Run, Cycle, Swim: The Best Garmin Triathlon Watch 2016
A Garmin triathlon watch is designed for the most extreme of athletes, the ironmen and ironwomen who spend great lengths of time swimming, cycling, and running long distances, all in the same day. Training for a triathlon may sound like a crazy form of torture, but in fact, such intense training offers numerous health benefits.
Extreme Tracking with a Garmin Triathlon Watch
If you’re training for a triathlon, you don’t just want a running watch. You need something that’s waterproof and can track your swimming data, but you also need something that keeps tabs on your cycling as well. Although some triathletes insist that a running watch is all you need because the run is the most important part of the triathlon, the line of Garmin triathlon watches suggests otherwise. These are watches that truly fit the sport — they can monitor all three events and monitor them well.
Fortunately, when it comes to a proper tracker for this extreme sport, Garmin has triathletes covered, with several watches to track their training. There are two main price points for Garmin triathlon watches, consisting mostly of somewhat pricey choices plus a more budget friendly option.
But First, The Concessions
You’ll probably notice right away that many of the Garmin triathlon watches lack a built in heart rate monitor. This may seem like a glaring oversight on the part of the company, but it probably isn’t. That’s because wrist based heart rate monitors are almost never as accurate as chest strap models, especially when you’re overly sweaty or in the pool.
However, Garmin does have a solution: when you purchase any of the watches here, you have the option of purchasing a Garmin HRM-Run chest strap to go with it. It will run you an extra £30 when you buy your triathlon watch — that’s £50 less than if you buy the strap individually. Or, if you want more swim-related features on your heart rate monitor, you can separately purchase the HRM-Tri chest strap monitor, which we’ve detailed below.
Speaking of prices, not one of the Garmin triathlon watches is especially affordable. One big reason for that is the fact that they all include built in GPS, a feature that drives up the prices on any activity tracker. Throw in comprehensive features for all three triathlon components, plus conveniences like smart notifications and all day tracking, and you’ve got a serious purchase on your hands. All of your options in this category are well above the £100 mark, and all but one are over the £300 price point.
What’s the best Garmin triathlon watch for you? Here’s our take on the main options, along with one accessory.
1. Garmin Forerunner 920XT
The 920XT has been the Cadillac of triathlon watches since late 2014. It’s still going strong because it’s a well-appointed, GPS and GLONASS enabled sports watch that can do just about everything, and for the past two years, athletes have been willing to plunk down £389.99 for the privilege of owning one.
Let’s start with its abilities for the first triathlon component. When it comes to swimming, the 920XT can handle all of the following:
- Identify strokes.
- Track distance, time, laps, pace, strokes, and calories burned in a pool.
- Track distance, time, pace, strokes, and calories burned in open water (such as a lake).
- Calculate a SWOLF score.
As for the cycling component of the Garmin triathlon watch, the 920XT can track distance (thanks to GPS), but it can also keep tabs on speed and cadence with an optional sensor.
A Robust Running Tracker
Finally, there’s the all-important run; this Garmin triathlon watch is a robust running tracker that can:
- Track distance both outdoors and indoors on a treadmill.
- Keep track of personal records.
- Provide a V02 max estimate.
- Offer recovery advice.
- Serve as a race predictor.
The 920XT can also auto-detect rest periods in your training to keep your numbers as accurate as possible. Throw in all day activity tracking and all night sleep tracking, and you’ve got an impressive triathlon training device.
Obviously, the 920XT can handle all of your tri training needs, but it contains an accelerometer, so it can also function as an all day activity tracker and sleep tracker. Moreover, it can sync with your smartphone to deliver smart notifications. The battery life depends on if you have the GPS on or off; it’s a feature that’s a notorious battery drain. With GPS, you can expect up to 24 hours, but without it you’ll get closer to 40.
As for design, it looks like what it is: a sports watch. It’s oblong and chunky, it’s not sleek and it’s not stylish, but then again, it’s not really meant to coordinate with your weekday business casual attire (Garmin has other watches for that).
2. Garmin Fenix 3
Priced at £379.99, the Garmin Fenix 3 is a very recently released smart training watch. It’s priced similarly to the 920XT because it shares the majority of its features. Swimming, cycling, running — the Fenix 3 can do everything its older brother can do, plus it has a few added capabilities.
For example, for your cycling component, the Fenix 3 can store several bike profiles; it’s a helpful feature if you don’t always head out on the same set of two wheels. For the running component, the Fenix 3 has a virtual pacer, which allows you to try and beat a target goal that you’ve set. And of course, it can be used as a full activity and sleep tracker.
Beyond those little extras, the Fenix 3 also has some other unique features, like an electric compass and a barometric altimeter. Additionally, it’s able to track routes, thanks to its 32MB of onboard memory; it doesn’t sound like a lot, but recording route data doesn’t take up a ton of space. It also has complete golf tracking, like shot distance and a digital scoreboard, in case your idea of non-training relaxation is shooting 18 holes. Finally, you’ll get outdoor features like information about sun and moon times, tide tables, and hunting and fishing calendars.
Regarding design, the Fenix 3 has a round face and is a bit sleeker than the 920XT. Some Fenix editions are made from more refined materials like leather or titanium, though those cost more and are less practical for training purposes. (You probably wouldn’t want to spend the money on a leather band, only to jump in a chlorine-laden pool with it on your wrist.) And it’s rugged, though it’s not shock resistant like another Garmin triathlon watch discussed here.
Battery life is comparable to similar devices: about 20 hours with GPS, about 50 as a tracker, and up to six weeks if you just use it as a watch. If you want one with wrist based heart rate monitoring, the price goes up to £469.99. The Fenix 3 is a few years younger than the 920XT, which is important to triathletes who feel like they want the latest and greatest. It’s still pricey, of course, but it’s a good pick.
3. Garmin Forerunner 735XT
Another relatively new offering from Garmin is the Forerunner 735XT. With a retail price of £359.99, it does a lot that the 920XT and Fenix 3 can do, though it’s missing a few of the more premium features like multiple bike profiles and an electric compass. There’s no onboard storage like the Fenix 3 either, but it has the same swimming features and same running features, minus the virtual pacer, as the previous two watches.
The big draw of the 735XT is its optical heart rate monitor. Yes, unlike most of the other Garmin triathlon watches, this one does include wrist based monitoring. For triathletes who want a top calibre training watch but don’t want to spend extra on a separate heart rate monitor or simply don’t like the feel of the chest strap, it’s a huge feature. However, early reports indicate that its accuracy is inconsistent while cycling or swimming.
Battery life ranges from 11 to 24 hours, depending on the on/off status of both the GPS and the heart rate monitor. The display of the 735XT is rounded and a bit smaller than the Fenix 3 as well; it’s 215×180 pixels compared to the Fenix 3’s 218×218. Because of its smaller overall stature, it may be preferred by women, as a lot of sports watches then to look large and heavy on their smaller wrists.
In fact, the Garmin Forerunner 735XT feels like 90% of the Fenix 3, both in terms of size and features. Interestingly enough, it’s also roughly 90% of the Fenix 3’s price. It won’t necessarily do anything better than the other watches mentioned here, but if you want that heart rate monitoring from the wrist, then this should be your choice.
4. Garmin epix
The £419.99 Garmin epix is pricey, for sure, but it’s also like the Swiss Army Knife of sports watches. For tracking swimming, cycling, and running, it has all the features of all the other watches mentioned here, but it also has a handful of other advanced capabilities to justify its luxury price tag.
For starters, the built in memory on this thing is impressive. While the Fenix 3 offers 32MB, the epix has 8GB, allowing it to save up to 50 routes and thousands of points of interest. The epix also has preloaded TOPO Europe maps, so if you’re a triathlete who trains or competes in new places on a regular basis, this Garmin triathlon watch will ensure that you never get lost. Finally, the epix boasts a full colour touch screen, whereas most of the other Garmin triathlon watches use buttons for navigation.
The design of the epix is oblong but sleeker than the 920XT, and the shape is more conducive to looking at the preloaded maps. It’s also the heaviest Garmin triathlon watch on our list, weighing in at 85g. Some triathletes may not find the added capabilities of the epix worth paying for, but if you want the maps and the touchscreen, and if you’ve got over £400 to spend on a training watch, you really can’t go wrong with this one.
5. Garmin vivoactive
The vivoactive is the Garmin triathlon watch budget option, coming in at a suddenly reasonable £159.99. While the price is definitely a lot less steep than the other watches on this list, the vivoactive is probably best suited for triathletes who are just getting started or are less intense about their training.
That’s not to say that the vivoactive isn’t a good product — it’s a pretty nice smartwatch (or semi-smartwatch) with built in GPS that can handle the main tracking features for all three triathlon components plus golf tracking and everyday tracking. Here’s exactly what it can do for your tri training:
- Track your pool metrics, but not open water metrics. It also won’t auto-detect your stroke.
- Track time, distance, speed, and calories burned while you’re cycling.
- Track your running stats outdoors or on a treadmill.
Covering the Basics
There aren’t really any advanced features on the vivoactive, but if you just want the basics, it will deliver. It’s also got a colour touchscreen and music controls, and the design is actually excellent. It’s a lot more streamlined looking than the other, sportier options on this list. It’s like an ultra thin, ultra light (at just 38g) Apple Watch: black, sleek, and totally able to coordinate with your business wear.
The battery life is also good: up to three weeks in watch/tracking mode, and around ten hours with the GPS turned on. Want a vivoactive with wrist based heart rate monitoring? The vivoactive HR has you covered for £209.99.
The vivoactive really isn’t a bad choice if you’re in the market for a Garmin triathlon watch and you can’t justify spending upwards of (or over) £400. True, it’s missing a lot of the more advanced features of the 920XT, the Fenix 3, the epix, and the 735XT, but then again, it also costs around £200 less.
While you can order the HRM-Run for an additional £30 when you buy a Garmin triathlon watch, some serious triathletes may want to skip that and pay the £99.99 asking price for the HRM-Tri. What’s the difference? It mostly has to do with swimming heart rate and the ability to store data.
In short, the HRM-Run, while great for running, can’t track swim interval heart rate statistics, but the HRM-Tri can. Additionally, the HRM-Tri can store and forward heart rate data, while the HRM-Run can’t.
While both straps have a high 5ATM water resistance rating, unfortunately, neither of these two straps are pool chemical resistant or designed to not slip while you’re swimming. For those features, you’ll need the HRM-Swim; you can purchase an HRM-Tri/HRM-Swim accessory bundle for £149.99.
Another detail to be aware of with the HRM-Tri is that it’s compatible with most but not all Garmin triathlon watches. For example, while it will work with the 920XT, the 735XT, the Fenix 3, and the epix, it absolutely won’t work with the vivoactive. Actually, neither will the HRM-Run; for a chest strap to work with Garmin’s budget model, you’ll need to buy the one that comes as part of the vivoactive’s heart rate monitor bundle.
Train From the Wrist
If you’re training for this most gruelling of sports, Garmin has you covered. Any one device from the line of Garmin triathlon watches can give you the data you need to improve your times and train better. They may not be for the athlete on a tight budget, but buying one is an investment in your personal health and your personal best.
What’s your experience with a Garmin triathlon watch? What helps you get through all three components of this extreme race? Leave us a comment and tell us about it!