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5 Reasons to Skip the Garmin Forerunner (and What to Buy Instead)

As a digital technology expert and avid endurance athlete, I‘ve closely followed the sports watch market for years. I‘ve tested dozens of GPS watches and fitness trackers from all the major brands, and I‘ve seen firsthand how the technology has evolved from simple run tracking to today‘s do-it-all smartwatches.

One brand that has been at the forefront of this evolution is Garmin. Since launching the world‘s first GPS multisport watch in 2003 (the now iconic Forerunner 101), Garmin has cemented itself as the gold standard for serious runners, cyclists, and triathletes. Year after year, their Forerunner series pushes the envelope with cutting-edge features and premium materials.

But that innovation comes at an ever-increasing cost. With the latest Forerunner 955 clocking in at a whopping $500-600 depending on configuration, Garmin has firmly positioned their multisport watches as luxury items. And while I‘m as guilty as anyone of lusting over the latest and greatest tech, I‘ve come to realize that for the vast majority of athletes, Garmin‘s top-tier watches simply aren‘t worth the substantial investment.

In this article, I‘ll share 5 key reasons why I believe most runners and triathletes are better off skipping the Forerunner series entirely. I‘ll also provide my top picks for more affordable alternatives that deliver excellent performance and value.

1. You‘re paying a huge premium for incremental gains

Make no mistake, the Garmin Forerunner 955 is a phenomenal GPS watch. It‘s got pretty much every sensor and feature you could ever want, from multi-band GPS and preloaded topo maps to a barometric altimeter and pulse oximeter. And with solar charging, music, and Garmin Pay, it‘s a true stand-alone smartwatch. It‘s an impressive feat of engineering.

But it‘s also $600. For that price, you could buy an Apple Watch Ultra ($799) or 2-3 Fitbit Sense watches ($299). Heck, for that money you could get a high-end running power meter ($400-1000) that would likely have a much bigger impact on your training than any watch.

When you scrutinize the specs, it becomes clear that you‘re paying an enormous premium for incremental gains over Garmin‘s own cheaper models. Consider this comparison:

Feature Forerunner 55 ($199) Forerunner 255 ($349) Forerunner 955 ($499)
Battery Smartwatch: 14 days / GPS: 20 hours Smartwatch: 14 days / GPS: 30 hours Smartwatch: 15 days / GPS: 42 hours
Altimeter Barometric Barometric
Pulse Ox ✔️ ✔️
Music ✔️ ✔️
Garmin Pay ✔️

Sources: DC Rainmaker, Garmin

Yes, the 955 has a nicer design, more sensors, and extra software features over the 55. But functionally, they are very similar watches. They all accurately track your runs, record workouts, monitor heart rate 24/7, and provide training feedback. The core experience is the same – you‘re simply paying hundreds more for some added luxuries.

As CNET reviewer Lexy Savvides noted, "Because I‘ve been [testing GPS watches] for so long… it actually takes a lot for me to be surprised and delighted by features I haven‘t seen before. The 955 is an absolute powerhouse, but it‘s also a lot of watch for most people."

And that‘s the key issue – by chasing incremental additions at the ultra-premium end of the market, Garmin has priced out the vast majority of prospective buyers. Most athletes are better served saving their money and investing in more impactful training tools.

2. Overwhelming complexity obscures the core experience

These days, Garmin crams in so many features and so much data into their watches that it can be utterly overwhelming, even for seasoned athletes. With dozens of activity profiles, countless configurable data screens, and an endless array of settings, getting started with a Forerunner 955 can feel like learning an entirely new language.

Do you want GPS only, all systems, or multi-band? 1-second or smart recording? Which of the 30+ metrics do you want displayed on the 8 custom data screens? How do you set up your interval training, and which auto-lap triggers do you want? It‘s exhausting.

Now, for data-obsessed athletes who live and breathe this stuff, the 955‘s complexity and customization is actually a huge selling point. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it can be a major barrier to getting full value from the watch. When even setting up a basic run requires diving into multiple sub-menus, it quickly saps the fun out of training with technology.

Compare that to the out-of-box experience on something like an Apple Watch SE or Fitbit Versa. Within minutes, you‘re tracking activities, heart rate, and sleep – no PhD in exercise physiology required. It‘s a refreshingly simple approach that prioritizes usability over raw functionality.

Of course, those watches don‘t offer the extensive customization options of a 955. But here‘s a dirty secret – most athletes never touch 80% of their Garmin‘s features. They rely on the same basic data screens and settings for 95% of workouts. All that extra functionality is just never utilized.

For most runners, a streamlined watch that cleanly delivers the core metrics that actually matter (pace, time, distance, HR, laps) is a better investment than an overly complex one with features you‘ll rarely use.

3. Bulky designs limit everyday wearability

I get why Garmin makes their Forerunners big and beefy. With so many sensors and features packed in, they need room for a large screen, sizable battery, and rugged casing. The 955 also maintains Garmin‘s hallmark 5-button control setup that many athletes prefer over touchscreens.

But there‘s no denying that the resulting size and aesthetic limits the 955‘s appeal as a true 24/7 smartwatch. Clocking in at a hefty 53 grams, over 15mm thick, and nearly 50mm in diameter, the 955 takes up substantial real estate on the wrist.

For many athletes, especially females and those with smaller wrists, the sheer girth of a 955 makes it impractical for all-day wear. It gets in the way of coat sleeves, bangs against laptops, and looks ridiculously clunky for formal occasions. Even with the nicest titanium or DLC coated bezels, there‘s no hiding that you‘re wearing a hardcore sports watch.

By comparison, an Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch disappears on the wrist while still providing excellent fitness and smart features. The new Apple Watch SE comes in 40mm and 44mm sizes under 12mm thick, making it far more wearable for a wider range of athletes. It‘s a better all-purpose watch.

If you primarily want a watch for running and training, Garmin‘s rugged, purpose-built design is fine. But if you desire something to wear all day every day, I‘d opt for a sleeker, smaller profile watch from Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, or Polar. They‘ll handle workouts well while blending in better with your daily life and wardrobe.

4. More limited app and smartphone integration

Although Garmin has made good progress expanding the capabilities of their watches, they still lag behind Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and WearOS in terms of third-party app support. The Connect IQ app store simply can‘t match the selection or quality of those more mature smartwatch platforms.

That means you‘ll likely run into compatibility issues with popular fitness and health services that haven‘t built dedicated Garmin apps. Strava, MyFitnessPal, and Nike Run Club integrate well, but many others only sync indirectly through Garmin Connect.

You‘re also locked into Garmin‘s first-party apps for core smartwatch functions on the 955. So while you can store MP3s on the watch itself, you can‘t stream Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music over LTE like you can on an Apple Watch. Contactless payments are limited to Garmin Pay partners vs. Apple Pay or Google Wallet‘s near-universal acceptance.

For serious athletes, these are likely small tradeoffs for a watch built from the ground up for performance. Garmin‘s own apps for running, cycling, strength training, golf etc. are unrivaled in their depth and customization. But for those wanting a smart fitness watch that seamlessly integrates with their broader digital life, Garmin still feels a step behind.

5. The market has caught up at lower price points

Up until a few years ago, if you wanted serious run tracking and navigation on your wrist, Garmin was really the only game in town. Brands like Polar, Suunto, and Coros made solid watches for endurance athletes, but couldn‘t match the polish and feature set of a Forerunner. Mainstream smartwatches were focused more on notifications than workouts.

But recently, we‘ve seen a huge shift in the market. Upstarts like COROS are producing near-Forerunner level watches for half the price. The $299 COROS Pace 2 weighs just 29g with a battery life of 30 hours in GPS mode. It‘s got triathlon support, running power, and breadcrumb navigation. It matches the 955 where it matters and skips the expensive fluff.

On the smartwatch side, Apple and Samsung have transformed their flagship watches into formidable fitness tools. The Apple Watch Ultra has an amazing new GPS antenna, action button, 60-hour battery, and dual-band GPS accuracy on par with Garmin. And it‘s still $100 cheaper than the 955.

And in the budget category, dozens of sub-$200 GPS watches from the likes of Amazfit, Fitbit, and Polar now deliver accurate tracking and useful training tools. No, they aren‘t as flashy or full-featured as a top-end Forerunner. But they absolutely get the job done and work well for the majority of runners.

The point is, these days athletes have options at every price point and in every form factor. Garmin no longer has a monopoly on GPS sport watches. And with the Forerunner series increasingly pushing into luxury territory, more and more buyers are opting for highly capable alternatives that cost hundreds less.

My Top 3 Affordable Alternatives to Garmin Forerunners

If you‘re looking for a GPS smartwatch that can hang with a Forerunner for less cash, check out my top picks:

  1. Coros Pace 2 ($199 on sale) – Impossibly light at 29g with 30h GPS battery. Accurate tracking and useful training tools in a simple, sporty design. Incredible value.

  2. Apple Watch SE ($249+) – The core Apple Watch experience for a lot less. Bright screen, snappy interface, great app selection. Just add an external HR strap for serious training.

  3. Polar Ignite 2 ($229) – Sleek unisex design with gorgeous OLED screen and comfy band. Excellent analytics from the Polar Flow app. Good battery life and one of the best wrist-based HR sensors out there.

Final Thoughts

While Garmin still makes phenomenal GPS watches, their ever-rising prices have opened the door for compelling alternatives to thrive at lower price points. Brands like Coros, Apple, and Polar are capitalizing on Garmin‘s move upmarket by offering "good enough" solutions for far less money. And for most runners, they are more than good enough.

If you‘re an elite athlete who can genuinely benefit from Garmin‘s advanced training and recovery metrics, then by all means splurge on a 955. You‘ll be getting one of the most powerful and full-featured sports watches ever made. Just don‘t fool yourself into thinking you need one.

But if you‘re a more typical runner just looking to track your workouts, stay motivated, and maybe capture some health data on the side, save yourself hundreds and get a Coros Pace 2, Apple Watch SE, or Polar Ignite instead. Spend that extra cash on race entries, physio, or a gym membership and watch your performance soar. Trust me – your training will thank you.