If 2018 is where you decide to go from couch to 5km or from 5km to marathon, these are the running watches you need to help you along the road.
They're a real step up from most fitness trackers, which tend to be more about tracking steps walked and hours slept, neither of which are going to exactly push you to Olympian heights.
All of these watches pack GPS, for accurate tracking of your run distance and speed, and all either have heart-rate monitors built in (although do have a read of the T3 take on wrist heart-rate tracking), or allow you to pair an external one.
They're all also suitable, to varying degrees, for tracking your prowess in the gym, using the heart rate monitoring to help estimate how many calories you've shed. Most are also useful as wrist-mounted bike computers, and for 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, and powerful enough to satisfy stat-hungry semi-pros. It is a tad pricey.
The 630 does NOT include a built-in pulse reader. That's actually another reason it's our #1: although wrist-mounted heart rate tracking is more convenient, and by not a bad thing per se, strap-on, chest mounted heart-rate monitors are still our preferred choice for accuracy and reliability.
Garmin makes more running watches than anyone else and, in our opinion, the best of them are the finest running watches you can buy. The Forerunner 935 is the best of all, but could be considered over-specced and over-priced for most people's needs.
At the lower end of the pricing spectrum, TomTom's Spark 3 strips back the amount of data tracked but adds some interesting motivational features.
How to buy a running watch
Although you could use your phone's GPS and apps such as Strava and Endomondo to track miles run, 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. The ability to track your pulse, 'live', is another huge plus.
Probably the best advice when shopping for a fitness watch is to buy one that's a bit more advanced than you currently need it to be. If you've literally just hauled yourself off the couch for the first time in a decade, you might well think you'd rather not know your heart-rate, but in nine months' time, and several stone lighter, you may feel very differently. Likewise, if you've been running for a while, you may be heading towards that point where you'll want to know more about your cadence or lactate threshold.
If you're only going to use your watch in the gym, you may be able to get by with just heart-rate tracking and the ability to time intervals. How about cyclists? More casual pedal pushers can make do with GPS and the ability to track time, speed and distance. But as you get more into it, you could be swayed by the ability to link to power meters and the rest of the Lycra warrior's arsenal of ANT+ and Bluetooth paraphernalia.
Using a smartwatch as a dedicated running watch is still not as satisfying as it should be. Fitbit's Ionic is an excellent fitness watch but its smartwatch credentials are limited so far by a lack of apps and an unnecessarily fiddly contactless payment system.
The latest Apple/Nike collaboration is the best 'proper' smartwatch option so far, with the addition of new sensors such as a barometer and the fact that you no longer need to have your iPhone on you in order to use it.
The Nike+ app remains more about motivation than stat-tracking, but there's nothing wrong with that. However, it has much shorter battery life than the dedicated running watches here – no more than a day if you're using it for running, really.
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 really useful, expect to spend north of £200. Certain of Garmin's seemingly endless stream of Fenix variants can set you back over a grand, if you're feeling flash.
Wrist heart rate tracking: what you need to know
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 very high-intensity exercise, anything where your muscles are highly tensed and for anyone who just sweats a lot, wrist HR is barely fit for purpose. Moisture causes the light from the tracker to refract, ruining its accuracy and in many cases, stopping it working entirely. For the same reason, it is entirely useless when swimming.
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. 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'.
The best running watches, in order
1. Garmin Forerunner 645 Music
The best running watch and also very handy for cycling and gym
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Garmin dominates the running/fitness watch category so totally, it's almost embarrassing for the competition. The most recent addition to their premium line, the Garmin 645 Music continues to demonstrate why.
The screen is clear and easy to read, with a button-activated light for darker conditions. The buttons are satisfying to use and it's a very lightweight (42g), attractive thing, especially by fitness wearable standards.
The 645 incorporates GPS and wrist heart-rate tracking, which is good for monitoring your resting and all-day rates, if not necessarily ideal for when running or working out, due to the usual wrist HR issues of minor inaccuracy when working properly, and the fact it sometimes loses your pulse entirely. I'd recommend a chest strap for gym exercise or cycling, but for running the wrist system is generally fine.
Having said that, Runners could also consider adding one of Garmin's specialist HRM-Run heart-rate straps. These don't just give much better cardio tracking than the wrist-based system built into the 945, they also incorporate motion sensing that allows tracking of cadence, ground contact time and vertical oscillation. It's arguable how useful that is to most runners, but some will find it of almost obsessive interest. The brand also does waterproof HR straps with built-in data storage, for swimmers and triathletes.
Cyclists can also pair the Forerunner 645 Music with ANT+ and Bluetooth bike accessories from power meters to Garmin smart lights.
The 645 provides accurate GPS tracking of your runs and cycles, and crunches a lot of data based on your cardiovascular efforts in all forms of exercise. This means it can suggest recovery times, make a decent stab at estimating your VO2 Max, tell you how optimal your training load and lots, lots more. As a result, the app that shows you all this does sprawl somewhat, but you get used to it eventually.
The 645 also counts your steps and stairs climbed, like a fitness band, and more usefully, counts and lets you set targets for your 'intensity minutes' – the amount of time spent doing something more exerting than walking to the shops. The Garmin 645 is sufficiently attractive that you're able to wear it all the time, so this works really well. The battery life ('7 days general use; 5 hours in GPS mode', which equates to about 4 days of use if you're working out regularly) is more than adequate, though less than some bulkier Garmin watches. It charges quickly, too.
Smartwatch features include, as the name suggests, a music player – so you can leave your phone behind on runs. This involves copying MP3s onto the device rather than streaming via something like Spotify, and fits firmly into the category of "okay, nice enough but whatever" rather than being essential. If you don't need music built in, there is a version of this without the MP3 player. It's around £50 cheaper and a better deal in my opinion.
There are also notifications from your preferred messaging services.
Overall, this is narrowly the best Garmin running watch and therefore the best running watch. The only caveat I'd add to that is the shorter battery life may drive some users nuts, so they might be better served with a Forerunner 235 or 935.
2. Garmin Forerunner 630
Quite literally the 'Forerunner' of the 645 Music is still a great choice
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
If you're not swayed by the very latest thing (this was launched in 2015), and want a no-nonsense running watch that delivers a wealth of metrics, the Garmin Forerunner 630 is still among the very best available right now. It'll also come in handy on your bike or at the gym, but unlike the range-topping 935 is not built for monitoring swimming (although it is waterproof).
With a weight of 44 grams, it's also light and very similar to the Garmin Forerunner 235. The screen size is the perfect size for a running watch (45 x 45 x 11.7 mm) and, again, very similar to the rest of the Forerunner family. You don't want anything bigger than this as it would feel bulky and heavy, but something smaller would compromise seeing the data during your run, particularly when you’re pushing hard.
The touchscreen controls are not ideal if you’re wearing a long-sleeved top during the winter, but the good news is that it's generally reliable, and more importantly, not the only option; the 630 also has buttons.
To access its full ranges of running analyses, the 630 has to be paired with its external running strap – you can buy it as a watch only or in a bundle with the HRM-Run or HRM-Tri strap – the latter is for triathlon, and can be used underwater.
For cycling, the 630 can be synced with Garmin’s cycling speed and cadence sensors. It's also water resistant up to 5 atmospheres.
The battery life is claimed to be around 4 weeks if not used for sport. Its real battery life, of course, depends on how much you use it and how many long sessions you put in -- if you run regularly, making it to 4 weeks is unlikely.
Some of its main running analyses, like the lactate threshold prediction, built-in threshold test, VO2Max and pacing feature, are great to have on your watch and useful to plan your running progression and development.
If you're just starting out, remember that too many numbers can initially make running more of a chore. The good thing about Garmin's system is that you can initially concentrate on simpler metrics, and move on to the more 'pro' ones later as you advance and become more of a running addict.
There's no wrist heart-rate tracking on the 630 but for me that is a plus, as I find that to be an almost constant source of irritation during harder runs and workouts, on rainy days, and on a bike.
In conjunction with a heart rate chest strap and built-in motion sensors, the 630 will reliably track pulse, 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, basic smartphone notifications, live tracking sharing, excellent battery performance, and even simple step-counting type stuff. The clear display has perhaps rather too many menus, but they're easy to navigate.
The price of the Garmin Forerunner 630 seems to have ramped up recently, so keep a keen eye on our pricing 'widget' above to get the best deals on it. Cheapskates and beginners will be pleased to know that the next two watches are both less expensive and less in-depth in terms of what they monitor.
3. Garmin Forerunner 235
The best value running and fitness watch
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a GPS running watch with built-in heart rate monitoring.
Although it doesn’t offer all the features that made the 630 the holy grail of runners' GPS watches, the 230 still provides enough data to help most runners out there.
During a run it tracks speed, distance and cadence, with the option to share your 'Live Track' with others.
Afterwards you can look at things like your VO2 Max estimate, calories burned and suggested recovery times. The watch and its app can also give you advanced workouts via voice prompts, a 'race predictor' that suggests how long it'll take you to run 5K, 10K and a marathon. HR zones can be set, too.
When you’re running at a more demanding pace or a high intensity interval, you’ll probably look at one or two fields – speed and heart rate, most likely – but the rest can be highly beneficial if you’re coaching yourself or someone else. Do bear in mind that the biggest gains are made not just with data but by feeling your own body during the session, though.
Like the 630, the 230 can track your activities on the bike, but it won’t work as precisely as the triathlon-specific Forerunner 935. It's also water resistant up to 5 atmospheres
The 230 will store up to 200 hours of activities, and its battery life is about 11 hours when in GPS mode – for most users, that probably equates to five days to a week of use.
The Forerunner 235 is a great mid-range option for people who want more than just pace, distance and time but aren't looking for the more elite level insights that come with the likes of the Forerunner 630 and 935.
4. TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music
Best watch for gym and zone training
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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, the Spark 3 Cardio + Music 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. There are also other models of the Spark 3 that lack one or both of those features
The HR tracking is about as good as it gets when it's working, being more accurate than most of the competition. It also offers interesting insights such as how long you've spent in each cardio zone during your run or workout. However, while fine at the gym for anything other than heavy weights and pull ups, it does really, really struggle to work when you're cycling or running on bumpy terrain. This has caused me very intense irritation at times.
Battery life is 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 you'd rather not wear it all day). Although it’s made to be apart from your phone the Spark 3 does now offer basic smartphone notifications.
Unusually for a watch not specifically aimed at hill runners, the Spark 3 can also show the route you've travelled on the watch screen, so you can retrace your steps. GPS is generally very reliable, but on occasions it can take an age to lock on, and you cannot start a run or ride until it's working. This is a good example of how TomTom's watches blend excellent features with slightly primitive hardware and software.
TomTom's new app is obviously trying to address this. Although it's still way more basic than that of Garmin or even Fitbit, it does now offer 2 handy new metrics: Fitness Points and Fitness Age.
A bit like an updated, more hardcore version of the Nike Fuel system, Fitness Points are awarded for doing vigorous exercise that pushes up your pulse – so you have to remember to fire up the timer (and GPS when outdoors), and log it. Steps don't count towards fitness points, no matter how many you may take.
Get over 100 points in a day and you are ranked as 'active'. Over 500 and you're 'improving'. As time goes by and the Spark 3 learns more about you, TomTom says that earning points will get more difficult. From my use of the watch, this seems to be true. Luckily, the app will give you suggestions as to how to hit your daily quota – 10 minutes in an intense zone, or half an hour in an easier one, for instance.
These points then feed into determining your 'Fitness Age', which is a score comparing you to the population at large, based on an estimation of your VO2 Max from how your heart performs during a hard workout.
There are issues with this – the fact the pulse monitor completely fails to track certain outdoor activities being the main one, but this is definitely the direction fitness wearables should be going in. The personalised workouts are also excellent, pushing you between higher and lower heart rate zones for varying intervals.
5. Fitbit Ionic
Best Fitbit for the gym and running
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
With the ability to store more than 300 songs and to detect crunches and other gym workouts, as well as having built-in GPS and pulse tracking, this is the most complete fitness watch Fitbit has ever produced.
The design is clean and simple, even if it's not the most attractive. The Ionic comes in three different colours: charcoal and smoke gray, slate blue and burnt orange, and blue gray and silver. It comes with both smaller and larger wrist bands, which is a handy feature that not all brands think of. The bands are extremely easy to switch, and you can subsequently purchase sporty bands in various colours, or smarter leather ones.
The Ionic's heart rate monitor is a bit peculiar. It seems very accurate once you're into more intense activity, but very inaccurate at lower levels, when exercising. The issue with this is that some people like to exercise in the more relaxed, so-called 'fat burning' zone. I'm not sure they'll get anywhere with the Ionic, because it is less accurate at that kind of level. For tracking resting/average heart-rate and workouts in the higher cardio/threshold/intense zones the Ionic is good. It's just the area in between where it seems to go haywire.
I still prefer chest straps because I want to be sure about my data, but there's no denying wrist heart-rate is a more comfortable and convenient system. However a further failing of the Ionic (and all Fitbits) is that although it shows your heart rate when you workout, it doesn't show what zone you're in, so you have to remember where each one begins or ends. I have no idea why that is, I find it bizarre.
Fitbit claims 4+ days of battery, although as with every watch on the market, the more you use it on a regular basis, the less time the battery will last. For a running watch that is not bad and for a smartwatch, it's great.
Being a Fitbit, the Ionic also tracks your steps, distance covered, calories burned in one day and how well you've slept. It also tracks how many flights of stairs you’ve walked up, and reminds you to move when you been sitting for too long. This feature is a bit peculiar as it also tracks your movements outdoors. So if you walk or cycle up a hill, that will be logged as climbing stairs. It's handy if you want to know how many flights of stairs a hill is equivalent to.
The Ionic also has personalised coaching workouts that guide you through specific exercises. This could one day be useful, but if you spend too much time looking at the screen of your watch, you won’t execute the drill properly.
These kind of 'futuristic' features are cool and great and all, but they need to be used with wisdom. The Fitbit's 'guided breathing' app, to enhance relaxation, is another example.
This is being marketed specifically as a smartwatch for exercise, rather than an exercise watch with some smart features bolted on. As such there's an app store, which is currently under-populated (Philips Hue, Strava… not much else and nothing essential). The smart notifications are better, and work across phone, text and Whatsapp. The ability to make contactless payments from the watch is cool in theory but having to type a PIN on the Ionic's touchscreen at least once per day to access it is less cool.
The Ionic is water resistant up to 50 meters and will have a go at tracking lengths, distance and time. No wrist heart-rate trackers can work underwater, and the Ionic is no exception.
Finally, to train better and become stronger (or faster), you need rest and recovery. The Fitbit Ionic monitors not just your hours of sleep but also the quality, according to your heart rate activity and your night movements. It then breaks your night down into deep, light and REM sleep, which is pretty advanced.
Personally, wearing a watch all night to track of my sleep quality will actually negatively influence it. I can’t really tolerate a watch at night. But maybe that's just me.
6. Polar M200
Great value, purist's running watch
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
One of the latest wearables from hardcore runners' favourite Polar, the Polar 200 fits neatly into the affordable end of the GPS running watches market.The rounded shape isn’t particularly eye-catching on its own, but a choice of searing colours are available as well as standard black or white. You can switch wristbands, too. The end result is pretty ugly, whatever you choose, but at least it's varied.
First and foremost the Polar 200 will of course track your running workout so you can see the route afterward together with the total distance, your speed and pace, your heart rate through the optical sensor, calories burned and HR zones. These are enough numbers to look at if you want to train simply, but effectively.
The best thing the M200 has, like other Polar devices, is the Polar Running Programme for your desired event. Once you choose your desired distance –
5k, 10k, half or full marathon) and date, you can sync a progressive programme ahead of the event and have it ready to go on your watch.
The program's available range is from 9 to 14 weeks according to your goal and includes strength, core and mobility exercises. These won’t be as specific as the one you’d have tailored for you by a personal trainer, but for those on a budget, it’s a handy option.
The M200 will also tell you how many steps you’ve walked, how many calories you’ve burned, how many hours of sleep you’ve had, and how well you actually slept, based on your wrist movement throughout the night (a restless night has a lot of movement and a restful one has less). It’s more of an 'interesting' stat rather than one I'd pay much attention to it.
7. Garmin Forerunner 935
The best watch for triathlon. Best fitness watch overall, in fact, but costly and over-specced for most
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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, stride length, 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 not at the top of 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 useful.
8. Apple Watch Series 3 Nike+
Best 'proper' smartwatch for running
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Apple's already compelling third-gen smartwatch has GPS, a barometer (to judge altitude), a surprisingly accurate heart rate sensor and calorie-burn counter and the ability to work without your iPhone being present. The 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.
The range of metrics tracked by the Nike+ app doesn'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 Apple's platform.
Battery life is actually not bad by smartwatch standards but if you're using it as a running watch you'll definitely need to charge up daily.
Of the 'exclusive' elements of the Nike+ edition, the strap is excellent and the watch faces are fine. You could just use a standard Watch 3 and get the same results if you don't like the Nike+ look.
9. Suunto Spartan Sport
Best running watch for trail running
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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 as you can just pair with a more accurate chest strap.
With good looks (by running watch standards), decent battery life (up to 26 hours), daily activity tracking and smartphone notifications, this is a decent, day-to-day option.
10. Polar M600
Best Android Wear running watch
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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. A canny hybrid of purist's training watch, with Android extras aboard.
What’s good about this is that it's 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 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/smartwatch hybrid, this is still worth a poke.