How To Choose The Best Triathlon Watch

If you are going to be running a triathlon and are looking for a smart watch, there are a few factors your should consider. You'll want to find one that measures the 3 major activities of a triathlon. In other words, the best triathlon watch is going to need to combine 3 things: open water swim mode, cycling, and a running/lap timer.

Basically, since there are 3 events to a triathlon, we decided to focus on watches that come with tracking features for all 3 events: swimming, running, and cycling. While we found many watches that had decent features for 1 or even 2 events, there were very few we found that actually excelled and tracking all 3.

There are a few key features that we consider must haves when it comes to choosing the best triathlon watch. Below we have included a guide to help you better understand what to look for. If you already know what to look for and just want to see our top picks, take a look at the table of contents to read our detailed product reviews.

Swimming Metrics

Swimming is an integral part of triathlon training. The most important thing to look at is ATM, or waterproofing. In general, an ATM of 5 or more is considered suitable for swimming with. You will also want to opt for a watch that has the following 2 features:

Swimming efficiency

Swimming efficiency or SWOLF is a tracking metric that measures swim efficiency. It is calculated by adding together the number of strokes per pool length divided by the total time per length. This can be a useful metric for tracking and improving your swim speed. However this may not be enough for someone who is going to be competing in a triathlon, which brings us to our next metric: open water tracking.

Open water swim mode

While there are quite a few waterproof smart watches that will track swimming, few have an open water swim mode. This is somewhat of a problem if you are going to be running a triathlon, as the generally take place in open water and not swimming pools. For this reason, we have chosen to ignore watches that do not have this feature (with the exception of the Magellan switch up, which is a budget option anyway) in order to ensure accurate triathlon tracking.

Running Metrics

Run tracking comes pretty much standard on any fitness tracker or smart watch. But there are a few advanced tracking functions to look for when choosing the best triathlon watch. Choosing a watch with these features will help you get the most out of your training:

Cadence, Ground contact time & Vertical Oscillation

Put simply, cadence is steps per minute. This is a highly variable metric and depends mostly on your height, weight, and stride length.

GCT is a metric that track the total time your foot takes to hit the ground and lift off, and vertical oscillation is the amount of time you bounce up and down with each step. While there is a lot we could say about this, to avoid going into extraneous detail we will just leave it at that.

We consider these 3 metrics must haves when doing any sort of running training, so all of our picks will include these functions in one form or another.

Cycling Metrics

Most smart watches that measure running will also have a cycling mode. Additionally, cadence can also be used to measure rotations per minute. And since all the watches on our list have a GPS option, you’ll be able to measure speed and distance as well.

Power Meter

Additionally, consider investing in a power meter if you are serious about measuring your cycling. You will be able to pair it with any smart watch that has ANT+ functionality. This will give you much more accurate cycle tracking. The downside is that these units do not come cheap.

A word on heart rate

Most watches have an internal accelerometer that will do a fairly decent job of tracking your fitness levels. But if you opt to pair your device with a separate heart rate sensor, you will increase your accuracy by a great margin.

In the early days of fitness trackers, heart rate monitors were very rare. Now it seems that most every watch has the ability to pair with a heart rate sensor, which is good, because this will give you a major advantage in your fitness tracking.

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Our Top Picks: Best Triathlon Watches Of 2016

Here are our 5 favorite watches of 2016. We have done a lot of research on smart watches and found 5 of the very best triathlon watches. These were chosen based on price point, available features, and design/comfort. 

Garmin Forerunner 920XT

Garmins follow-up to the 910XT is easily the most feature packed and best triathlon watch we have seen. You’ll get all of the options of a standard smart watch: GPS, accelerometer, and waterproofing up to 5 ATM. Additionally, the device has an open water swim mode and a unique triathlon mode. The 920XT also has the ability to estimate VO2 max, a metric that measures maximum oxygen consumption during heightened times of physical activity. We also like the live tracking mode, which is a neat feature that allows you to share your GPS data with other smart watch users. Full Review >

Suunto Ambit3 Sport

Our runner up for best triathlon watch has a solid feature set for its price. While not as feature rich as the 920XT, the Ambit 3 Sport is still an impressive device. It comes with all of the standard fitness tracking features that are needed for triathlon training. Additionally, it was one of the few devices we could find with a open water swimming tracking mode. The downside to the Ambit is that it does not support ANT+ but at this price point that is to be expected. Full Review >

Polar V800 GPS

The V800 is another entry for best triathlon watch, especially when paired with Polars H7 heart rate sensor. In addition to tracking triathlon stats, the v800 can follow a multitude of activities, such as wake boarding or yoga. Additionally, Polar saw fit to include a multitude of “fitness testing” modes with this device. We especially like the “orthostatic test” which is supposed to tell you how the body responds to stress and fitness training. The only major drawback to the V800 is large profile – it is easily the biggest smart watch on this list. Full Review >

Garmin Fenix 3 GPS Watch

The Garmin Fenix is more of an outdoor GPS/GLONASS hybrid than a dedicated triathlon watch; however it can be used for such as function easily. The Fenix is similar to the 920XT, albeit a bit scaled back. The watch is a good pick for those who may need more than just standard fitness tracking. Full Review >

Magellan Switch Up Review

There’s no doubt about it, the Megallen Switch Up is easily the cost effective triathlon watch you can buy. You’ll get a multi sport function, 5 ATM water proofing, and the ability to set 9 different activity profiles, which is perfect for triathlon training. Magellan’s has also seen fit to include a thermometer, which we thought was kind of neat. Unfortunately the Magellan does not have an open water tracking mode. Full Review >


It can be tough to find sports watches that contain all of the features necessary to accurately track triathlon training. Hopefully this guide was useful to you.

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Alex Fischer