Best Running Watch – Guide For the Top GPS Sports Watches
The Best Running Watch for 2019 (updated 23 Feb 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 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 Best Running Watch es 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 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 – 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.
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 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) 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 those features.
Suunto’s SPARTAN Ultra (Review here) is pretty good now and so is the adventure/ski variant The Suunto Spartan Sport BARO. 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. The performance HAS not been sorted out and its functionality is ALMOST there for me – you should certainly CONSIDER it. Once it gets just a few bits of extra navigational functionality it will be a very serious contender in this space. The SPARTAN SPORT BARO‘s GPS performance and altimetry performance already are ahead of Garmin’s Fenix. Like the Fenix 5X, however, there is a keen price tag with the SPARTAN. The Suunto Spartan is certainly prettier than the Fenix 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. Otherwise consider: Fenix 5X, Fenix 3, Spartan Ultra, Spartan Sport BARO.
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 (the only one with true onboard maps!)
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 WearOS 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 (January 2018).
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 – 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, Apple Watch 3 or 4, Samsung, Amazfit Stratos, TomTom’s Runner 3 and many more. If you want to play your own 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 LTE would be for those who specifically want to stream over a cellular connection
ASPIRATIONAL RUNNER – TomTom Runner 3 / SPARK 3
The TomTom wins here, 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 WearOS 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
HEADS UP: I can no longer recommend TomTom consumer sports products as there are uncertainties with the companies committment to the sector however that means there are some GREAT deals to be had. (link to: the5krunner.com)
COOL RUNNER – Apple Watch 4
Version 4 of the Apple Watch has new innards and they are pretty competent when it comes to sports. Couple that 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.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Apple Watch 4 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. And the Polar M430 is certainly a candidate for the accolade of the best running watch. Perhaps the Garmin Forerunner 235 also sits in this space along with the newer Polar Vantage M.
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 for long runs 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 18 October 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.
the student runner might also consider the Polar M200 as contender for the best running watch. It’s got optical HR and usually good GPS and lots of nice features. The looks are a little ‘meh’ but if you are only wearing it to run with…does it matter so much?
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Polar M400 Review
I may probably expand or change this recommendation in 2018. There are now several contender brands such as AMAZFIT that have low-cost alternatives. I just have this nagging doubt, however, that both their GPS and optical HR will just simply be rubbish.
Comments: I found Polar’s GPS accuracy Ok with the M400, others haven’t. Don’t swim with this watch more than once. It has a dodgy micro-USB charging port. The Polar flow online service and app, IMO, are excellent. Some of Polar’s underlying physiology metrics are probably the best.
THE ACCURATE RUNNER – Suunto Spartan Trainer WHR
The Accurate Runner wants, ahem, accuracy. You would have thought that this might cover many sports watches but in fact you would be totally 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 sensors as that doesn’t seem to make too much difference for me most of the time (helps with cycling and/or tree cover). There are other sensors such as altimeters and temperature sensors and I’ve exclude consideration of those for 2 reasons: 1. the ones that have those sensors are not accurate enough; 2. most runners do not want them.
Optical heart rate is essentially mostly inaccurate, much of the time. Sometimes the odd device surfaces that bucks the trend.
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, Suunto and TomTom generally have the most accurate GPS. TomTom does not display cadence on the watch. Polar’s best GPS-performer is the V800 but that’s really a tri watch and does not have oHR. This leaves us with Suunto’s SPARTANs. The new SUUNTO SPARTAN TRAINER WHR is well-priced and also has oHR. That’s the winner. It’s also the winner of the prize for a sports watch with the longest name.
HOWEVER. (Note the use of capitals).
Even the SPARTAN TRAINER is not quite good enough for the ACCURATE RUNNER. Whilst its GPS is 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
- Scosche Rhythm+ – an upper arm worn optical arm strap. It’s accurate (otherwise any old Bluetooth chest strap will do from Suunto or Polar eg the new H10) or Polar OH1 (Review of armband)
- MILESTONE Footpod – pretty accurate and cheap. The richer ACCURATE RUNNER would, instead, buy STRYD.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: POWER RUNNER – Suunto Spartan Trainer
Suunto have a great option with the HIGHLY COMPETENT Suunto 5. It has power metrics natively included unlike any Garmin
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 Spartan 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: As of October 2017 there is now a STRYD app for Apple’s WatchOS. And it’s surprisingly cool.
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!
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 WearOS options like the Casio F20 PRO TREK. I’m a little bit nervous about recommending any of the WearOS options for navigation at the moment mainly because their battery life will not be great – potentially leaving you without a working map on a >1 day hike. Oh dear.
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.
Perhaps you might consider specialist hand-held navigation and NON-SPORTY devices like Garmin’s FORETREX range. I don’t cover those on this site.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Wear OS
Wear OS watches have super-close links to Android smartphone, just like the Apple Watch is meshed 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 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. But even the Ticwatch S2 is super-cheap.
No recommendation as yet for WearOS (June 2019).
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Optical HR
I’ve never made an award in this category. For the first time though it looks like Garmin’s ELEATE v3 sensor is the one that works for me for running.
This is best found in the Garmin 245 Review ed here.
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Smart Fitness/Sports Running Watch
The ‘fitness watch’ or the ‘sports’ watch are not really pure running watches. 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 ‘sports’ 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, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music LTE and the Fitbit Ionic (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. It’s apps are app-tastically fairly large in numbers compared to the competition.
Hey. the winner is the Apple Watch 4.
SPECIAL CATEGORY – No GPS
This is an unusual category. Essentially it was a category in 2009. I further suspect that few people actually specifically WANT a watch with no 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 might come out in Q2.2018. and will be worth a look. Although 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. 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. Still it’s half the price.
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 arm band like the Wahoo TICKR Fit. Wahoo and Polar, for example, both have a free and perfectly fine app to go with their straps/arm bands.
FUTURE OF THE BEST RUNNING WATCH
The best running watch has a good chance of being superseded in Q1.2018. As of 24th November 2017 I am expecting the arrival of a Garmin Forerunner 245 and the Garmin Forerunner 645 will hit the stores VERY soon (written Jan 2018). These will be premium-priced models for sure but will have the most features in the mid- and upper-price brackets.
I HAVE considered the Garmin Vivoactive 3. As you can see it is not on the list. Same applies to the Samsung Gear Sport.
2018 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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