Whether you're going from couch to 5km, training for your first half marathon or planning on going the full marathon distance, a GPS running watch can seriously help you improve your performance.
All of these watches pack GPS, for accurate tracking of your run distance and speed, and all either have heart-rate monitors built in, or allow you to pair an external one.
From the Garmin Forerunner series to watches from Polar, Suunto and TomTom, these running and fitness watches put all your vital stats right where you can see them. Everything from pace and distance to heart rate, cadence and even altitude are made easily accessible to help you fine tune you run whilst you're on the move.
A lot of them are also suitable for tracking your prowess in the gym, using the heart rate monitoring to help estimate how many calories you've shed. Some also have modes for cycling, hiking and general working out.
What is the best running watch?
Our favourite running watch at present is the Garmin Forerunner 630. This is a watch that's versatile enough for runners of all abilities, powerful enough to satisfy stat-hungry semi-pros, but isn't ridiculously pricey.
Garmin makes more running watches than anyone else and, in our opinion, the best of them are the finest running watches you can buy.
However, its by no means the only game in town, with TomTom, Polar, Suunto et al offering rival products of comparable quality, at different price points.
How to buy a running watch
The first question is, do you really need one?
There are plenty of excellent smartphone running apps like Nike+ Running and Endomondo, and we'd advise beginners to start with them.
However, there's a real benefit to having your real-time stats where you can keep an eye them during your run, which is where watches come in.
Using a smartwatch as a dedicated running watch is still not as satisfying as it should be.
The latest Apple/Nike collaboration is the best smartwatch option so far, but even though it's a cool device, the absence of sensors such as a barometer and the fact that the Nike+ app is more about motivation than stat-tracking mean it's still a bit of an outlier in this field. The short battery life is also irksome.
Almost all of these watches sync with a mobile app and online tracking tools on desktop. These let you dig deeper into the details, create and download pre-planned coaching lessons and set up goal-specific training plans to help you achieve your running and fitness goals.
Prices vary, with some coming in at under £100, though if you're looking for something from the top drawer, expect to spend north of £200. Certain of Garmin's seemingly endless stream of Fenix 3 variants can set you back over a grand, if you're feeling flash.
Wrist heart rate tracking
A lot of running watches now offer pulse tracking direct from the wrist. This involves bouncing light off of your veins to detect the rate at which blood is pulsing through them.
This is perfectly sound science, but a slightly controversial area when it comes to fitness. Here is T3's advice on it; you can read reams more about the matter online.
1. When it works, a good, wrist-mounted heart-rate tracker is sufficiently accurate for most users.
2. For daily tracking of your resting and active pulse rate, it is more than adequate.
3. For running, it is broadly speaking fine.
4. For swimming, very high-intensity exercise, anything where your muscles are highly tensed and for anyone who just sweats a lot, wrist HR is not fit for purpose. Moisture causes the light from the tracker to refract, ruining its accuracy and in many cases, stopping it working entirely.
5. In short, light-based, wrist-mounted, HR tracking either works fine for monitoring your heart rate during exercise – for lower intensity runs where you're not sweating buckets – or it doesn't work at all. There's no half measures.
6. In all cases except all-day tracking, a chest strap is better. We're not saying those are perfect, but they're better.
7. All heart rate-based training is largely pointless if you don't know your maximum heart rate and have accurate zones ('fat burning', aerobic, anaerobic, threshold, etc) set up. It's a fraught area.
These are our favourite running and exercise watches, starting with our pick of the bunch, the Garmin Forerunner 630. The remainder are roughly in order but we've also indicated what type of activity each one is 'best for'.
Our pick of the best running watches
1. Garmin Forerunner 630: The best
A bonanza of running metrics, underpinned by rock solid exercise-tracking basics
Simply the best running watch available right now, the Garmin Forerunner 630 does it all.
Despite being both light and slender, it crams in more running smarts than even a pro could manage to exhaust.
In conjunction with a heart rate chest strap and built-in motion sensors, the 630 can track cadence, vertical oscillation, VO2 max, lactate threshold, recovery times and more. All that outputs to the comprehensive Garmin Connect app meaning running data is actually useful to help make improvements both for beginners and incrementally for those pushing their limits at the top end.
A wealth of apps in the Garmin Connect IQ store let you adapt the watch to suit your needs, like having a quick marathon finish time figure on screen, a flashlight display, different watch faces, and apps for other sports, notably cycling.
The basics that Garmin’s known for are also present and correct: fast GPS acquisition and accurate tracking, so-so smartphone notifications, live tracking sharing, excellent battery performance, more basic step-counting type stuff, and a clear display with easy to navigate menus.
As a touchscreen, it's rather lacking, but there are buttons too.
Garmin's phone and desktop apps are, it must be said, a mess. They've grown and grown and had bits bolted to it for years as new Garmin wearables with new features and sensors have rolled out. The result is like the opposite of the Fitbit app, in that you can find just about any metric you can think of, but the way to find it is often not at all easy to work out, and the UI is a mixture of fairly pleasing at the front end, descending to dire as you delve deeper and deeper.
However, the thing to hold on to as you struggle through sub-menu number 357 is that there IS useful data there.
*Please note that Garmin has now, technically speaking, discontinued the 630, presumably because it wishes to concentrate on watches with built-in heart rate monitoring. So buy now while stocks last, would be our advice.
2. TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music: Best vfm and for zone training
GPS, HR and a music player, all on your wrist
Some of you may find the depth of the 630 actually goes beyond what you need. For you, sir or madam, the Spark 3 Cardio + Music might be a better choice.
That is particularly true if you like to run free of any encumbrance; naked as God intended.
As the name of the device makes obvious, this variant of the Spark 3 (there are several others) has a heart rate tracker built in, and also a music player. So you have no need of either a chest strap or a phone as you gallop.
The HR tracking is about as good as it gets, being more accurate and reliable than most, and offering interesting insights such as how long you've spent in each cardio zone during your run or workout.
Despite the extras, battery life is still decent, with a good 11 hours of GPS tracking and at least a week without (you can use it as a step/sleep tracker, although given how ugly it is, maybe not). Unfortunately since it’s made to be apart from the phone it doesn’t offer notifications.
Unusually for a watch not specifically aimed at hill runners, the Spark 3 also shows the route you've travelled on the watch screen, so you can retrace your steps.
3. Garmin Forerunner 235: Best Garmin with HR
If you must have an all-in-one, pick this over the Forerunner 630
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a GPS running watch with built-in heart rate monitoring. It's still a very good mid-range option for people who want more than just pace, distance and time but aren't quite looking for the more elite level insights that come with the likes of the Forerunner 630.
GPS finds your location quickly, while an accelerometer takes care of distance and pace when you're on an indoor track or treadmill.
The optical heart rate sensor powers the colourful heart rate zone training display, as well as tracking your resting heart rate. Like all wrist HR monitors, and notably Garmin's ones, it's not perfect, especially when shit gets intense. However, for most runners, it should be accurate enough most of the time.
For those who want to delve a little deeper into the fitness, training and run performance data, there's a handy VO2 Max estimator that keeps tabs on your fitness levels, a recovery advisor that tells you how long to rest before your next workout and a race predictor to give you an idea of how long that 10km, half or full marathon is going to take based on your recent run stats.
All-day step counting, activity tracking and calorie burn counting is also handled. The Garmin Connect app remains a mix of impressive depth, undermined by slightly eccentric design.
The 11 hours of battery life in GPS mode with HR monitoring isn't bad at all.
4. Fitbit Charge 2: Best for the gym
The best bet for indoor work
We wouldn't recommend this for running outdoors but for all kinds of gym work, it's great: treadmills, static bikes, weights, ellipticals, floor work, cross training… You name it.
That's because the heart-rate tracking is solid, you don't have to worry about Fitbit's renowned lack of accuracy at tracking distance, and it's just a very wearable, discreet and comfortable thing.
Fitbit's app remains the best around for general fitness tracking, although runners may find the lack of advanced metrics limiting.
The only major issue we have is that the screen shuts off after a few seconds and must be reawakened with a button press or by flicking your wrist (except this only works one time in three).
Given that the device is meant to be used to show cardio and other stats as you work out, this is not just infuriating; it's nothing short of stupid. Why Fitbit doesn't offer an always-on option, we have no idea.
Other than that, however, a very handy gym companion.
7. Garmin Forerunner 935: best for hardcore athletes
In many ways the best you can get, but costly and over-specced for most
Built for triathletes, the Forerunner 935 is in many ways the ultimate fitness device to date.
Pair it with Garmin's land and water heart-rate straps and you will learn more about your running and swimming than you ever thought possible.
Add its range of bike power meters and sundry other high-end two-wheel accoutrements and you have an incredibly powerful bike computer on your wrist.
And then you'll realise you've spent well on the way to a grand.
If you want to know your lactate threshold, VO2 Max, stress levels and (via the optional extras) cadence, ground contact time, oscillation and a whole lot more, look no further.
It's disappointing that even at this price, if you insist on sweating, the wrist HR is not really up to it. Access to so many metrics also makes you realise what a damnable mess Garmin's Connect app is.
However, for the hardcore, triathletes and iron persons, or runners and gym goers with money to burn, this is the best of the best.
The only reason it's so far down this list is that for most runners and those who are generally serious about their exercise, but aren't triathletes, the Forerunner 630, paired with a chest strap, will be just as effective.
=6. Microsoft Band 2: It coulda been a contender
Feels like crap, actually works really well
Microsoft's Band 2 is a very underrated device. That's largely because it's quite unattractive, can be uncomfortable to wear, due to a strap design that has more in common with a handcuff than a watch, and looks like a bog standard fitness band rather than a watch.
In actual fact, the Band 2 is a very powerful and versatile device.
It's packed with sensors – GPS, temperature, heart-rate, barometer and more – functions as a smartwatch in terms of notifications, tracks runs and cycle rides, and even guides you through interval workouts by vibrating at set times. The MS Band app is also surprisingly insightful.
Arguably, the Band 2 does too much, and it was quite poorly marketed and over-priced at launch, which led to it getting a slightly iffy reputation.
However, it's really an excellent wearable for gym-goers, cross-trainers and semi-regular runners and riders, as long as you can live with its foibles.
*As Microsoft has bowed to the inevitable and stopped making the Band 2, stocks have now all but run out.
=6. Apple Watch Nike+: Best smartwatch for running
Sporty version of the Watch 2 ticks many boxes
Apple's already compelling second-gen smartwatch has GPS as well as a surprisingly accurate heart rate sensor. Now, this Nike+ edition adds a fancy-looking strap and 'exclusive watch faces', to boot.
The display is large, clear and colourful, fitness apps start at the touch of the screen and at-a-glance metrics like pace, speed and distance are super easy to see even when on the move.
While this does have the GPS and heart rate tracking to make this a proper running watch it appears that GPS is only pinged every 10 seconds, as opposed to the usual five or six, meaning less accuracy. Unless you pair it with your phone, of course, but many don't like carrying a mobile on runs.
The range of metrics tracked can't match more serious devices such as Garmin's, but Nike's social platform is a great motivator, and for daily activity tracking, smartphone interaction and apps, nothing else here can match.
Battery life is rather disappointing as a result, mind: you'll have to charge this daily, with eight hours of tracking, tops.
Oh, and we can confirm that of the 'exclusive' elements of the Nike+ edition (it's identical to Watch 2 Sport in every other way), the strap is excellent and the watch faces are, you know, fine.
8. Suunto Spartan Sport: Solid all-rounder
THIS… IS… SPARTAN!
Say goodbye to the Ambit range and hello to the Spartan line-up from Suunto. Specifically the Suunto Spartan Sport which aims to up the GPS watch design quality while still offering superb tracking accuracy and the Movescount platform, which lets you plan your training, then uses vibrating alerts to keep you at the right pace and pulse rate, and covering the distances you want.
The Spartan Sport has over 80 sports programmed-in ready for tracking, from the usual running, cycling and swimming to yoga and even cheerleading – hoorah, at last. The emphasis is very much on outdoor activity, but you can use it in the gym too.
There’s no built-in pulse tracking on this model (a more expensive version adds HR), but that's fine.
With good looks (by running watch standards), decent battery life (up to 26 hours), daily activity tracking and smartphone notifications make this a decent, day-to-day option.
9. Suunto Ambit3 Vertical: Best for hill runners
Chunktastic outdoor explorer's essential
A multi-sport GPS watch for runners with a particular fondness for slopes, the Ambit3 Vertical is designed to help you plan and track how much altitude you've conquered.
It's probably a tad over-engineered for most runners' needs, but if you have a need to track runs over hilly terrain regularly, it's great.
The Ambit3 Vertical uses an altimeter to monitor the elevation gain of individual runs with the option to follow the altitude profile of your route while working your way up mountains. You can then keep track of your total vertical gain over the weeks, months and up to a year.
For those of like to combine running with cycling and swimming, there's the option to log multiple sports in one session and the partner Suunto chest strap can, unusually, track your BPM in the water.
As with the other Suunto watches, you can plan your training with the Suunto Movescount app, with vibrating alerts helping guide you hit the right pace, beats and distances during your workouts.
With a battery life of 15 hours, the hills will be alive with the sound of panting for quite some time.
10. Polar M600: Best Android Wear running watch
A canny hybrid of purist's training watch, with Android extras aboard
The Polar M400 blurred the lines between activity tracker and GPS running watch and now the M600 has arrived to further combine categories by adding Android Wear, to make it part smartwatch, part running watch.
What’s great here is that this is a GPS watch first, featuring Polar's own dedicated fitness app and a swim-friendly IP68 waterproofing. Android Wear then adds the backing of third-party smartwatch apps.
Because it's a smartwatch, it also supports music, via Bluetooth headphones, for phone-free training.
Even better, the battery usually lasts a whole week even with run tracking.
We're not massive fans of Polar's app when it comes to analysing stats, and it's not an attractive thing by any means, but as a daily running watch, this is still a winner.
11. Fitbit Surge: Best Fitbit for runners
Interesting hybrid oddity from Fitbit
When activity trackers cross the line into the world of GPS sports watches, you get Fitbit Surge.
As a fitness tracker, this is a poor relation to the all-conquering Fitbit Charge 2 and Fitbit Blaze. However, it's the only Fitbit we'd recommend for runners because, unlike those devices, it's got GPS built in.
It also offers built-in heart rate tracking, albeit not as good as the Charge 2's, and tracks activities, multiple sports and sleep.
Perhaps best of all, it will automatically recognise when you're running and cycling, and start tracking, without you needing to hit start and stop.
This isn't a totally unalloyed blessing though. Although it knows you are running, and starts using your pulse to calculate calories burned, for whatever reason, it doesn't switch on GPS, relying instead on the built in step counter to calculate - usually wrongly - distance and speed.
The battery will give you 10 hours of GPS training sessions or a week of more general use including plenty of smartphone notification updates and activity tracking.
Unlike all other Fitbits, the Surge's screen is always on, so you can see what your pulse, distance, speed etc are at a glance. The down side of that is the screen is a bit on the gloomy side.
The Surge is more affordable than a lot of the competition, and for those who aren't too fussed about in-depth metrics, it offers good value for money.