Ultrarunners have very specific requirements when it comes to choosing which GPS running watch to buy. Because of these requirements, and the fact that the two best brands for this niche are Garmin and Suunto, my list of the best GPS watches for ultrarunning is small. Who ever needed too much choice anyway? Listed below are the features that ultrarunning watches should ideally have, to make them worthy of being a long term investment:
- a very long battery life to be able to track vast distances over many hours, sometimes even days. There’s nothing worse than having your watch die on you in the middle of an ultra race.
- actionable features that help us know when to adjust our effort levels, like a heart rate monitor, for example. Being able to know exactly how much climbing/elevation gain you have accumulated, with an estimate of how much still remains is invaluable data to an ultra runner.
- navigation features in case you get lost in the mountains and need to find your way back on course or back to safety. Also very important if you want to explore new trail routes, without having to carry a map.
- good durability to withstand hours in the mountains during varying weather conditions, from rainstorms to the extreme cold but also environmental changes like river crossings, for example.
- a comfortable fit for usage over many hours, especially important if you have small wrists and don’t want to be carrying a heavy weight around with you for hours on end.
- a barometer to help us know our current elevation and when a potential lightning storm may be on its way so that we can take cover if necessary.
- a good software platform for analysing activity data and tracking our training performance over time.
- the ability to play music, ready for when you need that pain-cave pick-me-up!
So then, what are the best ultrarunning watches?
1. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Series (5S, 5 & 5X)
Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series Key Features
Theres a difference in battery life to look out for when choosing a watch from the Fenix 5 Plus series.
Garmin Fenix 5S Plus (the smaller of the watches): Smartwatch: Up to 7 days, GPS: Up to 11 hours, GPS and Music: Up to 4.5 hours, UltraTrac™ mode: Up to 25 hours – Because of its smaller case size (42mm) this the Fenix 5S Plus is perfect for women or men with smaller wrists as long as you don’t plan on running for more than 11 hours in one go. See below to find the best price for the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus Sapphire.
Garmin Fenix 5 Plus (the mid sized watch, and most popular): Smartwatch: Up to 12 days, GPS: Up to 18 hours, GPS and Music: Up to 8 hours, UltraTrac™ mode: Up to 42 hours. See below to find the best price for the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Sapphire.
Garmin Fenix 5X Plus (the larger watch but best battery life and Wrist-based Pulse Ox sensor that monitors blood oxygen saturation levels to support advanced sleep monitoring and altitude acclimation): Smartwatch: Up to 20 days, GPS: Up to 32 hours, GPS and Music: Up to 13 hours, UltraTrac™ mode: Up to 70 hours. The watch for the most serious of athletes that want the best training insights available. See below to find the best price for the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus Sapphire with Pulse Ox.
The on-wrist heartrate monitor is accurate and more comfortable than a chest strap.
The navigation features are excellent and in my opinion, the best in class. High resolution, color TOPO maps featuring trend line popularity routing to help you find and follow the best paths. This, in my opinion, is a fantastic feature that blows the competition away in terms of navigation. I love how easy it is to set up a course/route and then send it to the watch, ready for following during your run. Then when the route is displayed back to you on the watch, the detail is so incredible. I love to explore new routes/trails, so being able to see the trails lines on the watch map that you shouldn’t take, makes it so much easier to see the ones you should, hence reducing the chances of getting lost.
Rugged design with a sapphire watch face, which is more resistant to scratches than other materials.
Barometer + Actionable Features
For accurate altitude/elevation tracking and weather tracking. When following a programmed course, you can set a real-time ‘ghost’ competitor which shows a marker on the watch to motivate you to keep up with it, this can even be your fastest time running that route, very cool. When navigating a course you can also see the route profile with elevation gained and elevation remaining. I love this for being able to quickly visualise how much climbing I have left to crank out.
10 ATM (100m)
You can store and play up to 500 songs on your watch, and connect with Bluetooth headphones. Jaybird RUN wireless headphones are a hardy option for running for listening to music while running for extended periods of time because they come with a small and lightweight charge box to store them in.
Garmin Connect is a fun platform to store your runs on. There’s a wealth of data stored there so you can stick to built-in training plans and compete against friends. It can be used to track daily steps, heart rate and sleep data too, provided you wear the watch all day. I like to automatically send my runs to Strava though as I have used the platform for a long time and have many friends on there.
Best deals for Garmin Fenix 5S Plus Running Watch
24 new from $749.99
Best deals for Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Running Watch
24 new from $749.97
2 used from $641.49
Best deals for Garmin Fenix 5X Plus Running Watch
32 new from $799.99
2. Suunto 9 Baro
Suunto 9 Baro Key Features
25 hours of battery life with Performance mode, 40 with Endurance, and up to 120 hours with Ultra mode. The Suunto 9 Baro has the best battery life out of the competition and should be considered if you intend to run middle of the pack ultra races of 100 miles or more.
The Suunto 9 Baro also has an on-wrist heartrate monitor.
Navigation is available but not as feature rich as the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series. I find myself often taking the wrong turn when running new routes because of the lack of detailed maps on the watch.
Rugged design with a sapphire watch face. Suunto really know how to make watches that last!
For accurate altitude/elevation tracking and weather tracking.
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No music available so you’ll have to rely on your mobile phone or music device. I prefer to save phone battery life for emergencies so will end up not listening to music during an ultramarathon unless my watch has the capability.
Movescount is a pretty feature-rich although the options for visualizing data are not as comprehensive as Garmin Connect. I have noticed that transferring moves from the watch to the platform on a mobile device is slower than the Garmin equivalent. I notice more downtime with their servers too which means you cannot view your activity until the system comes online again. frustrating when you want to analyse that hard training run. Having said this, the platform is sufficient but I’d love to see more stability improvements.
Best deals for Suunto 9 Baro Running Watch
12 new from $493.90
Honourable Mention goes to the Coros Apex
Coros is a lesser known brand that is beginning to make some serious waves in the Ultrarunning scene with the Coros Apex GPS Watch in particular. The Coros pro athletes list is impressive to say the least, including runners such as: Dom Grossman, Sally McRae, Timothy Olson, Cody Reed, Hayden Hawks, Camille Herron, Tim Tollefson, Adam Campbell, Paula Findlay, Magda Boulet, Jordi Gamito and Hillary Allen.
Coros APEX (42mm)
Coros APEX Premium Multisport Watch::The Coros APEX Premium Multisport Watch is designed for athletes who want to train harder, safer and more efficiently. Years of research with athletes around the world went into designing a premium sports watch armed with exclusive Coros training software. A comprehensive algorithm accurately measures your heart rate along with other fitness data points. This software precisely predicts your stamina level, aerobic/anaerobic training effects and recovery time. You can structure a complete workout specifically geared towards your fitness level and training needs.
Once you’ve finished your workout, the Coros app gives you a complete graphical analysis of your training that includes: VO2 max, recovery advisor, threshold pace, last-7 days training load, personal fitness index and much more. Additionally, you can connect to your favorite third-party applications such as STRAVA or TrainingPeaks and automatically upload your workouts.
Coros Apex Key Features:
Two display sizes
46mm and 42mm
APEX 46mm: 35 Hours Normal GPS Mode / 100 Hours UltraMax GPS Mode / 30 Days Regular Use.
APEX 42mm: 25 Hours Normal GPS Mode / 80 Hours UltraMax GPS Mode / 24 Days Regular Use.
The Coros Apex also has an on-wrist heart-rate monitor.
Similar Navigation features to Suunto. Not as detailed as Garmin.
Rugged design with a sapphire watch face.
For accurate altitude/elevation tracking and weather tracking.
Suunto vs. Garmin vs. Coros watches for Ultrarunning Summary
So if it’s a rock solid watch that has an impressive battery life then the Suunto 9 Baro or the Coros Apex is your best choice. They’re both also less expensive than their competition. If on the other hand you’re looking for an all-round performer that has feature-rich navigation, a long battery life of up to 32 hours with GPS, and a very comprehensive online platform to store and analyse your activities then the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series watches have the edge, but those extra features come at an extra cost.
If you asked me which one I would recommend, I’d say the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus because I don’t see myself running for more than 32 hours anytime soon, and I prefer the Garmin user experience & navigation features more. At the end of the day though, you can’t go wrong with either of these GPS watches for running.