The Right Time To Buy A Triathlon Watch And What You Should Look For


I did my first two triathlons without a watch (my Fitbit couldn’t track the swim) and then had the chance to receive a specific triathlon watch for Christmas. Now that I have been a couple of years into the sport, I believe it would be a good time to share my thoughts about triathlon watches.

Specific triathlon watches are not a must-have for beginner triathletes. It is quite hard to justify the high price tag for what you will actually do with it. Their main advantages are open water swimming and triathlon mode. Both of those features will become really useful once you are a season or two into the sport.

Let’s first look at how you can track each of the three sports without a specific triathlon watch.

Disclaimer: The Triathlon Tips of My Tri World are reader-supported. When you buy through links, I may earn an affiliate commission.

TRIATHLON TRAINING WITHOUT A TRIATHLON WATCH

  • Swim: if you start swimming, you won’t need to track the details of all your sessions. It could even discourage you. Instead, focus on improving your technique. Having swim lessons early on is the way to go.
  • Bike: having a cheap bike computer is more than enough. If you want to record your routes, you can also use an app on your phone like Strava or Komoot
  • Run: similar to biking, a standard sports watch or an app on your phone would work perfectly in your first triathlon year
  • Triathlon race: I made my first triathlons without a watch. On one side, it is one thing less you need to worry about 🙂 On the other side, every race has an official chronometer to get your split times after the race anyway.

Here are still the results of my first Sprint triathlon that I could find 3 years after it 🙂

WHEN SHOULD I INVEST IN A TRIATHLON WATCH

Once you get more into regular triathlon training, I think it is a good time to start logging your activities. It can be on a book, a simple calendar, or an app. If you like data, seeing your progress will absolutely motivate you.

While you could still track those without a triathlon watch, it will soon become a burden. Getting a triathlon watch at that time is a great investment. With one single gear, you will be able to track everything: your workouts, your races, and you will be able to see all your stats.

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES OF TRIATHLON WATCHES

As I mentioned earlier, open water swimming and the triathlon mode are the two main advantages of triathlon watches. Don’t even consider buying a watch without those two features.

The open water swimming feature means that your watch is waterproof and can record GPS data while swimming without using your phone. It is also called a built-in GPS watch (vs. GPS connected where you need your phone). If it can do that while swimming, you can be sure to have this feature while running and biking.

The triathlon mode records your swim, bike, run, and transitions into a single activity. I already have so much to think about during a triathlon race that I don’t imagine myself having to start and manually save each of those activities.
If you are into Garmin watches, my husband Clément wrote a separate article which lists all the Garmin watches having this feature; have a look here.

OTHER FEATURES TO LOOK FOR

Even though those features are not necessary for all triathletes, they might be for you:

  • Compatibility with third-party software. Haven’t you heard? If it is not on Strava, it didn’t happen! (I used to hate this sentence, but over time I realized that it is actually true…)
  • ANT+ and Bluetooth readiness, so you can connect your watch to pretty much any external sensors (power meters, cadence sensor,..)
  • Heart rate measurement: either available directly with a wrist sensor on the back of the watch or through a chest strap.
  • Long battery life. Some watches could be a no-go for you if you plan to finish an Ironman in 15-17 hours. For shorter distances, I would not be too worried about this feature.
  • Music: Some of the watches will come with internal music storage, some others can start and stop the music (you still need a phone), and on some others, you won’t have anything related to music.
  • Wrist size: some watches have different wrist size versions, which might be a good solution for anyone having a small wrist.
  • Weight: it is really something you should have a look at. You can easily have watches which are two or three times the weight of others.
  • Navigation: If you are interested in a navigation feature, really check the detail of it. It can either be a full detailed map on your watch or a simple line without any map, which is way less helpful for guidance.
Map: Garmin 920XT (Clément’s 1st watch) vs.
Garmin 945 (my brother’s watch)

BIGGEST BRANDS FOR TRIATHLON WATCHES

There are also great watches besides those three brands, so don’t limit yourself to those.
However, their product lines are so wide that it is not always easy to know which ones are useful for us triathletes.

By far, the most seen brand in the triathlons I have been part of. The product lines you are most likely to be interested in are the Forerunner and the Fenix series.
You might want to look at their 5 and 9 series. The 7 strangely doesn’t have triathlon mode. If you are ok with buying older models, look at their Spartan series as well.
Your Polar’s go-to-watches are the Vantage M or Vantage V.

THE PRICE OF TRIATHLON WATCHES

Expect to pay anywhere between 200€ and 800€ for a new triathlon watch. It highly depends on the brand, the features you are looking for, and the esthetic.

The majority of triathlon watches are very durable and can be worn for several years, which means you can find some excellent second-hand bargains!

If you are not in a hurry to buy one, the best discounts I have seen are before releasing a new version (which happens every 1-2 years) and during the Black Friday or Christmas seasons.

MY TRIATHLON WATCH RECOMMENDATION

For triathletes racing up to half distance triathlons, I personally think the best watch is still the Garmin Forerunner 735 XT (Amazon affiliate link), which I have and love (see picture below). It has all the features you really need for training and racing at roughly half the newest model’s price, the Forerunner 745, which has music storage and suggested daily training in addition (Amazon affiliate link).

For triathletes racing full-distance events or who want navigation guidance, I would recommend the Garmin Forerunner 945 LTE (Amazon affiliate link) or, like my husband, wait that a newer version of this high-end model is coming out. At that time, you will have the choice between buying the new one if it brings good innovations or getting a heavy discount on the 945 😉

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