As runners we're lost without the data from our GPS running watch – but with so many choices, which is the right one for you?
We've tested every running watch on the market in our in-depth reviews, and compiled this brand new round up of our top picks. We've included entries for every type of runner, from data obsessed ultras to newbies that are just graduating from Couch to 5K.
The key takeaway? Everyone can benefit from a running watch to help them gauge their improvements and motivate, so read on for our best of the best.
Garmin Forerunner 935
When it comes to pure running, the Forerunner 935 gets the nod. While the Fenix 5 Plus is probably the company’s ultimate multisport and endurance watch, the Forerunner 935 gets you the complete running experience. Light, clear to read and easy to use, the Forerunner 935 is one of the most wearable running watches out there.
It’s designed to track most forms of running, including trail sessions, plus it includes the company’s Elevate heart rate sensor, for HR data from runs, and also 24/7 fitness tracking. And it’s what it does with that data that’s truly impressive. VO2 Max data, Training Effect ratings from your session, training effectiveness and advised rest times are all gleaned from your heart rate variability readings.
That’s of course on top of standard running data: pace, distance etc, as well as more complex data. Heart rate zones are all accessible during a run, and you can use an ANT+ chest strap if you really want top notch accuracy. The Garmin’s optical sensor is good enough for medium intensity training runs, but falls down during hill sprints and other types of session. It's also compatible with Garmin's Running Dynamics Pod, which delivers six running dynamics including cadence, ground contact time, stride length and more.
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In short, if you’re getting serious about running, the Forerunner 935 offers the best running focused analytics. Ultrarunners should look to the Fenix 5, while novices are much better served by the Forerunner 235.
Garmin Forerunner 235
A veteran in the running watch game, the Forerunner 235 is three years old, but always available for a good deal. It was the first to introduce the form-factor carried on by the 935 and is comfortable to wear and easy to use.
It uses the company’s Elevate optical HRM (the same sensor found on the likes of the Garmin Forerunner 935 at 2x the cost) and VO2 Max metrics; it's the complete package. You don’t get the full range of data you’ll find on the Fenix and Forerunner 935, but VO2 Max is a great running stat, and a great addition at this price point.
And you get more than just GPS-tracked running and cycling, with all-day heart rate tracking, steps, sleep and smartwatch features. There aren't many in Garmin's line-up which do all that for under $200.
Garmin Forerunner 35
All the entries in our list have been fairly pricey – and offer a lot of data. But what about runners who just want a good GPS watch without the data science of an Olympic athlete? The Garmin Forerunner 35 eschews the detailed data in favour of running pace, distance and heart rate zones.
Like the rest of the Garmin line-up the Elevate heart rate tech is plenty good enough to offer insights into steady, medium intensity runs, but you won’t want to be using it for high intensity. However, unlike bigger, better watches, you can’t hook up a chest strap.
The design is pretty minimal, but the LCD screen is ready to read while running, and it’s water resistant to 5ATM – so you can wear it in the shower after. There’s basic fitness tracking elements as well.
While its $200 price tag has been usurped by the new Polar M200, we'd still opt for Garmin's budget running watch as it boasts most of the features you'll need out on your run.
Not one of the traditional running watch names, the Amazfit from Chinese company Huami is a bit of a Garmin copycat – but the results actually pay off.
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The Stratos tracks walking, running, cycling, triathlon, swimming, elliptical, mountaineering, trail running, tennis, soccer and skiing. It comes with built-in GPS and GLONASS (Russian satellites which should offer a faster lock-on) support to boot.
Amazfit has signed up FirstBeat, who does all of Garmin’s advanced metrics. That means VO2 Max data a big part of the package , for substantially less than you’ll find elsewhere. While there’s optical heart rate on board which struggles compared to Garmin, Apple and co, the Stratos will hook up to chest straps for properly locked on data.
And the features keep on coming. You can add GPX files which will suit trail runners, and it kicks out to Strava too, which is great because the app experience is sometimes crummy compared to the likes of Polar Flow or Garmin Connect. You could do a lot worse than the Amazfit Stratos.
TomTom Spark 3
TomTom has pulled out of the wearable tech game, but the good news is that this favourite of the Wareable team can be picked up at stunning prices.
While it does all the basics, its optical heart rate monitor was what really impressed. Top notch accuracy aced our tests, and we loved the Route Exploration feature, which enables you to upload GPX routes and follow them from the watch.
The Spark 3 can store MP3s, which it'll play via a pair of wireless headphones, although that side of the experience was always a bit clunky. But that serves to detract from a great fitness experience. Easy to use with clear screens make it well suited to beginners, and it plays nicely with every third party service – Strava included – so you can have your data pushed into better, more able platforms.
Apple Watch Series 4
Back when the Apple Watch first arrived we’d have never recommended it as a running watch – but if you’re looking for a smartwatch suited for running it’s now got the features you’ll need and watchOS 5 just delivered even more.
Built-in GPS is accurate and locks on instantly so there’s no waiting around on cold days, and Apple has let third-party apps like Strava access sensor data. Yes, the data is limited to pace, time, distance and heart rate – but you’ll also get credit for sessions in the Apple Watch’s excellent fitness tracking features.
Apple Music playlist syncing is ridiculously easy, and you can pay for a drink with Apple Pay when you're done. What's more, the addition of LTE means streaming tunes on the go, and you can make calls on long runs, which adds that level of personal safety.
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But watchOS 5 – available for Series 2, Series 3 and Series 4, delivers a host of new features aimed directly at runners. Rolling pace (a summary of your last km/mile), average cadence and automatic run detection have all been added to the Workout app – if you choose to use it.
And while it's now a decent ecosystem for runners, most services are catered for via third-party apps, which can now access the GPS sensor and optical heart rate monitor. That sensor – on the Series 4 – stood up incredibly well to the rigours of testing. It's far from perfect, but still capable of returning useful data, training within zones, and getting feedback on HIIT sessions – and tested better than Garmin, Suunto rivals.
When it comes to running the Ionic is the only Fitbit watch with GPS built in.
The experience matches the basic end of the Garmin line-up by measuring pace, distance and calories. There’s not a great many extra metrics like cadence – the Fitbit Ionic keeps things simple, and will suit weekend runners more than those who are getting really serious.
But like the Apple Watch it’s the fitness tracking elements that really excel. The app is excellent, and using it for running means you get more of a 360-degree picture of your health, with badges earned for running goals and a more detailed assessment of your weekly activity.
Battery life is decent, but won’t trouble high-end Garmins. You get around five days of use and 10 hours of GPS tracking. That’s much better than an Apple Watch Series 3, which is a much closer competitor.
Fenix 5 Plus
We initially deemed the Fenix 5 Plus overkill for the standard runner, but recent changes have meant its exclusion can no longer be justified.
The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is the company’s ultimate running watch, make no bones about that. It caters for all types of outdoor sport, and there’s modes for normal and trail running (not to mention everything from hiking to SUP and even skydiving).
There’s no Garmin watch that offers more in terms of running dynamics, and it matches the Forerunner 935 for data output. That naturally includes VO2 Max, recovery times, race prediction, Training Effect (aerobic and anaerobic from every session), Training Load (and when to take a break) all gleaned from the built-in optical sensor.
For those who love to explore on their runs there’s full TOPO rich mapping, an upgrade over the standard Fenix 5, and you can also upload GPX routes to follow as well.
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And as of a new update, it’s the only Garmin watch (for now) to include offline Spotify playback. Add to that Garmin Pay NFC support and you have one hell of a running watch.
The only real negative is the price: expect to pay $699, which is twice the price of many of the sports watches on test.
Polar Vantage V
Replacing the mighty (but ancient) Polar V800 in our running watch list, the Polar Vantage V – which is landing in stores very soon – adds new metrics into the mix, making it a different proposition to any sports device out there.
Aside from heart rate tracking and pace/distance data, the Vantage V aims to track running power – without the use of a footpod. Why you ask? Running power is becoming the metric de jour, helping runners to hit pace targets via the physiological effort rather than heart rate or pure pace. Intelligently used, this will help you to conserve energy in long runs or races, and use your reserves intelligently.
And there’s more. A focus on recovery means this is a watch for those who are interested in training to the max, and certainly a strong choice for goal-chasing PB hunters.
$499.90 , polar.com
Another sports watch with a clear USP, it’s purely ultrarunners who need apply for the membership of the Suunto 9 club. With a whopping 120 hours of GPS on offer (if you put the device into its strictest power saving mode), it’s all about longevity.
There’s a bunch of tracked sports in addition to running (cycling, hiking, and swimming to name but a few), but the focus is predominantly on battery life. Before any workout you’ll get a predication of how much battery you have, and warnings will prompt you to charge before it’s too late. What’s more, you can switch up battery modes mid-run, so there’s no worries about the Suunto finishing before you do.
The Suunto also uses a nifty FusedSpeed feature, which estimates pace from arm movement when the GPS gets patchy. That’s great news for trail runners fed up with garbled GPS data when running in woods.
However, a lacklustre app and analysis, plus a pretty annoying interface on the watch means that unless you’re someone who tests the battery limits of their existing GPS watch – we’d recommend one of the Garmins above.