Updated: June 30, 2018
As a follow up to my previous article, Best GPS Watch for Ultrarunning, here is an updated version with the latest and greatest watches. 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. 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 today 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 almost 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 but ever expanding list, in order of age from top to bottom. Some watches have been removed or excluded from this list because they have been discontinued by the manufacturer, like the popular Garmin Forerunner 310XT, Suunto Ambit 2, and Epson ProSense watches.
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 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 according to Apple. The Apple Watch Series 3 didn’t make any real improvements in battery life so it’s still not recommended. One thing that is worth noting is that if you do run with the Apple Watch and your phone, the Apple Watch will disable the GPS and use the GPS chip in the phone which does help extend the battery life by a few hours. It still doesn’t make this a great option for ultra running. Ginger Runner did a very in-depth review if you want a second opinion, but I would give the Apple Watch 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.
Why can’t I just use Ultra Trac or Performance/Ultra Mode to get more battery life?
All Garmin and Suunto watches offer an option to extend battery life but it comes at the cost of accuracy. The way this feature works is that instead of polling GPS satellites every second and recording the location, they poll at a longer interval (5-60 seconds depending on the selected option). If you were running in a completely straight line for 50, 75, 100 miles then this would be perfectly acceptable, but there aren’t many races done in a straight line. Generally speaking, if you use these modes, your recorded activity will be so inaccurate, you may as well have not recorded it at all.
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’m currently using a now discontinued Epson Runsense SF-710 and it’s been the best watch I’ve ever used. Given that I’ve been using it for a while and it’s no longer being made, I’m considering switching to a new Garmin Fenix 5X or Suunto 9, but still haven’t made a decision!
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.