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Top three fitness trackers for running

Comparing the top three fitness trackers for running. There are pros and cons to each. Put on your runners and let's take them for a spin.
Apple Watch Fitness Tracker

I became a serious runner in 2007 to keep healthy, and I subsequently used one fitness tracker or another to track my progress. I’ve tried many brands throughout the years; Casio, Polar, Fitbit, Apple Watch, and Garmin, to name a few. In 2018 I completed my first half marathon using the Apple Watch Series 2 to track my progress. 

In this post, I’ll be comparing Fitbit, Garmin, and Apple fitness trackers. I’ve also included whether they are compatible with Peloton fitness machines because since I own the Bike+ it’s a must-have feature for me on any fitness tracker. 

Below is an inside look at these fitness trackers; my frustrations and successes with each vis-à-vis my running progress for you to keep them in mind before you purchase the most expensive tracker on the market.

Fitbit brand fitness tracker

Fitbit Wearable
Fitbit Charge 4

When I got serious about running, I switched from Polar’s chest strap and watch heart rate monitor to the Fitbit HR Charge. The former was primarily a calorie-burning tracker. It didn’t track steps, speed, or distance.

Since the first iteration of the Charge series of Fitbits, they’ve offered plenty of fitness metrics at a low price. I used my first Charge until it literally fell off my wrist because it was so mangled that it no longer fastened. That was in 2015 when the HR Charge only came with a fixed wristband. The new versions come in fun colors and the ability to change wristbands as easily as switching displays. 

In addition to the interchangeable wristbands on this fitness tracker, there are many different models to choose from Fitbit’s line of wearables. The new Charge 5 looks brighter and sleeker than its predecessor the Charge 4, which is what I wore.

The Charge is the fitness tracker with the most options, exercise integration, and app compatibility for the low price of $179.99. While the Fitbit app integrates with the Peloton app, it does not sync to Peloton machines, so you’ll need a compatible heart rate monitor to get Peloton’s signature realtime metrics.

However, when the workout is done, Peloton shares its metrics on the Fitbit app, which feels like an okay compromise.

What’s also great is that the Charge isn’t exactly a watch. This tracker can be worn on one wrist and a watch on the other without looking strange. Likewise, you can forgo your traditional watch and wear the Fitbit as a watch, if you so choose.

Of the three fitness trackers I’ve tried, the Fitbit does the best job at tracking steps and calories in realtime. The battery is the best of the three as well, only needing to be charged once a week for me, even after lengthy workouts. The Fitbit app is also the best of the three for its own social networking. It’s easy to find friends with Fitbit and share activity with photos that include your fitness metrics. 

The downside, however, is that the Charge’s touchscreen can be a bit glitchy. If your fingers are too moist from sweat, it might not be as responsive as when your fingers are dry. This can be annoying because I’m a sweaty mess after a workout.

Another drawback to the Fitbit is that it doesn’t sync to the iPhone’s own Heath app. You must download the myFitnessSync app on the iPhone to sync Fitbit’s metrics, which can be cumbersome because that third party app doesn’t necessarily sync seamlessly.

The Garmin Forerunner fitness tracker, running watch

The Garmin watch I own has already been discontinued, but the Forerunner 55 iteration is its closest sibling.

The best thing about the Garmin Forerunner is its GPS accuracy. It makes tracking miles stressless throughout the run without overestimating distance as is the problem with other GPS fitness trackers. The Fitbit’s miles, for instance, are shorter by comparison. After you get the hang of the Garmin watch functions, running is worry free. And with large buttons, it’s simple to use.

Garmin Forerunner
Garmin Forerunner

Pricing for the Forerunner runs the gamut, but now, Garmin offers five different watch models, including the Forerunner. Each model has a slew of editions, so choosing the right one seems a bit daunting.

The Forerunner currently has six different watches to choose from, ranging in price from $200 – $650. 

Garmin is a leading brand for triathletes, but the Forerunner offers only a few watches that record all three activities: swimming, cycling, and running. Mine is missing the swimming activity feature, and the stationary bike feature is mediocre at best.

If you’re cross-training, you’ll likely want to track all your activity, but this watch is substandard at recognizing heart rate when you’re not running. This is frustrating because, as with the Fitbit, I still have to wear a compatible heart rate monitor while on the Peloton bike. 

The battery life is okay if you only use it to track exercise. If you plan to wear it all day to track steps, it will need to be charged more than once a week. 

The Forerunner is made of plastic and is lightweight, but this makes it feel cheap to me. Making it an overpriced fitness tracker at $260, especially since it really only tracks running.

Garmin’s other, more expensive fitness tracker watches do much more for your cash. The Forerunner’s accurate GPS, large display numbers, and simplicity of use make it a good option, especially for new runners, if that’s all you want to track. I’ve seen Shalane Flanagan and a slew of Peloton instructors wear a Garmin watch, but I doubt it’s the more simple Forerunner model. 

If you’re training with the Peloton app or machines to integrate other activities such as stationary cycling, weightlifting, yoga, or pilates, you might have to find another fitness tracker brand because it’s not compatible with the Peloton app or its machines. In fact, Garmin app doesn’t sync with Peloton at all. It does, however, sync with the Strava app. Also, if you train on a road bike, the Forerunner tracks outdoor cycling really well.

Pros

  • Less expensive than entry-level Apple Watch
  • Lightweight
  • Wrist strap can be changed
  • Large display makes for easy reading
  • Accurate GPS
  • Lap alert sounds are loud and can be heard over music
  • Easy to share stats on social media with Garmin app
  • App integration with iPhone & Android health apps

Cons

  • More options makes the watch more expensive
  • Face is plastic and feels cheap
  • No integration with Peloton
  • Changing wrist strap is difficult
  • Watch face is large and not fashionable
  • Battery drains fast with all day wearing

Apple Watch Fitness Tracker

Apple Watch Series 7
Apple Watch Series 2

The best thing about Apple Watch is the amount of preprogramed activities in it. Now with the introduction of AppleFitness+, which is included in the Apple One Premier plan, there’s a lot more going on than just running with this fitness tracker.

If you get the new Apple Watch Nike Series 7 as I did, it comes with the Nike Run Club app integration, which also works in combination with the Nike Training Club app. This is great if you’re serious about running and are also cross-training.

If you like to change watches, or if you have a lot of other watches you like to use often, it’s not so great. Apple Watch is, well, a watch, and since it tracks your fitness throughout the day, it makes wearing a watch for fashion difficult, unless you wait until all your rings are closed, then have at it. This has been a point of contention for me.

My first Apple Watch was the Nike+ Series 2. I wore it all day, every day for two years. But I did miss my other fashionable watches—you know, the ones that don’t tell you anything other than the time, and maybe the date.

That said, when I first put the Apple Watch on my wrist, I felt a surge of beastly energy in me. As a result, I wanted to try every single default activity it offered. Now that I got myself the Series 7 Apple Watch Nike, that feeling is much more intense because AppleFitness+ is an amazing workout companion.

Apple Watch has certainly come a long way. The first series of this fitness tracker only offered two different sizes, and a few different wristbands. That was about it. Today, Apple Watch offers five models from which to choose and there are numerous third-party companies selling wristbands for it in all sizes.

The Series 7 is packed with new features. It includes Always-On Retina display, which keeps your watch display on at all times, so it’s easy to check your realtime metric while you’re working out. Before, you had to lift your watch or touch the face to wake it from sleep. This didn’t always work well, so I appreciate this new feature that is only available on the Series 7.

If you’re on a budget but are excited about Apple products and really want to try it, you have two inexpensive models like the Apple Watch SE (starting at $279) and the Series 3 (starting at just $199). Neither of which connect directly to the Peloton machines, though. The price for Apple Watch Series 7 starts at $399 and can spike up to $1,759 for the Hermès edition. Further, if you get the GPS+ Cellular, it’s more expensive.

The integrated GPS is great because you don’t need your iPhone anymore when you’re on a run. You don’t need to take your phone with you on a run. There’s enough memory in it to take your music with you. For safety reasons, I never leave the house to go on a run without my phone. If you have a compatible bluetooth headset, you can connect it to the watch directly with ease, or seamlessly connect your Apple headphones. And if you get the GPS+ Cellular, you’ll be able to receive calls without needing the iPhone nearby. 

This fitness tracker is works well with its own network of Apple Watch friends—it keeps them updated with your metrics if you so choose. However, sharing on mainstream social media is quite cumbersome. In fact, it doesn’t let you share your metrics over your photos the way you can on the Garmin and Fitbit. It only lets you share your full screen metrics, and that looks awkward on the post. If you want to share a photo with your stats, you’ll have to go to the app you’re using on your phone and share that way. I’m not sure why, but that’s how it’s been since the Series 2 and hasn’t changed.

There are drawbacks to having such a fancy and expensive sports watch as well, though. Firstly, it has a glass face, and although Apple says it’s the toughest yet, sadly, I’ve already scratched mine. If you’re hitting the pavement and fall on your face, as I have, make sure you buy AppleCare. For an extra $200 you’ll be able to get a new watch with no problem because if the glass breaks, there’s no other alternative. This fitness tracker is also susceptible to nicks and scratches with everyday use.

Secondly, there’s a glitch with the zoom setting on the watch. While you’re changing the wristband, the watch face sometimes zooms in to five times the size. The zoom feature enlarges the passcode screen to the point where a huge 5 appears in the middle of the display. You have to restart the watch in order to get out of that screen. The only way to do that is to press on the button under the watch dial continuously until the white apple appears. I removed the zoom setting and so far haven’t encountered the problem again.

In addition, some of the fancy sports wristbands don’t wear well with constant sweating, but that’s also true of most silicone sports wristbands. There are third-party fabric sports wristbands as well, but I’m afraid to get those dirty with my heavy sweating! The point being that it’s a bit delicate. I’m afraid to break or dirty it.

I use mine for all kinds of fitness tracking but mainly to train for the half-marathon. It’s an excellent accessory for training. Comparing the Series 2 and 7, they are miles apart, in terms of how much the watch as progressed. But there are still a few hiccups. When I’m running with guided programming on my Peloton app on the phone, the watch only displays the heart rate. However, on the phone, it shows heart rate and other stats that are coming directly from the watch.

If I simultaneously set the Nike Run Club to track my miles from my watch and use Peloton for guidance, I won’t hear the mile indicator through my headphones because they are connected to my phone. Instead, the watch screams out my current and remaining miles, making it a bit annoying, if not embarrassing. If I start my run on the Nike app from my phone, I get the stats displaying on my watch, but sometimes the watch defaults to the Peloton screen and loses connection to the NRC. I have to constantly switch app displays on my watch to view my miles. So it still needs some tweaking.

The Nike version now works a lot smoother on Apple Watch Series 7 than it did on the Series 2. The old watch didn’t always track my mileage on a continuous basis with the Nike app, and sometimes it just wouldn’t work at all. This was frustrating, especially when I was training for a major long-distance race. Series 7 seems to work better. The Series 7 isn’t affected by moisture the way the Series 2 was. It would lose responsiveness at the end of my run with sweaty fingers.

A good feature with the Apple Watch has always been the seamless harmony with all Apple products—no surprise there. This makes keeping workouts, miles, and an overview of health stats easy to find in multiple places across all Apple devices. Another handy feature is its compatibility with other fitness devices, apps, and exercise equipment. Apple Watch Series 6 and up is compatible with the Peloton digital app. The Series 6 and 7 are also compatible with Peloton’s Bike+ and Tread+ machines. However, the AppleTV app doesn’t recognize the any of the watches.

The worst thing about the Apple Watch is its battery life, so if you’re actively training every day, you’ll have to charge this watch every night.

Pros

  • Wrist strap is easy to change
  • Good integration with third party activity apps
  • Accurate GPS
  • Watch and app are easy to use
  • AppleFitness is free for three months on new purchase
  • Free AppleFitness with an AppleOne membership
  • Plays music without needing the phone nearby
  • Sleek and fashionable

Cons

  • Most expensive of the three
  • Face is glass and can break or scratch easily
  • Short battery life

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