The best running watch or GPS sports watch is a personal choice, and increasingly depends on the amount of detail you want from your workouts.
Beyond just simple pace and distance information, the latest watches will feed back everything from heart rate data to detailed observations of your running style. In short, GPS watches have become an essential tool in the runner's arsenal.
Essential reading: How to use your watch to be a better runner
Some are pricey, some are more affordable. But even entry level running watches are now coming with surprisingly advanced features. Heart rate monitors are now coming built in as standard, and increasingly swimming and cycling modes are being added to.
Of course there's no one perfect watch, so 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.
If you're wondering what's dropping in 2017, we've also picked out the new running watches to keep a look out for as well.
1. TomTom Spark 3 – Top pick
We loved the original TomTom Spark and the follow up is now our top-rated running watch. 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. But it's perhaps the storage for MP3s, which it'll play via a pair of wireless headphones, which tips the Spark for us. 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 on in Strava) 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, great heart rate sensor and extensive list of extra features earn the Spark its place at the head of our best running watches list. While a Garmin or Polar may suit you better, the TomTom Spark is a lot more fun to train with than any of its peers.
Full test: TomTom Spark 3 review
2. Garmin Forerunner 35 – Best for basics
High-end running watch features are tumbling onto entry level devices at a terrific rate, and there's no better evidence than with the Garmin Forerunner 35. Propping up the Garmin GPS watch line-up, the Forerunner 35 adds notifications, heart rate, all-day activity and a host of training modes.
We've already published our Garmin Forerunner 35 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 it's $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
3. Polar V800 – Best for data
The perfect training timepiece for swim-bike-runners, the Polar V800 tracks everything you do on two wheels, 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 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 workout 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
4. Polar M200 – 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 to boot. 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 you 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
5. Garmin Forerunner 630 - Best for insights
Garmin's flagship watch now adds smartphone notifications as well as a host of new metrics. You can view data on stride length and vertical ratio which can be used to boost running efficiency, and there's a renewed focus on recovery.
The Forerunner 630 rates lactate threshold and performance condition to try and prevent overtraining, and warns you when you're pushing things too far. It's strictly for the hardcore runner who also wants great smartwatch-inspired features.
Downsides include a lack of built-in HR monitor, which means you'll have to wear a chest strap if you want the extra data. In an ideal world we'd rather have the possibility of both, but there's no option for that which offers the same breadth of data as the Forerunner 630. If you've got the money to spend, it's one of the best running watches available.
In depth: Garmin Forerunner 630 review
6. TomTom Adventurer – Best for trails
With a dedicated trail running mode (alongside 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 is 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.
Full test: TomTom Adventurer review
7. Polar M600 – Best smartwatch for running
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.
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 provides post-run make it the top smartwatch for runners.
Sweat test: Polar M600 review now.
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8. Garmin Vivoactive HR – Best for multisport
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.
In depth: Garmin Vivoactive HR review
9. Apple Watch Series 2 – Best for style
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.
10. Garmin Forerunner 735XT – Best for tri
The recently announced Garmin Forerunner 735XT features advanced metrics for running as well as the pool, and will keep tabs on your stroke type and efficiency in the water. It's waterproof to 50m, combines with the company's high-end bike sensors and offers 24 hours of GPS tracking.
The built-in heart rate enables plenty of smart training metrics, and data such as heart rate zones, recovery time and VO2 Max mean that even hardcore athletes are catered for. It's not just runners either, there's a tonne of swimming metrics including stroke count and recognition, which means you can benefit from tonnes of data from the pool.
It also does a good job of pretending to be a smartwatch, displaying pretty much any notification your smartphone throws at it. In short – when it comes to triathlon, the 725XT is a true gold medallist.
Wareable verdict: Garmin Forerunner 735Xt review
11. Garmin Fenix 3 HR – Best all-rounder
The Garmin Fenix 3 is perfectly suited to runners that have broken beyond the confines of the pavements. Cycling, open water swimming and even cross-country skiing are all supported, but it's running where the Fenix really earns its stars.
Whether you opt for the Fenix 3 HR with a built-in optical heart rate sensor or pair it with the heart rate strap accessory, the Fenix 3 tracks distance, elevation, cadence, vertical oscillation and V02 max, and the Garmin Connect software is simply brilliant. If you fancy something a little more luxurious, you can always spend big on the upcoming Garmin Fenix Chronos collection.
New running watches incoming in 2017
New Balance RunIQ
Joining the Polar M600 and the Moto 360 Sport, the much anticipated New Balance Android Wear smartwatch is firmly designed with runners in mind. The RunIQ comes packing built-in GPS and an optical heart rate sensor to deliver continuous tracking and heart rate zone training. New Balance has also teamed up with Strava to integrate the sports tracking app making it easier to record runs, view real-time data and quickly share your sessions.
First look: New Balance RunIQ review
Garmin Fenix 5
Garmin unveiled the Fenix 5 series, a trio of watches that'll give you the usual fix of advanced running metrics including some new ones as well. The Fenix 5, Fenix 5S and Fenix 5X all feature typically rugged, waterproof designs and Garmin's usual array of multisport tracking modes. The 5S offers a more female-friendly design, while the 5X is preloaded with full colour maps to help keep you on the right track.
First look: Garmin Fenix 5 review