In ultra-running, we go the extra mile. To be able to do this and keep track of our performance, watches for ultra-runners may need a few extra features. There are great watches out there for marathons but for an ultra, they may just not cut it.
For ultra-running, you are looking at some extra features on top of what other watches can offer. What these extras are, can vary from runner to runner, pending on what kind of ultra they are planning to run.
A road race may require different features to a trail run, which may ask for more precise elevation or altitude features.
It is important to look at what features you exactly need and buy a watch accordingly. Keep in mind that if a watch has more features or is more expensive it does not necessarily mean that it is better suited for you. If you’re still getting into Ultra running, make sure to check out out ultimate guide to ultra running article.
We took a look at all the watches suited for ultra-runners – if you’re looking to save time, see out top pick and top budget pick below!
Our Top Picks
How do running watches work?
Running watches or GPS — Global Positioning System watches work via satellites that are in orbit around planet earth. This way they can determine your exact location by trilateration. This is not to be confused by triangulation what you can often read for being used on GPS watches.
“As GPS satellites broadcast their location and time, trilateration measure distances to pinpoint their exact position on Earth. While surveyors use triangulation to measure distant points, GPS positioning does not involve any angles whatsoever.”
What orbiting satellites do is broadcast a signal for your GPS receiver to pick up with a specific time and distance. Remember, we are measuring distances, not angles.
When a satellite sends out this signal, we know the distance but not the angle. This distance knowledge will form a circle equal in all directions around your GPS watch. Now imagine that at least three satellites do this at the same time. The satellites will have different locations in orbit.
With one satellite signal, your watch can be anywhere in that circle. However, with a second signal, you will now have two circles that will touch each other. This is not enough to determine your exact location because the precise position can be any of the two points where the circles intersect. To pinpoint an exact location, we need a third satellite signal.
This third signal will lock in on your GPS watch, and now we have three circles locking into each other. Your location is where all three circles intersect.
Why battery life matters for an Ultra-Running Watch?
Battery life for an ultra-running watch matters because you run a longer distance than a marathon, and you do not want your watch to die on you.
Ultra-races can last from 50km, which will take roughly 5 hours to complete, to 100 miles or more. A 100-mile race has an average cut-off time of around 16 hours.
A standard, cheaper running watch may not last the distance and time, especially when you have GPS switched on at the most accurate level. This level will usually check your location every single second. The process of doing this eats battery life.
Hence, many ultra-running watches have battery life-saving features. This means that your location will be checked less frequently but still often enough to get an accurate reading. The Coros Apex has 120 hours battery life in this battery life-saving mode whilst the Garmin Enduro can last up to 200 hours or an incredible 300 hours with solar.
This is of importance to ultra-runners since some races may ask for exceptionally long periods of racing and activity.
There is however also a downside to this. The moment you switch to this longer GPS calculating mode, you will need to close some other battery-consuming features on your watch. You cannot have it all and there is a trade-off!
With ultra-marathons, Ironman’s, expedition adventure races, multi-day backpacking trips, and other long-distance activities like 24-hour mountain bike races, you need a watch that can keep track of time.
Especially for ultra-runners, one of the features when buying a watch is to look at the battery life of your favorite watches.
What is better, a multi-sport watch versus a running watch?
Nowadays, most GPS watches cover multiple sports and there is not that much difference between multi-sport watches and running watches anymore. Something to consider is in case you are doing a niche activity, that this is fully supported by your favorite watch. You may have to go for a different watch than you planned for since the support for your activity is not optimal in your first-choice watch.
If you are a triathlon athlete, you want to check if open water swimming is available as a feature on your desired watch. You will also need all cycling options to be top-notch. In case you are an ultra-trail runner, you may want to check the availability of altitude options on your watch.
Different watches each have various features that will make them stand out to their competitors. The Coros Apex is an excellent all-around watch with a nice price tag. If you, however, are looking for a watch with insane battery life, the Garmin Enduro is a better choice. A good all-around watch that has many features is the Garmin 245 or 245 Music. This watch ticks many boxes, but maybe not the boxes that you need to have ticked.
Doing your research before you buy an ultra-running watch is critical. You need to make sure that the watch you invest in can tick all the boxes that you want to be ticked.
Points that you want to check should include.
· Support for your sport of choice
· Accurate heart rate tracking
· Must be comfortable to wear
· A good smartphone app
Which Smartwatch features are most important?
Smartwatch features that are most important can be fitness trackers or how many steps you take in a day.
From an ultra-runner or triathlete perspective, it is important to understand that a smartwatch is not the same as a GPS multisport watch and vice versa.
Many smartwatches may claim that they can meet the needs of multisport athletes or ultra-runners, the reality is different. You will not find many ultra-runners with smartwatches wrapped around their wrists.
Some watches are specifically designed for ultra-running or multisport activities. We noticed already that the distinction between the two is fading since most GPS watches cater to multisport activities.
Foremost, the battery life of a smartwatch will not be able to keep up with the distance and time required to complete an ultra-race or triathlon. They will run out of juice before you get to the finish line. And what did the Romans already know; if it is not on Strava, it did not happen!
A smartwatch may also lack some of the features that you require for your sport of choice.
On the other hand, a GPS multisport watch has been designed and specifically made for ultra-running or triathlons or even both.
Ultra-running watches can handle the running, swimming, and cycling efforts giving them a hard time. They will also have the battery life to keep running straight for two days and two nights without having the battery charged. Most likely that is more than you can deliver! That is partly because of their durability. The other parts are the specific features they offer, so you can participate in your endurance activities.
The 5 watches we discuss fulfill all the ultra-running requirements. A smartwatch like an Apple Watch or the Samsung Galaxy Watch, unfortunately, does not cut the ultra-cake. They are great watches, but they are not designed with an ultra in mind. If you don’t have a specific ultra in mind yet, make sure to see our top ultra races article!
How does GPS affect battery life?
GPS does not affect battery life if you do not use it. The moment you start using an app that involves GPS, it starts to use up your battery energy.
The funny thing with ultra-watches is that they are made for running. Once we start running, the GPS apps start working, that is one of the points of having this watch to start with, right?
The backlight is about the only app that uses up more of your precious battery life than the apps that use GPS.
The more accurate you want your GPS position to be, the more battery life will be drained from your watch. The higher you want this position fix to be, the more accurate you will be tracked. Every single one of these GPS fixes will be recorded in your log file of each of your exercises.
If you want to extend your battery life, you need to reduce your GPS accuracy.
In general, the GPS accuracy options are:
· Best: ~ 1 sec fix rate
· Good: ~ 60-sec fix rate
· OK: ~ 120 sec fix rate
An interesting observation is that in the Garmin Enduro the battery life can be extended to 200 hours, however, if you switch to solar, you can extend the battery life to a full 300 hours. There are not that many ultra-races that require such a long GPS tracking period.
Just keep in mind that other apps can also drain your battery out of juice. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and vibration mode can also influence your battery life. We already mentioned a backlight, but what about music apps? The Garmin 245 Music runs out of juice faster if you listen to music.
The Suunto 9 for instance has three different battery modes. Pending on what activity you are about to participate in, you can choose any of these three settings.
· Performance mode can get up to 25 hours of battery life.
· Endurance mode can provide up to 50 hours.
· Ultra-mode, the watch can last up to a whopping 120 hours.
Is Garmin better than Apple Watch for running?
For running purposes, a Garmin is better than an Apple Watch. However, if you want to look slick and cool, the Apple Watch will most likely win hands down.
For ultra-running, this should not even be a question you should be asking yourself, right?
A Garmin watch will have more in-depth running functions and features compared to the top-line watch in the Apple Watch Series. The Apple Watch will have more generalized health apps and tracking. This can work for shorter distances but not really when you start to look at ultra-running distances for training and racing.
The price tag is also a consideration. In general, the Apple Watch will be more expensive compared to an average Garmin. The Garmin Enduro being the exception, but this is a watch, 100% geared to ultra- and endurance running.
The Apple Watch in contrast is more something for an everyday fitness enthusiast. The Apple Watch probably looks better but lacks in the specific features and analyzing options a running watch has to offer.
These two watches have not been designed for the same type of people when we look at specific running, let alone ultra-running features in a watch.