UPDATE: We have a new best GPS running watch round up with all the latest devices – check it out here.
Deciding on the best running watch for you is an extremely personal choice. Each sports watch offers a different selection of running and performance data, some of which is aimed at beginner runners who want to keep things simple, and others at athletes that want to get scientific about their training.
But what makes the perfect watch? Well, accurate GPS is a given these days, but now the focus is on biometric data and what that brings to the party. Most running watches have heart rate sensors built in, and the ability to connect a chest strap as well, for really intense training sessions.
Read this: The best fitness trackers to buy
And what does that heart rate data do? Aside from giving you the chance to
tailor your sessions to specific heart rate zones, heart rate data can offer insights into VO2 Max (a great measure of your fitness), as well as gauge the effectiveness of a training session.
Many watches now put a focus on recovery, which can help stave off injury. Using heart rate variability data, top running watches will suggest the amount of rest you need, as well as assessing how your body is adapting to your session.
Got any questions? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Best running watches
When it comes to serious running, these are the watches you need in your life. They're built for runners, with high end metrics, looking at things like VO2 Max, cadence, race pace – and extra features to get you going.
Garmin Forerunner 235
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Optical heart rate | Smartwatch notifications | Water resistant to 50m |
This is controversial – but bear with us. Below is a who's who of the running watch world, with some serious tech. But for the average runner, they're too costly to recommend. That's why we introduce the Forerunner 235 first.
The watch is three years old, but Garmin simply won't let it die. A great, easy-to-read form-factor, optical HRM (the same sensor found on the likes of the Garmin Forerunner 935 at 2x the cost) and VO2 Max metrics – it's a complete package.
And you get more than just GPS-tracked running and cycling. All-day heart rate tracking, steps, sleep and smartwatch features – there's not much in Garmin's line-up which do all that under £200.
Fenix 5 Plus (inc. 5S plus, 5X plus)
Feature check: GPS | Optical heart rate | Water resistant to 50m | 18 hours battery, 42 hours UltraTrac | TOPO mapping | Garmin Pay | VO2 Max | Smartwatch notifications
A welcome update to its previous super watch, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus doesn’t change a winning formula. The Fenix tracks pretty much every sport imaginable – and many you can’t, thanks to the Garmin Connect IQ app store. Running, cycling and swimming (thanks to 50ATM water resistance) meets paddle-boarding, golf, hiking and even skydiving.
In terms of standard sports tracking, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is unchanged. You still get optical HR tracking, and a host of VO2 Max insights from tracked runs, cycles and workouts. If you’re not much of a high-intensity athlete, you might want to look at something less hardcore, as the stats only really respond to hard sessions, and that can be a little frustrating. We ran a 33 mile ultra marathon, and that was only intense enough for the Fenix 5 to say it was “maintaining” our fitness.
Of course, endurance athletes will also want to consider the Fenix 5 Plus carefully. It features UltraTrac mode for slower, but longer GPS tracking, which can reach 42 hours when fully turned on, or 18 hours in full GPS mode. The Fenix 5 Plus does feature less battery life than the standard Fenix 5, which managed 60 hours of UltraTrac and 24 hours of standard. If you don’t want these news bells and whistles, the older Fenix 5 is your best bet.
The extras in the Plus edition come in the form of Garmin Pay contactless payments, much improved, routable TOPO mapping – which offers topographic information as well as local points of interest – and the ability to store and play MP3s, and offline sync iHeartRadio playlists (yes, no Spotify support as yet).
A word on the other versions here. The Fenix 5S Plus offers the same features in a smaller, sleeker package (with less battery life), while the Fenix 5X Plus maximises battery and offers blood oxygen tracking in a beasty 48mm package.
In short, the improvements bring Garmin’s best sports watch bang up to date – and there’s little argument that it’s the king of running watches.
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Optical heart rate | VO2 Max analysis | Smartwatch notifications | Garmin Connect IQ | Water resistant to 50m | up to 24 hours GPS battery life
Our new top running watch and rightful winner of the Sports Watch of the Year accolade at last year's Wareable Tech Awards costs a fair bit more than our last reigning champ, but we think the Forerunner 935 is well worth that extra spend if you want the best that's out there.
It's primarily designed for triathletes, but it takes the best of the new tracking skills packed into the Fenix 5 and puts it into a smaller body.
Sitting at the top of the Forerunner family, above the
Forerunner 735XT and Forerunner 235 watches, it'll record most forms of running including trail sessions, includes a heart rate sensor and will dish out data to give you an insight into the effects of your training.
It's also compatible with Garmin's Running Dynamics Pod, which delivers six running dynamics including cadence, ground contact time, stride length and more. Heart rate monitoring is by no means perfect, but it's come on leaps and bounds in terms of accuracy since Garmin first started putting optical sensors inside of its watches.
We should also talk about the battery life. Bottom-line, It's one of the best performers we've tried and can manage a couple of weeks if you're not hammering marathon distances everyday. We love running with it and we think you will too.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 935 review
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Music player | Optical heart rate | Garmin Pay | Smartwatch notifications | Water resistant to 50m | Up to 5 hours battery in GPS tracking mode
This is the first Garmin to let the music play and like the Garmin Vivoactive 3, the Forerunner 645 Music really does it all. Run, bike, pool swim, walk, row, SUP (paddle board) ski, XC ski, run indoor, bike indoor, walk indoor and row indoor – it's a formidable sports watch for those who don't define themselves as runners or cyclists.
Smartwatch-style notifications and the ability to read emails and messages are the order of the day, and of course, the built-in heart rate monitor makes for much richer data, especially from niche sports. If you care about music, this is the first Garmin that let's you sync your own music (and offline playlists from Deezer and iHeartRadio) to the watch. Yes, it's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but it's one of the best sports watches out there.
Along with a significantly slimmer and more attractive round watch design, the Forerunner 645 Music also adds the ability to make payments from the wrist with Garmin Pay. So it also does a pretty good impression of a smartwatch too.
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Advanced data | HR via a chest strap only | Requires footpod for cadence | Water resistant to 50m | Up to 13 hours battery life in GPS mode
The perfect training timepiece for swim-bike-runners, the Polar V800 tracks everything you do on two wheels or two feet, in the water or on dry land. Pace, distance, fat burn calories and max heart rate are all covered on super-clear screens that are brilliantly customisable.
Pair it up with a Polar H7 or new H10 heart rate monitor and you can also unlock the V800's zonal training smarts, making sure you're sweating it out to achieve the right effect.
Hook it up to a shoe pod and it'll also give you cadence, stride length and other insights to help hone your Mo Farah running form. Wannabe Wiggos can also opt for a range of cycle accessories to increase the stats haul from two-wheeled training.
What it reveals while you work out is one thing, but this smartwatch keeps giving long after you've sunk your post-workout protein shake. The Recovery Status and Orthostatic Test features predict when you'll be ready to train again. There's also a running program that adapts if you can't fit in a run and includes exercise routines to aid recovery.
V800 also doubles as an activity tracker and lets you see whether your daily calorie burn comes from just being alive, workouts or general activity. While it might be a bit of an oldie, Polar continues to support it with software updates including better Strava and GoPro integration. It's a beast of a running watch and getting on the old side, but it still delivers the goods.
Definitive verdict: Polar V800 review
Budget budget running watches
Getting good data about your runs doesn't have to break the bank – and it also doesn't have to mean sacrificing detail. These our favourite sports watches that can be picked up on the cheap.
Garmin Forerunner 35
Feature check: GPS | Optical heart rate | Water resistant to 50m | Up to 13 hours battery life in GPS mode
High-end running watch features are tumbling onto entry level devices at a terrific rate, and there's no better evidence than the Garmin Forerunner 35. Propping up the Garmin GPS watch lineup, the natural successor to the Forerunner 25 adds notifications, heart rate, all-day activity and a host of training modes.
We've put it to the test and for beginner to mid-range runners, there's no better device on the market. While it eschews the detailed sports science data offered by the Forerunner 935 and multisport modes of the Vivoactive, it tracks pace, distance, heart rate zones and time for running and cycling, and is water resistant to 5ATM.
While its $200 price tag has been usurped by the new Polar M200, we'd still opt for Garmin's budget running watch as it boasts most of the features you'll need out on your run.
If you want an even more affordable Garmin watch option, the Forerunner 30 has recently been announced and offers dedicated run features for less.
In depth: Garmin Forerunner 35 review
Feature check: GPS | Optical heart rate | Chest strap compatible | Water resistant to 50m | 20 hours GPS | VO2 Max
If you want serious sports insights it generally means forking out serious dollar, but new kid on the block Amazfit’s Stratos offers an alternative. A sub-brand of Huami, purveyors of Chinese copycat tech, the Amazfit Stratos does more than a decent impression of a Garmin sports watch.
The Stratos tracks walking, running, cycling, triathlon, swimming, elliptical, mountaineering, trail running, tennis, soccer and skiing. It comes with built-in GPS and GLONASS (Russian satellites which should offer a faster lock-on) support to boot.
If that wasn’t good news enough for runners, Amazfit has teamed up with FirstBeat, who does all of Garmin’s advanced metrics. That means you get the same detail on the Stratos, with VO2 Max data a big part of the package – something that you’d pay serious money for elsewhere.
There’s also other premium features. You can upload GPX files which will suit hikers – and it will kick out running data to Strava too, so there’s no worries about being stuck in an inferior software experience.
The only let down under testing was the optical HR sensor, which is no-where near that of the Garmin, Fitbit or Apple Watch Series 3 (not that those sensors are anywhere near perfect). But you can attach an optical HR sensor, which will still enable you to get accurate data.
Feature check: GPS | Optical heart rate | Race planning | Smartwatch notifications | Adaptive running programs | Stride sensor support | 8 hours GPS battery life
While the Polar V800 might be the daddy of the Polar sports watches, the M430 is the feature-packed alternative that gets our pick as best running watch on a budget.
Natural successor to the excellent M400, the M430 sticks to largely the same design adding a heart rate monitor that has vastly improved in performance since a recent update.
Read this: Become a better runner with Polar Flow
You can expect all the usual Polar frills including new overall training benefit features to get a better sense of how valuable your running session really was. It also features Polar's Running Index and Running Programs to help you build plans for races and see how your performance is developing over time.
Polar has sought to improve things on the indoor running front as well by adding an improved accelerometer motion sensor to provide more accurate treadmill tracking. If you care about accuracy, reliability and strong battery life and don't want to spend big, then the M430 comfortably ticks those boxes.
Wareable verdict: Polar M430 review
TomTom Spark 3
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Optical heart rate| Route guidance | Water resistant to 50m | Music playback from the wrist | Up to 5 hours battery life in GPS mode
TomTom has pulled out of the wearable tech game, which is a serious shame for its Spark 3 running watch. But the good news is that this favourite of the Wareable team can be picked up at stunning sub-£100 prices, so it remains here until it finally dies off for good.
As well as the usual running metrics (distance, speed, time), its optical heart rate monitor aced our tests, and it plugs into nearly every running app going. It'll also store MP3s, which it'll play via a pair of wireless headphones, that helps separate it from the Garmins, Polars and Suuntos of this world. The feeling of running unencumbered by your phone isn't to be underestimated.
The new version also has a Route Exploration feature, which enables you to upload GPX routes (you can quickly make one in Strava or Map My Run) and follow them from the watch. It's a nifty feature and really useful for getting out and exploring new areas.
It's not without its issues. Pairing is still a bit of a nightmare at times (we actually do this via a cable to our PC/Macs now to save blood vessels popping). But its solid stats, improved smartphone app, great heart rate sensor and extensive list of extra features earn the Spark a place on our list.
If you want the full works (GPS, heart rate, music playback), you'll be paying above £200, but if you're willing to sacrifice some of those features you can pick it up for a less and still get a great run tracking experience.
Full test: TomTom Spark 3 review
Top multi-sport watches
Not everyone is a hardcore runner – here are the watches that we feel offer something different.
Feature check: Multisport modes | GPS | Optical heart rate | Water resistant to 50m | Smartwatch skills | LTE | Apple Pay | Up to 5 hours battery life in GPS mode
Hold on a second – yes this smartwatch might seem like the odd one out among this selection of sporting power houses, but it's none too shabby. Third party apps like Strava make it a decent watch, it has multisport tracking built in (not to the standard of rivals) but it's a great training companion.
Using Wi-Fi signals around you, the Apple Watch Series 3 will lock onto GPS immediately, so no waiting around in the cold for a satellite lock. Apple Music playlist syncing is ridiculously easy, and you can pay for a drink with Apple Pay when you're done. What's more, the addition of LTE means streaming tunes on the go, and you can make a call on long runs, which adds that level of personal safety.
While you'll want to opt for third-party apps (Workout is still data-light for runners), the heart rate sensor stood up well to the rigours of testing. It's far from perfect, but still capable of returning useful data, training within zones, and getting feedback on HIIT sessions.
Read in full: Apple Watch Series 3 review
1.42-inch LCD touchscreen | GPS | Altimeter | Digital compass | 24/7 heart rate monitor | 5ATM | 10 hours GPS battery life | 5 days general use
When it comes to GPS tracked workouts, the Fitbit Ionic is the only option within the company’s line-up – and fortunately it’s one of the best. Unlike the rest of Fitbit’s line-up, there’s no need to piggy-back GPS off your smartphone, as this has it built right in.
There are modes for running and cycling, which will measure pace, distance, calories and all the normal basic metrics, displaying pace/speed live on the watch face. You can customize what you see, but there’s not a great deal of extra metrics like cadence – the Fitbit Ionic keeps things simple.
After a workout you get a neat summary of calories burned and pace, and GOS tracked workouts will be shown on a map. You can kick runs and cycles out to Strava, and of course you get full credit against your Fitbit activity stats.
A word on that: that’s still where the Fitbit Ionic really excels. If you’re interested in a 360 degree picture of your daily activity, sleep and wellbeing, the Ionic really comes into its own. And if that involves gym or outdoor workouts, that’s what makes the Ionic a really smart buy. For hardcore runners all that stuff might seem a little irrelevant, in which case the Ionic really isn’t for you.
Battery life is decent, but won’t trouble high-end Garmins. You get around 5 days of use and 10 hours of GPS tracking. That’s much better than an Apple Watch Series 3, which is a much closer competitor.
Suunto 3 Fitness
Feature check: Optical heart rate | Water resistant to 30m | 30 hours battery life with no connected GPS | Adaptive training plans
The Suunto 3 Fitness suffers from one major problem, that we have to address first: there’s no GPS built into this watch. Got back up from your chair? Yes, to accurately track outdoor workouts you will need to take your phone along for the run/cycle – not ideal by any means. But there are loads of people out there who aren’t into running, and for those people, the Suunto 3 Fitness offers something different.
Suunto crams in multiple sports tracking modes, which includes running, swimming (pool and open water) and cycling. Running is fairly basic, and while you need your phone for GPS, it will learn your pace and stride and offer fairly decent estimates of distance after a few weeks of training. Swimming is as good as any sports watch we’ve seen, which is a huge plus for Suunto.
But the secret sauce is the adaptive training guidance. It will build training plans based on your fitness level, which is estimated using FirstBeat VO2 Max scores. It will then break down weekly sessions for length and intensity, and tell you which session is up next right on the watch. If you miss a session, the Suunto 3 Fitness will adapt to make up for it – constantly evolving. It’s unique – and that’s what earns it a place in our list.
Like most watches, the optical HR performance wasn’t perfect – but should be OK for most people. You can pair it with a Suunto chest strap however, if you’re keen to make sure your training plans are working with the best possible data.
Also, check our review of the Suunto 9 as well.