The best running watch or GPS sports watch is a personal choice and much depends on the amount of detail you want from your runs.
Beyond just simple tracking and pace information, the latest watches will feed back everything from heart rate information to detailed observations of your running style. In short, GPS watches are becoming essential tools in the runner’s arsenal.
Some are pricey, some more affordable. There’s a handful with heart rate monitors built in and a clutch that’ll even help out with your swimming andcycling needs too.
Of course, there’s no one perfect watch, so we’ve highlighted our top pick below but followed up with other devices that have impressed during our tests and that might suit different budgets and preferences.
Apple Watch Series 2
The Series 2 (not the Apple Watch 2) is more sporty smartwatch than its predecessor and that’s because it’s finally throwing built-in GPS into the mix. That means you can track runs (distance pace and speed) as well as cycling sessions. The waterproof design means you can go take it for a dip in the pool or the ocean as well. Set to be available in the same 38mm and 42mm watch cases, the Series 2 also comes in a new Nike+ edition, which adds a perforated rubber strap that appeared on the Apple Watch Sport. It comes with custom software and watch faces and it’ll provide coaching plans to get the most out of your running sessions.
TomTom Spark 3
Our current top running watch pick is getting an upgrade, although you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The Spark 3 sticks to the same design as the original Spark and still includes a built-in music player so you can listen to music without your phone. Along with a redesigned strap that should make it more comfortable to wear for 24/7 activity tracking, it now includes a compass which means you combine with the onboard GPS to enable route tracking. It works with GPX files, which you can upload to the watch and view routes to make sure you don’t get lost out on your running adventures. We’re busy testing the running watch right now, but you can check out our early verdict on the TomTom Spark 3.
Garmin Forerunner 35
Garmin’s has new entry level running watch might be cheap, but it brings optical heart rate monitoring to the wrist. An upgrade to the Forerunner 25, it offers pace, distance and time data, as well as a real-time readout of heart rate and heart rate zone. It’s all the basics even accomplished runners need. You’ll get 9 days of battery life in non-GPS mode, and 13 hours of tracked running, which is a pretty impressive figure when you consider the price. Until we’ve got one in for review, you can check our Garmin Forerunner 35 hands-on to see if it makes a good first impression.
While we only truly recommend devices we’ve tested, it would be remiss of us not to tell you about the Polar M600, which this month. Polar’s new device runs Android Wear, which makes it a proper smartwatch. Polar’s added GPS, its proprietary optical heart rate sensor tech, which uses six LED lights to generate wrist-based readings and its own running programmes. This means on paper at least, it’s a beast for running. Android Wear also offers built in music (there’s 4GB of storage on board) and third party apps from Google Play. Keep a look out for our Polar M600 review in the coming weeks.
Wareable’s top pick
We’ve tested and used the TomTom Spark extensively at Wareable, and it’s a firm team favourite. It has its issues, and the Spark’s a bit rough around the edges, especially when it comes to pairing (we actually do this via a cable to our PC/Macs now to save blood vessels popping). But its solid stats, great heart rate sensor and extensive list of extra features earn the Spark its place at the head of our best running watches list.
As well as the usual running metrics (distance, speed, time), its optical heart rate monitor aced our tests, and it plugs into nearly every running app going. But it’s perhaps the storage for MP3s, which it’ll play via a pair of wireless headphones, which tips the Spark for us. The feeling of running unencumbered by your phone isn’t to be underestimated.
We also love the watch’s option to race yourself on previous routes, adding a competitive edge to your training. While a Garmin or Polar may suit you better, the TomTom Spark is a lot more fun to train with than any of its peers.
$249.99, tomtom.com | Amazon
Best for 24/7 fitness
Garmin Forerunner 235
The Garmin Forerunner 235’s mix of features is perfect for intermediate runners looking to step up their training. The key feature here is the optical heart rate sensor on the back, which is capable of tracking steady runs, but you’ll want to to don a chest strap for higher intensity workouts.
For those looking for a general picture of overall health, the daily activity stats and resting heart rate tracking is superb, as are the notifications and battery life.
$329.99, garmin.com | Amazon
Best on a budget
Basically a more affordable take on the Polar V800, the M400 is a brand new watch that tracks pace, distance and altitude via built-in GPS. But that’s not all, as this beautiful looking running companion comes with some special skills too.
On top of 24/7 activity tracking that means you can ditch your fitness band, there’s a whole host of running-specific innovations to keep you moving and motivated. There’s an interval timer that can be tuned to time or distance for custom training session, plus it’ll even give you an estimate of when you’ll finish your run based on your current pace.
For those who get lost easily or often run on their travels, there’s a cunning back-to-start option that’ll directs you to your starting point in the shortest distance possible.
If you’re looking for improved performance – and most of us are – the Polar Running Index calculates how you’re (hopefully) improving over time based on heart rate and speed. It’ll also tell you the training effect of every single run.
$183.73, polar.com | Amazon
Chest strap vs optical
The latest big name running watches now include optical heart rate tech – but there are big questions around accuracy. Currrently, optical tech is a good indicator of heart rate in steady exercise e.g. long distance running but add excessive arm movement or high intensity intervals, and it’s totally useless. If you’re an intermediate and just want an idea of heart rate, it’s a perfect alternative to uncomfortable chest straps. If you live and die by data – it’s not for you.
Best for multisport
Garmin Vivoactive HR
The Garmin Vivoactive HR really does it all. Run, bike, pool swim, golf, walk, row, SUP (paddle board) ski, XC ski, run indoor, bike indoor, walk indoor and row indoor – it’s a formidable sports watch for those who don’t define themselves as runners or cyclists.
The GPS based sports are all well catered for and while it’s not a patch on a dedicated golf watch, you can get your distances to the pin and hazards, as long as you download the course via Garmin Connect.
Smartwatch style notifications and the ability to read emails and messages are the order of the day, and of course, the built-in HR makes for much richer data, especially from niche sports. Yes, it’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but it’s one of the best sports watches out there, as long as you don’t expect maximum detail in your results.
$249.99, garmin.com | Amazon
Best for tracking your recovery
Garmin Forerunner 630
Garmin’s flagship watch now adds smartphone notifications on the wrist as well as a host of new metrics. You can view data on stride length and vertical ratio which can be used to boost running efficiency, and there’s a renewed focus on recovery.
The Forerunner 630 rates lactate threshold and performance condition to try and prevent overtraining, and warns you when you’re pushing things too far. It’s strictly for the hardcore runner who also wants great smartwatch-inspired features.
Downsides include a lack of built-in HR monitor, which means you’ll have to wear a chest strap if you want the extra data. In an ideal world we’d rather have the option for both, but there’s no option for that which offers the same breadth of data as the Forerunner 630. If you’ve got the money to spend, it’s one of the best running watches available.
$399.99, garmin.com | Amazon
Best for high-end data
The perfect training timepiece for swim-bike-runners, the Polar V800 tracks everything you do on two wheels, two feet, in the water or on dry land. Pace, distance, fat burn calories and max heart rate are all covered on super clear screens that are brilliantly customisable.
Pair it up with a Polar H7 heart rate monitor and you can also unlock the V800’s zonal training smarts, making sure you’re sweating it out to achieve the right effect. Hook it up to a shoe pod and it’ll also give you cadence, stride length and other insights to help hone your Mo Farah running form. Wannabe Wiggos can also opt for a range of cycle accessories to increase the stats haul from two-wheeled training.
What it reveals while you workout is one thing but this smartwatch keeps giving long after you’ve sunk your post-workout protein shake. The Recovery Status and Orthostatic Test features predict when you’ll be ready to train again. There’s also a running program that adapts if you can’t fit in a run and includes exercise routines to aid recovery. V800 also doubles as an activity tracker and lets you see whether your daily calorie burn comes from just being alive, workouts or general activity.
$338.99 polar.com | Amazon
How important is heart rate?
With heart rate tech becoming more and more prevalent, it leads many people to ask – do they really need to track heart rate. For beginner runners, the answer in most case no – the extra data will not make you a better runner, and unless you’re seriously fit, it’s too hard to train using heart rate zones. However, that’s not a reason to discount the data. Heart rate colours your run data, it indicates that you’re getting fitter, and it brings apps like Strava to life.
Best companion app
Fitbit’s most powerful wearable to date is looking to take on the smartwatches by adding smartphone notifications, but it’s still the Surge’s fitness prowess that wins out here.
Onboard GPS makes for accurate route tracking, a week long battery keeps you going without the need for a charger and the rubber construction is durable, if a little on the itchy side. It’s also the first Fitbit device to pack an actual display, even it is only a monochromatic touchscreen.
However, it’s the app that really shines. Running data has never been so easy to digest, with graphs on your performance. What’s more, the data will be seamlessly added to your daily goal, so you get the full benefit for your workout.
$249, fitbit.com | Amazon
Best for the trails
Suunto Ambit 3 Sapphire Peak
For the serious athlete, Suunto’s Ambit3 boasts accurate tracking capabilities thanks to GPS and some nifty connectivity tech. Pair the watch up with the Suunto Movescount app to alter settings and check progress on your phone. The watch itself is jammed full of sensors, from a compass to a heart rate monitor (that even works during swimming) and altitude checker plus of course it uses the GPS to give you route guidance.
$379.99, suunto.com | Amazon
Best for triathletes
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
The recently announced Garmin Forerunner 735XT features advanced metrics for running as well as the pool, and will keep tabs on your stroke type and efficiency in the water. It’s waterproof to 50m, combines with the companies’ high-end bike sensors and offers 24 hours of GPS tracking.
$449, garmin.com | Amazon
Best for adventurers
Garmin Fenix 3
The update to Garmin’s previous all-action sports watch, the Garmin Fenix 3 is perfectly suited to runners that have broken beyond the confines of the pavements. Cycling, open water swimming and even cross-country skiing are all supported, but it’s running where the Fenix really earns its stars. When paired with the heart rate strap accessory, the Fenix 3 tracks distance, elevation, cadence, vertical oscillation and V02 max, and the Garmin Connect software is simply brilliant. If you fancy something a little more luxurious, you can always spend big on the upcoming Garmin Fenix Chronos collection.
$549.99 (with heart rate strap), garmin.com | Amazon
Best smartwatch for running
Moto 360 Sport
If you don’t fancy the SmartWatch 3, the Moto 360 Sport is well equipped for indoor and outdoor running sessions. It’s robustly built with a silicon case and band and features an AnyLight LCD touchscreen to swipe through and easily view your stats in the bright outdoors or at night.
Motorola’s Moto Body app is also surprisingly well designed, making your data easy to digest on the move.
$299.99, motorola.com | Amazon