Best Running Watch – Guide For the Top GPS Sports Watches
The Best Running Watch for 2019 (updated 20 Nov 2019) is covered here for each category of running and is supported by links to detailed, hands-on reviews. This guide will be updated periodically as new running watches are announced throughout the year and, as of 16 May, I’m just waiting for a couple more product announcements before I finalise this with some more definitive updates.
If you are treating yourself or a loved one to a new GPS running watch then you’ve come to the right place for comprehensive 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.
A Best Running Watch for which kind of runner?
I’m going to cover watches from about $100/£100 upwards to the high-end sports 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 Best Running Watches, not smartphone apps. The Runtastic, STRAVA or Nike apps are as good as any if you want to go down that route.
I’ll be looking at Best Running Watch for, err, 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’ and ‘smart watches’ which typically are inaccurate in how they 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: You can tell by the ‘stock’ photos that the ‘reviewer’ would likely not even own running shoes let alone a running watch. If you value a recommendation, please reward authentic 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: Best Triathlon Watches. Running watches there too!
Features of the Best Running Watch
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:
- GPS-based pace & distance
- Heart Rate
Watches with those 2 features will most likely have most of the regular bells and whistle that you might also want such as ‘laps’ or alerts.
Other key features include
- Footpod support (eg STRYD) or internal accelerometer-based speed (think: indoor winter running in cold places) eg for cadence or more accurate pace info
- 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 – ability to follow a structured workout plan of some sort
- Connectivity to apps, sensors and wifi
- Running Power – probably for 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.
Future of the Best Running Watch
It’s an interesting time. Running is growing globally as an 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 2/3 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.
Short-term new features will also include adaptive training plans becoming more widespread on watches and on the ecosystems that support them.
We will also see even more widespread use of MUSIC capabilities on running watches. Eventually many will support multiple over-the-air streaming services (eventually!!).
I used to run with an old wristwatch 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 – Music & Podcasts
- 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
- The Accurate Runner – Old tech, new tech. Who cares? The Accurate Runner doesn’t. S/he just wants accuracy.
- 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: The Power Runner – A relative of the Run-Scientist, this runner just wants to run with Power.
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Navigation
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: Fitness/Sports Running Watch
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: No GPS
- SPECIAL CATEGORY: With Music
RUN SCIENTIST – Garmin Forerunner 945
The Garmin Forerunner 945 (Review) 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.
Naturally, 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 Forerunner 945 contains pretty much every Garmin running feature. It is expensive and has a few extra features over the Garmin 630 but very few additional features over and above those on the Garmin Forerunner 645. The 645 has questionable looks; questionable GPS; and a battery life that’s not as good as the 935. On the other hand, the smaller format of the 645 is IDEAL for thinner wrists and the optional MUSIC variant super cool if you also want music or Payments on a high spec watch.
ADVENTURE RUNNER – Garmin Fenix 3 (three)
Garmin’s Fenix 5X (Review here – FIVE not THREE) or the Fenix 6X (reviewed here) should be the clear winner in this category. They each have an EYE-WATERING price tag. They have the PROPER inbuilt maps that no other device has for this category but that’s it really as a point of difference.
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 those features.
I have a Suunto 9, 5 and 3 Fitness – I generally like all of them when I have different running hats on – you should certainly CONSIDER the 9 if it’s in your price bracket. The Suunto is certainly prettier than the Fenix though…
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 watches that are generally bug fixed so that means the Garmin Fenix 3, Fenix 5 PLUS, the Suunto AMBIT 3 PEAK and the Suunto 5.
For the adventure runner, the main problem with the Fenix 3, 5, 5s, 6s (not 5X, 6, 6X) and the Suuntos is that they don’t contain a ‘proper’ map. For a ‘proper’, map-based solution you might instead consider the paper version, an app on your mobile phone or a specialist outdoor navigational unit … or the Fenix 5X/6X.
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 Sigma iD.FREE is a much cheaper option that also supports geocaching. Navigational apps on your Apple Watch or WearOS watch could also be an option to consider but the battery life of each of those two watch type will potentially cause you quite serious issues.
For various reasons (stability/features/price), the Fenix 3 or Fenix 5X or Suunto 9 would be the only ones I feel comfortable recommending in this category now (October 2019).
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. It’s improved in each subsequent Fenix series.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Garmin Fenix 3 Review
ENTERTAINED RUNNER – Garmin Forerunner 245 Music
This category looks at the ability to either play music ON the watch *or* play music that is streamed live an online service via an inbuilt cellular connection. There are more contenders than you might think including WearOS watches, Garmin 645M, Garmin 245M, Garmin Vivoactive 3M/4/Venu, Apple Watch 3/4/5, Samsung, Amazfit Stratos, TomTom’s Runner 3 and many more. If you want to play your MP3 tracks then all the watches that support music will work fine BUT if you want to connect to your existing online music service such as SPOTIFY then your choices become VERY limited VERY quickly. And that’s where Garmin wins big time.
It’s a complex subject so there is a long and separate link below on the topic Running with Music. The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is probably the best entry-level option and the Apple Watch 4/5 LTE would be for those who specifically want to stream over a cellular connection
ASPIRATIONAL RUNNER – Sigma iD.TRI
Sigma has taken over where TomTom left off. They have a great budget offering in a square-face format. Either the iD.FREE or id.TRI will suffice, they are very similar.
Despite the CHEAP price ($110/£130ish) they are VERY WELL FUNCTIONED and easy to use. The aesthetics may not be to everyone’s liking but they will be great for beginner runner NOW and also will still be great for the same runner two or three or more years down the line.
The iD.TRI should do all the running-related stuff you need but it’s not going to have much of the smart functionality or stuff that looks properly at sleep patterns and the like.
Garmin’s budget offering is the Forerunner 45 and 45S (small version). But they are a bit over-priced. Although having said that each DOES give you a few more smart features over and above the core running stuff.
Polar’s budget offering is the Vantage M. This is a GREAT watch and HIGHLY competent. I use one a fair amount. It has some smarts but focusses its extra clever stuff on things like sleep analysis and the AWESOME Polar FLOW ecosystem. Go for the Polar if you can afford it if you can’t justify the price tag (it’s not THAT expensive) then revert to the Sigma.
COOL RUNNER – Apple Watch 4/5
Version 4 of the Apple Watch has new innards and they are pretty competent when it comes to sports – it’s the same with the 5 but maybe it’s best to save yourself some money and stick with the Watch 4?
Couple decent sensors with a decent app, of which there are many, then the Apple Watch 4 is the obvious choice for those of you who want a degree of sporting competence but, above that, a cool watch that you can wear 24×7.
Naturally, if you want a SMART watch then this baby has SMARTs-galore.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Apple Watch 4 Review
RUNNERS’ RUNNER – Polar Vantage M
This is supposed to be an award for more of an old school watch. However, it’s an award for a watch that is not pretending to be anything other than what it is designed to be. The Vantage M is a running watch…for, ahem, runners. It just happens to be a PROPER triathlon watch as well.
The Vantage M is cheaper than the Vantage V but has very similar components and software inside. However, surprisingly in my experience, the cheaper materials and lighter weight of the Vantage M seems to make the GPS and oHR work better on the cheaper model (ping me below if you want to know why)
The only downside of the Vantage M is the lack of audible alerts, although can just about here the vibration alert instead.
STUDENT RUNNER – Sigma iD.FREE
We’ve all been there even as memories of those heady days fade. Money is tight, we remember that too.
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.
The obvious choice to me is the Sigma iD.FREE. it’s super cheap and well functioned.
ESSENTIAL READING REVIEW: Sigma id.TRI
THE ACCURATE RUNNER – Suunto 5
The Accurate Runner wants, ahem, accuracy. You would have thought that this might cover many sports watches but in fact, you would be wrong. You might assume that more expensive watches are more accurate; again you would be wrong.
By accuracy we mean the accuracy of the sensors and this is mostly HEART RATE, GPS and CADENCE. I will exclude GLONASS & Galileo sensors as they don’t seem to make too much difference for me, although those satellites can help with buildings and/or tree cover.
There are other sensors such as altimeters and temperature sensors and I’ve excluded consideration of those for 2 reasons: 1. Except for the altimetry in the Fenix 6, altimetry sensors are not SUPER accurate 2. most runners do not want those sensors in any case.
Optical heart rate is essentially mostly inaccurate, much of the time. Sometimes the odd device surfaces that bucks the trend. As well as your training conditions, it depends on YOU and how you wear and use them.
GPS sensors provide information for how fast and how far you have run. When looking at how fast you are running NOW…they are ALL inaccurate much of the time. Some watches have inbuilt motion sensors than can estimate running cadence; guess what? They ARE accurate, nearly all of the time!
Polar and Suunto have the most accurate GPS. Polar’s best GPS-performer is the V800 but that’s a tri watch and does not have oHR. This leaves us with Suunto’s SPARTANs. The new SUUNTO 5 is well-priced and also has oHR. That’s the winner.
HOWEVER. (Note the use of capitals).
Even the SPARTAN 5 is not quite good enough for the ACCURATE RUNNER. Whilst its GPS can be one of the most accurate of all it is still relatively inaccurate for INSTANT PACE. Let’s say you don’t like chest straps, then you still have the problem that inbuilt optical will, at least, be inaccurate at times.
So the ACCURATE RUNNER will also need to buy
- Either a chest strap, like the Polar H10, or an upper arm-worn optical arm strap like the Polar OH1+.
- Zwift Footpod – pretty accurate and cheap. The richer ACCURATE RUNNER would, instead, buy STRYD.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: POWER RUNNER – Suunto 5
The Power Runner just wants to be able to run with Power and that can be either from STRYD (which is compatible with MANY watches), or a high-end Garmin Baro watch plus HRM-TRI or natively on a Polar Vantage.
Using the native power of the Garmin (with Garmin Running Power) or Polar Vantage is cheaper but I’m not convinced at all by their accuracy.
So that only leaves something compatible with STRYD. My personal favourite would be the cheaper Vantage M but its lack of a wide range of power metrics means that I guess I’m going to have to go with the Suunto 5. Although its screen is not as good as the Vantage.
You could also go for STRYD plus a cheap Garmin like the 235 but I’m assuming you won’t buy a cheap watch and an expensive pod.
Garmin’s watches also have problems with power alerts and power zone support HOWEVER their CIQ infrastructure has allowed STRYD to produce the POWER RACE APP as an acceptable workaround.
The Garmin 235 is a fine choice for the power runner but it is about to be replaced by the Forerunner 245 and it’s CIQ/app systems is NOT going to be updated so Suunto 5 is the winner. It’s further supported in its win by its impressive range of features that the POWER RUNNER is likely to also be interested in.
HEADS UP: There is a STRYD app for Apple’s WatchOS. And it’s surprisingly cool.
The problem is the 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! But if you have to squeeze a map onto a tiny watch that you can’t read that well then it has to be the Garmin Fenix 6. The 6/6X are bigger than the 5/5+/6s so get one of those.
You could get a WearOS watch but the battery life will be MASSIVELY impacted by navigating and navigating with a MAP on-screen. You could use one for Geocaching but perhaps not for scaling Everest.
The WearOS-based Casio WSD-F30 could be an interesting consideration
There is no other choice for a map on your wrist.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Wear OS
Wear OS watches have super-close links to Android smartphone, just like the Apple Watch meshes to the iPhone. They all have very similar AND IMPRESSIVE software functionalities but the quality of the hardware and the design of the watch vary considerably. As of November 2019, they all have battery considerations
As 2019 progresses, I might work my way through them all to see which I can recommend other than the Polar M600. The most likely contender seems to be the LG Watch or Huawei Watch GT. The Ticwatch S2 is super-cheap but its cheap for a reason
No recommendation as yet for WearOS (Nov 2019).
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
I’ve never made an award in this category. For the first time though it looks like Garmin’s ELEVATE v3 sensor is the one that works for me for running.
This is best found in the Garmin 245 Reviewed here but also in all of Garmin’s watches announced in 2019.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Smart Fitness/Sports Running Watch
The ‘fitness watch’ or the ‘sports’ watch is not a pure running watch. Sure you can run with them. Sure they are watches. And yes I know more people will buy those watches than the entirety of the other categories put together!
It’s just that running with them is not the primary purpose and you will most likely encounter several annoying sporting features of the ‘smart’ watch when running with it. Maybe it might lack a lap button or have too short a battery life or too inaccurate an optical HR.
The 3 main/best/well-known watches in this category are the Apple Watch 4/5, the Garmin Vivoactive 4/Venu and the Fitbit Ionic/Versa 2 (reviewed here). Looks and brand image will play a BIG part in your purchase of one of these. You can ‘just run’ with any of them…they WILL all be broadly ‘fine’
The Apple will be the one that you buy if you like Apple. The Fitbit will be the one you buy if you like Fitbit. The Garmin may be a bit of a hedge as it is the most sportingly-competent of the 3.
As much as I may have a degree of personal antipathy towards Apple’s monopolistic tendencies and unwillingness to pay morally-due taxes, their Watch is the best Smart Fitness/Sports running watch. It’s expensive and the battery life isn’t great BUT all the smart stuff on it generally works. Its apps are app-tastically fairly large in numbers compared to the competition.
Hey. the winner is the Apple Watch 4.
SPECIAL CATEGORY – No GPS – Connected GPS
This is an unusual category. Essentially it was a category in 2009. I further suspect that few people specifically WANT a watch with no GPS or one that relies on the presence of your smartphone for GPS. Maybe you want an indoor watch for gym, classes and treadmill work but still, want to monitor your heart rate? Fair enough.
Suunto recently announced their Suunto 3 Fitness watch with optical HR. That is worth a look. At a Eu/£/$160 kind of price tag, you might want to look very carefully. Its selling point is clever adaptive training from Firstbeat.
Fitbit recently released the Versa 2. Again, no GPS. Well, both the Suunto 3 Fitness and the Fitbit Versa can take connected GPS from your smartphone. The Versa looks a bit like the Apple Watch but, err, isn’t. By a long way. With the much cheaper Apple Watch 3 (three) maybe that’s worth a pop?
If you want a cheap watch with a chest strap then pretty much anything should be fine from the brands listed above, maybe also consider Timex and Casio. However please also give serious consideration to an app for your smartphone and a Bluetooth SMART chest strap OR a Bluetooth smart armband like the Wahoo TICKR Fit. Wahoo and Polar, for example, both have a free and perfectly fine app to go with their straps/armbands.
FUTURE OF THE BEST RUNNING WATCH
The best running watch has a good chance of being superseded in Q1.2020. I suspect the next best running watch will be the Garmin Forerunner 655 in early 2020, although the Apple Watch 6 (also in 2020) might be worth considering as a sporty alternative…maybe not. Maybe a few more years before that happens.
I HAVE considered the Garmin Vivoactive 3/4. As you can see it is not on the list. Same applies to the Samsung Gear Sport. However the Vivoactive 4 (Venu) now has an AMOLED screen and that will mean that Garmin starts to encroach onto Apple’s smartwatch territory, albeit only a little.
2020 should see more WearOS watches continuing to arrive. A wildcard for the future is a RUNNING watch from WAHOO FITNESS. Such a running watch could be possible in 2018 and would likely see innovation on lots of core elements of running functionality (Garmin tend to add ‘new’ functionality eg contactless payments or controlling electronic ‘things’ at home…IoT).
The Best Running Watch, in the future, is likely to get smarter and be more Apple Watch-like
DISCOUNTS FOR THE BEST RUNNING WATCH
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