Whether you’re a casual jogger or seasoned marathon racer, a decent running watch is a great way to help improve your performance.
Wearables have slowly become mainstream, with key players Fitbit, Garmin, Withings and Misfit releasing a steady stream of great running watches covering every level of athlete.
What is the best running watch with GPS on the market?
As it stands, the best overall running watch is the Garmin Forerunner 935. If you’re a serious runner looking for a no-compromise tracker, then the Forerunner 935 will meet even the most hardcore runner’s needs. However, if you are a more casual runner or are on a stricter budget, then the Garmin Vivosmart HR Plus is the best-value running watch around. It packs in only the essentials but does them well.
If neither of those offerings grabs your fancy off the bat, read on to see what else the running watch scene has to offer.
How we test running watches
When testing running watches we ensure we wear them for at least a fortnight and test them against competing reference devices that have already proven to offer accurate tracking.
We also compare the wrist-based heart-rate monitor against the readings of a dedicated HRM strap to gauge accuracy. We perform all test runs on a track that we know is exactly 5km to check GPS and distance tracking.
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1. Garmin Forerunner 935
The best overall running watch for serious enthusiasts
- So comfortable you barely notice it
- Attractive design
- Impressive battery life
- Multiple training functions
- Smartphone connectivity
- Thick screen bezel
- Garmin Connect app still overwhelming
The Garmin Forerunner 935 could well be the perfect running watch, with everything you might possibly want, including GPS, a heart-rate monitor and activity and sleep tracking thrown in. With its altimeter and compass it’s also a versatile multi-sport tracker, and perfect for triathlons thanks to its water-resistance.
We found the GPS superbly accurate but also quick to acquire satellite locks, meaning you’re not left waiting around before you can set off. If you are a triathlete, you can transition between disciplines with just one button press, and the menus, in general, are intuitive. Battery life is also fantastic, with around two weeks of general activity tracking or a full 24 hours of GPS use.
There’s also smartphone pairing so you can get notifications from your watch. The Garmin Forerunner 935 can be considered the result of years of product research and design and is an all-round fantastic running watch.
2. Garmin Vivosmart HR Plus
The best budget running watch with all the essentials
- Rugged waterproof design
- Five-day battery life
- Excellent fitness tracking
- GPS and heart-rate monitor included
- App isn’t very intuitive
- Not the prettiest wearable around
While the Garmin Vivosmart HR Plus includes everything you could want from a running watch, it actually more closely resembles a standard fitness tracker. Still, Garmin has somehow packed in an accelerometer, barometric altimeter, optical HRM and GPS all into its slender design. All of those sensors prove accurate, too.
Battery life, at around five days, is great and the E Ink touchscreen is easy to use even in bright sunlight. The Garmin Connect app remains a little obtuse but it does provide some genuinely useful metrics, such as its ‘intensity minutes’ measurement that gets you motivated to push harder and further.
3. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
The most advanced elite running watch on the market
- Super-rugged design
- Excellent location and distance tracking
- More sports options than you’ll ever need
- Topo map support
- Doesn’t support popular music streaming services
- Very expensive
The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is one of the best running watches on the market, but you’ll need a serious wad of cash to afford it.
But if the £750 asking price isn’t an issue, you’ll be treated to one of the best-running watches money can buy. If you’re a serious athlete who regularly runs off the beaten track, this could well be the watch for you.
Featuring advanced location-tracking services, including support for basic GPS, GLONASS and the EU’s next-generation Galileo network, this watch can track your location, no matter where you are in the world.
The 16GB of internal storage and advanced array of built-in sensors also mean it can store and display topographical maps offline, adding yet another safety layer for trail runners.
4. Garmin Forerunner 735XT
An excellent running watch for triathletes or tough-mudder enthusiasts
- Robust design
- Great multi-sport support
- Good coaching and activity tracking
- App is difficult to navigate
- Not the best-looking watch around
The Garmin Forerunner 735XT is available as a standalone watch or as a Tri Bundle (£450), which includes Garmin’s HRM Tri and HRM Swim chest straps. Even as a standalone watch, the Forerunner 735XT has plenty of features that will appeal to seasoned athletes.
The GPS sensor is incredibly fast at picking up a signal, meaning you’re quicker to set off on a run. It’s accurate, too. Even without the use of the chest HRM straps, heart rate readings were also surprisingly accurate from the optical HRM.
Throw in great sleep tracking and the Forerunner 735XT is a solid all-rounder that’s only a little let down by its clunky Garmin Connect app that can feel overwhelming and obtuse.
5. Polar M400
A fantastic first running watch for casual exercisers
- Tracks GPS, heart rate and daily fitness
- Slim and light for GPS tracking
- Excellent features for price
- No underwater heartrate monitoring
- No route navigation
- Chest belt needed for heart rate
The Polar M400 is a great introduction to running watches, providing the simplicity of a fitness band with some of the more advanced features of a dedicated running watch. It includes all the standard features, such as GPS, heart-rate monitoring (through a chest strap) and sleep tracking.
The M400 also supports a multitude of sports beyond running, including swimming and even yoga. You can also conduct a 15-minute fitness test if you’re interested in finding out your VO2 max. At the end of each run you get a Running Index score that measures you against other runners with a similar profile, so you can get a gauge on your fitness.
Battery life is also stellar and the great news is that it charges over Micro USB, so you potentially have one less cable to carry around.
6. Garmin Vivoactive 3
The multi-tasker – a running watch with added smartwatch functionality
- Easy-to-read display
- Accurate distance tracking
- Good heart rate monitor
- Long battery life
- Feels a little plasticky
- Limited coaching elements
- Garmin Pay isn’t widely available
- No onboard music storage
The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is the company’s take on a running watch with added smartwatch functionality. It includes the usual GPS and heart rate monitoring to make it a great running companion, alongside runner-centric features like VO2 Max estimations. It’s also a fully-fledged fitness tracker with all-day activity tracking and sleep tracking.
Alongside its fitness features, there are some basic smartwatch functions, too, such as notification mirroring from your smartphone and the ability to control your media. Disappointingly, there’s no onboard storage for your tunes, so you’ll still need to bring your phone along if you like music or podcasts to keep you entertained.
Otherwise, the excellent battery life will appeal to seasoned runners, especially the 13 hours of battery even when using GPS. Proper smartwatches can’t compete on that front.
Best Running Watches – Features you need
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.
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 run 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.
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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.
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As an added bonus, many running watches nowadays will include some smartwatch functionality. This can range anywhere from basic smartphone notifications so you don’t have to constantly whip your phone out, to fully-fledged app ecosystems so you can add extra functionality. Many smartwatch-specific wearables can also act as a good running watch, too, although you’ll often miss out on some of the more advanced training features of a dedicated running or sports watch.