It's this time of year that parks and pavements see an influx of new runners looking to get fit in the new year. But perhaps you're not one of these fresh new starters and you're in fact a seasoned runner. Maybe you've decided to take your running to the next level. A running watch might just be the perfect tool to keep tabs on your performance, whether that's distance or pace, and give you that added motivation.
If you’re already regularly hitting the track, or training towards a best new marathon time, a basic activity tracker simply won’t cut it.
While they’re great for people starting out on a fitter and healthier lifestyle, they lack the more advanced features that appeal to more seasoned athletes and runners. If you want to improve your running, you need to consider a more specialist sports watch.
We’ve put each and every running watch in this list through its paces, so don’t forget to read the full reviews to find out more about the best wearable for you.
Video: Trusted Explains – Wearables and Fitness Trackers
This list is constantly being updated as we review more running watches, so check back regularly to see if any new watches are worth considering.
Hit the ‘Next’ arrow or use the dropdown menu above to view the list, or carry on reading below for more advice on what to look for in your next running watch.
Polar M400 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £169 | Now £102
Garmin Fenix 3 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £379.99 | Now £280
TomTom Spark 3 at Amazon.com | Was $350 | $249.99
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A built-in GPS receiver is a must-have for any serious running watch. Where basic accelerometers and gyroscopes have to estimate your distance covered, a GPS-enabled running watch will more accurately be able to show all the ground you’ve covered.
This is all without the need to encumber yourself with a smartphone to piggyback on its GPS signal. When you’re running it pays to travel light, so not having to worry about somewhere to store your smartphone is a real help.
GPS can also allow you to upload .GPX routes to your sports watch, letting you follow along popular trails and routes. The TomTom Spark 3 also makes use of its GPS and built-in compass to show you the route you've ran on your wrist, allowing you to then find your way back to the start more easily. This is perfect if you're often running in unfamiliar locations or have a habit of getting lost while out on your runs.
A running watch with a screen will also provide easier at-a-glance data during your run, so you can see your pace, lap times, cadence and heart rate without having to try and pull your phone out. Many general activity trackers lack a screen.
The application used to display performance data is another important consideration. Better watches and accompanying apps will let you break down your run into segments. You can then not only compare your personal bests across distance, but also against specific parts of your run.
That massive hill at the start of your course you particularly dread? Now you can see you made it up there just that much faster.
More advanced running watches will also include other sensors, such as altimeters. These calculate your altitude so you can more accurately log those devastating hill sprints you’ve been working on to improve your acceleration and explosiveness.
In place of a wrist-based optical heart rate monitor (HRM), or sometimes to supplement one, most running watches will work with a separate chest-based HRM.
These are far more accurate than their optical counterparts and are able to more accurately take continuous readings. This means those High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions are tracked more accurately, both in terms of speed through GPS and also in taxation on your cardiovascular system.
The reason for this is usually around sampling rate. Chest-worn HRMs tend to take much more rapid readings, so when you go from a recovery walking period to a sudden sprint the sensor is able to keep up. Often, optical HRMs take much longer to get a grasp on the rapid change in beats per minute.
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Running watches are never going to be as subtle as a basic activity tracker, but you probably still want something that looks good on your wrist. If you have small wrists, some running watches can look comically large.
Battery life, too, is going to be important. Having to constantly charge a running watch is a faff and can mean you don’t bring it along on your next run if the battery is constantly dying.
You need to keep in mind that GPS tracking is also very taxing on the battery. It means you’re not going to see the six-month-plus battery life you see from some activity trackers.
Some of the more advanced sports watches will also throw in multi-sport tracking, such as swimming and cycling. Perfect if you’re a triathlete.
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Beyond running, a lot of watches will also include all-day activity and sleep tracking, too. This can help make sure you keep an eye on your rest and recovery. An ample night’s sleep can mean the difference when it comes to setting new personal bests.
Some running watches, such as the TomTom Spark 3 Music %2B Cardio and the Apple Watch 2, will let you store music on the onboard storage, then connect a pair of Bluetooth headphones. That way you get a soundtrack to your run, helping you to stay energised and motivated, without the need to carry around an extra device or smartphone. Perfect if you want to run light.
Then there are smartwatch features to consider. These can help justify a permanent place on your wrist if the watch can pair with your smartphone to provide extra functionality, such as notification mirroring. Running watches such as the Polar M600 run on Android Wear, meaning you get a stable of apps you can access from your watch. Then of course there's the Apple Watch Series 2, which runs on Apple's watchOS 3 and is arguably the best smartwatch currently available (with the fitness aspects being equally good).