Friday, November 20, 2015

2015 Holiday Gift Guide- Running Smart Watches, GPS, Heart Rate Monitors,and More!

See Road Trail Run's regularly updated Holiday Savings Page here

Wearables fitness technology is exploding in interest and capabilities with multiple companies competing vigorously for space on our wrists, heads, and chests with innovative and ever more capable products. If you or someone you know, has a GPS watch 3 or 4 years old it's really time to consider an upgrade, much like as with smartphones these days. If you use a run phone app consider adding a heart rate monitor.  I also write the wearables tech column for Competitor Magazine as well as their Holiday Gear Guide that I penned here, I am fortunate to have access to many, but not all of the options here, but have done plenty of research. Where I tested we indicate:  RTR Tested.
Sales through the links on this post support Road Trail Run. Thanks for reading and shopping!

Everything But the Kitchen Sink, Top of the Line, GPS Run Watches

Garmin Forerunner 630 ($400, $450 with Garmin HRM strap). RTR Tested.

For the Serious, Data Focused Runner
The Garmin 630 pretty much does it all for the serious runner. The screen is big and clear and the watch very light on the wrist. Styling is technical but not so geeky that one can't wear day in day out, especially given the outstanding battery life.  The 630 uses a clever combination of touch screen and buttons. You swipe left to right between screens and use hard buttons for taking actions while on the run avoiding the wet finger and glove issues of actual touch or tap on the screen when moving. This said, most configuration is via touch. Satellite and HR strap acquisition is pretty much instantaneous, but as with just about every HR monitor I have used, data in the first minutes can be inconsistent.
The successor to the popular 620 adds extensive integration to your smartphone: notifications, find my phone, music control as well as activity and sleep tracking. Apps and Widgets can be added via Garmin's Connect IQ store. Of course the 630 has extensive intervals and heart rate zone based training. The Garmin HRM strap not only tracks heart rate but also Run Dynamics such as left right balance, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, and cadence all nicely displayed on the watch.

I have already found these features intriguing and also actionable noticing that with some shoes I am far closer to a 50/50 right left balance than with others. By focusing on my form and glancing at the screen I can affect the data. The 630 also calculates recovery times, lactate thresholds, and eerily and accurately for me, projected race times based on one run using the heart rate monitor!
The app and synching is not the best I have seen and configuration of data fields is via the watch and not the app as many competitors now offer, but this is a minor quibble.

Bottom line: The watch for the serious runner who wants all the data.

For multi-sport, navigation, and more rugged mountain use step up to the Garmin Fenix 3 ($500, $550 with heart rate strap}

Clever Training has the Garmin 630 available here  
super low sale pricing from Clever Training on the Garmin 620, 220, 225, and Vivoactive click here

The Forerunner 630 and other Garmins, including the more than adequate 620 which is now on sale are available from 
RunningWarehouse here

Suunto Ambit 3 Run ($300, $350 with Heart Rate Strap) RTR Tested.

The Rugged Simple One
As they say a picture tells a thousand words. The Ambit3 Run is rugged, big and beautifully put together, in Finland of all places. With Sunnto's focus on the outdoors and mountain activities they avoid finicky touch screens all together with the four steel buttons controlling all functions in a simple and elegant interface. Part of the same company as Salomon, Sunnto benefits from the experience and needs of top mountain athletes such as Kilian Jornet, who always has an Ambit on his wrist! Configuration including set ups for different sports,  data fields, interval workouts, all via the excellent Movescount app. For example you can set up a sport mode for trail running or hiking complete with data fields for altitude, ascent and feet per minute. Once a workout is completed you can even make a shareable animation movie of your workout, your Move, over a topographic map, complete with any pictures you have taken where they were taken.
The Ambit 3 Run includes a very helpful recovery timer (hours until fully recovered based on workout data including distance, pace, age, heart rate). "track back" navigation mode, wrist based accelerometer, is rechargeable while recording (ultras), has adjustable GPS sampling rate to extend battery life, and fairly crude in comparison to the Garmin 630 phone notifications.  The heart rate strap is very comfortable with a considerably smaller pod than the Garmin. The screen is decently bright but a bit dated compared to the Garmin, I assume to maximize battery life. 

Bottom line: The watch for the runner who wants rugged reliability, simplicity yet with access to data on the run and after.

If multi-sports and tri is your thing consider the Ambit3 Sport ($450 with HR strap) which supports cycling sensors and swim distance metrics with its HR strap swim heart rate recording. 
If high mountains are where you go consider the Ambit3 Peak ($500)  which adds barometric altitude and weather predictions. 

Get Ambit3 Run at Running Warehouse here

Use RoadTrail Run Running Warehouse Coupon Code: RTR 10 to save 10% 

All the Suunto watches featured above are available from Clever Training here

Full Function Run GPS Watches with Wrist Based Heart Rate
While a better position closer to blood flow to measure heart rate chest rate straps can be a pain. The last few years have seen the introduction of wrist based optical heart rate scanning from the back of the watch or fitness band. There are many fine options.

TomTom Spark Cardio + Music ($249)

Sleek and Complete at a Great Price
Not only does the new TomTom Spark give you a great heart rate monitoring GPS watch but you can store up to 500 songs on board to listen to via your Bluetooth headphones. A very decent price for a high quality, versatile watch in a slim attractive package.

Bottom line: no HR chest strap, no phone required for music all in a slim sleek package. 

Spark is also available with GPS and music but no HR ($199.99) and with GPS alone ($149.99)

Shop for the Spark Cardio + Music and the other Sparks at Clever Training
(chose Options) here

Shop for the entire Spark line at here

Find big savings on TomTom older but still super capable  Cardio Runner line at 
Running Warehouse here
Use RoadTrail Run Running Warehouse Coupon Code: RTR 10 to save 10%

adidas miCoach Smart Run ($400) RTR Tested

Guidance, motivation and fun on the run and at the gym

GPS, heart rate monitoring, and music all on your wrist. The substantial and rugged Smart Run does all you'd expect from a GPS run watch adding access to a complete collection of training plans for many sports and cross training downloadable to the watch. It can even guide you and show animated examples of and time flexibility and strength workouts while monitoring heart rate.
Heavily focused on zone based heart rate training, we found the interval workouts particularly effective and clear with both visual and audio cues to a Bluetooth headset. The watch comes with access to MixAudio, workout intensity based music mixes you can download to the watch. Use of music and audio coaching limits battery life to four hours.
Bottom Line: A full featured GPS HR watch plus music player focused on heart rate zone based training that can also help give your training some structure.

The Smart Run is available from
Clever Training here

Epson RunSense SF 810 ($299)

Run Meb's Watch. He must know something...
The GPS plus wrist based HR sensing RunSense is what Meb uses and we know Meb is a master of managing his training and racing. The RunSense 810 is full featured but is not a "smart watch" as it does not receive track activity or sleep, phone notifications or control music. Using a Seiko/Epson highly energy efficient GPS chip (Seiko/Epson is a major producer of GPS chips for mobile phones) the 810 has a very long GPS run time, up to 30 hours making it a good choice for ultra runners, in addition to Meb!
A built in stride sensor SmartStride tracks the length of your stride, cadence, and kicks in when you are out of GPS range, like on a treadmill.

Bottom Line: A solid GPS and HR watch with exceptionally long battery life . Meb's training partner!

RunSense GPS watches without wrist based heart rate are also available

RunSense watches including the SF-810 are available from:
Running Warehouse here
Use RoadTrail Run Running Warehouse Coupon Code: RTR 10 to save an additional 10%

FitBit Surge Fitness Superwatch ($250) RTR Tested

Beautifully Crafted Smarter Watch with Basic Run Functions

FitBit is the overall market leader in fitness wearables, ahead of even Apple and for good reason. The FitBit Surge is their first HR plus GPS watch and it is a beautifully crafted, intuitive everyday watch with 24/7 HR monitoring, sleep/activity tracking, phone notifications, and music control. The accompanying app and web site is equally polished and useful with instant problem free synching, a rarity in the gadget world where watch hardware often has preceded app and web site software in focus. The watch is small, comfortable to wear and classy. And yes there is basic black in addition to these fun colors.  The screen is outstanding in sunlight despite its small size, very high resolution. The rub for running... it's pretty basic with distance, time, pace, average pace, and HR. There is no auto-pause function, no intervals module, and no way to change the screen layout. If you don't need all the features and want to keep things simple and in one device it is a superb all day GPS HR smarter watch that won't leave your wrist.

Bottom Line: Basic run GPS and HR functions in a superbly designed (software and hardware, watch and app) all day, all night smart watch.

Don't need a full GPS watch but want a second screen on the run for HR, as well as run, activity and sleep tracking, caller ID notifications consider the Charge HR ($149)

FitBit Surge and Charge HR band available from
Clever Training here

GPS Smart Watch. Add your own heart rate monitor if you wish

Garmin Vivoactive ($250) RTR Tested

Capable, Very Light and Thin
I purchased the Vivoactive earlier this year and have been delighted with its performance.
I featured Vivoactive in my column in Competitor in September here saying:
"Garmin’s latest smartwatch is an ultra-thin, light, multisport GPS watch with outstanding battery life. Practical beyond workouts, the watch connects to your nearby phone to display notifications and can control your music player. Tired of multiple watches and charging?  With 4 days of notifications from phone to watch, sleep and activity tracking, plus 3.5 hours of accurate distance GPS running, the vívoactive still had 40 percent battery life left, all in a stylish package suitable for everyday use. The  only knocks: Screens outside of workout modes were hard to see in dim light or with sunglasses, and there is no configurable interval mode beyond “Walk/Run.”

Bottom Line: A capable more than basic GPS and multi sport, even does golf smart watch in a tiny package

Garmin Vivoactive is available in white or black from 
Running Warehouse here
Clever Training has the Vivoactive on sale  $199.99  20%off here 

Add heart rate monitoring. Choices for chest, wrist and head
Many run with phone apps such as Strava, iSmoothRun, or Runkeeper and would like to add heart rate data to their workouts. Or they have a recent GPS watch and want to add heart rate monitoring. 
We pick 3 options two (the Life-Beam and TICKRx) featuring  both Bluetooth Smart and Ant+ which is the only standard Garmin uses for sensors. So in most cases your options are open. Wrists at the far end of blood flow can be inconsistent for measuring heart rate so we also pick a head based HR monitor and a multi function chest strap. 

Mio Alpha 2 ($169)

The Second Screen
The 30 meter deep water resistant Mio Alpha HR monitor is on the wrists of many ultra and mountain elites, such as many time US Mountain Champ Joe Gray as its flexibility of connection, screen and heart rate based zone alerts can serve as a second heart focused screen feeding heart rate data to your run app and many Bluetooth Smart sensor capable watch. Mio sensors power many wrist based watches. Alpha 2 measures pace, distance and calories via its accelerometer and can store up to 25 hours of workout data while the battery lasts up to 24 hours.  I featured the Alpha 2 in the 2015 Competitor Holiday Gift Guide here

The Mio Alpha 2 is available from Clever Training here

Life-Beam Smart Hat and Smart Visor ($99)

 A Smart Hat

The Life-Beam Smart hat, visor, and there is even a version embedded in a Lazer cycling helmet measures heart rate on the forehead where there is more consistent blood flow than the wrist. A tiny sensor comfortably fits in the sweat band and a removable battery pack powers the unit. It also measures run cadence. Born of a company with a medical device background Life-Beam is now working on embedding the sensor in flight helmets for the new F-35 fighter to detect blackouts and has equipped Israel's special forces with their sensors. We found its synching and its heart rate signal among the most reliable. As it transmits with both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart ,it should work with most Garmin watches as well as most phone apps.  The hat is fine quality with reflective accents, if sitting a bit"high on the head. 2XU a compression clothing company recently partnered with Life-Beam and will have their own version of the hats.

Available from Life-Beam here. First time purchase discount may apply

Wahoo Fitness TICKR X Heart Rate Strap ($99)

Add On Heart Rate Strap and More, Lots More
Getting the tech out of the way the TICKR X communicates with both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart so should work with 50 of the most popular run apps as well as GPS watches including many Garmin. The TICKR X is their top of the line model and tracks many of the same measures as the Garmin HRM strap discussed with the Garmin 630: vertical oscillation, stride rate and ground contact time as well as Running Smoothness. It has on board memory so you can leave your phone behind to record the heart rate and even metrics, think at the gym. It pairs directly to the Apple Watch. You can control it with a programmable double tap on the unit and it has vibration alerts.

Wahoo TICKR X is available from REI here

See our Runner's Gift Guide and Mini Reviews for Winter Run Shoes, Apparel, and Accessories here


See Road Trail Run's regularly updated Holiday Savings Page here

Some products were purchased, some were provided at no charge. The opinions herein are entirely our own. Purchases through the links on this post help support Road Trail Run


Jeff Valliere said...

A great variety to choose from, amazing how far this technology has come in just the past few years. I remember seeing the Garmin 301 and laughing, it looked like a laptop for the wrist. Now that seems like the dark ages.

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