For the first time the GPS giant has ditched the chest strap in favour of optical heart rate (OHR) sensors to power its suite of bpm-based training features on the Garmin Forerunner 225, which costs $299.99.
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But is this Garmin playing catch up or will its new GPS watch give the other heart rate watches a run for their money?
Wareable's resident running tech expert Kieran Alger has been putting it to the test. Read our Garmin Forerunner 225 review to find out how it performed.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Design and build
From the front, the Garmin Forerunner 225 has a very familiar feel to it, retaining a lot of the Garmin Forerunner family DNA. It has the same round face as the Forerunner 220 and 620, the same colour LCD display – although this one's not a touchscreen – and the same side button controls. Even the soft silicon strap is in keeping with Garmin's other most recent watches.
Garmin has hit on a formula that works, with watches unapologetically built for sport still managing to look good. While it's true that the 225 definitely sits more comfortably alongside a technical running shirt than anything you might find in the Ralph Lauren store, it's still a watch you can get away with wearing all day. The simple design with red detailing gives it a classier look than some of the more out-there bright GPS watches we've seen.
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When you flip it over you start to see where the 225 is a different beast from previous Forerunners. For a start, at 16mm thick, it's noticeably chunkier than its closest relatives, the 220 and the 620.
But while it's a bit fatter, thanks to the added bulk that comes from having the latest version of the Mio optical heart rate sensor (OHR) built into its body, it's still impressively lightweight at just 54g. That makes it comfortable to wear over long periods to the point you can forget it's there.
Garmin has also added a small circle of silicone to the underside around the OHR sensor that hugs the wrist, helping prevent ambient light leaking in and affecting the accuracy of the LEDs. This silicon seal can have a tendency to dig in if you over-tighten the strap and while that tends to be advised to ensure HR accuracy, you'll need to strike a balance.
In addition to good looks and comfort, robustness is vital in a good running watch and the 225 handles the knocks of everyday usage with ease. It's water resistant up to 50m so you can keep it on in the shower and it's hard wearing enough to survive in the bottom of a sports bag without trouble.
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We've seen new watches like the TomTom Cardio Runner eschew buttons in favour of a central joystick control and watches like the Adidas Fit Smart minimise the number of buttons for a clean design, but Garmin has stuck with the classic watch approach of side button controls.
There are five buttons in total for the 225, which can require a little getting used to if you're not a Garmin user. A big plus is that both the controls and the menus are intuitive enough to learn without reaching for the user manual. Once you're familiar they're very simple to use on the move. Unlike some devices, it's hard to get lost on the 225. The menus are logical and navigating between them is made easy with a really obvious back button.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Heart rate tracking
The Forerunner 225 wrist based heart rate zone training feature makes it simple to separate your recovery runs from your endurance base builders and your threshold sessions from your maximum training runs. It uses colour coding on the watch's LCD display to show you what zone you're running in in real-time, along with your current bpm rate, changing as you shift up and down through the five different heart rate zones. The watch also vibrates and beeps to alert you when you've hit, or strayed off, the right beats per minute.
You can also use Garmin Connect to create almost any kind of custom HR interval session and the watch vibrates and beeps to alert you when you're working at the right bpm.
You can use the Garmin Connect online tools to create almost any kind of custom HR interval session, including single zone or combined zone sessions. Sending them to the device is straightforward either via USB or wirelessly. In our tests there were some syncing issues but mainly just where syncing took a little longer than we'd like.
Each session you create can pair one of the five heart rate zones – Active Recover, Aerobic Threshold, Tempo, Sub Lactate Threshold and Lactate Anaerobic Threshold – with time or distance parameters for an infinitely personalised training session.
For those who need a little help, there are also professionally designed off-the-shelf heart rate based training packages that can be tailored to your needs, adding a few extra details such as how long you have to train, how often you can run and your current fitness levels. These training plans can be loaded onto the watch itself, letting you see what you need to do on any given day without having to go back online or fire up the app.
When it comes to the accuracy of the 225's heart rate tracking, there were quite significant differences up against the Polar M400, which uses a standard ECG chest strap. For example during one of our hour-long runs the Polar clocked our average heart rate at 116bpm, max at 173 and minimum at 60 while the Garmin registered 111bpm average, 151 maximum and doesn't provide a minimum. In real time there was often a 3-5bpm difference between the two.
The Forerunner 225 has heart rate smarts for when you're not running too. If at any point you want to get your current heart rate you simply scroll to the HR display. That triggers the heart rate sensor which otherwise sits dormant in order to preserve battery life. It's a real shame that the watch doesn't store the reading when you do this. The ability to chart your progress against goals like lowering your resting heart rate would be a very welcome addition.
Another bugbear is that if you want heart rate zones that are specific to you rather than the pre-loaded default HR zones, which work off the often used formula 220 – Age, Garmin requires you to change the information manually. Rather than the watch learning how your heart rate might be improving with your training and updating automatically, you need to manually adjust your resting and maximum heart rate for the zones to be accurate to your current fitness levels.
For example, if you hit a new maximum heart rate on an all out 5km run, we'd like the Garmin 225 to register that information and adjust your heart rate zones accordingly. It doesn't.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Activity tracking
While its biggest trick is clearly on-the-wrist heart rate tracking, there's much more to this watch than bpm. In addition to heart rate, Garmin has crammed some of the best features from its existing running and fitness range into the 225. On top of GPS, you'll also find activity and sleep tracking which makes this a much more capable all-rounder.
Your current step total is displayed on the home screen in watch mode along with a range of other handy stats including step goal, distance covered, calories burned that day and current heart rate.
We love the fact that unlike some activity trackers, the Forerunner 225 will automatically adjust your daily steps goal based on your recent activity. This virtual activity coaching is a welcome motivational tool. You can also set the watch to give you a gentle vibrating reminder – a move-your-ass alert – if you've been stationary for too long.
The on-board accelerometer that makes the activity tracking possible also lets you track your indoor runs, should you need to take to the treadmill.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Sleep tracking
The Garmin Forerunner 225's sleep tracking function works just like the Vivoactive, breaking down your shut eye into light sleep, deep sleep and awake, although in order to view any of this detail you'll need to sync it to your smartphone or a desktop to see the stats.
At this point you'll also get access to a breakdown of your movement during the night. It's a nice addition that you might not expect in a running watch but the information is a bit limited to be of any real use.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Other features
Once you've paired your 225 with your smartphone via Bluetooth LE, you can use the Live Tracking feature to instantly share details of your run in real time with friends and family anywhere in the world via social media. It works much like any marathon race tracker where people get a link they can use to follow your run on a live-tracking map.
One noticeable omission on the 225 is the running dynamics that we loved on the Forerunner 625. While you can get post-run cadence data once you've synced with Garmin Connect, there's no foot strike rate info displayed on the watch itself. We'll expect to see all of this tech combined in a top range 625 somewhere down the line.
Garmin Forerunner 225: Apps and stats
The Forerunner 225 works alongside the recently renovated Garmin Connect online platform and smartphone apps to let you do a vast range of things like create and manage training plans, get more hands-on with your post-run data, connect with other runners via the Garmin community, earn badges or pool your data from other Garmin tracking devices into one destination.
One thing we love with Garmin Connect is the ability to sync your Garmin run data with other apps like Strava and Endomondo. By connecting your Garmin account with these apps, any runs you log also register on those platforms so that you can get the best of both worlds. While Garmin has its own Segments feature that lets you virtually race certain routes against other runners, it's by no means as good or as established as Strava so it's great to still be able to compete on Strava while using the Forerunner 225.
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Connect has its foibles, for example the way it displays your heart rate zone data from any given run is pretty poor compared to something like Polar Flow, which gives you information like the number of minutes you've spent in each zone. However, since its relaunch, the platform has been constantly evolving and Garmin's efforts to improve it are obvious. It's by no means the easiest or the best online partner tool but it's getting better.
There's more good news too, as the Forerunner 225 can be updated using Garmin Express allowing for continued software improvements, new features and tweaks that mean you get a better watch each time Garmin finds a better way to do things.
When it comes to staying power, according to Garmin, the Forerunner 225 claims 7-10 hours with the GPS and heart rate monitor on. In our tests we didn't quite make it to the full 10 hours – we got closer to seven – but that's more than adequate for most marathon runners. With average use of the GPS and heart rate (running an hour a day) combined with everyday wear, our review unit went a good five days without needing to be recharged. That's a pretty good performance.
- Chest-strap free heart rate training
- Syncs with other running apps
- Live tracking lets friends follow your runs
- No running dynamics
- No micro-USB charging
- Not as exact as a chest strap