Smartwatches are an effective training tool that can help you to improve your fitness, plan routes, and alert you if you’re overtraining. Nowadays, it almost feels pointless to go on a bike ride without being able to track your fastest ride ever or to earn a digital trophy on some obscure section of country road.
It’s tricky to keep up with all the new, flashy smartwatch models that are released on a seemingly weekly basis. While there are smartwatches with all sorts of built-in gimmicks now (this smartwatch has a camera), as someone who travels almost daily on two wheels, I’m here to tell you about the best ones for cycling.
How to choose?
Smartwatch or phone?
The best smartwatches give a more specific analysis of your workout. Using an app like Komoot or Strava on your phone maps your activity and tells you basic statistics like your speed and elevation gained. A smartwatch monitors your heart rate, relative effort, and intensity minutes. As a result, information like calories burned is much more accurate.
Smartwatches are easier to use on the go; wearing one means you don’t need to carry a bag or use a clip to attach your phone to the handlebars. Smartwatches are very practical for mountain bikers, where your phone could be at risk of detaching from a handlebar clip. Personally, I love going for a bike ride carrying nothing but my house keys.
The best smartwatches have many of the same functions as a phone and can allow you to answer calls, stream music, and plan routes on the go. The downside is that they can also be a distraction from training, so I like to turn off messages and call alerts on my smartwatch.
What features should I look for?
If you're wedded to an iPhone, an Apple Watch works best. Decide if you’d like a smartwatch with a touchscreen. For cycling, this can be handy, but the screen on a smartwatch is small, so you might find a touchscreen frustrating. Battery life is extremely important, especially if you’re going to be exercising for long, continuous periods of time, or multi-day bike touring.
Is it comfortable, and do you like the design? Most smartwatches have plastic straps and some are interchangeable. It’s rare for a smartwatch to have a fabric strap, but if it does, check that it’s moisture-wicking. Since you’ll be wearing it while exercising, you don’t want it to retain sweat.
Generally, a smartwatch records one activity at a time, but there are models that can record multiple sports under one activity. If you’re training for a triathlon and want to record a run, swim, and bike under one activity, this is a good option for you.
The other big factor is cost. It’s possible to spend lots of money on a smartwatch, but there are budget options that are perfectly sufficient for many people. Purchasing a refurbished smartwatch from sites such as Amazon is a great way to get a good deal.
Do I need a smartwatch specifically geared to cycling?
Not necessarily, and many smartwatches are great for multisports, but if there’s one sport that you do predominantly, you’ll have different priorities. For cycling, my priority is a smartwatch with long battery life, since you tend to be out on a bike for much longer than you would on a run. Smartwatches with GPS routing are really practical for planning rides.
If you cycle on a variety of terrains (mountains, gravel, road), you want a smartwatch where you can differentiate the terrain or bicycle type when tracking your activity. Another thing that I look for is an accurate measurement of VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. A high VO2 max helps cyclists sustain their output for longer, and recover more quickly after a ride. A good aerobic capacity is important for all kinds of cyclists, whether you’re doing track sprints or multi-day rides.
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Garmin is a big name in the smartwatch industry, and for good reason. The Garmin Fenix 6x Pro has a large screen and preloaded TOPO (topographic) maps for easy cycling navigation. It has specific mountain biking metrics that measure the difficulty of each trail and how smoothly you descend it, and gives a score so that you can mark your progress the next time you do the route. The battery lasts for a whopping 60 hours with the GPS switched on.
Not only does the Apple Watch Series 7 measure your blood oxygen, it can also take an ECG (electrocardiogram), which detects electrical signals produced by your heart each time it beats, to look for irregularities. The Apple Watch automatically detects when you start to pedal and can alert emergency services if you fall off your bike. To prevent distraction while cycling, a voice feedback feature announces milestones such as speed and distance, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road. There’s even an algorithm that calculates calories burnt if you use an e-bike.
The Polar Vantage V2 has several cycling-specific tests including Functional Threshold Power AKA FTP, the highest power a cyclist can sustain for an hour in watts), cycling cadence and speed sensors, cycling power meters, and even a leg recovery test which determines whether you’re ready for your next big ride. The battery lasts for up to 40 hours with the GPS on, plenty for long-distance cycling, and there’s heart rate monitoring for over 130 sports.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 has an always-on display and a speaker so you don’t need to keep looking at your wrist to see how far or fast you’ve traveled. It syncs with some of the most popular apps for tracking bike rides, including Endomondo, MapMyRide, and Strava. It can also measure FTP through the Cycling Performance Test.
The Amazfit T-Rex 2 is a rugged smartwatch built for extreme temperatures and environments with a certification for 15 military standard tests. There are 150 different sports features, including four specific cycling settings: outdoor cycling, indoor cycling, mountain biking, and BMX. There’s a triathlon setting, too. When not using the GPS, the battery can last for up to 24 days, which is great if you’re riding in remote locations.
The Garmin Forerunner 745 comes with Garmin’s ClimbPro feature which helps you to manage your effort for the route ahead. There’s information such as gradient, distance and elevation gain, and a handy color-coded system to help categorize the difficulty. It also connects to a Garmin power meter (sold separately) which helps you improve speed and fitness using FTP and advanced training methods.
The Fitbit Charge 4 is lightweight and a good value for money, but still has over 20 different exercise modes, and oxygen saturation (SpO2) monitoring, which measures how much oxygen is in your blood. As cycling is a largely aerobic activity, you need as much oxygen as you can get; monitoring this helps prevent overtraining. There’s a built-in GPS (your last 30 days of activity is stored on the device) and it buzzes when you reach your target heart rate, so you can see how much effort you’re putting into a ride.
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