Deciding on the best running watch or GPS sports watch for you is an extremely personal choice. Each 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.
Essential reading: How to use your watch to be a better runner
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 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.
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.
Best running watch
Garmin Forerunner 935
Our new top running watch 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.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 935 review.
Best for heart rate training
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 real nightmare (we actually do this via a cable to our PC/Macs now to save blood vessels popping). But its solid stats, improved 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.
Full test: TomTom Spark 3 review
Ultimate running watch
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.
Best for basics
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 already published our Garmin Forerunner 35 review 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 630 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 need.
In depth: Garmin Forerunner 35 review
Best for data
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.
Definitive verdict: Polar V800 review
Best on a budget
Basically a more affordable take on the Polar V800, the M200 is the successor to the Polar M400 and will track pace, distance and altitude via built-in GPS. It also boasts an optical heart rate monitor. But that's not all, as this beautiful looking running companion comes with some special skills too.
On top of 24/7 activity tracking that means you can ditch your fitness band, there's a whole host of running-specific innovations to keep you moving and motivated.
There's heart rate based training, the ability to set individual targets and you can even compare your current speed with the world record marathon speed.
For those who get lost easily or often run on their travels, there's a cunning back-to-start option that'll directs you to your starting point in the shortest distance possible.
If you're looking for improved performance – and most of us are – the Polar Running Index calculates how you're (hopefully) improving over time based on heart rate and speed. It'll also tell you the training effect of every single run.
In depth: Polar M200 review
Best for trails
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
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
Keep on running
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Best for multisport
Garmin Vivoactive HR
The Garmin Vivoactive HR 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.
Garmin has recently unveiled the Vivoactive 3, which offers many of the same features including new Garmin Pay support in a slimmer, round design. So if that design really doesn't do it for you, there is a sleeker alternative on the way.
In depth: Garmin Vivoactive HR review
Best for style
Apple Watch Series 2 Nike+
The Series 2 (not the Apple Watch 2) is a sportier smartwatch than its predecessor and that's because it's finally thrown built-in GPS into the mix. That means you can track runs (distance, pace and speed) as well as cycling sessions.
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 2 also comes in a new Nike+ edition, which adds a perforated rubber strap and comes with custom software and watch faces. It'll also provide coaching plans to get the most out of your running sessions.
Read in full: Apple Watch Nike+ review