How to choose the right gadget for the runner on your gift list

If you’ve got an electronically-inclined runner on your holiday shopping list, you may be wondering how to pick the best running gadget for him or her this year. Loads of electronics out there promise to improve health, track information and even calculate arcane pieces of information such as your VO2 max and “ground contact time.” But, by homing in on what really matters for runners, you can simplify the shopping process. Here’s what to know about the various options before you start your spree:

1. Fitness and Activity Trackers

The Fitbit and FuelBand makers of the world would have you wear a device on your wrist that gives you a panacea of health-related information. Most of such fitness trackers use a pedometer to count your steps and integrate with a software application that can display information such as the number of calories you burn each day and how much sleep you’re getting.

While activity trackers are good for general information, many runners find them less useful than purpose-built sports watches. The information from a pedometer is typically based on counting steps, so it’s hard for many of these devices to differentiate between walking, jogging or running — each of which burn progressively more calories. Fitness trackers also won’t work well for tracking information about sports such as swimming or CrossFit, where the feet aren’t moving around that much.

Grade for runners: C

2. Smartwatches

The news this year has been all about the smartwatch, from the Apple Watch to the Samsung Gear to the Moto 360. Most of these devices include fitness-monitoring features, such as heart rate monitoring and step counting.

The primary drawbacks of these gadgets for many runners are twofold. First, to take advantage of the watch’s features, you may have to carry your phone along with you on your run. Many runners don’t want to carry an expensive, potentially large, device with them. Second, some of the devices may not appreciate getting doused in sweat or rain on a daily basis. My own experience with the Moto 360 taught me that wearing a smartwatch with a leather band leads to a very grimy, yucky-looking band in no time flat.

Grade for runners: B-

3. Smartphone Apps

For people who do carry their phones with them while running, there are excellent sports-monitoring applications that use the phone’s GPS electronics to provide an accurate record of each run. My personal favorite is Strava, which not only captures tons of information about your run, but also shares it and allows you to compete with other Strava users on the same routes.

The drawbacks of apps are similar to smartwatches: You will need to carry your phone with you and your phone may get wet if you don’t carry it in a protective case. Consider buying a premium membership to one of these apps for your runner — instead of investing in yet another device.

Grade for runners: B

4. GPS-based Running Watches

In the category of purpose-built sports watches, you’ll find a whole range of products from companies like Garmin. These watches include their own GPS electronics to accurately capture information including running speed, distance and mapping information.

While less expensive versions of many of these devices don’t include a heart rate monitor, pricier watches track more information and have more exotic features. For example, users may be able to switch between different sports such as running, cycling and swimming on the fly. (Most runners consider running speed, average speed, total distance and the ability to capture lap splits for every mile the most important information. Heart rate monitoring is more important for people who participate in a variety of sports since it makes it easier to compare sports’ effort levels.)

My recommendation for most runners is Garmin’s Forerunner 225 series, which hits the sweet spot of features — without being overkill. For the serious runner, the Garmin Forerunner 620 is the gold standard.

Grade for runners: A

The information that these devices capture can help runners improve their training methods and paint a more accurate picture of what’s happening during their workouts. Lots of great choices will make your running friends very happy. Happy holidays — and happy running.

More from U.S. News

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The 10 Best Exercises You Can Do for the Rest of Your Life

7 Ways Technology Can Torpedo Your Health

How to Choose the Right Gadget for the Runner on Your Gift List originally appeared on

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