Garmin Forerunner guide: How to pick the right Forerunner for you

We break down the features for each watch that runners will appreciate most

If you're thinking about buying a running watch for the first time, then chances are someone you know who already has one will probably tell you that you should go for a Forerunner.

Yes, there are watches from the likes of Polar and Suunto, plus smartwatches that can now do a solid the job of tracking your runs, but the Forerunner range has been on the wrists of a whole lot of runners for a very long time.

Essential reading: Running tips and guides you need to read

For years, Garmin's watches have been the go-to option for runners of all levels. Now the company is riding the wearable wave, it has more Forerunner models than ever before, with more features that also now extend to other sports like cycling and swimming. Garmin currently carries seven Forerunners on its website, but you might also spot a host of other watches you can still get hold of that may well be worth your attention.

So if you're a runner and have decided that the Forerunner is the brand for you, but you've got no idea whether you need to spend big or little to get a great run tracking experience, then read on, because we've broken down just what you can expect to get across the range, focusing specifically on their run skills.

Got any questions for us? We've spent a lot of time with these Forerunners, so fire away in the comments section below.

Best Forerunner watch for beginners: Garmin Forerunner 35 and 30

garmin forerunner guide

These two Forerunners are your budget options, but don't let the word budget put you off – the Forerunner 35 and the Forerunner 30 still do offer solid run tracking for beginners and serious runners who like to strip things down to the basics. You might not get all of the additional metrics that you might get on higher end Forerunners, but keeping that data to a minimum will appeal to those who don't want to be flicking through data screens.

Key design features

From a design point of view, you'll find two robust, durable watches slapped with a 5ATM waterproof certification, which means you can take them swimming and in the shower. If you're doing a lot of tracking outdoors, GPS battery life is important here and while you might not get class leading battery, you should have enough to get you through a week's worth of running where sessions are around 30 minutes to an hour. The 35 gives you 13 hours in total while the 30 drops down to 8 hours. Unlike more expensive Forerunners, you don't have the option of Garmin's UltraTrac mode, which reduces the sampling rate of the GPS to offer bigger battery life. Basically, your tracking might lose some accuracy, but the battery as a result will go much further.

The tracking tech

On the sensor front, you're getting GPS for tracking and mapping routes but no GLONASS support. So picking up a signal when you've got your kit on and you're ready to go might take a little longer. You'll also find Garmin's own Elevate optical heart rate monitor that can be used for heart rate based training including training in heart rate zones, getting a better sense of your calorie burn, plus adding the ability to broadcast your data live to devices that use ANT+ connectivity. Last up is an accelerometer sensor, which from a running perspective is the way you will be able to track your running on a treadmill. The fact that it's based on arm movement does mean it's not always going to be the most accurate method of tracking, but the algorithms that measure that movement are improving, and with them the accuracy.

The data

Now lets get into running data and modes. This is all about the information you'll be able to view and review in Garmin's Connect app and the kind of options on offer to mix up your training. The GPS support provides tracking of your speed, distance and pace. On top of that you can also record cadence, which if you've read our running stats breakdown relates to the number of steps per minute (SPM) you take and is to do with your efficiency in your running form so that you're making the most of your time out running. This piece of data is considered more accurate when measured from the feet, so that's why Garmin offers the option to pair its watches with a foot pod sensor like the MilestonePod.

We should mention that The Forerunner 30 does strip away some of the features, so there's no re-broadcasting HR via ANT+, no support for sensors, interval mode, run/walk mode, Virtual Pacer mode, data configuration and watch face configuration.

As far as other running-centric features are concerned, you can activate auto pause mode if you don't like recording the times when you're waiting at the traffic lights. You can also set up interval training sessions, if you need to increase your running speed, which is definitely a handy feature to have.

Best value Forerunner watch: Garmin Forerunner 235

garmin forerunner guide

The Forerunner 235 is the oldest Forerunner that you can still buy directly from Garmin, but despite its age it's still one of the most popular of the bunch. Why? Probably because it offers good value for money in terms of the features you get – including the fact that it was the first Forerunner to pack in an optical heart rate sensor.

That round look

It's here where we start to see a change in design philosophy, moving to a round watch look with physical buttons. Battery life sits in between the Forerunner 30 and the 35 at 11 hours, but that is while using both GPS to track runs and the heart rate monitor to record your BPM data at the same time, so that's not bad at all.

Unlike the 30 and the 35, you are getting both GPS and GLONASS support to improve GPS tracking and the time it takes to pick up a signal when you're ready to run. There is also an accelerometer for when you need to take that training indoors onto the treadmill.

Getting serious about your data

Things begin to get more sophisticated on the training, analysis and stats front. You'll get the basics like speed, distance and pace as standard along with cadence information. But you'll now have more control over things like customising data on your watch screen, along with accessing features like interval training and having the ability to download training plans.

You'll also be able to tap into features like VO2 Max to help assess fitness levels, see Training Effect data (for aerobic activity only) to better manage your training plans and use the race predictor to get an idea of what time you could cross the line at your next race.

It's something of a step up from the Forerunner 30 and 35, but not quite as comprehensive as some of the watches we'll talk about below. But if you want more stats packaged into a better design, this is the one for you.

Best Forerunner for running adventurists: Garmin Forerunner 735XT

Garmin Forerunner guide: How to pick the right Forerunner for you

So you've decided you need a bigger hit of data and you're willing to pay a little more for the extras. Up from the 30, 35 and the 235 in terms of price is the Forerunner 735XT. What you need to know here ultimately is that if you are after more insights into your running performance, this is the watch to consider.

A new look and battery boost

Like the 235, it's got that round watch design and more physical buttons to switch between screens and activate more of the features. Things begin to change in the battery department with the 735XT, which is designed for triathletes and offers anywhere from 14 to 24 hours of GPS tracking battery life, depending on whether you make use of the UltraTrac mode we mentioned earlier.

More sensors to play with

That extra spend gets you extra sensors which in turn unlock more running data you can pore over during and post-run. So you'll get GPS/GLONASS support to keep those GPS signal pick-ups speedy, alongside Garmin's Elevate heart rate monitor with a built-in accelerometer to track indoor runs. On the 735XT you also have the addition of a compass, which means it's better equipped for outdoor running – particularly when you're hitting the trails – letting you set up point to point navigation and GPS coordinates plus helping you find your way home.

Upping your stats game

Everything we described about the budget Forerunners you will of course get on the 735XT, so let's get into the new additions. For starters, you can create training plans on Garmin's Connect desktop app and then download them to the watch. There's also support for Strava, which for a lot of runners is a big deal. This means you'll be able to make use of its Beacon safety feature and see Live segments information to see how you fare against other runners for different routes in real time.

On the running metrics front you'll get the standard GPS-driven data, including cadence, along with a new performance condition insight to let you know if you're in tip top shape. You can also unlock a load of additional run data, which includes vertical oscillation, ground contact time, stride length and lactate threshold. Again, refer to our running stats explained piece to gain a further insight into the value of these metrics. Ultimately, they are geared towards improving running form. To unlock these metrics though, you do need to invest in an additional Garmin Running Dynamics Pod sensor, which you wear on the waist of your running clothes, and which pairs with the watch so you can record the data and view it in real time.

The 735XT also introduces a greater emphasis on the impact running has on your body with something called Training Effect. This essentially takes running data, including heart rate data, to assess whether your running sessions are having a positive or negative effect on your training. So you'll get a better idea of whether you made the right call to go for two big runs in two days.

Speaking of heart rate, you can expect additional data on that front too with the additions of metrics like heart rate max scores, heart rate recovery time and a HRV stress test. This measures heart rate variability from the wrist to indicate stress levels and to help aid recovery between runs.

Best Forerunner for smartwatch lovers: Garmin Forerunner 645/645 Music

garmin forerunner guide

While Forerunners in the past have focused on serious sports tracking features, Garmin has loosened the reigns with the arrival of the Forerunner 645 Music and 645. These carry the Forerunner name, but they ape the Vivoactive 3 smartwatch – bringing the kind of features that you'd associate with an Apple Watch or an Android Wear smartwatch including contactless payments and a built in music player.

Smartwatch looks

But how well built are they for running? Whether you opt for the 645 or 645 Music, you can expect something similar to what the Vivoactive 3 offers – so a similar stainless steel design with 5ATM waterproofing. Battery life with GPS should get up to 12 hours or 5 hours when you are streaming music, but there's no UltraTrac mode here. So if you're an endurance runner, this might not be the one for you.

Sensors aplenty

While it might be more smartwatch than sports watch in look, Garmin doesn't scrimp on the tech that's on board to track your runs. GPS/GLONASS is present along with Garmin's heart rate sensor plus an accelerometer (for treadmill run tracking), an altimeter, compass, gyroscope and thermometer. So like the 735XT, it's well equipped for those big outdoor adventure runs too.

Keeping on top of training

Following in the footsteps of the 735XT, the Forerunner 645/645 Music wants to track but also offer run analysis and help you get the most of your training sessions. That means pretty much all of the same training and analysis features are on board here including Training Status and Training Load features. In addition, it'll also break down Training Effect into aerobic and anaerobic, to delve deeper into the benefits of your sessions.

From a data point of view it matches the 735XT, including the ability to record the more advanced metrics if you have that Garmin Running Dyanmics Pod paired to it. Heart rate-centric features are slightly scaled down leaving out the HRV stress testing, but aside from that it's every much the equal of the 735XT.

Best Forerunner watch for hardcore endurance runners: Garmin Forerunner 935

garmin forerunner guide

If you have money to burn and want everything that a Forerunner can throw at you then it's the Forerunner 935 you'll be after. Our Sports Watch of 2017 is a pretty formidable watch for runners and builds on everything that's included in the cheaper members of the Forerunner range, adding in features that only really serious runners are likely to tap into.

All of the battery

The biggest indication that this a watch for serious runners is when you check out the battery life performance. It's up to 24 hours in GPS mode, which can be boosted up to 50 hours in UltraTrac mode. If you switch off the heart rate monitor while tracking in the power saving mode, things can go up to 60 hours. It's a battery beast.

A match for the 735XT

For sensors, metrics and features it's a mirror of the 735XT. Everything you get in that watch, you'll get here. It'll record all of the same running metrics including those unlocked by Garmin's running dynamics pod, along with the same in-depth analytic tools that can help you get the most out of your training and recovery between runs. If you're trying to decide between the two, then it's battery that's the big differentiator here. You want a watch that really goes the distance? Go for the slimmer 935 instead of the 735XT.

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