The Best Fitness Watches of 2021

Judith J. Mercado

A good fitness watch assures your workout is tracked and logged in addition to providing data to get you in better shape. We tested the leading fitness trackers and GPS watches to find the best. Fitness encompasses a host of activities from walking to running to golfing, all with different […]

A good fitness watch assures your workout is tracked and logged in addition to providing data to get you in better shape. We tested the leading fitness trackers and GPS watches to find the best.

Fitness encompasses a host of activities from walking to running to golfing, all with different metrics to track. The best fitness watch or fitness tracker is one that fits your workout regime, tracks the data, and fits with your lifestyle.

Beyond my own testing, I reached out to the clients I coach and other athletes for their insights and spent hours reading online reviews. I read spec sheets and compared them across brands.

Below are the best fitness watches, GPS watches, and fitness trackers based on my testing. Also included is a buyer’s guide and frequently asked questions to help you understand the fitness watch landscape and make an informed decision.

Scroll through to see all of our recommended fitness watches, or jump to the category you’re looking for:

The Best Fitness Watches of 2021

Best Running and Triathlon Watch: Garmin Forerunner 745

Garmin Forerunner 745

 

When it comes to swimming, biking, and running, Garmin is the undeniable winner. Garmin is the biggest sport-specific watch manufacturer and second-most popular smartwatch, only behind Apple. Over 85% of the runners and triathletes I polled use Garmin and highly recommended a Garmin watch.

The Garmin Forerunner 745 ($500) is Garmin’s newest running and triathlon watch, pinned between the pricier Forerunner 945 and the less expensive Forerunner 245. In terms of design, the 745 finds a perfect balance of size, weight, and materials.

It’s sleek and light without feeling cheap. It’s less bulky than the pricier Forerunner 945 and fenix 6 and higher-quality than the less expensive Forerunner 45 and 245. The 1.2-inch sunlight-visible, transflective, memory-in-pixel display is bright and easy to read in direct sunlight — the best of all the watches tested. Top that with crisp button action that makes navigating and viewing during your workout a breeze.

The 745 comes standard with all the features you would expect from an advanced GPS watch: built-in sport profiles with easy-to-scroll-through, customizable data fields; 16-hour battery life in continuous GPS tracking mode; pre-programmable workouts with customizable training zones; a wrist-based heart-rate monitor; and health tracking.

More advanced features you won’t find on most watches include phone notifications, a pulse ox sensor to measure blood oxygen saturation levels, 500-song music storage, auto pool swim stroke detection, and compatibility with Garmin cycling power meters. You’ll also have access to Garmin training and coaching, which uses its health readings and workout data to give you actionable insights into recovery, training load, and performance readiness.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a do-it-all premium sports watch for swim, bike, and road running with some smartwatch capabilities, the Garmin Forerunner 745 is the clear winner. If $500 is a large pill to swallow and you’re OK forgoing some of the more advanced features, I suggest the Garmin Forerunner 245 or our best value winner, the Coros Pace 2.

  • Size: 43.8 x 43.8 x 13.3 mm
  • Weight: 47 g
  • Battery life: 7 days in smartwatch mode, 16 hours in GPS mode, up to 21 hours of GPS in battery-saver mode

Pros:

  • Customizable one-button scrolling to view health and fitness data
  • Programmable workouts for running, cycling, and swimming
  • Bright display and crisp button action make it easy to use during activities

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Garmin Connect is complex and overwhelming
  • Weak battery life for the price point

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Best Fitness Watch: Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Watch Series 6

Apple is the No. 1-selling smartwatch worldwide, and it’s clear why — it’s undeniably the best smartwatch (not GPS watch; I’ll get to that later) on the market. Everyone I spoke with who had one gave glowing reviews. “After literally decades of not trying a smartwatch, I recently bought an Apple Watch Series 6. I love it,” said one initial skeptic.

Its biggest strength comes in health tracking and smartwatch features. The new Series 6 watch ($499) is upgraded with a pulse ox that tracks blood oxygen levels. I question how useful this is for the average person, but it’s fun to track.

Probably a more useful and potentially lifesaving feature is the watch’s heart-rate monitor and ECG that can notify you of irregular heart rhythms and track heart-rate variability, an indicator of overtraining. As with all the watches tested, the Series 6 can track sleep, steps, and calories and puts it in an easy-to-understand format.

In terms of making everyday life more streamlined, especially when your phone is out of reach, the Apple Watch rules the pack. Notifications are easy to read and respond to directly on the watch. The App Store offers more apps than any other brand.

Having coached many runners who wear an Apple Watch, I can say two things with certainty: the GPS is not great, and it’s lacking the depth of features that more runner-focused watches have. Mainly lacking are the ability to track and set up speed sessions and interval workouts.

Still, if daily convenience and smartwatch features take precedence over a detailed fitness activity, the Apple Watch Series 6 is for you. One big caveat — it only works with iPhones. If you don’t have an iPhone, I suggest the Garmin Venu Sq or Samsung Galaxy Watch 3. Both are similarly focused on fitness tracking while offering a wide array of apps and smartwatch features.

  • Size: 40 x 34 x 10.4 mm / 44 x 38 x 10.4 mm
  • Weight: 40mm: 30.5 g aluminum, 39.7 g stainless steel, 34.6 g titanium / 44mm: 36.5 g aluminum, 47.1 g stainless steel, 41.3 g titanium
  • Battery life: 18 hours in smartwatch mode, 7 hours in GPS mode

Pros:

  • Depth of smartwatch features and downloadable apps
  • Ease of answering calls and texts without phone connection
  • Advanced health monitoring

Cons:

  • Poor battery life
  • Poor GPS accuracy
  • Lack of detailed sport data and customizable fields

Check Price at Amazon

Best Outdoor Watch: Garmin fenix 6 Pro

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro

For starters, you’d be hardpressed to find a premium sports watch with more outdoor-focused features than the Garmin fenix 6 Pro ($700). Its tough-as-nails design includes a crisp, easy-to-see 1.3-inch LCD display wrapped in your choice of stainless steel-, titanium-, or DLC-coated bezel that’s tested to U.S. military standards for thermal, shock, and water resistance.

It comes standard with over 35 different sport modes (trail and track running, swimming, running, biking, hiking, rowing, skiing, and golfing to name a few) with unique data tracking for backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and surfing.

Navigation is easy and intuitive. I appreciated the widget layout. With the click of one button, you can quickly scroll through key data such as weather (including radar), downloaded music, past activities, training status, performance/health stats, and notifications (text and email).

Battery life is nothing short of impressive. Standard specs read up to 14 days in smartwatch mode, 36 hours in GPS mode, and 48 days in battery-saver mode. With an hour of GPS activity per day, I was able to net between 7 and 9 days before needing to recharge.

You can find all the GPS watch features here, but expect all the standard run, swim, cycle, and hike GPS watch features and a few smartwatch ones such as downloadable music up to 2,000 songs (supports Spotify, Amazon, and Deezer) and Garmin Pay.

Some of the standout features I found particularly interesting include PacePro (grade-adjusted running pacing guidance), ClimbPro (shows upcoming ascent info and where you are on the climb), and warning of incoming storms using the barometric trend indicator.

Surfline Sessions captures short videos of rides in front of Surfline cameras, while ski and golf resort maps (over 2,000 ski resort and 41,000 golf course maps) can be loaded, and auto swim offers stroke detection for pool swimming.

Click here for more details on all the built-in running, cycling, golf, and map features.

  • Size: 47 x 47 x 14.7 mm
  • Weight: 83 g steel, 72 g titanium
  • Battery life: 14 days in smartwatch mode, 36 hours in GPS mode, up to 28 days in max battery-saver mode

Pros:

  • Outstanding battery life
  • Industry-leading depth of sport modes and reporting
  • PacePro and ClimbPro features for runners

Cons:

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Best for Ultraendurance Athletes: Suunto 9

Suunto 9

If you’re looking for a great outdoor watch and moving down the price scale is appealing, then the Suunto 9 will suit you well. Ultraendurance and mountain athletes have long flocked to the Suunto 9 ($399) for its outstanding battery life, accurate tracking, and mountain-focused features.

It features three battery modes (performance, endurance, and ultra) ranging from 25 hours up to 120 hours of GPS tracking. Typically, when you select battery-saver mode, GPS satellite communication intervals are prolonged to save battery, which compromises accuracy, but not with Sunnto. Suunto’s FusedTrack feature combines GPS and motion-sensor data to fill in the gaps in GPS intervals.

The watch uses a combination of buttons and a touchscreen to navigate. Its layout is extremely intuitive and straightforward, and the navigation tracking is top-notch. Last summer, I mapped out a route (both on and off trail) on Mt. Conness in the Sierras. I preloaded the route on the watch, and the tracking was dead-on. The descent off the mountain was off the trail, and the watch would notify me if I veered too far off the route, a huge timesaver.

The Suunto app is fairly decluttered and lowkey, with a clean, easy-to-read white background. It gives key data such as sleep, steps, calories, and activities. Within the app, you can create routes and upload them directly to the watch. It’s a nice feature to take advantage of before you head out for a hike or trail run. You can also view popular routes for all the supported sport modes via heatmaps so you never miss out on the best routes.

  • Size: 50 x 50 x 16.5 mm
  • Weight: 83 g steel, 72 g titanium
  • Battery life: 14 days in smartwatch mode, 36 hours in GPS mode, up to 28 days in max battery-saver mode

Pros:

  • Industry-leading battery life
  • Mapping and route-planning
  • Heatmaps to find popular routes for various activities

Cons:

  • Rather bulky
  • Poor heart-rate accuracy
  • Weak app feature set and syncing issues

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Best for Heart-Rate Training: Polar Vantage V2

Polar Vantage V2 

After testing all the watches, the Vantage V2 ($500) was my preferred pick for running, even after years of being a Garmin user. It’s not as jam-packed with features as most Garmins, but what it does offer it does very well — especially heart-rate monitoring.

A few key features highlight what’s been updated since its predecessor. You’ll now get everything offered on the Polar Grit X, Polar’s premium outdoor watch, including its popular Hill Splitter (detailed data for climb/descents) and FuelWise (reminders for fueling and hydration). In addition, the battery life has been extended to 40 hours in continuous GPS mode with the option of 100 hours in battery-saver mode.

Like all watches, you get training and recovery insights based on your unique physiological data to help make more informed decisions about when to push and recover. It comes with built-in, step-by-step running and cycling performance tests to establish training zones via heart rate, speed, and power (meter required for cycling). If you’re a Strava Segment-hunter, the watch will notify you as you approach your starred Segments and give real-time performance data so you can crush your Segment PRs.

I’ve been training by heart rate for over 20 years now. I have a uniquely low maximum heart rate confirmed by multiple lab tests, making it easy to identify irregular heart-rate reading spikes. Of all the wrist-based heart-rate watches, the Vantage V2 never spiked above my known max, something no other watched I’ve tested can say.

Polar Precision Prime sensor fusion technology “combines optical heart-rate measurement with other sensor technologies to rule out involuntary movement that might disturb the heart-rate signal and produce unreliable readings.”

  • Size: 47 x 47 x 13 mm
  • Weight: 52 g
  • Battery life: 7 days in smartwatch mode, 40 hours in GPS mode, up to 100 hours of GPS in max battery-saver mode
  • Health monitoring: Sleep, 24/7 heart rate (active and resting), training load (cardio, muscle, perceived), recovery

Pros:

  • Outstanding battery life
  • Heart-rate monitoring
  • Strava Live Segments

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Weak and delayed button action
  • Dull and simple app

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Best Value: Coros Pace 2

 Coros Pace 2 

You’re going to be hardpressed to find a more feature-packed GPS watch at this price point. A line-by-line comparison of features to Garmin, Polar, or Suunto watches would suggest a $300 price point, so $200 for this watch is a steal! There are some sacrifices you’ll make for such a stunning price point, but I’ll get to that later.

Running is by far its best-supported activity, followed by cycling and swimming. Its biggest standouts are battery life and power metrics. The Pace 2 offers an astonishing 30 hours of runtime in GPS mode, 60 in UltraMax mode, and 20 days of watch life. It offers wrist-based running power and will pair with Stryd pods for enhanced readings. You can also create workouts based on power via the app.

Like the more expensive watches, you’re getting all the typical tracking data (steps, sleep, calories burned, 24/7 heart-rate monitoring, workout time, and intensity). The app then uses this data to give a training load and fitness insights. Within the app, you can also create and push workouts to your watch for running, biking, swimming, and strength training.

There are a few things I didn’t like about the Pace 2. It’s advertised as the “world’s lightest watch.” I found it so light it felt cheap. And I’m not a fan of the fabric strap. I would suggest going with the silicone band.

Functionally, there are only two buttons: the primary turn-dial button and a smaller back button. I found the turn-dial button very difficult to use to scroll through data field screens while running.

  • Size: 42 × 42 × 11.7 mm
  • Weight: 29 g with nylon strap, 35 g with silicone band
  • Battery life: 20 days in smartwatch mode, 30 hours in GPS mode, up to 60 days in max battery-saver mode

Pros:

  • Outstanding battery life for the price
  • Extremely well-priced
  • Wrist-based running power and Stryd support

Cons:

  • Feels rather cheap
  • Turn-dial button is difficult during activity
  • Lack of training and coaching insight compared to rivals

Check Price at Amazon

Best Fitness Tracker: Fitbit Charge 4

Fitbit Charge 4

With over 20,000 reviews and a 4.5 out of 5-star rating on Amazon, the Fitbit Charge 4 ($150) takes the crown for the best fitness tracker. The headline for the fourth iteration is the addition of built-in GPS, a huge upgrade over its predecessor, meaning it now doesn’t require a smartwatch to track distance via GPS. Battery life lasts up to 7 days or 5 hours in continuous GPS mode.

An optical heart-rate monitor for 24/7 monitoring is standard and provides accurate calorie-burn calculations, sleep data, and heart-rate zones for working out. It tracks daily steps, calories burned, and active minutes to help you make informed health decisions based on hard data.

It has up to 20 different sport modes for tracking including running, walking, biking and swimming, HIIT, yoga, spin, and golf. If you’re looking for finer details such as cadence, power, or rep-counting for weight training, you’re out of luck.

A few bonus features not usually seen on trackers are the ability to get notifications (call, text, email, calendar), control Spotify (but only with your phone in Bluetooth reach), and basic app downloads. If you don’t need these features and you’re OK carrying your phone during activities that require GPS (such as walking, running, and cycling), I suggest the $50 cheaper Fitbit Inspire 2.

  • Size: 1.4″ x 0.9″ x 0.5″
  • Weight: Not available
  • Battery life: 7 days, 5 hours in GPS mode

Pros:

  • GPS tracking without phone connection
  • Health-tracking metrics
  • Ability to control music

Cons:

  • Very basic sports tracking
  • Small screen
  • Uncertain future due to Google acquisition

Check Price at Amazon

Best New GPS Watch: Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL

Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL smartwatch

My mind has been spinning trying to keep track of all the features and capabilities of each watch, so the Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL ($380) offered a breath of fresh air from the confusion. Wahoo advertises it as “a radically simplified multisport watch that delivers a seamless performance advantage.” I agree. It’s super-easy to understand and navigate, and it’s free of features 90% of us may never use.

For starters, it’s a good-looking watch — light and easy to read. Perhaps a tad on the larger side, but I didn’t mind it due to how light it was. The button action is smooth and crisp. Its functionality is really singularly focused on triathletes.

The standout features are touchless transitions and seamless connection to Wahoo’s suite of bike computers and components. All you’ll need to do is touch “start” when the race begins, and the watch will automatically record and track activity and transition time.

For a first version of a sports watch, I’m impressed. It’s clear Wahoo has a solid team of technical folks working hard. I’m just not sold on the $380 price point. The market is way too competitive at that level, with well-established brands such as Garmin and Polar taking the lead.

However, if you’re a triathlete already using a Wahoo bike computer and want to stick with the brand, it’s a good option. Read our full review here.

  • Size: 46.5 x 46.5 x 15.3 mm
  • Weight: 53 g
  • Battery life: 14 days in smartwatch mode, 24 hours in GPS mode

Pros:

  • Simplistic design is extremely easy to use
  • Touchless transition recording for triathletes
  • Integration with Wahoo bike computers and components

Cons:

  • Rather pricey for feature set
  • Weak health and fitness insight and reporting
  • Ability to track sports/activities outside triathlon

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Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose the Perfect Fitness Watch

Smartwatches, GPS Watches, and Fitness Trackers

There are three very distinct categories of watches, each with strengths and weaknesses. Smartwatches are basically small smartphones for your wrist where you can add apps and take calls without your phone.

The most popular smartwatches are Apple and Samsung Galaxy watches. Functionally, they’re geared toward convenience and health tracking, but they tend to fall short on battery life, GPS accuracy, and workout functionally.

GPS watches such as Garmin, Coros, Suunto, Polar, and Wahoo are designed primarily for workouts that require GPS functionality (running, cycling, hiking, swimming, etc.). They tend to have over triple the battery life of smartwatches and are very strong with workout features, metrics, and tracking.

While most will allow text and email messages, they’re limited in the scope of apps you can add and will not replace your smartphone.

Fitness trackers have the least functionality and only track health and fitness metrics such as resting and variable heart rate, sleep patterns, and steps. Most will need to stay connected to your phone for features like GPS tracking.

Battery Life

This is the most notable difference between smartwatches and GPS watches. On average, smartwatches need to be recharged every 24 to 48 hours whereas GPS watches can last 5 to 15 days between charges. Charging time is relatively quick, with most offering a full charge in around 2 hours. If you’re like me and hate having to constantly charge yet another device, I would lean toward a GPS watch.

Keep in mind that if you’re interested in tracking sleep data, you won’t be able to charge it while you’re sleeping. The Garmin fenix 6 has the best battery life, with roughly 14 days without GPS usage and around 36 hours in continuous GPS mode. The Apple Watch and Suunto 7 scored the worst, with less than 48 hours depending on usage.

Ecosystem

Perhaps as important as the watch itself is the depth and strength of its ecosystem. An ecosystem is compromised of the watch’s application, web portal, and supported third-party apps such as Strava and Spotify. To view your data, you’ll need to download an app on your phone.

As Garmin is the largest fitness watch company, it has the broadest and strongest sport-specific ecosystem. Garmin’s app and web portal, called Garmin Connect, displays just about all the performance and health metrics you need. Polar’s Flow app and web portal follow close behind Garmin, with Coros, Suunto, and Wahoo following Polar.

Sport Modes

Today’s fitness watches can track just about any activity imaginable, ranging from running to indoor rock climbing and even surfing. I’ve found that watches labeled as “outdoor” or “multisport” not only tend to be able to track the more obscure activities but also do so with more detail and granularity. As a result, this increased level of functionality tends to come with a higher price tag.

All the watches I tested tracked common activities such as walking, running (outdoor, trail, treadmill), outdoor and indoor cycling, yoga, elliptical, general strength, and cardio sessions. If there’s a less-common sport you’d like to track, I suggest taking a look at the watch’s spec sheet to see if it’s covered.

Testing Fitness Watches
Testing the GPS accuracy while trail running. Photo credit: Cory Smith

Features

From notifications of an irregular heartbeat to alarms reminding you to hydrate, fitness watches have an astonishing number of features these days. To help you get a sense of features, I listed a few below.

Based on my testing, budget watches and trackers under $100 have all the basic features and perhaps a few standard ones. Watches priced $150 to $250 will have the basic features and most of the standard ones. Premium watches carry basic, standard, and more advanced features.

  • Basic: Distance, pace, heart rate, steps
  • Standard: Sleep, calories, VO2 max, stress, elevation gain/loss, training zones, cadence, power, notifications (call, text, email)
  • Advanced: Music, Strava Live Segments, auto swim stroke detection, pulse oximeter, respiration rate, live activity tracking, and incident detection

Training and Coaching

As fitness watches have gotten better at tracking health and fitness data, companies have been able to use that data to give guidance on training. As a full-time running coach, I find this particularly interesting.

The No. 1 reason I see most runners struggle is because they overtrain or under-rest. Garmin and Polar seem to have the best training and coaching insights, with Coros right behind them.

Price

Price can give you a good measuring stick of the breadth of features of a watch. Entry-level watches tend to focus on basic sports and tracking and cost under $200 retail. Both the Garmin 35 and Polar Unite are two of my favorite entry-level watches.

Entry-level watches are perfect for someone interested in casual fitness. More serious fitness people should expect to spend over $200. Moving up in price above $250 brings a huge difference in the look and feel of watches. Premium fitness watches fall in the $300 to $500 price range, with top-end watches above $500, such as the Garmin fenix 6 Pro.

GPS Accuracy

Most GPS devices are accurate within 1-3%. In my testing, all GPS-focused brands (Garmin, Coros, Polar, Suunto, and Wahoo) performed equally in GPS connection and accuracy. Connection time varied from 10 seconds to a couple of minutes, while distance was within the 1-3% margin.

It’s important to keep in mind that location has a lot to do with GPS connection and accuracy. Accuracy depends on multiple satellites communicating with each other freely and reporting back to the watch. Distractions such as buildings and clouds can affect the satellites’ ability to pinpoint the sensor in the watch. I suggest asking fellow athletes in the area where you’ll be working out to find out how their watch GPS performs.

Size

Outdoor and multisport watches seem to be larger and heavier because of the sheer number of features, so much so that they can look too big and awkward on small wrists. If you prefer a smaller size, most brands (including Garmin, Coros, and Polar) offer smaller versions of flagship models. For example, the Garmin fenix 6 Pro comes in 42mm, 47mm, and 51mm sizes.

FAQ

How Does a Fitness Tracker Work?

A fitness tracker’s primary purpose is tracking health data such as heart rate, sleep, steps, and calories. It uses sensors in the band or watch to monitor. Most fitness trackers need to be connected to your smartphone to access the data.

Fitbit vs. Apple Watch: Which Is Better?

If you have an iPhone, I would recommend the Apple Watch. It’s the bestselling smartwatch, and everyone I spoke with absolutely loves it. If you don’t have an iPhone, the Apple Watch will not work. Fitbit is a great choice, but with Google’s recent acquisition in limbo, the future of Fitbit as we know it today is in question.

What Fitness Watch Is Most Accurate?

This is a tough question to answer. It depends on what features you’re talking about. In general, I found Apple watches to have the best health tracking, Garmin to have the best GPS tracking, and Polar to have the most accurate heart-rate monitor.


Have a favorite fitness watch we missed? Let us know in the comments below for future updates to this article.


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