Best Running Watch – Buy the Top GPS Sports Watch
Let’s cut to the chase…the best running watch for most runners is the Garmin Forerunner 245. No question. It’s (almost) blindingly obvious. Except if you want a super-smart & more casual running watch then the obvious choice is the Apple Watch 6, well, at least it is obvious if you have an iPhone.
There are other seemingly-obvious contenders for the title of the Best Running Watch for 2021, I’m a runner/triathlete that’s run thousands of miles with those Garmin, Polar, Apple and Coros watches so here you get great pointers for the right GPS running watch for every kind of running – trail, track, casual, ultra, marathon, parkrun… We explain the recommendations for each best-in-class GPS running watch to aid your research; but first, here is an index of all winners, starting off with the overall winner, the Garmin Forerunner 245. Use the table of contents to jump to the categories that interest you most.
Best GPS Running Watch features for which kind of runners?
If you’re not quite sure what you need from a running watch then here are the top 10 features that most people consider, although note that what is missed out are smartphone apps like Runtastic, STRAVA and Nike RC – those are great, they’re super-cheap or free but they are not running watches.
In 2021, every competent running watch will give you the basics to gauge your efforts by heart rate, GPS-based pace & distance travelled. Beyond that, everyone chooses based on these Top 10 running watch features
- Optical heart rate
- Smart and connected features for safety, music, contactless payments and maps
- Social and health features
- Connectivity to phone apps, sensors and wifi.
- Durability in extreme environments
- ABC Sensor, accelerometer & support for Footpods for using in special environments
- Workouts, structured intervals, guided training & coaching plans
- Running Power
Best Running Watch with GPS – Overall Winner – Garmin Forerunner 245
Overall, the winner is the Garmin Forerunner 245.
The small size-format Garmin Forerunner 245 will do every running task required by 95% 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 guidance, free training plans, smartphone notifications and advanced running features galore from deep physiology feedback to track mode. The downsides are the ‘Garmin’ premium and a comparatively cheap build quality; even then, you will get at least 10% off the rrp when buying from here.
Best Garmin Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 245
Naturally, the best Garmin running watch is also the Garmin Forerunner 245. You could go cheaper to the Forerunner 45 or more expensively to the ageing Forerunner 645 or get a second mortgage for the FR945 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
Unsurprisingly, the Best Running Watch with Music is the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music, it works well with most headphones; unlike the Apple Watch it allows you to store your MP3s on the watch; and it supports more music-streaming services than Apple with support for Spotify, Deezer and Amazon Music. Being the overall winner of ‘Best Running Watch’ you can rest assured that it will also perform all running tasks excellently.
The LTE versions of the Apple Watch could be best for those who want to stream over a cellular connection. If you want to use your existing Google Youtube Music then my recommendation for you is to switch to the Suunto 7 when Youtube Music is available on Wear OS (2020) and if you want a cheap option that simply lets you use your MP3s then consider the Amazfit Stratos. Fitbit Sense is a good bet if you are already a Fitbit user (otherwise do NOT switch to them) and the Fossil Gen 5, like the Suunto 7, will be a good call one Youtube Music gets its act together and makes an app.
ESSENTIAL READING: Garmin Forerunner 245 Music Review
Best Polar Running Watch – Polar Vantage V2
The Polar Vantage V2 is a superb quality running watch. It has a better build quality than the more plastic feel of all Garmin Forerunners. It’s one of my personal favourites and has a wealth of ‘proper’ running features for athletes, including great physiology insights and the ability to execute complex & targetted running workouts. Less common needs are fully covered such as the native handling of running power and breadcrumb routes synced from Strava and elsewhere.
What it lacks in the latest smartwatch features it makes up for in its looks.
Don’t worry about choosing Polar over Garmin, Polar has been supporting runners for longer than Garmin and their whole platform is primarily runner-focused.
ESSENTIAL READING: FULL REVIEW: Polar Vantage V2 Review
The Best Sports Watch For Women – Apple Watch 6, 40mm
I don’t like to make gender-specific recommendations…but here goes, please don’t bite me. The average female runner menstruates, has a thinner wrist than the average man and is more inclined to join sporty, non-running activities like gym classes and to be more attuned to dietary requirements. My personal experience is that women tend to run more in groups, run in safer places and listen to music when running alone. To contain tech that covers all those aspects of your life, you would probably want me to recommend the Fitbit Versa 3 or the Garmin Forerunner 245M. I’m not going to.
Despite a good social platform, Fitbit has got financial issues; female-specific health tracking is best supported by dedicated smartphone apps, and both the Fitbit and Garmin models need to pretty-up a bit. So that leaves you with a price-based choice of either an Apple Watch 6, Apple Watch SE or Apple Watch 3 starting as low as $169 in sales. You know that any Apple Watch has all the apps you want and is certainly the most sensible choice for iPhone users, the downside is that the Apple Watch lacks individuality. The Apple Watch SE is highly similar to the Apple Watch 6, lacking an always-on screen and with shorter battery life and previous-gen HRM.
If you want guided training or if you are on the Android platform, then go for the beautiful screen of the Polar Ignite which covers most aspects that women need from tech and which also has FitSpark adaptive training guidance which will properly guide you every day in support of your running and fitness regime.
Best Cheap Running Watch
If you want a price-based recommendation then the Sigma iD.FREE is the best, cheap running watch. Also covered in the next category.
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 have LOTS of features including crash alerts, optical HR, barometric altimeter and structured workout support. 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 or iD.FREE should do all the running-related stuff you need but it’s not going to have much of the smart functionality or features for physiology, sleep patterns and the like. It’s probably the watch you wear for your sport but not for the rest of the day.
Garmin’s offering here is the more expensive Forerunner 45 and 45S (smaller version), despite being the budget Garmin option with several smart features, this Garmin is over-priced. If you are wowed by an app like Garmin Connect then DO get the Garmin and if you want running features on the watch then get the iD.FREE.
Best Mid-Priced Running Watch – Coros Pace 2
The is an excellently-featured running watch for an amazing price. It is super-light, has a long battery life and contains a Garmin-level number of features PLUS it originally had features than even Garmin lacked like track mode. If you want to start using running power then the Pace 2 offers native support for STRYD and for its own on-the-wrist power calculations. With physiology insights, training plan creation and Garmin-level accuracy, what’s not to like? It ticks every box with a great big thick marker pen. Except one. The app. The app is OK and perfectly usable but it’s not awe-inspiring. Coros WILL improve it in 2021 but that’s the future and you might nor want to buy now on a promise.
That said, if you are also looking to buy STRYD in the UK there is an unbeatable bundle deal at my retail partner NRG, plus NRG gives a further 10% off using my code THE5KRUNNER10.
If you don’t want to risk a challenger brand like Coros AND if you want an awesome platform then revert back to last year’s winner – Polar Vantage M, which is now widely discounted. Even recommending the Polar leaves a spanner in the works as an Vantage M2 has now arrived.
Best Premium-Priced Running Watch- Garmin Forerunner 945
Either the Garmin FR945 or Polar Vantage V2 is the best premium running watch. The Garmin has more smart features and more peripheral features, the Polar is packed full of running features and is a better-made watch (I’d say prettier, too). If you want a small-format premium watch you’d go for the Garmin FR745 which is kinda the same as the Garmin FR945 but smaller.
Most-Featured Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 945
The most-featured running watch is the Garmin Forerunner 945 which does everything sporty that a running watch needs to do and lots more smart features too…like music, PAY and maps. It’s really a pro-tri-watch and another of my personal favourites.
It will give you all the racing, pacing and run training features you will ever need. No other running/triathlon watch has this many features covering track mode, Firstbeat physiology, structured training, guided training, training suggestions, voice guidance, alerts, customisable lap screen…I could go on but it would be a very, very, very long list of features.
The Forerunner 945 contains every Garmin running feature. It is expensive and plasticy, yet still gets any new Garmin running feature unlike the much older 645. IMPORTANT for smaller-wristed people: you might prefer the smaller case of the Forerunner 745…apart from MAPS, battery & price the FR745 and FR945 are almost identical.
ESSENTIAL READING FULL REVIEW: Garmin Forerunner 945 Review
Best Smart Running Watch – for Fitness – Apple Watch SE
An iPhone user with not too much cash to splash will choose the Apple Watch SE. It really is an awesome fitness watch.
You will get so many smart features and apps that you won’t know what to do with – women’s health, advanced triathlon apps, Stryd power support, maps and compasses…there’s an app for all. You will also get an extremely competent fitness watch with the Apple Watch SE and it has the ‘just works’ factor. The only reasons to get the Apple Watch 6 over the SE are a slight speed boost; a slightly better, always-on screen; and a superior optical heart rate monitor. It’s that last point that might persuade a fitness aficionado to go for the more expensive AW6 – although a chest strap will work with either Some of you will point out that the slower AW3 is cheaper and similarly functioned, which is true, but for a few dollars more the superior SE will be supported for MANY years more than the AW3.
Android users? I know you’re going to buy a Fitbit Versa 3 / SENSE but I can’t recommend those even though they offer improvements over the previous generation. Sorry. Try an awesome Suunto 7 instead.
Best Running Watch just with ‘Proper’ Running Features – Polar Vantage M2
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 M2 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 and I like it).
The Vantage M2 is well-discounted and much cheaper than the Vantage V2 but has very similar components and software inside. However, the Vantage M2 seems to make the GPS and oHR work better than on the V2 model. The ‘M’ is the ‘real deal’ with structured training, alerts, native running power and a comprehensive app/platform. Don’t be fooled by the price.
The Most Accurate Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 745 & Apple Watch 6
I am so sorry. I have to deeply apologise to all my longtime readers who have, for so long, trusted me to ‘say it how it really was’ with Garmin’s optical HR and GPS accuracy. Sadly, Garmin may have turned the corner into Accuracy Street, hand-in-hand with the Apple Watch 6. The FR745 can, sometimes, be very accurate. But not always. And really, the Apple Watch 6! What? It’s not even a ‘proper’ sports watch. It can’t be accurate. Can it?
Read this: Apple Watch 6 Accuracy (the most detailed sports-accuracy report out there, supporter-only content)
Read this: Garmin Forerunner 745 Accuracy (the most detailed sports-accuracy report out there, supporter-only content)
- Garmin 745 (Best GNSS/GPS) & AW6 both ONCE reported the joint best GNSS score in a repeated test I perform on ALL sports watches. The Apple Watch is probably not as good as the Garmin, it smooths the recorded track which looks better than it really is yet sometimes it is very accurate. New GPS firmware MAY mean performances on other Garmins are improved too. The 745 is peak accuracy, in 2021 Garmin will switch to a new GPS chip and inevitably accuracy will suffer at first.
- Apple Watch 6 (Best optical HR) oHR with Garmin’s latest-gen ELEVATE sensor is generally good and often perfect but sometimes less so. The new oHR sensor in the AW6 is even better but occasionally it’s rubbish and flatlines or locks onto your running cadence rather than your heartbeat (yes really!).
- Apple Watch 6 (Best elevation) – AW6 periodically re-calibrates a barometrically-derived altitude with GPS (maybe also querying actual elevation via LTE or your phone). The AW6 is very good in my experience. I will temper that by saying other reports out there disagree.
Put it this way if both my STRYD battery and HRM-PRO battery suddenly both stopped working, I would be happy to continue my run with either the AW6 or FR745 rather than breaking down and crying at the chance of less-than-perfect data.
OK, that last bit was tongue-in-cheek, you get my point tht these are accurate enough. Please note that physiological and environmental factors will certainly cause your experience of oHR and GNSS/GPS to be different from mine. Buy a foot pod and a chest strap for guaranteed results.
Best Running Watch for Wear OS
My detailed Suunto 7 review from earlier in the year easily found the Suunto 7 to be a very well-made piece of kit with all the goodies that are packed into Wear OS – payments, Google Assistant, maps and more. Furthermore, it is beautiful and easily the best-ever smart running watch for WearOS. The Suunto Wear OS app i superior to most running apps and all the issues identified when it was launched, like custom sport profiles, have now been fixed. 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. Just like the Apple Watch, the only downsides are the battery and the price.
DETAILED REVIEW Full Suunto 7 Review
Best Watch for Ultra Running & Trail Running – Garmin Enduro
With the longest battery life on the market, the Garmin Enduro is the winner in this trail and ultra categories, with reservations. You get the highest-durability case, life-saving sensors Altimeter, Barometer & Compass to sit alongside the awesome, solar-powered battery life that comes as standard. Sure you can follow breadcrumb routes, see progress up pre-planned climbs with ClimbPro, have the piece-of-mind of fall detection and lightweight, titanium ruggedness to keep going in confidence to the end of your adventure. This has every relevant Garmin running feature….hundreds of them, from every multisport feature to every Firstbeat physiology feature an immense battery life, plus it’s faster and smoother to use than the earlier Fenix sibling-models. You even get VO2max ratings adjusted for off-road terrain. No competing watch delivers these niche features.
Perhaps the screen could be more colourful and with a better resolution? Inbuilt maps would help for some races.
It’s expensive. It could be better yet. But it is undoubtedly the best-in-class. Note: accuracy and stability at the product’s launch were questionable but Garmin has and will rapidly improve these.
Best Adventure Running Watch – Coros Apex
The best adventure watch is the Coros Apex and when you factor in the cost it beats the Garmin Enduro.
The Coros Apex offers a very well-featured alternative to Garmin at a significantly lower price. Weight, maps and battery life are important and there is no single product that is the best at those 3 criteria, so my trade-off favours the Apex which only has breadcrumb routes (like the Enduro). ONLY IF maps are important will you get a Fenix 6/7.
The Coros app does the basic job but is clunky at times and you may not like the Applesque crown. Apart from that, it’s a winner that is stacked full of features covering physiology, barometric altimetry, compass, interval workouts, customisable alerts, plus a battery life of 35 hours. Many happy Coros owners are quite vocal on the net about their great watch.
Best Hiking & Running Watch – Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Sapphire
The best GPS watch for lovers of hiking and running is the Garmin Fenix 6. It has every single top-end Garmin running feature and all the top-end Garmin outdoors features that cover maps/navigation, environmental ABC sensors, safety alerts, bearings, courses and WAY more besides. You want every multisport feature ever? You got it. I’m recommending it here rather than the Solar version as the Solar 6X just might add a little something extra over the already-great battery-life for super serious, longer adventures but with the multi-day package that is the 6 Pro Sapphire, you have a sturdy hardware package that will still keep you going for days.
At the lower end of the price scale, Garmin Instinct clears the battery issue by relying on a low-powered screen but then offloads some of your navigation needs onto your smartphone – that setup 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. Of course, your phone will need a phone signal wherever you are heading off to.
Note: Look for sapphire glass (gorilla) and titanium shells for the best durability and scratch resistance.
ESSENTIAL READING HIGHLY DETAILED REVIEW: Garmin Fenix 6 Review (6 series)
Best Running Accessory
The best accessory for running is the STRYD footpod followed closely by the Garmin HRM-PRO. STRYD gives pace and distance accuracy, running dynamics and it produces POWER to judge your true effort levels and the HRM-PRO gives running dynamics and accurate heart rate.
Essential Reading: STRYD Review
Essential Reading: Garmin HRM-PRO Review
Best Running Watch Category Winners - Details Below
Best Running Watch – Overall – Garmin Forerunner 245 - 90%90%
Best Garmin Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 245 - 90%90%
Best Running Watch with Music – Garmin Forerunner 245 Music - 90%90%
Best Polar Running Watch – Polar Vantage V2 - 90%90%
Best Running Watch for Women - Apple Watch 6 40mm - 90%90%
Best, CHEAP Running Watch – Sigma iD.FREE - 85%85%
Best Mid-Priced Running Watch for Aspirational Runners – Coros Pace 2 - 92%92%
Best Premium-Priced Running Watch - Garmin Forerunner 945 - 95%95%
Best Smart Running Watch – for Fitness - Apple Watch SE - 88%88%
Most-Featured Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 945 - 95%95%
Best Running Watch with just 'Proper’ Running Features – Polar Vantage M2 - 95%95%
Most Accurate Running Watch – Garmin Forerunner 745 - 91%91%
Best Running Watch with Optical HR Apple Watch 6 - 90%90%
Best Running Watch for Wear OS - Suunto 7 - 89%89%
Best Adventure Running Watch – Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar - 95%95%
Best Watch for Ultra Running & Trail Running - Garmin Enduro - 95%95%
Best Adventure Watch – Coros Apex - 83%83%
Best Running Accessory - STRYD - 95%95%
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