Best Running Watch – Recommendations For the Top GPS Sports Watches
Let’s look at the Best Running Watch for you in 2020. I’ve run with ALL of these watches myself which you can tell from my own images of them so I can give you a great pointer for the right running watch for your particular running needs. I’ve given you a quick summary for why each running watch is recommended for a particular kind of running and then there are also links to highly detailed reviews about each individual running watches if you want to do more research; but first, here are all the winners in each category starting off with the Garmin Forerunner 245 (best prices here) which is feature-full, reliable, good-looking enough and not so expensive.
Best Running Watch Category Winners - Details Below
Best Running Watch – Overall – Garmin Forerunner 245 - 90%
Best Garmin Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 245 - 90%
Best Running Watch with Music – Garmin Forerunner 245 Music - 90%
Best Running Watch for STRAVA - Polar Grit X - 84%
Best Running Watch with Most Features – Garmin Forerunner 945 - 95%
Best Running Watch with 'Proper’ Running Features – Polar Vantage M - 95%
Most Accurate Running Watch – Suunto 5 - 89%
Best Running Watch for Adventure Running – Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire - 95%
Best Running Watch with Altimeter – Suunto 9 Baro - 85%
Best Running Watch for Aspirational Runners – Sigma iD.TRI - 85%
Best Running Watch for a Cool Runner – Apple Watch 4/5 - 95%
Best, CHEAP Running Watch – Sigma iD.FREE - 85%
Best Running Watch for Ultra Running – Coros Apex - 83%
Best Running Watch for Power Running – Polar Vantage V - 90%
Best Running Watch for Hiking – Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar - 95%
Best Running Watch for Wear OS - Suunto 7 - 89%
Best Running Watch for Women - Polar Ignite - 88%
Optical HR - no winner, merit Garmin Elevate - 85%
Best Running Watch - Smart Fitness/Sports Watch - Apple Watch 4 (or 5) - 95%
Bestr Running Watch with no GPS or Connected GPS - Polar Unite - 83%
The Best Mid-Priced Running Watch - Polar Vantage M - 95%
Best Premium-Priced Running Watch - Garmin Fenix 6 Series - 95%
Best Luxury Running Watch - Garmin MARQ Athlete - 95%
Best Running Accessory - STRYD - 95%
The “Best Running Watch” for which kind of runner?
You could get a sub£/$100 watch that would count as the Best Running Watch on a budget or you could easily spend over £/$500 on a smart running watch that could probably make you a pre-run latte each morning. I cover them ALL for you here but what is missed out are smartphone apps like Runtastic, STRAVA and Nike RC – they’re great, they’re super cheap but they are not running watches.
Features of the Best Running Watch
Pretty much every running watch will give you the basics to gauge your effort level and distances by heart rate and GPS-based pace & distance. Beyond that, everyone’s running needs soon differ, yet, in some degree of order, these are the Top 10 important features ‘most people’ look for
- Links to your preferred apps, sensors and wifi uploading
- Optical heart rate for those unable or unwilling to wear a chest strap
- Smart and connected features eg text alerts, safety alerts, music, contactless payments and maps
- Social and health features
- Guided training and coaching plans
- Durability in extreme environments eg mountains or just getting muddy
- Footpod support or internal accelerometer-based speed eg for cadence or more accurate pace info when running indoors or outdoors
- Workouts and Intervals – ability to follow a structured workout plan of some sort
- Running Power – for more serious and precise runners.
Best Running Watch – Overall Winner – Garmin Forerunner 245
Overall, the winner is the Garmin Forerunner 245.
The Forerunner 245 will do every running task required by 90% of you who read this, it really is that good and it ticks most of the feature boxes from optical heart rate through to battery life, training plans, smartphone notifications and advanced running features galore. The main downsides are a slight price premium and a relatively cheap build quality.
Best Garmin Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 245
Naturally, the best Garmin running watch is the also the Garmin Forerunner 245. You could go cheaper to the Forerunner 45 or more expensively to the 645/655 or get a second mortgage for the Forerunner 945 but there’s no point. All of the normal running features and more are on the FR245.
Best Running Watch with Music – Garmin Forerunner 245 Music
The Best Running Watch with Music is the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music mainly because it generally works well with most headphones; it allows you to store your MP3s on the watch; and it supports the music-streaming services Spotify, Deezer and Amazon Music. Being the overall winner of ‘Best Running Watch’ you can rest assured that it will also perform all the other running tasks well.
The Apple Watch 4/5 LTE would be for those who specifically want to stream over a cellular connection. If you want to use your existing Google Play Music service (aka soon Youtube Music) then my recommendation for you would switch to the Suunto 7 and if you want a cheap option that simply lets you use your MP3s then consider the Amazfit Stratos.
ESSENTIAL READING: Garmin Forerunner 245 Review
Best Running Watch for STRAVA – Polar Grit X
Controversially my recommendation for the Best STRAVA Running Watch is the new Polar Grit X because it properly supports the three main aspects of STRAVA namely STRAVA Live Segments, STRAVA Courses and your post-workout upload to STRAVA. It can do all-things-STRAVA in any running environment even if your favourite Segments just happen to be half-way up a mountain.
To support all the main aspects of STRAVA in a Garmin watch you would need a top-end Fenix 5/6, soon-to-be-replaced Forerunner 645 or Forerunner 945. If you wanted to record your run with the STRAVA app then you might consider the Suunto 7 which would even record your HR in the Wear OS STRAVA app. For those of you who want to view Strava Relative Effort live then you could go for the Suunto 9 but I don’t consider Strava Relative Effort to be that important for most runners.
Don’t worry about choosing Polar over Garmin, Polar has been supporting runners for longer than Garmin and their app is runner-focused, not tech-focussed.
ESSENTIAL READING: FULL REVIEW: Polar Grit X Review
Most-Featured Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 945
The best-featured running watch is the Garmin Forerunner 945 which can do pretty much everything a running watch needs to do. It works well and still looks sporty. It’s really a pro-tri-watch (FWIW: I use one).
It will give you all the racing, pacing and run training features you will ever need. No other, non-Garmin, running watch has as many features.
Comments: The Forerunner 945 contains pretty much every Garmin running feature. It is expensive and plasticy yet only has a 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 945. On the other hand, the smaller format of the 645 is IDEAL for thinner wrists and the optional MUSIC variant (645M); is super cool if you also want music or Payments on a high spec watch…but the 945 has that too.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Garmin Forerunner 945 Review
Best Running Watch just with ‘Proper’ Running Features – Polar Vantage M
This is an award for an old school watch. However, it morphed into an award for a watch that is not pretending to be anything other than what it is designed to be. The Polar Vantage M is a running watch…for, ahem, runners. It just happens to be a PROPER triathlon watch as well (I used one for racing in 2019).
The Vantage M is cheaper than the Vantage V but has very similar components and software inside. However, the Vantage M seems to make the GPS and oHR work better than on the V model.
The only real downside of the Vantage M is the lack of audible alerts, although can just about here the vibration alert instead. If that bothers you then consider the Polar Grit X which also adds a degree of ruggedness into the running mix.
The Best Sports Watch For Women
However, despite a good social platform, Fitbit has got financial issues, female-specific health tracking is best covered by a smartphone app and both the Fitbit and Garmin need to pretty-up a bit. The Versa does not have proper GPS either. So that leaves you with a choice of either an Apple Watch 3 (or newer) starting at $199 or a Polar Ignite. You know that the Apple has all the apps you want and is certainly worth considering if you use an iPhone but we both know that the Apple Watch has the individuality of a brick.
Yet I think that women generally want to be smarter in how they train. So the best Sports Watch for women is the Polar Ignite which meets most of the features above and also has FitSpark adaptive training guidance which will guide you to train more holistically in support of your running and fitness
ESSENTIAL READING: Full Polar Ignite Review
The Most Accurate Running Watch – Suunto 5
The Accurate Runner wants 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. In fact, most (all!) running watches are far from accurate, especially when they need to reliably tell you how fast you are running. Strange…but true.
The Suunto 5 wins here because it’s delivered the best GPS results to me and GPS directly affects accurate running pace and distance. The accuracy of the oHR is variable and, for me, no oHR seems to work to a level that I would consider to be accurate from ANY running watch. Its altimetry is from GPS and not from a barometer but I suspect many of you would be less concerned about that.
The bottom line here is that NO RUNNING WATCH is accurate enough for me to hand-on-heart recommend. The Suunto 5 is the best of the ‘could-all-do-better’ crowd for a sensible price.
I would recommend the addition of STRYD and a decent HR chest strap to deliver AWESOME SPEED & DISTANCE ACCURACY to many other running watches that I could name. Then if you also want more accurate ALTIMETRY you would get the Fenix 6 which NAILS ALTIMETRY with its inbuilt DEM – very few sports watches have DEM. If you want to spend over $/£1000 in search of total sensor accuracy then you would get the Fenix 6 + STRYD + HRM-DUAL and turn off the oHR and GPS-derived speed and distance.
Generally, Polar and Suunto have the most accurate GPS/GNSS. Polar’s best GPS-performer is the V800 but that’s an old, discontinued tri watch and does not have oHR. This leaves us with the Suunto 5 which is well-priced and also has oHR. That’s the winner.
Best Adventure Running Watch – Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire
Garmin’s Fenix 5X Plus (Review here) or the Fenix 6X (reviewed here) are the clear winners in this category, both with reservations. They have the PROPER routable maps onboard that no other running watch has for this category. The Fenix 5+/6 series have oodles of extra smart functions but, as an adventurer, you will need very, very few of those features.
For the adventure runner, the main problem with alternatives like the Fenix 3, 5, 5s, 6s (not 5X, 6, 6X) and the Suuntos is that they do NOT contain a good-quality, routable map. For a ‘proper’, map-based solution you might instead consider an app on your mobile phone or a specialist outdoor navigational unit.
You will likely get better GPS functionality and in CHEAPER, more established watches that also have weather alerts – albeit only marginally better. But you won’t get the breadth of outdoor features that only the 5X/6X can deliver and which are also sufficiently durable beasts for your adventures.
I can recommend the 5X Plus but I’ve just edged towards adding in the newer 6X Pro Sapphire (I’ve never looked at the 6X Solar myself). I think you will still get a few minor bugs until well into 2020. So if your adventurous life depends on your watch go for the 5X Plus but that birthday present for 2020 has to now be the 6X Pro and if you are spending all that money a little extra on an extra hard lens is a sensible move too.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Garmin Fenix 6 Review (6 series)
Best Running Watch with Altimeter – Suunto 9 Baro
For supreme, altimetry accuracy in general outdoor usage, the DEM Altimetry offered by top-end Garmins like the Fenix 6X will be hard to beat. However, in extreme mountain conditions, Garmin’s GNSS fix might not put you in the right place and hence it could look up and display the wrong altitude. Sure the Garmins have barometers too but I would prefer to rely on a properly calibrated Suunto in extreme conditions.
For the Best Running Watch with an accurate altimeter look at the Suunto 9 Baro.
Best Running Watch for Aspirational Runners – Sigma iD.TRI
Sigma has taken over my recommendation at the budget end of the market with a great offering in a classic rectangular 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 a beginner runner 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 features that look properly at physiology, sleep patterns and the like.
Garmin’s budget offering is the Forerunner 45 and 45S (small version), despite being the budget option with several smart features, they are over-priced.
Polar’s budget offerings are the M200 and M430 and the Coros Pace or Amazfit Stratos are also worth a look.
Best Running Watch for Cool Runners – Apple Watch 4/5
Versions 4 and 5 of the Apple Watch introduced new, techy innards and they are pretty competent when it comes to sports. Couple decent sensors with a decent app from the app store, 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.
The Apple Watch 3 is well-priced below $/£/Eu200 but the internal sensors are not as good.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Apple Watch 4 Review
Best Watch for Ultra Running – Coros Apex
The best ultra running watch is the Coros Apex
The Coros Apex offers a very well-featured alternative to Garmin at a significantly lower price. The Coros app is alright but you probably will want to get your data out to STRAVA or somewhere else quickly, which luckily Coros facilitate, and you may not like the Apple-like crown. Apart from that, it’s a winner that is stacked full of features and an infeasibly long battery life.
The best watch for running with power is either of the Polar Vantage Mor V, both let you use either Polar’s version of running power or that from STRYD.
The Power Runner just wants to be able to run with Power to augment pacing by HR or PACE and the power can be from STRYD or natively from a high-end Garmin Baro watch eg 945+ HRM-TRI, or natively on a Polar Vantage or Suunto 5/9. Each has their advantages and I keep changing my mind over which is the best as they all have their unique disadvantages too. STRYD’s new Garmin CIQ app is super-sweet but I’m now using the Polar Vantage V Titanium more in 2020 just because of the unique (power) ZONE lock functionality and because my Garmin 945 has to be returned for repair (again).
FULL REVIEW DETAILED Polar Vantage V Review
Best Hiking & Running Watch – Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar
The best GPS watch for lovers of hiking and running is the Garmin Fenix 6 (Review here) It has all the top-end Garmin running features and all the top-end Garmin outdoors features that cover maps, environmental ABC sensors and safety alerts.
The problem, again, is the access to maps and routing, which are obviously important for navigation. If you REALLY MUST squeeze a map onto a tiny watch that you can’t read then it has to be the Garmin Fenix 6. The 5/5+/6s are smaller so get a larger 6/6X. Even then the default maps are often not great so you could get a Wear OS watch and an app that shows a beautiful map but the battery life will then be very negatively impacted. You could happily use a Wear OS watch for Geocaching but not for scaling Everest.
The WearOS-based Casio WSD-F30 or WSD-F21 merits some consideration but battery life will be a perennial issue with those two despite some good ABC sensors and interesting Wear OS App features.
At the lower end of the price scale, Garmin Instinct clears the battery issue by relying on an awful and low-powered screen but then offloads some of your navigation needs onto your smartphone – it sounds messy but is a reasonable compromise if you want simple environmental and directional information on your wrist and the ability to re-plan in full-map & app glory on your phone.
Best Running Watch for Wear OS
I have just finished my Suunto 7 review and, whilst expensive, it is an awesome piece of tech. Furthermore, it is beautiful and easily the best-ever smart running watch for WearOS. The Suunto Wear OS app is great and all the issues identified when it was launched have now been added, even if you don’t like the Suunto Wear OS app there are many other sporty Wear OS apps you can choose to admire on the awesome screen it comes with.
DETAILED REVIEW Full Suunto 7 Review
Best Running Watch with Optical HR – None
I’ve tried to avoid any kind of recommendation in this category. Garmin’s ELEVATE v3 sensor is the one that works best for me for running. However accurate oHR varies by person and by your usage.
Elevate v3 is found in the Garmin 245 (Reviewed here) but also in Garmin’s watches announced from 2019 onwards including the Fenix 6 and Forerunner 945.
Best Smart Running Watch – for Fitness – Apple Watch 4/5
The best smartwatch for fitness and running is obviously the Apple Watch 5, although the Apple Watch 4 is nearly identical.
The ‘fitness watch’, ‘smartwatch’ or the ‘sports’ watch is not a pure running watch. Sure you can still run with them. Sure they are watches and WAY more people will buy these kinds of watches than the entirety of all the other categories put together! It’s just that running is not their 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 main/best/well-known watches in this category are the Apple Watch 4/5, the Suunto 7, the Garmin Vivoactive 4/Venu and the Fitbit Ionic/Versa 2. Of course, all smartphone vendors like Samsung and Huawei sell something similar. 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 Watch 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 safe bet as it is the most sportingly-competent of the 3.
As much as I may have a degree of personal antipathy towards Apple’s platform, the Apple Watch 4 (or 5) 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 and it boasts a huge choice of apps.
Hey. The winner is the Apple Watch 4…or 5
Best Running Watch with no GPS or Connected GPS – Polar Unite
The best running watch with no GPS is Suunto 3.
The Polar Unite I reviewed in 2020 is a great piece of modern, high tech kit with a sweet screen and a great ‘adaptive’ training program to guide you towards the best type of exercise for YOU to perform TODAY.
The Suunto 3 watch has optical HR and is also worth a look. At a Eu/£/$160 (lower in the sales), you might want to look very carefully as there are probably better running watches WITH GPS at this price. Its selling point is also a clever adaptive training program. Alternatively, Fitbit offers the Versa 2. Again, with no GPS on the watch. The Versa looks a bit like the Apple Watch but, err, isn’t. By a long way. Versa lacks MANY sporty features and I wouldn’t recommend it. Both the Suunto 3 and the Fitbit Versa takes connected GPS from your smartphone which you must carry with you if you want to get an idea of your speed and map of where you ran for later.
DETAILED Polar Unite Review
Let’s consider the main price bands as separate categories
Best Cheap Running Watch
If you want a price-based recommendation then the Sigma iD.FREE is the best, cheap running watch.
Check Sigma id.TRI / id.FREE prices HERE
Best Mid-Priced Running Watch
Polar Vantage M is the best mid-priced running watch.
Best Premium-Priced Running Watch
Either the Garmin Fenix 6 or Polar Vantage V is the best premium running watch
Best Luxury Running Watch
The Garmin MARQ ATHLETE is the best near-luxury running watch
Best Running Accessory
The best accessory for running is the STRYD footpod. It gives accuracy to pace and distance measurement and produces POWER which is a great way to judge your true effort levels.
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