It used to be that your watch started, stopped, and, if you were feeling adventurous, recorded a lap or two. Then came heart-rate monitors that allowed you to gauge your level of effort, help guide your workouts, and give you glorious post-workout data to gaze upon. Soon after, GPS watches miniaturized from their car- and marine-based origins and triathletes were able to accurately measure distance, pace, elevation, and more on their wrists. From there, the world of smartwatches has boomed into a one-stop shop for your training, racing, and data collection.
While this glut of functions and profiles has made getting the perfect watch a complicated (and potentially costly) exercise, it also means triathletes have more options than ever—if they just know what to look for.
Before you even begin shopping for a new smartwatch or looking for an upgrade, be realistic with yourself about when and what you’re going to use it for. For instance, while most smartwatches do have cycling functions and even advanced power/cycling dynamic capabilities, are you actually going to be using a watch to display and store your data while you bike? Most triathletes outsource that task to a dedicated cycling computer instead, but also like to have their race-day data all in one place—so then they’d want a watch that has a tri or multisport mode, even if they don’t use all of the cycling functions regularly.
Do you swim only in the pool or are many of your swims in the open water (like they should be!)? Not all smartwatches have open-water swimming functions, and not all of those that do, do it well.
Finally, and this is a big one—triathletes usually end up using their smartwatches often and for a lot. This could mean one to two workouts per day, but could also involve monitoring your sleep quality and resting heart rate at night. Non-triathletes don’t necessarily work out as much as we do (or crave as much data)—so you’ll need something that has the extra battery to last.
Accuracy Isn’t as Important as You Think (Kind Of)
This may sound counterintuitive to most triathletes, but the reality is that you only need your smartwatch’s GPS to be consistent, not military-grade accurate. You’re not trying to dock a space shuttle or execute a surgical missile strike here, you’re trying to do mile repeats on a bike path. Most of today’s smartwatch GPS capabilities are accurate enough for 99% of what triathletes do.
On the other hand, while most smartwatches today have built-in optical heart-rate monitors, it’s important to know that those are notoriously inaccurate and sometimes inconsistent when it comes to measuring heart rate while training hard.
Optical sensors rely on a light shining onto your skin and measuring how much light is reflected back due to blood flow. There’s a lot in that process that can inhibit an accurate reading, even from minute to minute—skin color, watch tightness, hair, and the list goes on. Does this mean optical heart rate measurement is worthless? No, but know what you’re getting.
The best optical heart-rate monitors will average out to be pretty close to the consumer gold standard of a chest strap monitor (that senses your heart’s electrical impulses), but an optical sensor is typically not as good at detecting sudden changes or as reliable on short intervals—especially as you jostle around during quick pickups.
This means that optical heart-rate monitors work best for daily, long-average measuring—the kind that tells you your resting heart rate or how recovered you are—or on longer workouts with less fluctuation in heart rate. And for many athletes, especially a large number of women for whom chest straps can painfully chafe with sports bras, optical heart-rate monitors are the best option. What they might lose in accuracy, they more than make up for in comfort and convenience.
So What Matters in a Smartwatch?
For triathletes, battery life is one of the most important places to start when choosing a smartwatch. If you want to squeeze every drop out of your purchase, you’ll want to use it while running, while swimming (pool and open water), while you do daily activities (to measure recovery, stress, and more), and while you sleep (to measure sleep length/quality). That’s a lot of data that needs to be collected, stored, and processed. For this reason, in the smartwatch guide below, we’ve listed the advertised battery time and also the “triathlete’s battery time” with 24-hour use and multiple workouts per day.
Aside from battery life, the ideal watch should be easy to use, fit your wrist, have the sport profiles you want, stand up to the rigors of real triathlete use, and have enough lifestyle functions so that you can wear it as much as you want (to collect all of that glorious, improvement-making data you crave).
Keep reading for our expert-tested guide with tri-relevant specs and ratings on seven new or interesting smartwatches from a wide range of prices.
Related: Triathlete’s 2022 Smartwatch Guide