Training for a triathlon takes a lot of laps in the pool and a lot of miles on the road, and tracking all that distance is a hugely important part of gauging your progress. A GPS-enabled sport watch can help you accurately measure your distances, and triathlon watches have all of the features you need to analyze your training using metrics specific to swimming, biking, and running.
Triathlon watches tend to come with more functionality than standard running watches. They need to be rugged enough for open water swimming and have a screen that’s easy to read while you’re on the bike. Plus, the best triathlon watches have features for competition so that you can even track transition times.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at the features worth having in a triathlon watch as well as what differentiates the professional, high-end watch models from their more budget-friendly alternatives. We’ll also review our picks for the seven best triathlon watches of 2019 so that you can get the right watch for you and get started with your training season.
How To Buy The Best Triathlon Watch
There are a lot of sport watches on the market and the ones specifically marketed for triathletes can span a range of features and prices. So how do you choose the best triathlon watch for your training and racing needs and available budget? We’ll explain everything you need to know about triathlon watches and the features you need to consider when trying to pick the perfect model.
- Triathlon Watch Basics
Given that triathlon involves three different sports – swimming, biking, and running – there are a few essential features that every triathlon watch needs to have above and beyond the standard sport watch.
First, triathlon watches need to have multi-sport functionality. That means that triathlon watches should allow you to select between swimming, biking, running, and triathlon modes so you can track each sport with the appropriate metrics. For example, in swimming mode, your watch should track your distance in yards or meters and show you your speed in yards or meters per minute. Meanwhile, in cycling mode, you’ll want to see your speed in miles per hour, and for running mode you’ll want minutes per mile. Triathlon mode, which is used for racing, should allow you to seamlessly switch between sports and include timers for transitions.
Second, triathlon watches need to be waterproof – after all, you’ll be wearing this watch while swimming. Most triathlon watches are water resistant up to at least several meters and will continue to receive a GPS signal while you’re open water swimming.
The vast majority of triathlon watches are GPS-enabled and this provides a huge number of benefits. Namely, GPS allows you to accurately measure distance and speed – which is why most triathletes are using a watch in the first place.
However, there are some basic triathlon watches that don’t have GPS functionality. These watches essentially serve as stopwatches and timers, and are best used by athletes who are okay with estimated speeds and distances. The advantage to non-GPS triathlon watches is that they are much less expensive than GPS-enabled triathlon watches.
- Display Features
The display is the thing that most differentiates every model of triathlon watch and what most triathletes will choose a watch based on.
To start, the diameter and thickness of the display should be large enough that you can clearly see all of the information on the screen, but not so large that the watch feels unwieldy on your wrist or gets in the way of your swim stroke.
The available information displays are also extremely important. Some triathlon watches will only offer the most basic information – speed, distance, and time – while others will offer information about elevation or even allow you to set interval alerts for high-intensity workouts. Generally, more information is better when it comes to triathlon watch displays, although additional displays also tend to cost extra. If a watch does have multiple displays to toggle through, make sure that the mechanism for toggling is easy to use while swimming, cycling, or running.
Color can also be an important when considering a triathlon watch display. Some watches use color to call attention to speed, power, or other essential workout details, while other watches are able to convey information in black and white. Ultimately, the significance of a color display comes down to what allows you to most easily see essential information.
- Battery Life
The battery life of your triathlon watch is critically important, especially if you plan on racing endurance distances like half or full Ironman races. In the latter case, your triathlon watch needs to be able to work in GPS mode for up to 17 hours without running out of power. For day-to-day training having plenty of battery life can ensure that your watch won’t run out of battery halfway through a workout if you forget to charge it overnight.
- Device Compatibility
The deeper you get into the world of triathlon, the more devices you’ll add to track your workouts and performance. For example, heart rate monitors, power meters, and cadence sensors are all common accessories used by triathletes to keep an eye on effort and athletic progress.
Ideally, your triathlon watch is compatible with all of your other tracking devices and serves as single screen from which you can monitor that extra data. Many watches and devices are able to link via Bluetooth or ANT+, but it’s important to determine which of these connection options your watch and other devices have. Keep in mind that some budget triathlon watches don’t have any connection options, so you would need to purchase a bike computer later to add monitoring accessories.
- Quick Release
Some triathlon watches come with a quick release strap that allows you to transfer the watch from your wrist to the aero bars on your bike in a matter of seconds. This is extremely helpful for monitoring your bike rides, especially if you are connecting your watch to accessory devices like a power meter and cadence sensor. However, quick releases are not essential if you don’t mind turning your wrist while riding to check the display.
After tracking your workouts on your triathlon watch, you’ll need to get the data off your watch and onto a dedicated logging software. Most triathlon watches are capable of plugging into your computer to transfer data to an online training log, but this can be a hassle to do after every workout. Alternatively, some high-end triathlon watches are equipped with WiFi to wirelessly transfer data to your phone or computer via an app – making it much easier to share and visualize your workout results in real time.
The 7 Best Triathlon Watches of 2020 – Compared & Tested
1. Garmin Forerunner 935 – Editor’s Choice
Look around on race day and you’ll see the Garmin Forerunner 935 – Garmin’s latest iteration in the renowned Forerunner series – on the wrists of many of your competitors. This watch offers a huge number of features for triathletes, yet weighs just 49 grams so that you’ll barely even notice it’s on your wrist.
To start, the Forerunner 935 includes wrist-based heart rate monitoring and uses this to identify whether you’re performing at a sustainable level or exerting too much energy. If you connect to a heart rate monitor, you can also get information about VO2 max and lactate threshold – extremely important information for pushing your athletic limits.
Advanced dynamics for swimming, cycling, and running provide detailed information about your stroke and stride length, ground contact time, and balance, allowing you to improve your form over time. An integrated altimeter allows you to track your progress during big climbs, and a compass makes it a great companion for outdoor adventures as well as triathlons.
Helpfully, the Forerunner 935 is also compatible with Android phones and iPhones via WiFi connectivity. You can get messages right on the watch display, control music playing from your smartphone, and seamlessly transfer workout data to the Garmin Connect app for upload.
This watch offers up to 24 hours of battery life in GPS and heart rate monitoring mode, making it ideal for endurance triathletes and short distance racers alike. While it’s not a budget-friendly watch, it’s also priced very competitively compared to other fully featured triathlon watches.
- Extremely lightweight
- Wrist-based heart rate monitoring
- Connects to smartphones via WiFi
- Advanced dynamics displays and tracking
- 24-hour battery life
- Wide variety of displays can be hard to navigate at first
2. Timex Ironman Classic 30 – Best Budget Triathlon Watch
This simple and inexpensive triathlon watch from Timex follows the old adage that simpler is better. You won’t find an altimeter, colorful displays, or even GPS connectivity on this watch. Instead, it essentially offers a stopwatch, interval timer, and alarm so that you can get straight into your workouts without distraction.
The main function of this watch during workouts is as a stopwatch timer. You can easily start and stop the clock with a large, easy to press side button, and a prominent lap button on the face of the watch lets you compare laps during interval workouts. The Classic 30 also allows you to store up to 30 intervals so you can record that data after your workout – but keep in mind that, since there’s no way to connect this watch to a phone or computer, you’ll need to record data by hand. Timex also offers the Classic 50 and 100 watches, which can store up to 50 and 100 intervals, respectively.
One of the advantages to this watch is that without a GPS function, battery life isn’t a concern at all. The battery isn’t rechargeable since it lasts for approximately 10 years – and can be cheaply replaced after that. The resin strap is also durable enough that you can expect to get decades of use out of this watch.
- Very inexpensive
- Simple interval tracking
- Battery lasts for 10 years
- No GPS means no speed or distance metrics
- Recorded intervals need to be logged manually
3. Coros Pace Multisport GPS Watch – Best Phone-linked Triathlon Watch
This watch from Coros offers a variety of features for triathletes at a price that is easy to justify. First, the watch is able to connect to the Coros app on most smartphones via Bluetooth. That allows you to monitor text messages and control music directly from your watch, as well as quickly transfer workouts and get access to enhance data visualization tools on your phone after your workout.
The watch has a built-in optical heart rate monitor, which allows you to keep an eye on your workout intensity. Coros smartly added the option to customize your heart rate zones via the smartphone app, so you can get accurate estimates of how much time was spent in each zone at the end of your workout.
The watch also includes an altimeter and barometer for keeping track of progress during major climbs. Coros designed an excellent visualization for the altimeter that makes it easy to see your total elevation gain for the day.
The battery life on this watch is quite impressive – up to 30 days without GPS tracking or up to 25 hours with the GPS turned on.
The main thing that’s missing on this watch for the budget-friendly price is sport modes outside of swimming, biking, and running. However, for any athletes who need a dedicated triathlon watch rather than a watch that can also perform for skiing, hiking, and other activities, that’s hardly a problem.
- Surprisingly budget-friendly for the number of features
- Connects to smartphones via Bluetooth
- Built-in heart rate monitor with customizable zones
- Altimeter and barometer
- 25-hour battery life
- No sport modes beyond triathlon
4. Polar Vantage V Multisport GPS Watch – Best Heart Rate Monitor Watch
The display on the Polar Vantage V watch is designed to give you all the essential information you need in a single glance. At the top of the watch, you’ll find a color-coded heart rate indicator – derived from the wrist-based heart rate monitor. Just below that, speed, distance, and workout time are displayed in large font, and its easy to switch over to the unique Training Load Pro display.
Training Load Pro goes further into your performance than most comparable triathlon watches, using dynamic monitoring to break down your effort into cardio load, muscle load, and perceived load. With that information, you can exactly tailor your workouts to target your weakest points and become a stronger athlete. Plus, the Vantage V uses this information – plus your steps from throughout the rest of the day – to give you an accurate estimate of how much recovery time you need in between high-intensity workouts.
The watch is compatible with the Polar Flow app for Android and iOS, which includes a suite of workout analysis tools. The amount of data that can be seen in the Polar Flow app, along with the fact that the watch has over 130 different sport modes, can make it somewhat overwhelming to use. Unfortunately, the watch comes at an extremely high price and its usability is somewhat negatively impacted by a poor backlight function and a lack of control over messages and music when connected to your smartphone.
- Training Load Pro breaks down power load
- Color-coded heart rate indicator with wrist-based monitor
- Compatible with Polar Flow smartphone app
- Over 130 sport modes
- Poor backlight function
- Steep learning curve
- No control over your smartphone
5. DR.VIVA GPS Watch – Best Triathlon Watch for All-day Use
This budget-friendly triathlon watch from DR.VIVA is designed primarily for running and everyday use, but it has sport modes for cycling, swimming, and 14 other sports. That said, keep in mind that this watch doesn’t have a triathlon sport mode – so you’ll need to manually switch between sports during brick workouts and races. In addition, display functionality for swimming and cycling is somewhat limited to speed and distance, and there is no extra information about stroke rate, cadence, or advanced dynamics.
The watch is designed to automatically recognize when you start running and turn on GPS tracking, and has multiple colorful backlights to make running at night more enjoyable. Plus, there are seven different running modes, including a preprogrammed 12-minute VO2 max test, to help you train for different goals. The watch also has an integrated wrist-based heart rate monitor, which is on around the clock so you can always check your heart rate. However, some triathletes will find it problematic that heart rate data can’t be synced from the watch to Strava.
A major downside to this watch is the battery life. With the GPS enabled, the battery is limited to just eight hours of use – so don’t expect to use this watch for any triathlons longer than a half Ironman-distance race. While the watch has a ton of features for everyday use, including a stand-up reminder alert, sleep monitoring, and event reminders, these features are of limited use for triathlon training.
- Excellent running watch with seven running modes
- Integrated heart rate monitor
- Lots of features for all-day use and monitoring your daily life
- No triathlon sport mode
- Heart rate cannot be synced to Strava
- Few advanced display options for swimming and cycling
- Limited to eight-hour battery life
6. Suunto Spartan Ultra HR – Best Extreme Triathlon Watch
If you have dreams of participating in an extreme triathlon like the famed Norseman or Alaskaman races or an XTERRA race, the Spartan Ultra HR from Suunto is the triathlon watch for you. This watch comes with a variety of features for big cross-country adventures in addition to training on the road, like an integrated altimeter, compass, and point-to-point navigation. You even have the option to set the accuracy of the GPS by choosing the refresh rate. Plus, the long 26-hour battery life ensures that you’ll have plenty of juice for extremely long rides and trail runs.
The Spartan Ultra’s display screen is larger than many comparable triathlon watches and features touchscreen controls and full color. Thankfully, the touchscreen is optional as there are standard side buttons to switch between displays when in the middle of an intense workout.
The watch comes with integrated heart rate monitoring and easily connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth to sync data after a workout. While Suunto offers the custom Movescount platform for logging data, the data can also be easily transferred to Strava for analysis and sharing. Unfortunately, while the watch will receive notifications from your phone when connected, there is no way to view messages on the watch display or to control your music wirelessly.
- Long 26-hour battery life
- Excellent outdoor adventure and navigation features
- Large touchscreen display with easy to use buttons
- Wirelessly sync data to your smartphone
- No way to read messages or control music from watch
7. Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire – Best Display Visualizations
The Garmin Fenix 5 is a fully featured triathlon watch that features some of the best on-watch data visualizations we’ve seen. For example, the integrated heart rate monitoring is displayed in a bar chart that allows you to see your current heart rate, as well as trends in heart rate over the last four hours color-coded by intensity zone. You can also upload .gpx files to the watch to view a rough map and navigate along a pre-defined training route.
Like Garmin’s Forerunner 935, the Fenix 5 offers advanced running dynamics that gives you information about your ground contact time, balance, and stride length. Similarly, you can track stroke rate for swimming to help improve your time in the water.
This watch is also elegant. Rather than use a simple digital time display, the watch features a digital screen that mimics a high-end analog wristwatch. It’s available in a wide range of display diameters and color combinations, allowing you to fully customize your style. The Garmin Connect app also allows you to download custom watch faces to use instead of the standard display.
While there’s no WiFi like on the Forerunner 935, the Fenix 5 can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and allows you to wirelessly read messages, control music, and transfer workout data to the Garmin Connect app.
The battery on this watch is very impressive, offering 24 hours of use with the GPS and heart rate monitor activated or up to 60 hours with just the GPS activated.
- Colorful, informative data visualizations
- Excellent battery life
- Elegant and highly customizable display
- Advanced dynamics for running and swimming
- Wireless control via Bluetooth
Frequently Asked Questions
Having a triathlon watch can help you improve your performance as a triathlete by allowing you to accurately track your workouts. Unlike standard sport watches, triathlon watches are designed to display information for multiple sports and to allow seamless transitions between displays during races. Plus, you can log important data about the distance and speed of your training each day, share it with friends or a coach, and monitor your progress over time. Thanks to our reviews of the seven best triathlon watches of 2019, finding the right triathlon watch has never been easier.