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6 best GPS fitness and smartwatches in 2024, according to a competitive athlete

I'm a competitive distance runner, but anyone can enjoy the features of these Apple, Garmin, Google, Coros and Polar GPS fitness and smartwatches.

two men's wrists and arms wearing gps smart watches and gps watches on green, blue and orange background, gps watches, best running watches, best gps watches, best fitness trackers, two arms wearing running watches gps watches, 6 best GPS watches that will help you achieve your fitness goals in 2024 (photos via Alex Cyr).
6 best GPS watches that will help you achieve your fitness goals in 2024 (photos via Alex Cyr).

It’s no secret that our society is deep in the throes of a years-long fitness kick. These days, the people I encounter at gyms — and offices, elevators and restaurants — are more likely to know their heart rate variability than their social insurance number. Years of being locked out of gyms and swimming pools have led to a massive health and wellness counter-swing; that's a great thing.

A heightened collective interest in our own biometric data is leading to an industry of wearables that appears to reinvent itself every year. The pieces of tech we wear for exercise, recovery and sleep are much more powerful than they were in the pre-pandemic times or even last year; they are also far more expensive. When deciding on a fitness tracker, you cannot go wrong with the six options I tested and listed below: they all have good battery life, impeccable GPS capacities, and many of them might even alert you of an irregular heartbeat. Yet, they all vary from each other in subtle but important ways. Read on to find out which smartwatch is best for you.

At some point in the last year, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 appeared to become as ubiquitous as the iPhone. I’m not surprised: even at $1,099, this versatile wristpiece is a good investment for Apple users. Behind its bright, customizable display and titanium shell is basically a copy of your iPhone with access to your apps, podcasts, music, fitness profile, wallet and more. The Ultra 2 also comes with a few new tricks: on-device Siri, a precision finder for your other Apple devices, and a sleek functionality that lets you control the bezel by simply double-tapping your index and thumb together.

All that said, the Ultra 2 comes with a few minor pitfalls for hardcore athletes. The head is relatively clunky compared to Apple’s smaller models, or, say, any Garmin Forerunner; and the array of functionalities are also enough to confuse those who want just pace and time. Yet, there is no better option for those who want a mini-phone on their wrist.

  • Most sophisticated bezel and interface
  • Sensitive to heart rate
  • Fun double-tap functionality
  • Clunky
  • Glitchy pairing with Strava
$1,100 at Best Buy Canada
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$1,100 at Amazon Canada

If, one day, I dare to scale the Himalayas, I will want the Polar Grit X2 Pro on my wrist. Yes, this Swiss-army-knife-as-a-watch costs a small fortune, but it has the muscle to back it up. Not only is it physically indestructible (the bezel is stainless steel wrapped around scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass) it also comes with military-grade navigation tech. That includes a GPS map accessible even when offline, which provides accurate elevation profiles, an altitude meter, a turn-by-turn way forward and also directions on how to return to any previous point of your journey.

It’s the antidote to Murphy’s law. What I like about it is that it also meets my more basic fitness requirements: like inferring my effort levels and workout readiness from my heart rate.

  • Military-grade navigation tech
  • Scratch-resistant screen
  • Sophisticated sleep tracking
  • Heavy on the wrist
  • Complicated onboarding
$1,100 at Polar

While the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is becoming a popular wristpiece for the masses, COROS is positioning itself as the watch brand for professional athletes. You don’t have to be a world-class runner or triathlete to buy and enjoy the Vertix 2s, but using its specs will make you feel like one. It has an optical sensor that captures accurate heart rate data, gives personalized nutrition tips, and even produces incoming storm alerts. All of it is displayed — along with pace and distance, of course — on an endlessly sexy and user-friendly COROS app that integrates seamlessly with Strava, the fitness platform for athletes. 

There is no confusion that the watch is made for high performance. The Vertix 2s’ entire package is more rugged than that of the Apple Watch or Garmins, and it is tough as nails: the titanium bezel and sapphire screen can withstand extreme cold and heat and even works 100 metres underwater.

  • Ultra-compatible with third-party apps
  • Built-in training system
  • Huge battery life
  • Obvious sports watch aesthetic
  • Display could be brighter
  • Irritating strap
$699 at Coros

I’ve been a competitive distance runner for more than a decade, and the Garmin Forerunner 965 is the most useful to me while training than any watch on this list. Sure, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has no parallel as a round-the-clock wearable, but from the start of my workout to the end of it, I’m all 965. 

Here’s why: many wearables collect a bunch of data, and then feed them to you with no conclusion; whereas the Forerunner 965 collects information on your sleep quality, previous week of training, and heart rate variability, compares it to your scores over time, and provides suggestions on how hard to push based on previous sessions. 

The prompts help me avoid overtraining, even injury, and the suggestions make sense: they are on par with plans prescribed to me by running coaches, and I now trust them enough to guide my decision about the timing of hard workouts. The watch is also just 49 grams, which is incredibly light for the punch it packs.

  • Accurate training load data
  • Amazing battery life
  • Triathlon-friendly
  • Less integration with phone than Apple or Google watch
  • More frail than the Grit X2 and Vertix 2s
$800 at Amazon
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$800 at Best Buy Canada$800 at Walmart

If you are in the market for a smartwatch that is an extension of your phone, you will likely choose between the Ultra or the Pixel based on whether you are already beholden to team Apple or Android. I’m an Apple guy, and had never tried a Pixel Watch until Google gifted me this one for testing. 

It’s like a Fitbit on steroids, with a full library of workouts and mindfulness sessions, which are more helpful for people looking for guidance or motivation than experienced athletes. The latter may find the offering elementary and prefer the deep data from, say, a Vertix 2s. Yet, because I am strung higher than most, the draw of the Pixel 2 for me was the stress feedback. 

The watch suggests mindfulness practices based on bodily feedback it collects like heart rate and skin temperature, with souped up sensors from the original Pixel. Now, the watch won’t destress you on its own — that's on you — but the reminders to take a breather are nonetheless helpful.

  • In-depth monthly analysis on sleep profile
  • Comes with six free months of Fitbit Premium
  • Affordable
  • Lacks in high-level training data
  • Auto-workout mode can be too sensitive
$479 at Amazon
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$480 at Best Buy Canada

These days, high-quality wearables for under $300 are hard to come by; but the Garmin Forerunner 55 is the exception. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Forerunner series because, as a distance runner, these watches provide me with the simple yet crucial basics — pace, time, distance — without having to forage through a network of functionalities. 

Sure, you may not be able to accept calls, send emails or double tap your way through three dozen apps like with the Apple Watch; and I’ve found the personalized functions like the race time predictor and fitness calculator to be less on target for me than those from the Coros Vertix 2s or the Polar Grit X2. But the Forerunner is indistinguishable from its counterparts during a workout — other than the fact that it’s pleasantly lighter. 

Bonus: less frills means less battery usage. The Forerunner 55 can live for two weeks without a charge.

  • Comfortable silicon band
  • Long battery life
  • Straightforward interface
  • No phone/computer-like capacities
  • Limited data collection capacities
$270 at Amazon
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$270 at Best Buy Canada$270 at Running Room

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