Fitness tracker vs running watch: Which do you need?

How do you decide whether a running watch is more suitable for you than a fitness tracker?

When it comes to tracking your fitness, the choice between fitness tracker and running watch is an important one. And there are plenty of factors that may sway you one way or the other. Are there specific features you want that may mean spending a bit more for a decent running watch? Or will one of the best budget fitness trackers do everything you need without costing as much? 

As fitness trackers have grown ever more sophisticated, they have begun to offer features that start to make them much more like a fully-fledged smartwatch. Many of their features now overlap with what you may find in those more expensive devices. It’s no longer a case of deciding whether you want something simple, or something more sophisticated. 

If you’re unsure of what the differences are between these two types of wearable device, we don’t blame you. It can be hard to decide what matters, and which one is right for you. So, to help, here are what we consider to be the main things to look for when deciding whether you need a fitness tracker or, if you should buy a running watch. 

The Fitbit Charge 5 fitness tracker next to the Coros Pace 2 running watchCredit: Saga Exceptional

Design

Fitness tracker vs running watch: design

The Coros Apex running watch on a runner's wristCredit: Coros

At the most basic level, the majority of fitness trackers have a ‘lozenge’ type design. They’ll often be entirely controlled by a touchscreen and may have some slightly unconventional fastenings. 

Running watches tend to look more like traditional watches, with a round face, and usually having a watch-buckle type fastening. While they often have a touchscreen, they may also use physical buttons for navigating and selecting options from the menu. The displays on running watches also tend to be larger than you’ll find on a fitness tracker.  

At first, this may all seem like it’s just a matter of personal preference. But there are often differences between the two types of device in terms of the materials used to make them. 

In general, fitness trackers often use slightly cheaper and potentially less durable materials than you’ll find in a running watch. Running watches will still use plastic as a way of keeping the weight down. But you may find they use something like Gorilla Glass or sapphire glass to make the display more robust – especially if it’s designed for outdoor use.  

While some fitness trackers do use more premium materials, it’s not uncommon to see screens and surrounds made of plastic and less durable glass than you’d find in running watches, for example with the Fitbit Inspire 3, or the Amazfit Band 7. Even a relatively affordable running watch like the Coros Pace 2 (RRP £179) uses Gorilla Glass for its screen, and a fibre reinforced polymer for the case. Some more premium running watches like the Garmin Forerunner 965 may use titanium for the case, while a premium fitness tracker such as the Fitbit Charge 5 might use aluminium. 

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Features

Fitness tracker vs running watch: features

A woman checking a Fitbit Charge 5 on her wristCredit: Fitbit

There is inevitably a degree of overlap between the features on a fitness tracker and those of a running watch. And for most of us, even a basic fitness tracker will offer more metrics than we may need or want. Given the technological arms race that brands are competing in, new features and insights are being added all the time. There are, though, a few essential features that we’d expect to see in both devices: 

  • Heart rate sensors 
  • Sleep tracking 
  • Blood oxygen monitoring 
  • Stress tracking 
  • Activity tracking – including step counts, calorie burn estimates, and specific workout tracking

Some devices, for example the Fitbit Charge 5 and Withings ScanWatch also offer ECG (electrocardiogram) measurements. 

Running watches (and some smartwatches) will offer some added features that you won’t typically find on a fitness tracker: 

  • Altimeter, barometer and compass 
  • Cadence sensor 
  • Pace alerts 

Added support

Many running watches also offer coaching support. Garmin, for example, offers features such as PacePro, which creates a customised pacing strategy for your upcoming race. Coros offers EvoLab, which is described as a ‘sports science platform’ intended to evaluate your fitness levels, performance and fatigue levels, to help optimise your training schedule. You may also get built-in maps and real-time stamina updates on some running watches. 

While some fitness trackers also offer features that tell you whether you’re ready for a workout, or perhaps need to focus more on recovery, the level of depth and ‘coaching’ support tends to be much deeper on a dedicated running watch. 

Finally, one essential feature for running watches that is less often found in fitness trackers is built-in GPS. Having accurate GPS tracking is essential for a running watch, because without it you can’t accurately track your distance or running pace. Many fitness trackers use connected GPS instead, but this means that to track your walks, runs and bike rides, you’ll need to take your phone with you.  

Running watches should always have built-in GPS, meaning you can leave your phone behind when you go out for a run. Often, they will use multiple global navigational satellite systems, to ensure they are as accurate as possible.  

Saga Exceptional’s senior coaching editor and former GB athlete, Paul Larkins:

“For me, a running watch will tell you how far and how fast you’re going. A stopwatch and GPS are all you need for that. If you love data, then running watches are ace for building a programme as they really do analyse how you’re feeling. Newer runners can benefit from the data, the tricky bit is translating it and actually reacting to what it says.”

Battery life

Fitness tracker vs running watch: battery life

The Garmin Fenix 7X Pro running watchCredit: Garmin

Battery life can be extremely variable among these devices, and it isn’t as simple as saying that one type of device will always have superior battery to the other. 

In theory, fitness trackers have smaller screens, often lack built-in GPS, and may therefore have better battery performance. But they also tend to be smaller, meaning their batteries have smaller capacity compared to the battery in a running watch. 

For example, a Fitbit Charge 5 fitness tracker advertises battery life of up to seven days. An Amazfit Band 7 fitness tracker can potentially last 18 days between charges.  

Compare this with a Polar Pacer Pro, which has an advertised battery life of between 35 and 144 hours (six days, depending on how you use it), and fitness trackers do seem to offer greater battery life. But an ultra-premium Garmin Enduro 2 watch offers solar charging while you’re going about your business. As a result, this watch claims to offer up to 81 hours of battery with all satellite system tracking on, or as much as 550 days in battery saver watch mode.  

There’s a huge amount of variation between devices. And sometimes, battery performance, as with everything else, will be influenced by how much you’re willing to spend.

Price

Fitness tracker vs running watch: price

In general, a fitness tracker will cost less than a running watch, often considerably less. But the gap is narrowing, and the difference between a high-end fitness tracker and a budget running watch can be fairly small.  

For example, a brilliant fitness tracker such as the Fitbit Charge 5 cost £179.99 when it first came out in August 2021 (although now it’s generally available for under £130). The Coros Pace 2 running watch is also £179.99, and occasionally is on offer for around £150.  

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are much cheaper fitness trackers such as the Honor Band 7 (RRP 49.99). An ultra-premium running watch such as the Garmin Enduro 2, or even an Apple Watch Ultra, could be 10 times the price. The Enduro 2 has an RRP of £929, while the Apple Watch Ultra is £849. 

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The Garmin Vivosmart 5 fitness trackerCredit: Garmin

Which is right for you?

Fitness tracker vs running watch: who are they for?

There are a lot of similarities between fitness trackers and running watches. When it comes to knowing which one is right for you, we’d suggest that you factor in the following: 

Do you plan to do any running? If you just want to track everyday activity, and general health and fitness, then a fitness tracker is almost certainly going to do everything you need it to. Conversely, if you’re a dedicated runner (or want to become one) then the superior accuracy of a running watch could be important to you. 

Both fitness trackers and running watches will supply a lot of data and insights into your health and fitness. But a running watch can also offer details such as your cadence (usually defined as the total number of steps you take per minute), keep track of your pace, and even provide training and coaching advice. The question is, do you need or want these things? If so, then the added support of a running watch may be useful. 

Perhaps above all, consider how much you’re willing to spend. As we explained, running watches can be very expensive, especially at the top end of the market. Fitness trackers are usually a lot cheaper, and the best of these tend to be cheaper than even the cheapest running watches.  

As ever, much of the decision will come to individual preferences, needs and wants. But as a rule of thumb, if you’re going be doing a lot of running and want plenty of guidance and support, a running watch is probably right for you.

If you’re looking for more general activity tracking, then a fitness tracker will probably suffice. And if you aren’t sure exactly what you need, here are five things to consider when buying a fitness tracker. 

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Steven Shaw

Written by Steven Shaw he/him

Updated:

Steven Shaw has been a freelance writer for a variety of outlets, most notably TechRadar. His degree in Medieval History prepared him less adequately for his career than you might expect, but the years spent working in technology focused retail were much more helpful.

Outside of work, Steven is passionate about health and fitness, and particularly enjoys high-intensity interval training, weight training, and increasingly, spending time recovering. Steven loves reading, films and a wide variety of sports. A particular highlight was watching Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar batting together in an exhibition match.

He wishes he could travel more. He can also tell you a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Carolingians. Most of his non-work time is spent with his young children, who are the living embodiment of high-intensity training.