Believe the claims and the right triathlon watch will have Alistair Brownlee and Lucy Charles chasing your shadow. The hyperbole is a turn-off for committed sceptics but wade through the marketing and, though they might not win you an Olympic gold, tthe right multisport watch certainly have you training smarter and racing faster.
Just be aware of the pitfalls. Many a triathlete has been lured into purchase by a long and ‘scientifically-proven’ features list only to realise a month later that 99% of its capability simply isn’t required. If you’ve never used a heart rate monitor and are training for 3-4hrs a week, for example, will your triathlon performance benefit from spending upwards of £300 on a multisport watch that monitors your aerobic capacity, run cadence and cycling fatigue rating?
Also, remember that some of the metrics offered – ground contact time, for instance – are useful but arguably maximised by the intervention of a coach. Then again, if you’re aiming for podium finishes, digging deep will be worth it. You’ll refine your training, resulting in greater gains for the same effort.
But beyond our test, do your own research to confirm the efficacy of many ‘performance-changing’ features that are on multisport watches. Take sleep tracking, which is primarily monitored by the user’s movement. The gold standard requires measuring brainwaves and eye movement, which even a top-end Garmin or Suunto can’t do. Instead, watches or bands combine an accelerometer and an algorithm to estimate the quality and quantity of your sleep. Recent Chinese research highlights just how inaccurate this method is.
Best triathlon watches in 2021
This fiscal beast of a watch comes in at nearly £700 for the steel version (tested) and £800 for the titanium version. How do Garmin justify that price tag? Here’s how, the battery life. In fact, a battery life that’s greater than any sports watch to hit the market. As a sampler, we’re talking around 80hrs in GPS mode; two months in smartwatch mode; and up to 300hrs in ‘max-battery GPS mode’. This energy reserve’s down to a thin solar panel around the perimeter that’s purportedly 100% efficient at converting solar energy into chemical energy.
There’s also compromise as some familiar top-end Garmin features don’t make the cut. We’re talking in-built music and, more importantly, full topographical maps. This seems a strange omission for a watch pitched as the ultimate outdoor tool. Which, from its remaining feature list, it has grounds to claim. There’s the ultra-run feature, which logs the time you spend at aid stations; mountain-bike dynamics, that rather niftily rates trail difficulty and how smoothly you descend; and VO2max figures specific for trail running. Why specifically? It’s down to previous Garmin models underestimating aerobic capacity when off-road running because they failed to account for obstacles often found on trails like fallen trees, meaning the watch thought you were working harder than you were.
You can also measure your hydration, recovery, respiration and even your blood-oxygen status. So there’s a helluva lot here. Which will satiate the appetite of data-philes everywhere. But at a very high price. Impressive but personally, we’d save £200 and go for Garmin’s Forerunner 945.
Verdict: Huge amount of features but so very, very expensive, 73%
Wahoo Elemnt Rival
This is Wahoo’s first foray into the world of tri watches and it’s a divisive offering. At the end of last year, I interviewed Wahoo founder Chip Hawkins, an interesting character who you’ll hear more in an upcoming issue. Chip highlighted that key to this debut was usability; they’d stripped out features they’d deemed redundant to focus on ones that they deemed useful.
The key usable hit comes in the form of touchless transition tracking, where you don’t need to press one of the five buttons to signal you’ve moved from swim to T1 to bike to T1 to run. Instead, it gauges your body position to determine discipline. It’s a cracking idea and, on the whole, works well, yet it was much quicker recognising the move from T2 to run than T1 to bike. Why, we presume, must be down to the more jarring nature of the run. Whatever the reason, you’re given the option to correct splits before downloading to the app. Another fine trick is syncing to a Wahoo bike computer so you can see your swim split and on-the-fly bike data as you pedal.
It covers up to 60 sports, but you could argue pays lip service to many. You see, in stripping things back, you lack the deep physiological and performance analytics of its rivals at the same price point. Polar’s Grit X is just £30 more and comes with many more useful features. Another complaint is that GPS is a little slow on the uptake and the charging clip isn’t as authoritative as we’d like. Despite that, we enjoyed its usability and ease of viewing on the fly. We just wish it came in £100 cheaper.
Verdict: Usable but lacks features we’d expect at this price 74%
Garmin Forerunner 745
Garmin’s new FR 745 is essentially a slimmed-down FR 945 (see overleaf). A key advancement is its coaching capabilities where you’re given detailed daily workout suggestions based on training load. You can also tap into separate and pretty accurate cycling and running VO2max measurements (though not the swim but further swim metrics include HR data). As chest strap remains the wearable gold standard, the HRM Pro chest strap (£120) is a useful upgrade, and you can explore further run metrics.
Like the Fenix 6 and 945, it comes with a Pulse O2 sensor to measure oxygen saturation of your blood. This isn’t lab accurate but is useful for how well you’ve acclimatised to altitude. The coaching partner calculates how well you’ve adapted to the heat. You can utilise the ClimbPro feature for dissection of specific portions of climbs to help with pacing strategies; race-prediction time based on training history; accurate measuring of track sessions; PacePro, which allows you to upload a course and put in your hopeful finishing time before prescribing your pace; and even menstrual tracking.
There’s also Garmin Pay and music storage for 500 songs, the screen’s easy to use and you can really dial down in the great Garmin Connect. Yet battery is down on the 945 – just 16hrs with GPS on compared to 36hrs – and it lacks the mapping feature.
Verdict: Superb but let down by battery – go for the 945 instead, 79%
Read our full review of the Garmin Forerunner 745 here
Garmin Forerunner 945
Whereas the Fenix 6 offers a classier, more expensive package, the 945 is Garmin’s flagship ‘plastic’ multisport watch. Its 2019 release saw many improvements over the 935, including the option to play music directly from the watch to your headphones via Bluetooth without your phone, improved battery life, a new optical heart rate sensor and a host of tracking and analysis upgrades.
The 945 adapts its feedback if you’re training in hot conditions or at altitude, and generally the training analysis is incredibly detailed. Straight after a workout, you can see how your session benefitted you aerobically and anaerobically, and the Training Effect feature tells you how the session will impact fitness long-term.
You’ll need to wear the watch almost constantly to maximise the Training Load feedback, yet what’s great about the 945 is that, no matter how deep you go, it’s intuitive to use. The screen is big and clear and the colours look vibrant when using the excellent mapping features, while the battery life is a whopping 36hrs in GPS mode (and we had no problems with satellite pick-up on land).
All the connectivity we’ve come to expect remain on the 945, including instant sharing to third-party apps and smart notifications. Future editions could be lighter and smaller, and open-water swim accuracy remains slightly patchy, but the 945 has everything the modern triathlete could possibly want or need.
Verdict: The most complete tri watch we’ve used to date, 92%
Read our full review of the Garmin Forerunner 945 here
Coros Vertix 2
The headline feature on the Coros Vertix 2 is the incredible battery life, which offers up to 140 hours in its standard GPS mode. That’s great news for Ironman athletes or anyone tackling multi-day events. Though, admittedly, that figure does drop when the watch is used in its dual frequency mode (to 50 hours), which delivers impressive GPS pick-up in even the most built-up or mountainous areas.
The titanium model on test here is heavier than the Garmin Enduro (91g vs 61g), but is incredibly robust and durable. Much of that weight comes from the silicone strap, as the Enduro uses nylon.
You’ll find a large variety of profiles on the Vertix 2, including triathlon, and we found accuracy to be good across all disciplines. There’s also an ECG sensor, which measures your heart rate variability (which is essentially your readiness to train), which is a nice touch, but chest-strap sensors are more accurate.
Now onto the screen, which is okay. We found it a little dull and not quite as crisp as other watches in this price bracket. This is also true when using the map, but we do appreciate that it’s in colour and easily navigated via both the dial and the touchscreen. The lack of road names and points of interest is a shame though, but these are present on more expensive models.
The accompanying app works well, but we’d like to have seen connectivity available via ANT+ as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, as older power metres or sensors may not be supported.
Verdict: Great features and GPS, but too many anomalies at this price point, 77%
Polar Vantage V2
Polar’s original Vantage hit the market two years ago, with our resounding thumbs up concluding it was Polar’s best multisport watch to date. In the interim, the Finnish tech masters launched the Grit X, which proved arguably even better. So the V2 has a lot to live up to.
Unique to the V2 is a battery of fitness tests, from running to cycling to leg recovery, to gauge metrics like your aerobic capacity, functional threshold power and readiness to train. They’re useful, yet measurements like VO2max are often calculated in the background rather than requiring a standout day in your training plan. You’re also given neat music controls to tap into streaming services such as Spotify, though this is via your phone rather than the V2. Its battery life is impressive, too, at around 40hrs in full GPS mode.
They’re positive additions but the main upgrades over the V1 are taken from the Grit X, including Hill Splitter, offering you detailed performance about your ascents and descents; FuelWise, to guide you on beneficial factors like carbs per hour; and Energy Sources, to determine how much of your session tapped into fats and carbohydrates.
GPS is accurate; the optical heart-rate sensor’s not bad, either, but the usual caveats apply about lagging on high-intensity efforts. You can also route plan via signing up to Komoot, measure sleep and chart running power, plus tap into the Recovery Pro feature, though that requires a£40 spend on an HR strap. All in all, it’s impressive but V1 and Grit users would find it hard to justify the spend.
Verdict: All you need but underwhelms as a sequel to the v1, 78%
Best triathlon watches for those on a budget
Coros Pace 2
Hold onto your run caps – here’s a second edition multisport watch that’s £70 cheaper than the original. Which is good news for both Coros and triathletes as our model 1 review concluded: “Drop £50 and this’d be an absolute winner.”
When it comes to upgrades, Coros inform us its processor is 1.5 times more powerful, it has five times more RAM and four times more storage. That means a whole host of new features plus a 20% increase in battery life, up to 30hrs in full GPS mode. These include tapping into running-power metrics, which we can only see growing in 2021; the addition of training plans; and a neat night-mode that automatically enables backlight during workouts between sunrise and sunset.
It’s also frighteningly light at 29g – they claim the lightest in the world and we can’t argue – and drops from the four-button original to a single button and dial.There’s a strength training programme, which could come in useful for home workouts this off-season. It includes over 200 exercises and autodetects your bodily movements via sensors and accelerometers to calculate effort output.
Things that have remained are the key ones – that this is still a full-on multisport watch featuring tri mode. So all the usual metrics related to swim, bike and run, many deriving from the solid GPS and optical HR measurer. All syncing nicely to the usable Coros app for further analysis. With many usable features at such a good price, this is the watch Coros has been building up to.
Verdict: Coros’ best yet and a staggering watch for under £200, 90%
Garmin Forerunner 55
Another Forerunner to add to the pack, the 55 offers myriad features aimed at analysing and driving on your performance, including above average GPS and optical heart rate; daily suggested workouts based on your training and fitness; and GPS-based pace guidance.
We like the recovery advisor, which recommends rest periods after each workout. Although the 55 is heavily engineered toward the run leg, it’s also good for cycling and pool swim tracking, delivering a host of handy metrics including stroke count and swim efficiency. Battery life’s moderate, offering up to 20 hours in full-GPS mode.
Verdict: Another solid Forerunner model from Garmin, 81%
Polar Vantage M
The Polar Vantage M qualifies for this sub-£250 test by a solitary pound, though note that the M2’s also now available for just £20 extra. For that, you receive smartphone widgets, weekly summary and fuelling reminders. But the M’s core, performance-boosting features are impressive, including an optical heart-rate sensor that smooths out anomalies by reassessing in 60sec blocks.
Cardio Load’s a plus point, too, calculating your training effort over time to give an easy-to-quantify load based on your rate of perceived exertion out of 10. A huge 130 sports are covered including swim (pool and open-water), bike and run, though GPS pick-up and retention could be better. All the features are navigated via five crisp buttons.
Verdict: A worthy contender that’s easy to use and comes with ample metrics, 83%
Fitbit Versa 3
Fitbit’s Versa 3 is a delicious-looking gadget that now includes accurate built-in GPS, optical heart-rate sensor, dubbed the ‘PurePulse 2.0’, and oxygen-saturation measurement. Maybe Covid’s played a part in the latter’s emergence, but it’s hard to vouch for accuracy and we certainly wouldn’t rely on it to verify clinical problems.
Arguably more useful is the ability to control music from your watch, though this links to your phone which adds bulk. While the touchscreen’s reassuringly reliable, the button’s poor. Change, please. It terms of triathlon abilities, it’s sadly quite erratic. There’s no tri feature and like a couple others on test, the swim’s pool only. Run tracking, however, is good.
Verdict: An upgrade on previous models, but faces fierce competition, even at this price point, 72%