Updated: November 6, 2017
Runners have it good when it comes to GPS watch choices. There are more options than there are days in the year, and every month it seems like a new watch is released to the market. In fact, a quick stop over at DC Rainmaker (let’s be honest, if you can get away from there in under an hour, you are lucky!) will show you just how many choices there are. My goal with this post is to help narrow down the dizzying amount of choices, with a specific focus on ultra running. This is not a comprehensive list of all GPS watches out there, and there may be watches that aren’t on my list for one reason or another, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.
In my opinion, in addition to the basic features such as being able to track via GPS, there are two key factors to consider when choosing an appropriate watch for ultra running. These are important factors to consider when comparing watches.
This is probably one of the most important features for typical ultra runners as most of the longer races (50 mile and up) will take more time than most of the GPS watches available can handle, with the exception of elite runners. Most GPS watches on the market, regardless of brand, max out at around 8-10 hours of battery life. If you are that fast, then your options are much broader than they are for the rest of us and you may want to expand your search beyond my list below.
Track while charging
This is important in the REALLY long races (125km+) where no watch can last the entire time. As it stands today, 24 hours is about the most you can expect to get out of the newest most expensive watches, despite grandiose marketing claims made by some companies. Fortunately, these watches can all be charged with a portable battery charger (like this Anker Powercore+ mini) without interrupting the activity in progress.
The short list, in order of age from top to bottom
Garmin Forerunner 920XT does have a 24 hour battery, but it cannot be charged while in use so it would be good for shorter ultra runs/races or elite runners doing longer races. UPDATE: It turns out there is a workaround to enable charging while tracking. Check out this video for details.
Epson Runsense SF-510 ($96.95) and Epson Runsense SF-710 ($99.99) have a 30 hour battery life and the Epson Runsense SF-810 ($129.99) has a 20 hour battery life if using the integrated optical heart rate monitor. The Epson ProSense 307 also has a 20 hour battery. These watches cannot be charged while in us, but due to the battery life, they would be good for most ultra distance races for many runners.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the Apple Watch a good option for ultra running?
In short, no. The original Apple Watch didn’t have a GPS chip so it relied on a connected iPhone, which meant that not only did you have to carry an iPhone, but it would drain the iPhone battery more quickly. Coupled with the dismal battery life of the Apple Watch, the lack of waterproofing (or sweatproofing), it made for a poor combination. The newer Apple Watch Series 2 now has a GPS chip, but still lacks the ability to track elevation so for any trail or ultra runners, this is a problem. The battery life is also very poor at less than 5 hours in most cases. Ginger Runner did a very in-depth review if you want a second opinion, but I would give the Apple Watch Series 1 and Apple Watch Series 2 a hard pass for ultra running.
I found a Suunto Ambit 2 or Ambit 3 for half the price of other Ambit watches, why don’t I just buy that?
Suunto offers lower cost models with significantly shorter battery life, so you need to be careful when shopping around. Specifically they offer the Ambit 2R, Ambit 2S, Ambit 3 Run, and Ambit 3 Sport models, which are not ideal for ultra running and racing purposes due to shorter battery life. They can be charged while continuing to track so they are an option if you don’t mind recharging once or more during a race.
I found a watch that says the battery will last for 50, 75, or 100 hours, can’t I use that?
Many watches will advertise a battery life that makes it seem like it will work for you (50 hours+) but it’s important to note that those watches generally have a special mode that only records GPS data every minute instead of every second, which translates to significantly less accuracy. The good news is, some of these watches may be on my recommended list above, so even though they don’t get the claimed 50 hour battery life, they may still be an ideal option.
Which brand is better, Garmin, Polar, TomTom, Epson, or Suunto?
This really boils down to personal preference. All five companies make excellent watches with various features, so you need to decide for yourself what you prefer. I’d suggest you figure out your criteria such as price, preferred race distance, etc., do some research at DC Rainmaker, and purchase the watch you feel works best for you.
Which watch(es) do you use?
I’ve always been a fan of Garmin watches and they were my go to watch when I first started running. I used a borrowed Garmin Forerunner 910XT for my first ultra, the Squaw Peak 50 in Provo, UT, and it easily lasted the 16 hours and 32 minutes it took me to complete the race with battery life to spare. For my second ultra, The North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Park City, UT, I used a Garmin fenix 2 which easily lasted the 13 hours or so until I had to DNF due to missing a cutoff by 4 minutes (thanks to a nagging achilles issue). Since picking up an Epson Runsense SF-710 earlier this year though, I haven’t been able to go back to my fenix 2.
So there you have it. A comprehensive list of the best watches for ultrarunning and ultra racing. I hope you find this information helpful. Let me know in the comments below if I missed a watch that you swear by for ultra running, or let me know which watch you use?