Runner with smartwatch.
Breslavtsev Oleg/Shutterstock.com

One of the big things that stops people from getting started with running is gear. There are plenty of fancy gadgets for running out there, but what do you actually need? Is a fitness tracker essential for running?

Why Are You Running?

To know whether a fitness tracker would be beneficial, you should first ask yourself a few questions: What are you hoping to accomplish with running? Are you training for an event? What data do you want to track and record?

These questions are important because running serves a different purpose for everyone. If you are simply running just to run—for exercise or mental health—your “stats” are probably not important. You can simply tie up your shoes and go.

Let’s say you’re running to lose weight. The number you probably care about the most is your weight, and a fitness tracker isn’t a scale. Maybe you just enjoy running as an activity to get outside. A fitness tracker wouldn’t necessarily improve that experience. In fact, it could take you out of your moment of Zen.

On the other hand, if you’re training for an event or you have a specific goal in mind, tracking yourself can be a big help. Seeing your progress can be motivating, and you might just find the data cool to look at. Does that mean you need a fitness tracker? You might already have one that works.

You Already Have a Fitness Tracker

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When you hear the term “fitness tracker” you probably think of a Fitbit or a smartwatch. Technically, your smartphone is also a fitness tracker, just a little more limited.

Any iPhone or Android phone can be used as a basic fitness tracker. Apple Health, Google Fit, and Samsung Health can track running and other activities. You just need to tap “Start” and put the phone in your pocket.

A lot of the data you might be interested in can easily be recorded without a device on your wrist. The many sensors in your phone are more than capable of recording distance, elevation, duration, and location. Other things, like calories burned, use personal information (weight, height, etc.) for calculations.

For basic fitness tracking, a smartphone can do more than you might think. It’s a great place to start, and you can figure out what data you care about. When is it time to upgrade to a full-blown fitness tracker?

RELATED: There Are a Lot of Sensors in Your Phone, Here's What They Do

The Benefits of a Dedicated Fitness Tracker

A person wearing a Fitbit on their wrist.
Fitbit

There are a couple of caveats to using a phone for fitness tracking. First, a phone isn’t going to be quite as accurate as a smartwatch in some areas. Like your phone, there are a lot of sensors at work, and having a device that moves with your arms provides a little more data.

Second, there are some things that are simply not possible for a phone to do. A phone in your pocket can’t measure your heart rate or VO2 max while you run. Those can be important metrics if you’re serious about running, and fitness apps can do some pretty cool things with that data.

One of the biggest benefits of a dedicated fitness tracker is the form factor. It’s much, much easier to look at your wrist than it is to pull out a phone mid-run. Plus, if your watch has a cellular connection, you can leave your phone at home.

In general, a fitness tracker is simply more. They can track more things and provide more data that might be useful for your goals. It’s similar to using Spotify for free vs. paying for Premium. Spotify is perfectly usable for free, but if you use it a lot, the Premium benefits are worth the price. If you’re serious about running, a fitness tracker is a good investment.

If you decide to make the jump, you’ll need to decide which kind of fitness tracking device you want. Fitbits are popular for being affordable and chock full of fitness features. There are many great fitness trackers, and most smartwatches also have fitness tracking. The Apple Watch, in particular, is a great fitness device.

The choice is yours, but don’t let tech get in the way of a good run.

The Best Fitness Trackers of 2022

Best Fitness Tracker Overall
Fitbit Charge 5
Best Budget Fitness Tracker
Garmin Vivosmart 4
Best Fitness Tracker for Kids
Fitbit Ace 3
Best Fitness Tracker With GPS
Fitbit Charge 5
Best Fitness Tracker Watch
Apple Watch Series 7
Best Screenless Fitness Tracker
Whoop 4.0
Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as Managing Editor at XDA-Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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