’t take it swimming.


This feature isn’t too common. Most watches do just fine with a few buttons. A touchscreen is more of a gimmick in that it seems kind of cool but doesn’t add a lot of value.

When Garmin released the Forerunner 405, the first GPS touchscreen watch, it was a disaster. The touchscreen on the 405 was insanely sensitive, and was often inadvertently activated by drops of sweat or rain.

Data Fields

Distance, Time, Pace/Speed

This is the difference between a GPS watch and a standard sport watch.

Distance is measured real-time, letting you know exactly how far you’ve gone. Time is, well, time. Pace is used running, usually in minutes per mile, and tells you how fast you are going. Speed is the same as pace, but it’s displayed as miles per hour, and is used in non-running activities (like biking). Every GPS watch can also display this information in both metric and imperial units.

These measurements can be displayed in real-time or in different lap permeations. Depending on the watch, lap stats can be displayed as last lap, lap average, fastest lap, slowest lap, etc.

One thing about real-time pace: it’s a very difficult metric to accurately display. What tends to happen is that the instant pace jumps irregularly (think, 8:30 to 8:25 to 8:40 to 8:42 every second). And while watch manufacturers are getting better at pace smoothing, it’s still a work in progress.

A workaround is to ignore instant pace and display an average lap pace of, say, 0.25 miles. That lap distance is long enough to generate a more accurate pace (pace averages become more accurate over a longer distance), but short enough to notify you if you are above or below your desired pace.


Most often this is calculated using an algorithm based on basic personal information (age, weight, and sex). This works ok for ballpark estimates but isn’t very precise.

If your watch tracks heart rate, this will be factored in provided a better estimate (although it’s still not perfect).


Not every watch displays elevation, but those that do use two different methods: GPS elevation and barometric elevation.

Real-time GPS elevation – determined by satellite signal – is notoriously faulty. It will give you a rough estimate of your elevation, but like instant pace (only worse) bounces between different elevations with 100 foot variations. To compensate, many watches will smooth this data after you download it onto a computer.

Barometric elevation works by measuring atmospheric pressure. The catch is that a watch must be equipped with a barometer – not a common feature, it’s usually found on costlier watches. And while this elevation data is much more precise than GPS, there are still flaws.


Cadence refers to how fast your legs turnover each stride (running) or while pedaling (biking). This is measured in steps (or rotations, if cycling) per minute. For most recreational runners and cyclists, cadence tends to be slower than professional athletes. One way runners and cyclists can improve is by increasing cadence.

The bike speed and cadence sensor is needed to measure cadence when cycling.

Most current GPS watches track cadence without additional accessories.


A few GPS watches are equipped with a temperature sensor. Except for the Garmin fenix 5, which can be paired with an external temperature sensor, these measurements aren’t all that accurate as they are skewed by body heat.

Training Effect

This is an intensity measure created by Firstbeat that’s available in several of Garmin’s newer watches like the Forerunner 935. By combining personal info (age, weight, height, gender) with your max heart rate, these watches will use your exercising heart rate and assign a training effect number between 1 and 5. Essentially, this number tells you the impact your workout had on your overall aerobic fitness.

Swim Stroke and Lap Counter

Several Garmin watches – like the Garmin Forerunner 735xt – use a built-in accelerometers to count swim strokes, laps, and swim distance. Integrating the accelerometer allows a more accurate distance measurement when swimming indoors and better tracks distance outdoors without using the bathing cap method.

Indoors, pool size can be set, so as laps are counted, distance and speed are calculated. Outside, the accelerometer is combined with sporadic GPS signals (during the momentary seconds when the watch arm is above the water) to roughly determine distance.

Strokes are counted with the accelerometer. These watches also promise to determine which stroke you are using (crawl vs. butterfly, etc.), although reviews suggest this feature works rather poorly.

Ground Contact (Garmin feature)

Available on the Garmin Forerunner 630, fenix series, and 735XT (when used with the new HRM-Run monitor or HRM Pod), ground contact is the amount of time your feet touch the ground during each stride.

Similar to cadence, ground contact gives you an idea of how fast your legs turnover. Generally speaking, the less time your foot touches the ground, the faster your cadence and the better your form.

Vertical Oscillation (Garmin feature)

Another new feature found on Garmin’s high end watches (also requiring the HRM-Run monitor) is vertical oscillation. This tracks how much you “bounce” up and down while running. It works by measuring the number of centimeters your core moves off a fixed point.

Up and down movement wastes energy while running; this feature should help improve form by tracking inefficient running motion.

See our full article for more information on ground contact and vertical oscillation

Maps & History


GPS watches come with varying degrees of memory. In turn, this directly determines how many laps, activities, and waypoints (see below) a watch can remember. How much memory varies from relative small to huge. This is usually in-step with the cost and number of features a watch has.

Map or Breadcrumb Route

A few watches, generally brick watches with big screens, include an option to view activities on a rudimentary map, known as a breadcrumb route. As you run, the watch drops digital “breadcrumbs” along your route and connects these with a line, essentially drawing your route.

These can be helpful if you are lost and need a basic guide to find your way back. In some cases, it’s even possible to upload a route and use the breadcrumb route as a rough map to find your way.



Waypoints are locations — actual longitude and latitude coordinates — that can be programmed on some GPS watches. As you run, the watch can guide you (usually with a directional arrow) to these waypoints.

On watches with a breadcrumb map, the waypoints are marked with icons. Waypoints are good for creating running routes, as they provide some rudimentary guidance while you are working out; or for marking points of interest like water fountains, bathrooms, your home, etc.

Track Back

Say you are lost. Or you’re not feeling well and want to cut your run short. By using the track back feature, your watch can guide you back, usually with a directional arrow, to where your run began. Although it doesn’t provide turn-by-turn directions, it can give you a general sense of which way to run. It will also tell you how far away you are from your starting point.

This feature isn’t too common. It’s usually found on the hiking/trail running types of watches.


Personal Records

Many watches keep track of your personal bests for standard race distances (5k, 10k, 1/2, etc.). We find this feature a bit gimmicky – after all, it only remembers PRs done on that particular watch, not every PR you’ve ever done.

But if you’re new to running or don’t keep track of your PRs, this might be a useful feature.

Training Aids

These features don’t necessarily provide specific information about your activity. But they help make your runs and rides more fun and efficient.

Auto Lap

Found on almost every GPS watch, this feature automatically marks a lap at a certain distance (1/4 mile, 1/2 mile, mile, etc.). How often can be adjusted by programming the watch. With most watches, the default setting is a lap per mile.

Auto Pause

Auto Pause kicks in whenever you stop mid-run. Instead of manually pushing the start/stop button to pause the timer, the watch detects when you’ve stopped and pauses it for you.

Some watches let you manually set auto-pause at slower speeds rather than a dead stop. This is useful if you frequently run in areas with stoplights. What tends to happen is the watch takes a few seconds to realize you’ve come to a full stop and the auto-pause is delayed. By setting the auto-pause at, say, 20:00 min/miles, it’s more responsive to frequent starts and stops.

Auto Scroll

With so much data available, you’ll probably want access to more information than what can be displayed on a single screen. Many watches allow you to manually scroll through different screens by pushing a button. Auto scroll cycles through each screen automatically.

Customizable Screens

This feature allows you to choose which data fields you want displayed on different screens. Depending on the watch, you’ll be able to display anywhere from 1 to 6 different types of information per screen.

Having as much information as possible shown on a single screen sounds like a good thing, but keep in mind that as the screen space is chopped into smaller sections, the size of the information displayed shrinks, making it harder to read.

Custom Bike Settings

GPS watches that pair with bike speed and cadence sensors must be programmed with wheel size in order to accurately determine speed and distance. Like a traditional bicycle computer, the sensor works by counting the number of wheel rotations, translating that into speed.

If you own more than one bike with more than one wheel size, the programmed wheel size on your GPS watch must be adjusted every time you switch bikes. To compensate, some watches remember multiple bikes – just tell the watch which bike you are using and off you go. The number of bikes that can be added varies, but generally it’s between 3 and 5.

Time and Distance Alert

Say you programmed an interval workout on your watch. You’re just about to start your first interval. How do you know when to stop? Most watches will alert you with an audible alert – a loud beep, a visual cue on the screen, and vibration alert on the watch.

Vibration Alerts

Most watches have a vibration alerts in addition to audible and screen alerts. This is handy if you run with headphones and don’t want the hassle of continuously looking down at your watch.

Run/Walk Alert (Garmin feature)

The run/walk alert notifies you at programmable timed intervals (say every 2 minutes) when it’s time to walk, and when it’s time to run.

Interval Workouts

Found mostly on mid- and high-end GPS watches, interval workouts allow you to program a set of intervals based on time or distance.

We love this feature because it’s great way to do intervals away from the track. GPS watches give you freedom to do distance-based intervals anywhere. Sure, they may not be as accurate as a track – and hills, stoplights, and turns can impact your time – but it’s a hassle we’ll gladly deal with to take a break from the track.

Advanced Workouts

A step beyond interval workouts is advanced workouts. These are generally found in high-end watches. They allow you to create more complex workouts. An example might look like: 15 minute warm-up, 2 mile tempo run, 5 minutes at 9:00 min/mile, 4 x 400 meter intervals, 15 minute cool-down.

Most watches with this feature allow you to program advanced workouts on your watch, but doing it that way tends to be fairly complicated and time consuming. You’re better off creating them on a computer and uploading to your watch.

Garmin’s Virtual Training Aids

This set of features was created and trademarked by Garmin. Competitor brands have come up with their own version, but as you’ll see Garmin continues to lead the way in innovation.

Virtual Pacer

It’s a beautiful spring day. You are religiously following a 5k training plan and it says run 4 miles at 9:30 min/mile. Running 4 miles is one part of the equation. But how do you maintain a 9:30 min/mile pace without constantly checking your watch?

Meet the Virtual Pacer. This handy feature allows you to set a pace and the watch beeps at you whenever you speed up or slow down more than 5 seconds from your pace.

Of course, one negative aspect is that it doesn’t know when you are going up or down a hill. So while your pace will naturally adjust to the terrain, the watch won’t.

Virtual Partner

Taking the concept of the virtual pacer one step further, the virtual partner is similar in that you program a set pace (and a set distance), but instead of beeping when you deviate from that pace, the watch displays a digital person (partner, get it?) who runs at that exact pace. As you run faster or slower than your virtual friend, you visually see how far ahead or behind you are.

We find this feature useful when doing tempo runs. It keeps us on track to maintain a fast pace and it always feels great to beat the little man.


While lacking a virtual moniker, Courses fall into this category as well. Here, you race against past workouts. Combined with the virtual partner, you can see how far ahead or behind you are.

Say you ran five miles last week – you can re-run that same route and try to beat your time (where the virtual partner is “you” on your first run). The catch is that it must be along the exact same route (i.e. the same GPS coordinates). No short-cuts through a neighbor’s yard!

Virtual Racer

Only available on a couple of Garmin watches, this is like the Courses feature on steroids. Like Courses, you can race against yourself in past workouts, but you’re not limited to sticking to the exact route. You can run anywhere. Additionally, you can download workouts from Garmin Connect and run against anyone else’s workout.


This feature allows you to quickly switch between activities on your GPS watch. With a single press of a button, the watch screen will change the fields associated with each activity.

For example, if you are competing in a triathlon and are transitioning from biking to running, using multi-sport will update the speed information from miles per hour (speed) to minutes per mile (pace). The data fields that are changed can be customized to display the exact information you want to see.

VO2 Max Estimator (Garmin Feature)

Without going into a laboratory, paying an exorbitant fee, and running on a treadmill at an insane pace with breathing tubes covering your mouth, VO2 Max is a difficult metric to track.

Garmin uses Firstbeat technology and the new HRM-Run monitor to estimate VO2 Max without extensive laboratory testing.

Race Predictor (Garmin Feature)

Using the VO2 estimate, the Garmin Forerunner watches will predict race times for common distances (5k, 10k, marathon, etc.). What it can’t do is know if you’ve trained for that particular event. So if you’ve only run 5ks and your longest run is 8 miles, don’t expect to run a marathon in Garmin’s predicted time.

Recovery Adviser (Garmin Feature)

Garmin’s newer watches attempt to act as a running coach to help you train and perform better.

The recovery adviser does two things:

  1. Analyzes your workout immediately after it ends and advises a set amount of time (between 6 and 96 hours) to recover before exercising again.
  2. During the first few minutes of your next run, it provides an instant check to determine whether you recovered enough from your last run.

Live Tracking (Garmin feature)

With Garmin watches – if you don’t mind taking your smartphone with you on a run – friends and family can follow you in real-time while you run.

This is great for large marathons or crowded events. Your family can know exactly where and when to you look for you in the race.

Activity Tracker

Almost all GPS watches currently available double as an activity tracker. This allows you wear the watch all day and it will count steps, set daily fitness goals, and monitor your sleep like a Fitbit-style tracker.


Computer Downloads

Most watches download your workouts from watch to computer. This used to be with a USB cord but most can do it wirelessly to a phone with Bluetooth.

It should also be noted that the software your activities are downloaded to varies by brand. Every watch company has its own proprietary software. Like GPS watches themselves, they vary in features and user friendliness. Ideally, these would give you all the functions you need to properly analyze and track your workouts. Sadly, though, they are not created equal. Most are decent. A few, like Garmin Connect, are pretty good.

Ideally, the downloaded files are in a format that can be used in 3rd party applications like Training Peaks and Strava. But not every watch – Nike+ is a good example – supports exporting to outside applications.

Facebook and Twitter Sharing

If you are the type who likes to post achievements to your online friends, nearly all GPS watch software supports sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

Automatic Sync

Along with wireless functionality, watches with that feature will also automatically sync with your computer. This means as soon as the watch enters the same vicinity as your PC, the data automatically downloads. They can be buggy but a watch reset usually solves this.

If you are connected with Strava, it will often automatically sync to Strava as well.

Body Composition Scale Sync (Garmin feature)

Some Garmin watches are able to sync wirelessly with body scales. What this means is that as you weigh yourself, the data is automatically uploaded to the personal settings on your watch. A nice feature IF you own or are interested in buying a scale that works with Garmin’s watches (only a few models are compatible). Otherwise, you’ll just have to manually input it like everyone else…..



Heart rate monitors

By far the most common GPS watch accessory – and something worth considering even if you think you might not use it right away – are heart rate monitors. They’re a fantastic way to measure the intensity of your workout. You can use this information to push yourself harder or slower depending on the type of run you are doing. Additionally, once you determine your max heart rate, you can calibrate heart rate zones, which can be programmed on most watches, ensuring you exercise at the right intensity.

Using a heart rate monitor also ensures that variables like weather and terrain are factored into your workout. When it’s hot and humid, your heart rate will naturally be higher as your body can’t efficiently cool itself. A heart rate monitor helps prevent overexertion by displaying the true intensity (i.e. your heart rate) of your workout.

HRM-Run (Garmin Heart Rate Monitor)

Garmin’s specialized heart rate monitor has been designed specifically for use with Garmin’s new running watch, the Forerunner 620.

The HRM-Run includes an accelerometer which allows the Forerunner 620 to track new data such as vertical oscillation, ground contact, and cadence.

Wrist-based Heart Rate Monitors

The latest watches coming out recently are able to track heart rate without the use of a chest strap.

Traditional heart rate monitors rely on electric signals received directly from the heart and picked up by the device attached to the chest strap. Wrist-based heart rate monitors use an optical light-sensor to see blood pumping through your skin.

While the appeal of no longer wearing a chest strap might cause runners to rejoice, there are a few issues to note.

First, a wrist-based heart rate monitor won’t be as accurate as a chest strap HRM. Think of the wrist-based heart rate as a ballpark figure while the chest strap as highly accurate. There have also been reported issues of tattoos or dark skin interfering with the optics on the wrist-based HRM. But this seems to vary on a case by case basis.

Foot Pod (running accessory)

This small, pill-shaped accessory does two things: it acts as a substitute for GPS when running on a treadmill or out of satellite range (like in a tunnel) and it counts foot turnover to determine cadence. When calibrated, it’s actually fairly accurate. And given that short-stride, fast turnover is now widely considered proper running form, tracking cadence ensures you’re maintaining a quick stride.

The latest GPS watches track cadence by arm swing, eliminating the need for a foot pod. But like wrist heart rate, you lose some accuracy.

Speed & Cadence Sensor (bike accessory)

Found on nearly half of the watches made today, this accessory is mounted on your bike and works in a manner similar to traditional bike computers: it counts wheel rotations to determine speed and distance. The cadence half of the sensor counts the number of pedal rotations.

While most watches support one sensor that tracks both speed and cadence, Suunto’s Ambit as well as some of the older Polar watches, require two sensors: one for speed and a second for cadence.

Power Meter (bike accessory)

While the bike cadence sensor tracks how fast you spin the pedals, it can’t tell you how much energy you are expending to do so. A power meter displays energy usage in real-time while you crank the pedals. This is a fairly advanced and very costly (think thousands, not hundreds, of dollars) accessory, so it’s not surprising that only the most advanced GPS watches support this.

Quick-release Mount

Coming out of triathletes’ desire to use one watch for both running and cycling, the quick-release mount allows you to quickly remove the watch from your wrist band and mount it on your bicycle (or vice versa).

Mounting the watch on your bike makes it much more readable (rather than twisting your arm if it’s on your wrist). A workaround is to attach the entire watch, band and all, onto your handlebars with this nifty accessory. But that can get cumbersome, especially if you are in the middle of a triathlon and want an easy, fast transition.

Strap Extender

Offered on some Garmins, the strap extender expands the watch band length, good if you want to wear the watch over a jacket during colder months.

Temperature Sensor (Garmin accessory)

Offered with the Garmin fenix, the temperature sensor is worn externally, giving an accurate reading of the outside temperature. While a few other watches have a built-in temperature sensor, the external sensor is more accurate as it isn’t skewed by body temperature.

Basic Watch Functions

These are fairly common especially on budget and mid-range watches that can double as standard watches. In addition to time and date, many watches have dual time zones (or the ability to adjust time based on GPS), a standard stopwatch, countdown timers, and sleep alarms.

Electronic Compass

If you don’t feel comfortable using GPS to navigate, the Garmin fenix also comes with a compass.

Photo of 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.