Deciding on the best running watch or GPS sports watch for you is an extremely personal choice. Each one 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 running watch? Well, accurate GPS is a given these days, but now the focus is on biometric data. Most running watches have heart rate sensors built in, and the ability to connect a chest strap as well, for really intense sessions.
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.
Finally, some top-end devices also look for information about your running form – assessing data like steps per minute (cadence) and the form of your body.
Related: Check out the best fitness trackers money can buy
We've highlighted our top picks below, but also followed up with other devices that have impressed during our tests and that might suit different budgets and preferences. Got any questions? Let us know in the comments section below.
Garmin Forerunner 935
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 935 review
Our new top running watch and rightful winner of the Sports Watch of the Year accolade at this 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 new 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'r not hammering marathon distances everyday. We love running with it and we think you will too.
Current price: $499.99
TomTom Spark 3
Now if you don't require all the extra running metric frills or the mammoth battery life you get with the Forerunner 935, then the Spark 3 is well worth considering. Especially if you're new to running and don't want to break the bank for a watch that'll track your sessions.
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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.
While it's not as good or comprehensive as the Garmin Fenix 5 (below), it is less than half the price and has the best wrist-based HR monitor we've tried. So for most runners the TomTom Spark 3 should fit the bill. 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
Price start from: $129.99
Garmin Fenix 5
Aside from the bog standard data we've come to expect from Garmin's run-friendly watches, it includes every data metric going, with Training Effect scores after every workout, recommended rest periods, Training Status (whether you're improving, maintaining or declining in fitness) and resting heart rate, logged over the day and week. It's also inheriting stress tracking and rep counting features from the Vivosmart 3 fitness tracker to keep a closer eye on even more elements of your health and fitness regime.
It also builds in a optical heart rate sensor, which isn't quite gold standard and might still persuade you to pair a chest strap for more reliable heart rate readings in HIIT workouts.
The list of tracked sports is equally mind-boggling, and if you find it too chunky, try the all-new, slimmer, Garmin Fenix 5S.
Current price: $599.99
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Garmin Forerunner 35
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 line-up, 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 only for less than £150.
In depth: Garmin Forerunner 35 review
Current price: $199.99
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, but it still delivers the goods.
Definitive verdict: Polar V800 review
Current price: $499.95
With a dedicated trail running mode (alongside road running, hiking, skiing and open workouts), the TomTom Adventurer is a great option for those who like to run off the beaten track.
Altitude and elevation are tracked in trail mode and you can access a live compass, which is great when you're running with only fields in every direction.
But most useful is the ability to add and follow GPX routes, which can help you get into the wild without getting lost. Just plot a route using a service such as Strava and then upload it via the TomTom Sports app on your PC or Mac. Then follow the line so you won't get lost. A great excuse for ditching your normal routes and getting your trainers dirty.
Full test: TomTom Adventurer review
Current price: $349.99
The Polar M600 is very much a Polar running watch first and Android Wear smartwatch second. It's unashamedly a fitness device, so much so that it's almost inaccurate to compare it to the current crop of smartwatches at all.
Read this: Become a better runner with Polar Flow
The first thing you'll need to do is get Polar Flow hooked up, and you can enter the company's fitness platform from a dedicated button on the watch. One push fires up the app on your phone, which is your gateway to tracking runs and workouts. GPS run tracking is on the money and the stats and metrics the excellent Flow app provide post-run make it the top smartwatch for runners.
Sweat test: Polar M600 review
Current price: $329.95
- Polar M400 reviewThis sports watch with activity-tracking smarts gets the Wareable treatment
- Garmin Forerunner 235 reviewWe put Garmin's new running watch with heart rate monitoring through its paces
- Garmin Forerunner 630 reviewGarmin’s flagship running watch is feature-packed and well worth the money
- Garmin Fenix 3 HR reviewGarmin's heavy hitter adds heart rate
Garmin Vivoactive 3
The Garmin Vivoactive 3 really does do it all. Run, bike, pool swim, golf, 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.
The GPS-based sports are all well catered for and while it's not a patch on a dedicated golf watch, you can get your distances to the pin as well as hazards, as long as you download the course via Garmin Connect.
Smartwatch-style notifications and the ability to read emails and messages are the order of the day, and of course, the built-in HR makes for much richer data, especially from niche sports. Yes, it's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but it's one of the best sports watches out there, as long as you don't expect maximum detail in your results.
Along with a significantly slimmer and more attractive round watch design, the Vivoactive 3 also adds the ability to make payments from the wrist with Garmin Pay. So while it's now a better running watch than the Vivoactive HR, it also does a better job at being a smartwatch alternative.
In-depth: Our full Garmin Vivoactive 3 review
Apple Watch Series 3
The Apple Watch Series 2 has been discontinued with the arrival of the Series 3, which looks a lot like its predecessor but comes with one key new addition that should appeal to runners and that's LTE.
That means you can really leave the smartphone behind when you're putting in the miles and still see notifications or take calls on your watch. It also means you can stream music as well with Apple Music support on the way.
There's GPS on board, which is now joined by an altimeter to measure elevation and it'll serve up standard running metrics that should satisfy the majority of runners.
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.
The Series 3 will also come in a new Nike+ edition, which adds a perforated rubber strap and comes with custom software and watch faces. It'll also provide voice coaching plans to help you get the most out of your running sessions.
Read in full: Apple Watch Series 3 review
While the V800 might be the daddy of the Polar sports watches, the M430 is the feature-packed alternative that's a little kinder on the wallet.
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, then the M430 comfortably ticks those boxes.
Wareable verdict: Polar M430 review