Best running watch 2020: the best fitness watches for running, gym, workouts, cycling and hiking

GPS running watches with all the metrics you need to both run like a pro and prove it with graphs

best running watch
(Image credit: Polar)

The best running watch or fitness watch will be a real step up if you have only used fitness trackers before. Unlike fitness trackers, running watches have a range of features such as GPS, wrist based heart rate sensors and often the ability to count reps if you're working out.

Running watches have long been suitable, to varying degrees, for tracking your prowess in the gym, however the reason they're now often known as fitness watches if that brands explicitly design them for multiple sports and activities. Not just gym but hiking, cycling, paddle boarding and a host of other fitness-friendly activities.

If you're looking to lose weight, running watches can also be invaluable. Using the heart-rate tracking they can estimate how many calories you've burned, and they're handy motivational tools.

The best fitness and running watches tend to see discounts on a regular basis – there are regular cheap Fitbit deals and cheap Garmin watch deals out there, for instance. We check prices from thousands of retailers every day (well, our computers do) and that's why you'll always find all the best prices below, thanks to our Magically Updating Price Widgets.

What is the best running watch?

First, some words on the Apple Watch Series 4. Particularly for more casual runners (and gym users, and even cyclists and hikers), this will be all the fitness watch they need, and it also does a whole range of other things that 'proper' running watches cannot do. However, you need to charge it every day, and you can't track sleep with an Apple Watch Series 4 either.

• Read T3's Apple Watch Series 4 review

Our favourite running watch at present is the Garmin Forerunner 645 because it represents a good balance between price and functionality and versatile enough for runners of all abilities, and powerful enough to satisfy stat-hungry semi-pros as well.

Garmin makes more running watches than anyone else and, in our opinion, the best of them are the finest running watches you can buy. Depending on your taste and your budget, you can opt in for the latest and greatest Garmin Forerunner model, the Forerunner 945 or – if you are the budget – you can also choose the previous generation and go with the Forerunner 935.

For off-road adventures, you can choose the Suunto 9 Baro or the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, both having excellent battery management options also being more rugged, too. For the same reason, they are also a bit heavier than some of the other models on the list.

If you have less than £200/$200 to burn, you can get a Fitbit Versa 2; this smartwatch is aimed at more casual users but can track all the key body metrics, as well as being comfortable enough to wear for sleeping with a great screen. Alternatively, the Polar Ignite is a good entry level fitness watch with great functions and a decent touch screen.

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 stones 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.

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.

Wrist heart rate tracking: what you need to know

A lot of running watches now offer heart rate 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 a more accurate option. We're not saying those are perfect, but they're better.

The best running watches, in order

Best running watch: Garmin Forerunner 645 Music

(Image credit: Garmin)

1. Garmin Forerunner 645

The best running watch and fitness watch for most users

Weight: 42.2 grams
Case material: stainless steel
Lens material: Corning Gorilla glass 3
Water rating: up to 5 ATM
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 7 days in smartwatch mode
Reasons to buy
+Numerous useful running metrics+Apps for most fitness activities+Quite stylish as such things go
Reasons to avoid
-Sprawling and occasionally obtuse mobile app

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 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 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.

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.

• You can also get the Garmin 645 Music. Here, the smartwatch features also include, as the name suggests, a music player – so you can leave your phone behind on runs and still use your Power Playlist. This involves either copying MP3s onto the device – how old skool – or, since a recent firmware update, offlining Spotify playlists.

best running watch: Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

(Image credit: Garmin)

2. Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

The best option for serious runners on a budget

Weight: 38.5 grams
Case material: Fiber-reinforced polymer
Lens material: Corning Gorilla glass 3
Water rating: up to 5 ATM
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 7 days in smartwatch mode
Reasons to buy
+Latest gen heart rate sensor+Built-in music storage+Amazing battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Does have a slight plastic-y feel

The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is the ultimate smartphone-free GPS running watch for the price conscious runner. Other multi-sport smartwatches, like the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro or the Polar Vantage V, might provide more metrics, but for the low price point, the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is more than capable device.

The GPS+GLONASS+Galileo positioning system is quick and accurate, tracking your movement outdoors with high precision. The battery can last up to seven days in smartwatch mode and six hours in GPS mode with music, meaning that you won't have to charge it more than three times in two weeks.

The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music also supports Garmin Coach, an adaptive training guide that can train you up to run a certain distance (5k, 10k or half marathon) within  a certain time limit, set by you. The plan adapts to your training load and progression and adjusts it accordingly.

You can check your progress and pore over data from previous activities using the Garmin Connect app. In the app, you can also collect badges for a range of activities, a fun way to stay motivated!

The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is a bit on the light side, though, which is of course great if you use it for running, but you also won't get the sense that you have something substantial wrapped around your wrist.

Best running watch: Polar Ignite

(Image credit: Polar)

3. Polar Ignite

Adaptive trainer with great accuracy

Weight: 35 grams
Case material: Glass fibre reinforced polymer
Lens material: N/A
Water rating: up to 30 metres
Display resolution: 240 x 204 pixels
Battery life: up to 5 days in smartwatch mode
Reasons to buy
+Integrated GPS+Useful sleep and training insights+Latest gen heart rate sensor
Reasons to avoid
-No NFC or music storage

• Read our Polar Ignite review here

The Polar Ignite is a great fitness watch geared towards runners and cyclists alike. It can also give you valuable insight on a range of other activities and even on your sleep.

Thanks to the built-in GPS, there is no need to carry around the phone with you when you go out for a run to be able to track your course. Recording an exercise is as easy as pressing the button on the side and tapping on the icon of the desired activity, doesn't take you more than two seconds.

The Ignite has a continuous heart-rate monitoring function as well. Granted, this isn't the most precise tracker, but none of the wrist-based HR trackers are precise enough to replace your GP, really.

The metrics monitored by the Polar Ignite are more than enough for most serious amateurs, people this fitness watch was designed for. Not only it gives you stats after the exercise has been finished on the watch face, once synchronised with the Polar Flow app, you can analyse your training in even more depth.

You can also track your sleeps with the Polar Ignite. The only issue is – and this is something all fitness trackers have in common – is that wearing a tracker 'snugly' is not comfortable on the long run.

For this price, though, the Polar Ignite is well the investment. Coupled up the with Polar Flow app and the adaptive recommendation system, it can help you immensely to improve your fitness levels.

best running watch: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Titanium

(Image credit: Garmin)

4. Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Titanium (47 mm case)

Rugged and precise, but also hefty and over priced

Lens material: Sapphire Crystal
Display size: 1.3" (33 mm)
Display resolution: 260 x 260 pixels
Weight: 49 grams (case only)
Battery life: up to 2 weeks in smartwatch mode
Reasons to buy
+Clear display+Widget user interface is brilliant+Built-in music storage + Garmin Pay
Reasons to avoid
-Bit on the heavy side-Really pricey-No way you will use all the features

• Read our Garmin Fenix 6 Pro review here

The Garmin Fenix 6 Pro is a great smartwatch for anyone who loves the Great Outdoors and it is especially good for triathletes and trail runners. The Fenix 6 has a multisport mode which makes switching between sport modes as easy as pressing a button. 

Garmin managed to improve on the formula that made the Fenix 5 Plus so great, further enhancing the battery life and also tweaking the user interface, which is now way easier to glance over, thanks to the widget view.

If anything, the Fenix 6 Pro is more rugged than light, but it is far from being too heavy. The Titanium version is also 11 grams lighter than the steel version, making it on par with other smartwatches on this list.

The Garmin Fenix 6 Series is not flawless, though. The Fenix 6 models not only retail for more than many of the watches on this list, but it is also very over-specced: it feels more like a demonstration from Garmin of what their technology is capable of than a good set of features runners might appreciate. It's doubtful, for example, that many people will want to use the Garmin Fenix 6 for points-of-interest navigation in urban areas, although the watch is capable of doing just that.

Nevertheless, if you can justify the price – and weight – of the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, you should definitely get one because it just feels great on the wrist and really represents what fitness smartwatches are capable of.

Best runnig watch: Garmin Forerunner 935

5. Garmin Forerunner 935

Great for triathletes

Weight: 49 grams
Case material: fibre reinforced polymer
Lens material: chemically strengthened glass
Water rating: up to 5 ATM
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 2 weeks in smartwatch mode
Reasons to buy
+Endlessly versatile+Good on land, sea, gym, pool, track+Metrics galore
Reasons to avoid
-Sensor technology has been updated ever since its release

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. 

Best running watch: Suunto 9 Baro

6. Suunto 9 Baro

Best running watch for long distances and off-road

Weight: 81 grams
Case material: Glass fibre reinforced polyamide
Water rating: up to 100 metres
Display resolution: 320 x 300 pixels
Battery life: up to 120 hours
Reasons to buy
+Barometer+Sapphire crystal glass
Reasons to avoid
-Quite bulky

The Suunto 9 Baro is pretty much identical to the Suunto 9, apart from two key factors: the Baro has a barometer – as the name suggests – and also comes with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass at the front. For these two features, you will need to pay around 20% premium, but it'll be worth it.

The Suunto 9 Baro's extra features will be appreciated most by trail runners who scale mountains and would like to keep track of the altitude gain/loss of their runs. Even better for them, the Suunto 9 Baro features a storm alarm, so you can find shelter in time, or just skip outdoor training, as you wish.

The extra features offered by the Suunto 9 Baro don't compromise the excellent battery life, another bonus for people who not only like running in mountains, but also also do it for long periods of time each time. We understand that we are talking about a niche market here, but for those, the Suunto 9 Baro is heaven sent.

best running watch: Polar Vantage V

(Image credit: Polar)

7. Polar Vantage V

Waterproof watch with long battery life for triathlon or running training

Weight: 66 grams (with wristband)
Case material: Stainless steel
Water rating: up to 50 metres
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 40 hours in training mode
Reasons to buy
+Running power on wrist+Accurate heart rate sensor+Ideal for triathletes
Reasons to avoid
-Touchscreen + five buttons navigation can be confusing at first-Higher price

• Read our Polar Vantage V review here

The Polar Vantage V is a peculiar flagship smartwatch. First of all, it most usually retails for less than the likes of Garmin Forerunner 945 or the Suunto 9 Baro which can be a big plus to many people out there. It also has some very unique features which might arouse some runners out there, especially the running power metric, measured on the wrist.

It also looks a bit more like a fashion watch as opposed to a multi-sport smartwatch. As default, the strap colours you can choose from aren't black and even more black, but bright orange, vibrant blue and white. Polar doesn't want you to blend in. They want their watches to stand out and be seen.

There is a lot to love on the Polar Vantage V. It has a large touchscreen display, hidden under Gorilla Glass lens and no less than nine sensors on the back. It uses a GPS+GLONASS tracking system, which doesn't pick the signal up as fast as the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, for example, but it does the job just fine.

The battery will last long enough, too, it has enough juice in there for 40 hours of tracking, so considering average use, you will be able to go between two charges for a good week.

And of course, the Polar Vantage V has all the fitness tracking features you'll ever need, and more, like sleep stage tracking, Nightly Recharge (which shows you how your body was able to recover from stress or training), Serene (guided breathing exercise), steps and activity tracking.

Since it is a Polar watch, the Polar Vantage V focuses a lot on recovery, too, with features like Training Load Pro, which measures cardio, muscle and perceived load, all on the wrist and without any external straps or pods needed. All this for not a lot of money.

best running watch: Fitbit Ionic

8. Fitbit Ionic

Best Fitbit for the gym and running

Reasons to buy
+Tracks everything+Compact and comfortable+Great app
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly basic 'smartwatch' functions

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.

best running watch: Suunto 5

(Image credit: Suunto)

9. Suunto 5

The Suunto 9 Baro's little sibling with intelligent battery modes

Reasons to buy
+Good form factor+Solid construction+Over 80 different sport modes straight out of the box
Reasons to avoid
-Sometimes hard to read screens (small fonts)-GPS signal takes a while to be picked up

Considerably cheaper than the Suunto 9 Baro, the Suunto 5 still has many of the features of its older and bigger sibling, including the intelligent battery management system and 24/7 heart-rate tracking.

The compact form factor is ideal for people with smaller wrist circumference although it does mean that the screen is also smaller than the 9 Baro. This wouldn't be an issue in itself, but unfortunately the Suunto 5 sometimes wants to display the same amount of info as watches with much larger screens, which makes it rally challenging to read during running workouts, for example.

The Suunto 5 has loads of useful features, including the adaptive training guide, which – as the name suggests – adapts to your training intensity and recommends workouts based on your performance.

One feature that elevates the Suunto 9 Baro above the rest of the competition is the extremely long battery life, something the Suunto 5 inherited too. The Suunto 5 will not only has different battery saving options to choose from, it also prompts you if it needs charging and if it thinks you will run out of juice soon.

With over 80 different sport modes to choose from, you can rest assured the Suunto 5 will be able to track your chosen sport principle accurately.