Hands-On: Garmin Fenix 5

I like good food almost as much as I love nice watches. And that means I have to do some sports once in a while in order to fight ‘dad bod’ which is lurking around every corner. My sport of choice to keep myself in check is running, long distance running to be exact. It seems to be the only sport I have tried so far that I can actually maintain. Partly because I enjoy it, and mainly because I can go running whenever, wherever. The street is always open, and whenever convenient I can manage to sneak in a run left and right. My go-to watch for years has been a Garmin Forerunner. But, I’ve been lusting after a Garmin Fenix for a long time now, and I finally got my hands on the perfect one (for me).

I briefly contemplated an Apple Watch Series 4, as it just received an update and has OK sports functions built in. For various reasons which we’ll get to in a minute, I decided against it. Instead I went the Fenix route and haven’t looked back since.

Fenix 5 Or Fenix 5 Plus?

Yes, the latest and greatest, is the Fenix 5 Plus, but I went for the slightly older Fenix 5. Why ? Because the 5 Plus is a lot more expensive, and ‘only’ adds a bunch of smartwatch functions, including contactless payment and expanded music capability, which I really don’t need on my sportswatch. The main benefit with the 5 Plus for a runner, would be that they now come standard with full blown maps, which in the non-Plus range is only available on the larger 5X. There are also a few other metrics and datapoints that it is now able to track, but they go beyond my needs too. Your miles may vary of course.

The seasoned Fenix hunter, will know there are usually three models in the range. The 5S (small), the 5 (standard) and the 5X (properly humongous). The 5X has the most capabilities, but I find its size to be really crazy on my chicken wrist, so it wasn’t really an option for me. But definitely have a look at that one should you be blessed with a more sizeable wrist. For me, the 5 is the perfect size, not too big, not too small, and not too heavy. Not to say that it’s a small watch, it measures a whopping 47 x 47 x 15.5 mm.

What makes a good running watch?

A very personal question, is what makes a good running watch for you. And the answer to that question, is different depending to whom you’d ask this. If you only ever run (or walk), then a Fenix is overkill. But, for me, I learned my running watch needs to have at the very least these essentials:

  • Excellent battery life and able to hold up more than 6 hours with all functions & sensors blazing;
  • Physical buttons that I can press when my hands are sweaty or wet from drinking while running. Touchscreen absolutely does not work in those circumstances;
  • Waterproof so I don’t have to worry when I spill a drink over it while running or when it starts pouring rain;
  • Able to track multiple types of training, including (indoor) rowing, running, strength training & swimming.
  • Have excellent GPS tracking;
  • Not become obsolete after 12-24 months.

As you will notice, more than a few of the above essentials are completely absent from the Apple Watch ‘Sports/Nike’ version which is why ultimately I didn’t go for that one. Please also notice how my sportswatch essentials lacks any ‘smart’ watch functions. The last thing I want when I’m running on the beach or running through nature, is for someone to call me on my bloody watch. Even worse would be email or sms reminders, just no. The Fenix does have a wide range of smart capabilities though. In a nutshell, you can read your text messages on the watch, you can stream music and podcast to your headphones, you can answer your phone etc…

The Bad

Before I head over to the good stuff, let me get the bad out of the way right here and now. The bad is very similar to any wristwatch with a heart rate sensor on the back, it isn’t terribly accurate. For your daily practice runs, the wristbased monitoring is more than sufficient. On raceday, I still prefer the reliability of the cheststrap.

Another point to mention about the Fenix series, is the price. These are not cheap sportswatches, and in fact, to many these are expensive watches. The Fenix 5 will set you back USD 550 nowadays, and the newer 5 Plus will hit you in the chin for USD 799. You can get very decent (sports)watches for half the price of that and an Apple Sports version for half the price for example.

These two points are about the only ‘bad’ I could find…

The Good

There is a lot of good about this watch. What I quite unexpectedly enjoyed a lot is that it wears and feels like a normal watch. This is an absolute first for me for a sportswatch. The Fenix is one of very few sportswatches that you can actually wear as your one and ‘only’ watch if that’s your thing.

To avoid getting lost in the many functions, I’m just going down the list of my personal essentials for a sportswatch and see how it holds up.

Battery Life

The battery life on this thing is insane. I basically took this with me on a two week vacation, with a daily training schedule (sometimes multiple workouts in one day) and recharged it once when it reached 40%. The battery life on this watch is not good, it’s fantastic. Officially it is as follows:

Up to 14 days: Smartwatch mode with activity tracking and 24/7 wrist-based heart rate monitoring; Up to 24 hours: GPS mode with wrist-based heart rate; Up to 75 hours: UltraTrac GPS mode with gyro-based dead reckoning

Easy of use

The buttons.. They are easy to grip, work very well and the construction is up to the Fenix standard, it’s great. The most used activity button, the most exposed one on the top right, also has nicely sculpted crown guards which I is a great and useful little detail.

Once you get familiar with the layout of the menus (similar to other Garmin watches), it is a very quick way to start logging your activity. You can also tweak the menu and widgets to a large extent. Including changing the watch faces and installing a huge range of (free) apps. Garmin has its own ‘Garmin Connect’ desktop/mobile/cloud app which is a real joy to use and I use it extensively.

When paired with your phone, you don’t need a computer at all to keep this watch synced or updated. Coming from a sportswatch that didn’t have this function, this is an incredibly liberating feature to have on a sportswatch. Everything is immediately synced and logged in your Garmin training schedule, and no data gets lost should anything happen to your watch.

Waterproof

Moving on to the waterproofness. It’s rock solid and very useful. I have drowned a past watch when spilling my cup of water at a stop mid run, and I didn’t want that to happen ever again as I use my heart rate extensively to monitor my run and to make sure I make it to the finish line. You can also, obviously, swim with the Fenix 5 which is great as I can now finally track my swimming sessions in my training plan. It works surprisingly well. Garmin does not recommend that you start pressing the buttons while under water, which is of course common sense for any and all watches out there.

The Garmin Fenix 5 is not afraid of the water, and extremely legible even under water.

Multi-sports tracking

The Garmin Fenix really shines for tracking multiple sports. In my race training schedule I’ll typically have running, rowing, cross-training, strength training and swimming. These are activities that are nothing out of the ordinary in a distance running training program. The Fenix 5 is the first watch I’ve owned that excels at tracking all of these activities. It even does a not so terrible job at tracking your reps when lifting weights by tracking the movement of your wrist.

GPS tracking

I haven’t done anything scientific here, but I did compare it with the GPS on both my phone & my previous smartwatch. I have zero concern that this isn’t working properly, it does its job and it does its job very well. Coming from an older Forerunner, I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly it links up to a Satellite.

Obsolescence

You know what I mean. And this is one of the things I’ve loved about my past Garmin watches. Even one of my oldest ones is still working today, and syncs up nicely with Garmin connect etc… Obsolescence isn’t really an issue at all. This is certainly not something you can say about many smart watches out there and I hope Garmin keeps up with this tradition.

Conclusion

The Garmin Fenix 5(Plus) is not the most affordable sportswatch out there. For anyone just looking for an activity tracker with sports functions, look elsewhere as this is overkill. If you are however looking for a Multi-Sportswatch that does its job exceedingly well, is built like a tan and doesn’t look bad at all, then this might be worth your well earned money.

What I, as a watch guy, disliked a lot about the various sportswatches I’ve owned so far, is that they are so very ugly. It is as if until recently, for a watch to be a sports watch, it had to be as ugly as possible. That is, until the Fenix joined the race. With its steel bezel and back, this watch somehow feels and wears like a real watch. To me it wears a lot like a nice G-Shock.
After wearing the Fenix the past couple of weeks, I can’t really imagine going back to anything less than this one as far as future sportswatches go. Will it replace any of my mechanical watches? Of course not. Will it replace a G-Shock or two? Likely.

Note that the version I picked is with the ‘silver’ Stainless Steel bezel. The standard option is a black bezel, but it tends to pick and show scratches quickly, so I just went for the silver bezel instead. A very wise choice so far as I’ve already dinged it up quite a bit the past two weeks and it remains invisible on this particular bezel.

7 thoughts on “Hands-On: Garmin Fenix 5

  1. You had me laughing with that introduction haha. I also have a fenix (3) but I actually use it for cycling. I believe this watch is also a popular choice with the iron (wo)men & triathletes out there. Also have an Apple watch but due to several of the reasons you mention, it is unusable in many sport situations.

    Beautiful and inspiring pictures.

    1. It is very true though 😀 Yes – cycling, not my sport, but it works for that too!

      I honestly wanted to get an Apple Watch, just wanted a decent looking sportswatch and was a bit curious to give it a try. But it failed to check a few key boxes for my intentions. Very happy I went the Fenix route, it is even better than what I was expecting from it. The built in training assistant is also very helpful

  2. Your vacation training schedule scares me. Honestly. But your article made me wear my Fenix again. Thanks a lot! Do you analyse your tracked sessions afterwards or do you just save them? Best regards!

    1. Having succeeded to scare you, it was worth all the trouble to write this up 😉

      Yes, I absolutely check them, I like doing that almost as much as watching a good movie 😀 I try and improve them (this doesn’t happen overnight). Different people monitor different aspects but here’s what I do:

      – VO2 max – on the long term, aim to improve that (the Fenix gives a great overview and also a quick summary when you finish a workout);
      – Pacing – Very basic, but I try and gradually improve my pace on the same runs. I also have a specific pacing strategy for the very long runs, where I try and start a bit slower so I can keep up my pace until the finish (getting a better overall time). This is actually surprisingly difficult, as I tend to run too fast at the beginning of a run (specifically, if it is a race where public is cheering, somehow I lose my mind). Sometimes, even when I think I nailed it, when I then look at the stats, I see I still manage to overdo it at the first half of the run.
      – Heart rate & speed – I almost religiously go over the track and how my heartrate was doing. Here again aiming to improve how it behaves on the same course over several months.
      – Averages – This is different for everyone, but I have a certain average heartrate and average pace that I have on my usual routes, I aim to increase the speed of that route, while either maintaining or lowering those two averages.

      I train a lot based on heart rate zones, so it also helps me then see if I actually did a correct training session or just wasted an hour 🙂

      Also, you know how sometimes in a particular area you feel like a complete waste but can’t explain? It helps to look at the analytics post-run to see what the issue was.

      The analytics are good on the app on the phone, but I find it easier to work on a big screen via the laptop/pc. Much better overview.

      One last thing, and more related to ‘live’ analytics: Try and do a run setting the Fenix to show you the heart rate Zone only. So no speed, no time, just the heart rate and the zone (the screen where the heartrate is in the middle, and the zones are those colors along the edge of the screen). Training purely to stay in a particular zone has proven to work for me improving my overall results.

      1. 🤯Thanks a lot for your detailed answer! Now I’m scared even more… Will have a look at the heart rate next time, good bet. Until today I was only… running.

      2. 😂 Much more than most! You can also use it on the treadmill by the way, with the little extra footpod it gets very accurate readouts 💪 Happy running! 😄

Leave a Reply (No Login Required)