Sports and wearable tech go hand-in-hand, and the GPS running watch, such as the new Polar M400, is one of the most prevalent wrist-worn devices. However, should you buy an expensive running watch or will a simple app on your phone suffice? We look at the differences, and help you discover which is right for you.
Essential reading: Best running apps
Running watch vs running app: The stats
Both basic running apps and entry level running watches deliver the same sorts of basic information, which is distance, pace, time and most often calories burned. For most people, that’s the limit of the data required, so for simple tracking fair-weather runners will find an app more suited to their needs.
However, if you’re really interested in the science of your running, more dedicated watches such as the Garmin Forerunner 15 or TomTom Cardio Multisport can produce really interesting stats that can make changes to your training. Cadence, for example, helps you work out how efficiently you’re running, and heart rate monitoring can totally change the way you train.
Essential reading: Your running stats explained
Just to complicate matters, apps like Runkeeper and Runtastic can pair with heart rate monitors, so getting detailed stats doesn’t always require a watch at all.
Running watch vs running app: Tracking
Your running app will work mainly via GPS, which enables your phone to work out how far you’ve gone, how fast and keep tabs on your pace, before placing your performance into one super map.
Unfortunately, some sports wearables don’t take this into account (Withings Pulse, Samsung Gear Fit, we’re looking at you) so unless you buy a GPS running watch, you’re allowing your device to track your miles using arm movements – which is about as accurate as it sounds.
A GPS running watch will solve that issue, and many use alternative sensors to keep tabs on your body position, and use barometers and heart rate sensing tech to give you a full picture of your workout.
Running watches such as the Garmin Fenix 2 have the ability to help you interval train, and can even guide you on routes and workouts you set up before hand, offering a much better tool for your training.
Running watch vs running app: Accuracy
While most running watches and apps run using GPS, the former often fares better when it comes to accuracy. We tested the Garmin Fenix 2 and Runkeeper on the Samsung Galaxy S5 over the course of a half marathon – and we were shocked by the difference.
Full verdict: Check out our Polar M400 review
While the watch recorded 13.2 miles (0.1 of a mile out from the official course), Runkeeper reported a massive 14.1 miles. That resulted in inaccurate race splits of nearly a second per mile faster than our actual pace, which caused us to miss our target time.
For runners in training, this is a serious problem. Inaccurate reporting of pace can leave you under-prepared and disappointed.
Running watch vs running app: Battery life
There’s nothing that can drain a phone battery like GPS tracking, and taking your phone out for a long run can leave it decimated. Again, however, an average training run can be completed without a problem.
Most running watches will be good for a couple of long runs, but as most use proprietary chargers the issue is making sure it’s powered up ready for your run. The Fenix 2 is the best we’ve tested, which will last for 50 hours of GPS tracking and nearly five weeks of general use on a single charge.
Running watch vs running app: Music
Now this is where apps get their revenge. If you listen to music on your runs, then you might well need to take your phone anyway. A handful of watches such as the Adidas miCoach Smart Run can store 4GB of MP3s and play out to Bluetooth headphones, but if your playlists are held on Spotify like ours, you’ll be strapping on two devices. Many will feel that since their phone is an essential part of the run anyway, for entertainment and safety, using a watch is superfluous – and for many, it will be.
Running watch vs running app: Verdict
Unsurprisingly, choosing between a GPS watch and a running app isn’t easy. If you’re serious get a watch and if you just like to stay fit then stick with an app – that seems to be a good rule of thumb. However, the tough question is where to draw that line?
The fact is that you don’t have to be an Olympian to get the benefit of a running watch. From our testing, your training plans can come unstuck by relying on the flimsy accuracy of phone-based apps. If you’re training for a race, then make sure you’re evaluating your performances on accurate information.
If you're looking to get more from your training with wearable tech, check out our running hub, full of guides to the latest watches and how to use them to be a better runner.