The 6 best GPS fitness watches in 2023, according to a competitive athlete

person watching fitness watch on arm, best running, fitness and smart watches

The best fitness watches, according to a competitive marathon runner (Getty).

There was a time when the world’s best athletes timed their runs with palm-sized stopwatches, usually kept by a tracksuit-clad coach standing to the side. Back then, pace per kilometer and real-time running speed, not to mention vertical oscillation and blood oxygen levels, were forcibly left to the imagination. But in this age of data, timing devices have evolved far beyond the $10 plastic chunks we’d fish out of the bottom of a cereal box of, sorry, Tony the Tiger. Most of the running watches on the market now are also heart rate monitors and GPS devices with a number of features; they can pay for things, take calls, and do almost anything a cell phone can do. Seriously, I’m convinced that if you were stranded on a deserted island with theā€¦ Apple Watch Ultrawould find my way out.

The watch market is now filled with great options that will not only track your time, pace and distance as you walk or run, but will also provide you with a variety of biographical data to help you understand what your body is doing as it trains. . These marvels of technology range in price, and each have their own unique quirks and characteristics. Read on to find out which of these six GPS watches might be right for you.

apple watch ultra with orange band

With an elegant interface and features, the Ultra is the most sophisticated Apple Watch to date.

To recap:

  • Perfect experience for Apple users

  • Personalized training suggestions

  • Easy access to email, social media and text

Full disclosure: While I tried my first Apple Watch this year, I’ve been using the company’s products for nearly a decade. So for someone like me who spent most of my twenties staring at iPhones, the user experience was perfect because Siri, iCloud, Apple Pay, and Apple Music all synced up on my wrist. The Ultras large touch screen, meanwhile, makes it easy for me to switch between training and leisure modes throughout the day.

Historically, I’d used Garmin watches for workouts and worried the Ultra would be too fiddly to navigate while running. But I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of its workout features: The watch used my fitness data over time to offer personalized workout suggestions, which made sense and weren’t far removed from what my previous trainers had coached. For this reason, I trust this watch for tough rides, especially on days when I can’t fully disconnect from work and need quick access to email.

The Ultra’s 36-hour battery life, its always-on Retina display, and responsive interface with a crisp OLED screen make it an absolute powerhouse at work and on the go. These silky characteristics, however, come at a price: Be prepared to serve up a solid grand.


apple watch series 8 with black band and black and blue screen

Understated and versatile, the 8 Series is a popular option for round-the-clock fitness nerds.

To recap:

The 8 Series occupies the second rung of Apple’s three-watch totem pole and boasts many of the Ultras features at half the price. Like its sister watch, this wristwatch is a fitness data-gathering machine, with sensors for blood-oxygen levels and temperature, stride-length calculators, and even vertical oscillation measurements that tell you how far you are. elastic while running. Its running power target, which monitors your effort, is useful for beginners, weekend warriors and anyone inclined to become a training hero.

With the 8 Series, experienced racers can easily stay on track without thinking about their pace. Its personalized training function and voice prompts take the worry out of tough runs and require no screen control. My recent interval session felt as nonsensical as running without a watch. The bonus? I finished it off armed with a criminal record complete with personal data.

The SE is also an extremely popular lifestyle watch. While the Ultras huge screen makes a statement, the 8 Series is smaller and more discreet, perfect for those who want Apple functionality without attracting too much attention.


Apple Watch Series 8 GPS 45mm Smart Watch with Midnight Sport Band.

$555 on Amazon

apple watch se in gray with blue and black face

The most affordable of this year’s Apple Watch fleet, the SE packs a punch and has all the connectivity of its siblings.

To recap:

  • Custom training technology, minus a few bells and whistles

  • Perfect experience for Apple users

  • The most affordable Apple watch

The SE is for people who want an Apple product on their wrist without paying for all the frills. Still, this watch is far from barebones: Aside from the blood oxygen detector and a few other sensors, it packs a similar punch to the 8 Series. It has all the custom training tech, stride length and rebound measurements and the cloud integration of its siblings and a bunch of other technologies that help you race against yourself. Using the Apple Workout app, which is a fair alternative to the popular fitness tracking app Strava, SE tracks your repetitive rides and lets you compete against your previous bests. The automatic track detection technology, meanwhile, makes the watch more accurate at measuring distance while lapping the track than most of its competitors. Yes, tracking distance on an oval, for most GPS machines, is incredibly difficult.

The SE also works well as a 24-hour watch. Its activity rings, which track movement, exercise, and time on your feet over the course of a day, are a visual reminder to stay on the go. It also packs in louder speakers than its predecessors and is the top pick of all the Apple Watches on this list for people who like a simple and obvious user interface.


Apple Watch SE (2nd Generation) GPS 40mm Smartwatch with Midnight Sport Band.

$319 on Amazon

Suunto Peak Pro 9 sports watch black

The Peak Pro 9 is tough and durable enough to support you during the most extreme fitness outings.

To recap:

  • The best choice for long, remote and hardcore trails

  • Waterproof up to 100 meters

  • 170 hours of battery life

While the connectivity of Apple Watches is hard to compete with, the Suunto 9 Peak Pro dominates on long, remote and hardcore trails. Its rugged skeleton, water resistance to a depth of 100 meters and an incredible 170 hours of battery life make it the ideal gift for your friend who is tackling an ultramarathon or moving forward Survived.

Yet, the beauty of this watch is that behind its war-ready exterior lurks a fleet of sophisticated bio-tracking technologies. Peak Pro uses algorithms to measure its owners’ sleep quality, stress levels and estimated heart rate variability, then offers training and lifestyle suggestions for optimal recovery and performance. It then delivers all of this information on a crisp interface that regularly tracks your altitude and steps taken in a day.

I’ve liked the Peak Pro for running and cycling workouts thus far, because the actual workout settings are front and center; and not lightly buried under other features like with Apple Watches. This retails for a similar price to the Ultra, and I consider it to be just as versatile. Here’s how to choose between the two: An Apple consumer who can sync data between devices will get more out of the Ultra. If you’re not part of Team Apple, Suunto has everything you need, with the added benefit of needing only one top-up a week.


Suunto 9 Peak Pro – premium GPS watch for running, cycling and adventure.

$480 on Amazon

garmin forerunner 55 smart fitness watch

The Forerunner 55 has excellent battery life, an easy-to-use interface, and a proven track record, all at an affordable price.

To recap:

  • Durable, affordable and reliable

  • Simple and intuitive settings

  • Ideal for existing Garmin users

If you don’t really care about knowing your blood oxygen levels when you go to the grocery store in the morning and you primarily value a GPS watch for being a GPS and, well, a watch, the Garmin Forerunner 55 is your jam. I bought one of its predecessors, the Forerunner 35, in 2017, and it still works perfectly. The 55 is cut from the same cloth: durable, affordable and reliable.

It’s not that Garmin’s product doesn’t offer many of the same glitzy features as its competitors: It measures heart rate, stride length, cadence, and rebound; and comes with built-in workout plans and can connect to your smartphone for calls and messages. Rather, the 55 feels like a running watch first and a smart device second, in the best way. I never get lost in the settings or my ride is interrupted by notifications or extraneous data: road or track, it’s just me and my stopwatch.

I’d encourage Garmin users looking to upgrade their model to give the 55 a try. That way, they can stick to the intuitive Garmin Connect app, which lets you set goals and join challenges with other similar speed runners.


Polar Pacer Pro smartwatch with white strap

Lightweight and high-performing, the Pacer Pro might be Polar’s most affordable and popular product to date.

To recap:

  • Personalized training options and training plan

  • Integrated heart rate monitor

  • Quality similar to Apple, Garmin and Suunto

So far in the 2020s, I’ve seen four companies consistently come out with high-end GPS watch products year after year: Apple, Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. The latter tends to be overshadowed by Apple’s “wow” factor and Suunto’s apocalypse-ready machines, but the Pacer Pro comfortably keeps pace with its rivals.

It features all the expected contours like an accurate GPS, personalized training options and training plan, and an interactive sister app that helps you store your training data and set goals. I especially liked its Training Load and Recovery Pro features, which track your effort levels and offer workout suggestions of appropriate difficulty. To make sure my fitness level was nailed down, I underwent the watch’s performance test which assessed my current fitness and found training options that suited what I could do.

As a bonus, the Pacer Pro also has a built-in heart rate monitor, allowing Polar users to move away from the company’s classic but sometimes bulky chest strap. If you invest in the Pacer Pro, expect to pay an average price for a top-notch device.


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