If you are treating yourself or a loved one to a new GPS running watch then you’ve come to the right place for our latest recommendations. Luckily for you, it’s a great time to buy a great running watch – prices are competitive and GOOD technology is packed into many devices. For some of the slightly older models that I will cover, you might get a very good deal as replacement models are released.
HEADS UP: I’ve run extensively with EVERY watch recommended and photographed here.
This is now a final version of the 2017 awards BUT will be updated throughout 2017 (Edit July 2017) if new models become available – there should be a LOT of interesting new ones this year. Please help this blog by using the Amazon links in each section of the recommendations or the partner links at the end where there are 10% discounts to be had.
- A watch for what kind of runner?
- RUN SCIENTIST – Garmin Forerunner 935
- ADVENTURE RUNNER – Garmin Fenix 3 (three)
- ENTERTAINED RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
- ASPIRATIONAL RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
- COOL RUNNER – Polar M600
- RUNNERS’ RUNNER – Polar M430
- STUDENT RUNNER – Polar M400
- STYLISHLY CONNECTED RUNNERS – Polar A360/A370
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Navigation – Garmin Fenix 5X
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
A watch for what kind of runner?
I’m going to cover watches from about $100/£100 upwards to the high-end sport watches at over £/Eu/$500. You are lucky in that this year there are many well-featured watches with all the key bits of functionality even at the very lower end of that price range.
A watch or an app?
These recommendations only look at running watches not smartphone apps. The Runtastic app or the Nike app are as good as any if you want to go down that route.
I’ll be looking at running watches for running! You can use many running watches for other sports too but I ‘ll assume that you want something ‘at least’ vaguely competent to run with. I only say this as I will exclude some of the ‘fitness watches’ which typically are inaccurate in how the present GPS and/or heart rate. I will also mostly exclude triathlon watches as they have too much other stuff in them for pure runners.
TOP TIP: If you want recommendations for a running watch then make sure that the recommendation comes from a runner who has actually run with the real watch and not just half-read the specs! Hint: You can tell by the ‘stock’ photos that the ‘reviewer’ would likely not even own running shoes let alone a running watch. Please reward authentic, smaller sites like this whose owners are not salaried and who rely on your generosity in buying from one of the included Amazon links or partner links – thank you!
ESSENTIAL READING: Top Triathlon Watches of 2017. Running watches there too!
To train well you will probably consider distance, time speed/pace and heart rate and “effort”. The 2 key features you should look for are:
- Heart Rate
Watches with those 2 features will most likely have all the little bells and whistle that you might also want
Other key features include
- Footpod support (MILESTONE-POD or STRYD) or internal accelerometer based speed (think: indoor winter running in cold places)
- Durability for running in more extreme environments eg fells or getting wet
- Optical heart rate for those unable or unwilling to wear a chest strap
- Workouts and Intervals
- Connectivity to apps, sensors and wifi
- Running Power – probably or more serious runners. See STRYD
This list of recommendations links to individual watch reviews – there you will find these detailed features that I have taken into account when making the recommendation.
It’s an interesting time. Running is growing globally as a activity. Sport watches are becoming part of super-complex apps & online sport-data ecosystems. The traditional distinction between a ‘watch’, a ‘sports/fitness watch’ and a ‘smartphone’ is becoming somewhat blurred. For example, where does the Apple Watch 2 fit into those categories? It’s, sort of, all of them. Android Wear watches are the Google equivalent and, in my opinion, represent the longer term future of the technology.
The main tech future of the watches will see optical HR everywhere. GPS accuracy will increase through Galileo support. Running by POWER through STRYD will grow exponentially. Web+app ecosystems will provide a complete solution: Garmin, Polar and Suunto.
I used to run with an old wrist watch with a ‘second hand’ to manually time various activities. I got reasonably good. The point of saying that is not to brag but rather just to remind you that the technology per se isn’t going to make you any faster. It’s the hours, miles, speed and recovery that will. Indeed if you are well trained you will be quite able to run well by feel alone. It may not have escaped your notice that Mo Farah seemed to be able to manage to win 4 Olympic golds without wearing a running watch. Just a thought…:-)
Categories and Special Categories
- The Run Scientist – you know you want all the bells, whistles and fog horns
- The Adventure Runner – you know what a hill is. It’s rocky and steep enough to fall down
- The Entertained Runner – You run to a beat
- Aspirational Runner – You’ve just got the bug
- Student Runner – Hey you’re fast but you’ve no money (we were all like that once)
- Cool Runner – you probably own an iphone and want some matching high tech running gear
- The Runners’ Runner – This has to be a bit ‘old style’ yet fully supportive of the requirements of your efforts
- Those Who Are Simply, Stylishly Connected – You want a stylish band that links and syncs to your phone, something relatively thin would help.
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Navigation
RUN SCIENTIST – Garmin Forerunner 935
The Garmin Forerunner 935 can do pretty much everything a running watch needs to do. It works well and still looks cool. But it’s really a lightweight tri-watch.
It will give you all the racing, pacing and run training features you will likely ever need. You can use it to follow a certain pace or follow a previous race performance. No other running watch has as many features.
Obviously all the ‘old hat’ stuff like advanced running dynamics are included as well as new Firstbeat physiological metrics.
It’s got acceptable GPS and you can run with it on a treadmill without the need for an external footpod although you are advised to get one.
It has clever physiological metric estimates like VO2max, performance condition and stress score.
It will link and sync to your phone, it has an awesome battery life to take you right through even the slowest Ironman.
Garmin’s app and online ecosystem (Garmin Connect) are good.
Comments: The 935 contains pretty much every Garmin running feature. It is expensive and has a few extra features over the Garmin 630.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Garrmin Forerunner 935
ADVENTURE RUNNER – Garmin Fenix 3 (three)
Garmin’s Fenix 5X (five – review here) should be the clear winner in this category. It does have some issues with sensors and the EYE-WATERING price tag. It has the inbuilt maps that no other device has for this category but that’s it really. You will likely get better altimetry functionality and performance and better GPS functionality and performance in CHEAPER, more established watches that also have weather alerts. It has oodles of extra functions but, as an adventurer, you will need very, very few of them.
Suunto’s SPARTAN Ultra is improving. It’s GPS has now been shown by other reviewers as ‘class-leading’ (I only get that ‘class-leading’ performance for the SPARTAN SPORT version and I have tested two separate ULTRA devices).
I have a SPARTAN. I use it regularly. I like it. But I can’t yet recommend it in this category. Once sorted out, the functionality and performance could well be ahead of the Fenix 5X and the GPS performance and altimetry performance already are ahead. Like the Fenix 5X there is a heady price tag with the SPARTAN. The Suunto Spartan is certainly prettier though…
So if you are in a situation where your adventure might have life-threatening or ‘highly inconvenient’ consequences if you are let down by an adventure watch then you might want to improve your chances of getting home in time for dinner with the safer bets from 2015/2016 ie the Garmin Fenix 3 and the Suunto AMBIT 3 PEAK. The former has more functions and the latter generally has more accuracy.
The main problem with the Fenix 3, 5, 5s (not 5X) and the Suuntos for the adventure runner is that they don’t contain a ‘proper’ map. For a ‘proper’, map-based solution you might instead consider the paper version, your mobile phone or a specialist outdoor navigational unit … or the Fenix 5X
If your adventures have you exploring a new park whilst on holiday or following a trail or following a different, pre-determined route to work with little chance of imminent death in either case, then the new TomTom Adventurer is a cheaper option. It lacks some navigational features and lacks maps BUT it has some nice hiking features and some innovation around following pre-determined routes that you download relatively easily from their online software. Navigational apps on your Apple Watch or AndroidWear watch could also be an option.
For various reasons (stability/features/price), the Fenix 3 would be the only one I feel comfortable recommending in this category now (July 2017).
The Fenix 3 is very much as feature-full as the Garmin 935 from the previous section – essentially because it’s nearly the same watch inside. It has almost every feature you can think of. As well as that, and just like the 935, it can also morph into a multisport & triathlon watch. Oh and it works.
Comments: The Fenix 3 already comes in an optical HR version for those of you looking for that.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Garmin Fenix 3 Review
ENTERTAINED RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
There is only one winner here is TomTom Runner 3/ SPARK 3 from 2016. It has music-playback built in to the watch. You’ll obviously need bluetooth headphones but you DO NOT need a smartphone for playback/storage. It has optical HR, it has navigation. If these are key features for you there are few other choices.
However music-on-the watch, without the need for a smartphone, might be one of the battlegrounds sports tech for 2017.
- Note: The launch of the upgraded AndroidWear2.0 platform will see MANY devices being able to store music on the watch.
- Garmin rarely miss a trick. I would very strongly expect a Forerunner 635 and Forerunner 245 to be released offering this functionality in late 2017
- Fitbit are overdue with something new and exciting
Comments: The Runner 3 is slightly improved on the 2015 version and might be further slightly upgraded in Q4.2017. TomTom keep the breadth of functionality under control and generally make it work. They seem to have specifically kept superfluous functionality to a minimum to avoid over-complicating the device. But it does its job very well. The app and online platform have been recently updated and are a notable but unremarkable improvement on their previous efforts. TomTom win the nod here because of the price. I suspect that doing the necessary running functionality well at a good price level will keep them ahead throughout 2017; as I can’t see new Garmins and new AndroidWear devices both working well and being cheap.
The only spanner in the works for TomTom is the Polar M600. I really like the M600 (on Android). I like it more than the TomTom in most respects. Yet the price stops me recommending it here for someone who just wants a few tunes to run to. If you want better music quality then get higher bit rate music and buy much better Bluetooth headphones. All the digital-to-analog conversion is done in the headphone NOT on the watch. That is where you lose the quality rather than from buying a cheaper watch.
Money no object? Buy the Polar M600.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3 Review
ASPIRATIONAL RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
Again the TomTom wins here as well, this time for you wanna-be runners. The TomTom Runner 3 has enough bells and whistles to support you as you get faster. But not so many that you will be distracted by them away from your training. It is a great-performer in my GPS accuracy tests…often better than more expensive Garmins.
Running very close behind is Polar with the old M400 and new M600 & M430. I know all those devices well. The M400 has some GPS issues (still under investigation for the M600) and the M400 has a charger that should have been improved and, in the M430 HAS been improved.
As of June 2017 I am considering bumping the Runner 3 from this category if the Polar M430 lives up to the marketing promise.
The polar app, Polar hardware and online platform are superior to TomTom’s equivalent features. If the Polar app is not for you then you can easily use STRAVA app or another on your M600. It’s just the value-for-money of the TomTom that gives it the edge. Garmin’s 230 and 235 are, of course, also worth a look but I think a little over-priced although perfectly competent.
What to watch out for: A new Garmin Forerunner 245 for 2017 could also oust the TomTom later this year. A 245 would undoubtedly have more functionality but it would be more expensive and probably NOT have as good GPS accuracy as the TomTom. There will also be several new AndroidWear devices vying for space here as well as the Polar M430. Unfortunately all the ones I’ve seen that are coming to market will not be as good as the existing Polar M600. So unless the new entrants will be priced at £130/$140/Eur140 they still won’t oust the TomTom – and that pricing level is PROBABLY NOT going to happen
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3 Review
COOL RUNNER – Polar M600
Despite saying, above, that you’ll probably own a iPhone; to be THIS PARTICULAR cool runner you probably won’t own an iphone. YOU will have the Polar M600 and an Android phone. I’m not sure how having the exact same phone/watch (Apple) as half the population is cool…but that’s another matter entirely.
Polar’s M600 is the world’s first ‘proper’ running watch based on Android Wear. Android Wear is stable so there is little risk going with Polar’s technology built on that. There is also a great, free upgrade path with the impending upgrade to Android Wear 2.0 (AW2.0). AW2.0 also has improvements so that it will work much better with an iPhone as well as Android phones (I’v enot tested that but it is supposed to be much better in 2017 than 2016).
Being built on Google’s Android Wear, you’ll get notification, maps, music AND the kitchen sink. Unlike most other sports watches there is a REALLY good chance this baby will actually work with your Android Smartphone in the real world – NB all Android phone/version combinations are subtly different. In my tests the M600 performed very well with oHR for running but less so when swimming. Similarly the GPS accuracy was fine for normal usage but in demanding environments it struggled a little, as do many sports watches.
BTW: The Apple Watch 2 is more of a fitness watch than a ‘proper’ runners’ watch IMO. Perfectly fine, of course. Now you know. I’m sure you’ll buy one regardless of what I say 😉
IMO the M600 bridges the gap and should be considered a running watch rather than a fitness watch
What to watch out for: Other Android watches will abound in 2017. Most/all will be of the circular face type. Most/all will not be as good a bit of hardware as the Polar M600. ‘Looks’ will be the only reason here to stray away from the M600. Now, personally I like the M600 but others amongst you will prefer or insist on a round face – probably the New Balance RunIQ will be the best of the ’round’ bunch that surface this year. We’ll see.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Polar M600 Review
RUNNERS’ RUNNER – Polar M430
This is supposed to be an award for more of an old school watch. However it’s really an award for a watch that is not pretending to be anything other than what it is designed to be. The M430 is a running watch…for, ahem, runners.
When updating the M400 to the M430 Polar kept all the stuff that was perfectly fine. IE the menus and options are virtually unchanged because they have always done what a runner needs them to do. But they’ve added on a top-end optical HR sensor and replaced the GPS chip with a newer and better optimised one.
I’ll be the first to accept that a ‘proper’ runner might never want optical HR. However it is just ‘handy’ sometimes and a chest strap also works fine with the M430 too. However I have to temper my view here with the ‘fact’ that many newer runners coming through do indeed want optical HR, as do many people who just can’t get on with chest straps for whatever reason.
A significant nod has also been made to the extended battery life required for ULTRA runners. Again demonstrating that Polar want to target all kinds of runners’ runners.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Polar M430
It’s pretty enough, rugged enough and well made enough to win this award. It has the metrics you need and has good, all-round accuracy. You have a great app to complement the web ecosystem. If you want to send the data elsewhere, for example STRAVA, that’s also automated. The only 2 downsides for me are the lack of AUDIBLE alerts and, as of 12 July 2017, Polar still need to enable support for STRYD.
STUDENT RUNNER – Polar M400
We’ve all been there. Money is tight. You want something that works, maybe last year’s model could well be in the sale. You know that a second hand sports watch is a risky endeavour, so you have the insight to avoid that.
For a ‘known brand’ I’d go for the Polar M400, 2015’s TomTom Runner 2 is also worth a punt. For an even cheaper option the Epson Runsense range are going for silly prices at times – mainly because no-one buys them. BUT the Epsons ARE QUITE GOOD; with the added advantage that when you wear one your watch will still have some rarity value and you can pretend it’s a brand new watch that no-one has yet had chance to review – avoid their online platform though, it sucks. Link the data automatically from there to ANYWHERE else. Even to a spreadsheet 🙂
You can readily go for a low-end Garmin with optical HR but you won’t get the running features you need and they will still be premium-priced for the features you get.
What to watch out for: I suspect that the introduction of new watches will cause prices of slightly older watches like the M400 and Garmin 230/235 to fall further – especially with the introduction of 2017’s Polar M430. This might then bring the Garmin 230/235 down to a similar value-for-money territory and then worthy of consideration in this category
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Polar M400 Review
Comments: I found Polar’s GPS accuracy Ok, others haven’t. Don’t swim with this watch more than once. Dodgy micro-USB charging port, gently does it. The Polar flow online service and app, IMO, are excellent. Some of Polar’s underlying physiology metrics are probably the best.
STYLISHLY CONNECTED RUNNERS – Polar A360/A370
I love the A360 (A370 also announced with sleep stuff and inbuilt GPS). It’s really a fitness band as it does not have GPS. But I couldn’t find anything else in a thin band format (ie not the Vivoactive). It’s a little temperamental at times and the optical HR could be more accurate and fortunately the last one I bought had an improved strap.
Putting that aside, it is VERY pretty. On the whole it now mostly links well to a smartphone. It has a great Polar app with all the stats you need and more besides. If you have a Samsung Phone then you could consider the Gear Fit 2.
But with a bit of luck you’ll get the A360 for WELL UNDER £100. It has a really nice screen & display, it feels comfortable and it actually looks better than most others anywhere near the same price point.
ESSENTIAL READING *FULL REVIEW*: Polar A360 Review
The problem is maps. Sort-of important for navigation, I’ve heard. If you want navigation then it might be easier to use your car’s satnav, a paper map or a top-end cycling computer!
So you have the choice of the Leikr (probably not even still being made); Garmin’s Epix (not being developed); or Garmin’s new and expensive Fenix 5X. IE no choice at all !
Actually being a little more serious, you also have AndroidWear options like the Casio F20 PRO TREK. I’m a little bit nervous about recommending any of the AndroidWear options for navigation at the moment:
- Their battery life will not be great – potentially leaving you without a working map on a >1 day hike. Oh dear.
- Some may require a smartphone’s carrier signal which might not be good in the middle-of-nowhere.
I can only recommend either the 5X or a real map. There’s quite a big price difference between the two. Running with a 5X is tricky tho as the map/GPS combo is a bit laggy when you are at running speed.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
I’m not going to award this one yet either. Garmin’s 235, Polar’s M600 or M430 and TomTom’s Runner 3/Spark 3 are the contenders for watches with generally good optical HR performance. However I want something SPECIAL.
Suunto have also released the formidable SPARTAN SPORT WHR with VALENCELL optical tech inside. But, that still doesn’t stand out enough above the watches just mentioned above.
There are lots of AndroidWear 2.0 devices for sport coming out in 2017 with optical HR..you still can’t buy many of them yet.
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