How to buy...a sports watch

Looking to up your jogging game? Strap on a top tracking ticker with our handy guide…

It’s a tough task, counting your steps every time you hit the pavement – not to mention taking your pulse and timing your PB as you sweat around the park, avoiding the dogs and detritus that litter your route to running glory.

If self-measurement has left you exhausted, it might be time to invest in a sports watch: fitness focussed and increasingly smart, today’s crop of clever wrist screens carry enough sensors to keep Usain Bolt abreast of his speedy particulars, with nifty modes for just about every discipline.

Smarter than your average pedometer but tougher than your pricey automatic, these dedicated sports assistants do the hard work when it comes to logging your vital stats, leaving your free to enjoy the open road – or the sweaty scent of the gym. Not sure where to start when it comes to the world of tech-toting tickers? Allow us to assist.

The Basics: 1) How smart?

First decision: do you want your sports watch to also be a smartwatch? Many sport-focused models offer features like notifications from your phone, but truly smart watches run operating systems like Apple’s WatchOS or Android Wear.

This means compatibility with third-party apps like Strava, giving you more choice for your tracking. Some standard smartwatch software is also excellent  - Apple's Workout app, for example, is excellent for both indoor and open water swimming.  

The downside? Smartwatches tend to have far shorter battery lives than dedicated sports watches. So if you need something for marathon training, you'll need something with a narrower focus... 

Buy this: Apple Watch Series 2 (from £369)

Read our full review

2) Built to last

Need a running watch to track your next marathon? You’ll need one that keeps going for hours in GPS mode. These ones, like the Polar M400, tend to have fairly low-res screens, but compensate with stamina.

If you don’t need built-in GPS for tracking pace and distance, general fitness watches like the Fitbit Blaze will keep going for several days. It’s also worth considering just how tough you need your ticker to be.

Models like the Nixon Mission can take a serious knock, courtesy of a durable polycarbonate case and sturdy steel bezel, together with a heavy duty Gorilla Glass display – ideal for logging your rock climbing, crack-free.

Get this: Polar M400 (£120)

Read our Nixon Mission review

3) How's your heart?

Heart-rate monitoring is your key to more accurate fitness tracking and super-insightful workouts. Chest straps like the Myzone MZ-3 are still the most accurate HR trackers, but the optical sensors in watches – which measure blood flow in your wrist – are fine for ballpark tracking.

Some use this to help you try excitingly painful new exercises like sprint intervals, while others like the Garmin Vivoactive HR offer always-on monitoring.

Get this: Garmin Vivoactive HR (£210)

Read our full review

Next steps: 4) Branching out

Most sports watches (and many new fitness bands) are happy tracking your steps and heart-rate, but what if you're looking for some more sport-specific stats? Garmin’s Fenix 3 HR is here for everything from rowing and cycling to skiing, swimming and climbing.

Rather than the generic activity logging, its individual modes deliver data specific to the chosen discipline – whether stroke rate or stride length. And it's also particularly adept at running tracking when paired with the HRM-Run chest strap.

If that’s more than you need, a number of wrist-wrappers offer more focused tracking: Garmin’s Forerunner 630, for example, is obsessed with running metrics like cadence and vertical oscillation, if little else.

Get this: Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire HR

Now add these...

Bluetooth headphones

Not every sports watch has tunes on-board, but those that do have music storage deserve sweat-proof wireless headphones like the Outdoor Tech Orcas Wireless (£70). They're super-lightweight, and are also splash-proof and water-resistant for fending off surprise showers.   

Heart-rate strap

Optical watch sensors not accurate enough for your elite training? Heart-rate straps will take you to the next level – Suunto’s Bluetooth Smart Sensor (£65) is even waterproof for swimming.