Clocking Miles

Putting running watches through their paces

A friend of mine recently got in touch for some advice on buying a new running watch. My eyes lit up at this — wearables are a fascinating part of my job and running is one of my passions, so this is a question I felt more than happy answering.

But after a bit of thought, I realized my answer might be more complex than I’d anticipated.

Right now, the wearables battle is hotter than ever and some of the most well-known smartwatch brands are trying their hardest to prove their fitness-tracking strengths. Meanwhile, established sports watch labels are holding their ground, and aiming for differentiation by nailing the fitness niche, with more advanced and dedicated features than their rivals.

To assess the popularity of these wearables with runners, I ran a quick poll in my running club to find out which devices were the most used. Based on almost 150 responses, one brand immediately stood out from the crowd: more than 80% of runners said they use a Garmin device; a handful of Suunto, TomTom, Polar, Apple and Fitbit users made up the remaining 20%.

Garmin Forerunner 45S, 45, 245, 245 Music, and 945. Dedicated runners are likely to gravitate toward these devices

We can roughly split these brands by intended use: dedicated exercise watches from Garmin, Suunto, Polar and TomTom (although these have been discontinued), whose primary function is fitness tracking; and wearables intended for everyday use that monitor fitness as an additional feature.

The differentiator for these dedicated exercise watches is clear when you dig into their tracking capabilities. As well as monitoring movement through GPS and heart rate using a built-in sensor, the watches analyse performance in far greater depth while exercising and bring the ability to programme structured workouts. Put simply, this means runners can set a training session with elements such as intervals, creating their own sections for hard effort based on time or distance, as well as tailored recovery or rest sections. They can progress through and beyond the workout, measuring every aspect of their performance. For many serious runners, this is invaluable and a massive selling point.

Companies like Garmin pioneered the dedicated sports watch category, but over the past couple of years there’s been a big push from some of the leading smartphone manufacturers, such as Apple and Samsung, which have forayed into fitness and performance sports wearables. This is particularly evident with the Nike+ model of the Apple Watch and Samsung’s new Galaxy Watch Active, which represent the most recent steps by both companies to tap into the sports wearables market.

The health and fitness features of the Apple Watch get top billing on the product’s webpage

I’ve been putting these products to the test and have been pleasantly surprised by their tracking capabilities. The Galaxy Watch impressed me with the accuracy of its GPS, real-time feedback and ease of use during a run, as well as its heart-rate monitoring. However, it lacks an option to build structured workouts, leaving runners with a severely limited experience compared with more-established products. The same is true of the built-in run tracking on the Apple Watch. Yes, these devices can track your run, but I don’t believe they’re designed for serious training. It’s true that there are some workarounds, like using third-party apps to add some of the additional features not yet supported, but these typically bring unwanted complexity to the user experience.

Another major drawback for most athletes is that the Samsung Health and Apple Health apps don’t allow you to easily synchronize your activities to Strava, instead hoping to encourage you to remain in their ecosystem. Strava is billed as a “social network for athletes”, a place where users share information about their runs, cycles, swims and much more. It’s a hugely popular app, with 36 million users uploading more than 624 million activities in 2018. In fact, it’s so popular that a common adage among runners is “it doesn’t count if it’s not on Strava”. On the Samsung watch, I found a way to overcome the synchronization weakness, by exporting my run to a GPX file and manually uploading this to Strava, but it’s an awkward process.

Alternatively, you can use the Strava app itself, which is available for Apple and Samsung devices. This will let you record runs and other activities and upload the data directly to Strava, but from my experience, the app is of a lesser quality than the Apple and Samsung health apps when it comes to tracking. The user interface isn’t especially intuitive and basic alerts, such as feedback on completing each mile, are absent. Frankly, it’s not a great solution.

The Apple and Galaxy Watches are, however, hugely capable everyday devices, and they pack in a vast range of features that dedicated running watches are unable to match. What’s more, as prices have converged, direct competition between products such as Garmin’s new entry-level Forerunner 45 and Samsung’s Watch Active is intensifying. As a result, the decision of which device to pick really boils down to what you’ll use it most for, and as a runner, the question is how seriously you plan on training.

So, which device did I recommend to my friend? As a dedicated amateur athlete, I suggested a Garmin as the wearable of choice, but only on the premise that running really was the primary use. But it was a close call. The all-round package offered by the Apple and Samsung watches is hugely attractive and it would only take a few software developments to turn these into seriously capable sports watches. This is where CCS Insight sees these products evolving in the future. When it comes to wearables, the race for market dominance is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’ll certainly be watching closely to see who comes out in first place.