Finding a good GPS watch for your ultramarathon – the training and the race itself – requires some research. In this post, I’ve broken down the key features you should focus on, and make recommendations on different models.
The requirements of an ultramarathon GPS watch are way different from your regular GPS watches.
For example, for my day-to-day training runs I tend to use my Apple Watch. It’s functional, it syncs with my iPhone, and the GPS and Strava app are definitely decent quality.
But I only use my Apple Watch for runs shorter than around 25 miles.
Once you’re into ultra-distance runs, you need a GPS watch which has great battery life. Some other features such as heart-rate monitoring are handy too.
Let’s look at some of these features:
What I Look For In An Ultramarathon GPS Watch
Battery life is a key feature of an ultra-running watch. Most GPS watches on the market are good for 8 – 10 hours, then you’re on your own.
So finding a GPS watch that boasts and extended ‘GPS Active’ battery life is essential. You should also consider the length of ultras you’re running, and the maximum time you’d expect to be out in the field.
An important factor to consider is the ‘sample frequency‘.
This is how frequently the watch checks your position.
A regular GPS watch will record your position every second; however some will have different settings to allow you to extend this to up to once every minute, in order to extend the battery life.
While this is a great feature, it leads to less accurate real-time position / speed data when you’re on your run. So be aware that when a watch advertises “up to 50hrs battery life”, you should check the sample rate of those 50hrs.
In other words, these are things the watch tracks which gives you information about your performance. A watch with a heart-rate monitor is useful, especially if you have been tracking your HR in training runs, or are training based on HR zones.
Altitude is also useful, as you can pace your efforts dependent on the difficulty of the gradients.
Finally, some navigational features can be useful (dependent on the nature of where you run, or your race). I once ran a self-navigated trail race where the race director sent my the trail route as a data file before the race began.
Ability to Re-charge While Running
This is a feature specifically for really long races, where you’re going to be out for 15hrs+. Several watches still function while being re-charged: good models include the Garmin Fenix 5 series, the Suunto Ambit Peak, and the Suunto Spartan series.
Good Software Platform
Modern technology gives us the ability to go back through the data of our running GPS watches and analyse every aspect of our run.
Comfort and Durability
A good GPS watch should also be comfortable for wearing while running for hours on end, and durable enough to withstand the hours of knocking and sweating they’ll inevitably be exposed to. All the watches I recommend below fall into these camps.
Added bonuses like the ability to sync over wifi, play music, etc. all come down to personal preference and budget.
The Garmin Fenix series for ultramarathons
The Garmin Series 5 Plus range are really leading the way these days for ultramarathon watches. Though expensive, they are top performers in every feature and are packed with extras.
Here’s a breakdown of the range:
The smallest of the Fenix 5 Plus range, the 5S boasts a GPS battery life of up to 11hrs, or 25 hrs in ‘UltraTrac’ mode (lower sampling rate).
It also can store up to 500 songs, has navigational maps. The ‘S’ stands for small – it is well suited to women, or thinner-wristed runners (like myself!).
The most popular watch in the series, the Fenix 5 Plus boasts a GPS life of up to 18hrs, or 42hrs in UltraTrac mode.
Note that listening to music roughly halves the watch’s battery life. Like the other watches in the series, it even features ‘Garmin Pay’ contactless payment system!
The ‘X’ is the best-in-class watch in the range, for the serious distance runner. Boasting up to 32 hours of GPS time (or up to 70 in UltraTrac mode), as well as a blood-oxidation monitor for sleep improvement and altitude acclimation monitoring), the ‘X’ is slightly bulkier than the other two watches in the line.
More Ultramarathon GPS Watches
And here’s my pick of some other brands’ offerings:
The Suunto 9 Baro watch really stands out in terms of potential battery life. By using it’s Intelligent Battery Mode, you can be tracking your activity for up to 120hrs before this thing will die on you.
The secret behind this is the ‘Fusedtrack’ technology – the watch checks your GPS position less often than it regularly would, and uses it’s sensors and algorithms to adjust and ‘fill in the gaps’. Field reports suggest this technology is pretty reliable and getting better. One for the 100-milers!
On the cheaper end of the ultramarathon GPS spectrum, the Suunto Spartan is built for a variety of activities.
There’s no HR monitor built-in (though you can purchase an optional HR chest strap), and the watch has a maximum GPS life of 26 hours – though it maintains a good sample rate of 1 second.
Which features are important to you when choosing a new ultra-running GPS watch?
Which model are you currently running in?
Anything to recommend to me?
Leave a comment below!