(Pocket-lint) - Picking up a dedicated GPS sports watch is the best way to take your running and exercise to the next level.
Whether you're a beginner looking to complete some 5K and 10K runs, an intermediate aiming to gain more insights or a marathon runner who wants a device to help them peak through training, there's now an incredible amount of watches to pick from.
The only problem with the choice on offer is that whittling down the top candidates can often be as time-consuming as an ultra-endurance event.
It's why we've put in the hard yards and tested, rated and ranked the very best running watches to consider. Often these devices are running-focused, but all the options on this list are able to stretch their tracking capabilities to many different sports.
You can check out the in-depth details on each device featured below in our running watch reviews, but continue below for our summary.
What are the best running watches?
- Garmin Forerunner 945
- Coros Pace 2
- Garmin Fenix 7
- Polar Vantage V2
- Garmin Forerunner 55
- Huawei Watch GT Runner
Our Top Pick: Best Running Watch
Garmin Forerunner 945
- Incredibly detailed insights
- Superb battery life
- The lightweight form is ideal for runners
- Fairly expensive
- Some may find the design cheap-feeling
The Garmin Forerunner 945 is the company's top running watch, and it very much acts like it.
The functions it offers very much match those that you get on the Fenix 6 range - meaning that it basically does everything a Garmin watch possibly can - but it's priced a little cheaper than the flagship line. This is likely because it doesn't have quite the same build and protection, so, if you're not planning on abusing it in the great outdoors, you might find it's the better choice for you.
The 945, handily, now also offers mapping - which the 935 didn't - as well as offline music and Garmin Pay, so it's very much the complete package. Not only that, but it's very accurate (suffering only from the same foibles as other optical heart rate monitors), offers great battery life, is slim and comfortable to wear and provides one of the most comprehensive sets of data that you'll find on a sports watch. It's smart too, giving you notifications, and, if you're an Android user, smart replies to messages, as well.
There's now an LTE model available of the 945, which provides a cellular connection without having to piggyback from your phone. It also features Garmin's fourth-gen heart rate monitor tech, though we haven't yet had the chance to pit these two against one another and decipher the extent of the difference.
Running watches we also recommend
The Garmin Forerunner 945 may be at the peak of our list, but that doesn't mean it's the only device worth considering. The options below should cover most requirements - whether you're in search of something with a different price tag, design or feature set.
Coros Pace 2
- Comfortable and light
- Reliable tracking
- Good battery life
- Fairly dull design
- Only offers smartwatch features
- No map viewing
It might not be an established name like other brands on this list, but Coros has quickly become a very reliable option when it comes to sports watches. Its Pace 2, which is best suited to runners, is superb value.
You get reliable GPS performance, decent heart rate tracking (which can also be outsourced to a chest strap), advanced training features and metrics and more for a very reasonable rate.
It's not just about running, either, since it works really well for swimming and cycles, as well. For when you're not exercising and want to track sleep, the design is also comfortable enough to wear overnight.
We wouldn't recommend this one to people seeking any kind of smartwatch features - and we're not the biggest fans of the overall design, despite its lightweight nature - but it's top-notch running companion.
Garmin Fenix 7
- Can track an incredible amount of activities
- Next-level battery life
- Rugged, premium design with touchscreen
- Very expensive
- The design might be too bulky for some
The Garmin Fenix 7 is an outstanding sports device, with enough intelligence to act independently as a running watch or smartwatch, too. It offers a substantial build, a range of metrics and a battery life that can last between 15 - 20 days, in our testing.
It's not cheap, and you'll find most of its features on other Garmin sports watches for less money, but, whether you're training for a 5K, about to finish your third Ironman or are on a multi-day adventure race, the Fenix has something for you in terms of functions.
It's impossible not to applaud a device as comprehensively impressive as the Fenix 7. As multi-functional sports-focused smartwatches go, there's no equal.
The real challenge with the range is picking between the army of different variations. The regular 7 is 47mm, while the 7X is 51mm and the 7S is 42mm, providing roughly the same watch experience (save for slight differences in battery life). However, this is complicated by the fact that each of these three versions now has a Solar and Solar Sapphire model, as well as the standard model.
Polar Vantage V2
- Lightweight design compared to its predecessor
- Outstanding training plans
- Battery life is disappointing
- No mapping or music storage
The Vantage line is Polar's flagship range, and the V2 is a very solid improvement on the first-gen model. It features a lighter case, more tactile buttons and a touchscreen, while naturally retaining some of the better features from its predecessor.
For runners, the performance and recovery tests - as well as the training plans available on Polar Flow - provide some really interesting metrics and trends, with the Vantage V2 possessing enough in its locker to guide and track other sports, too.
We wouldn't say the battery life is anywhere close to what some elite running watches offer - stretching to between 4-6 days, typically, when we tracked daily sessions with GPS - and there's also a distinct lack of smartwatch features, but there's still some very strong reasons to consider this device.
Garmin Forerunner 55
- Detailed experience for an entry-level price
- Full Garmin Connect IQ support
- Design is basic
- No map support
Don't be put off by the fact the Garmin Forerunner 55 is the company's entry-level running watch - there's more than enough featured here to satiate even intermediate runners. Particularly if you're new to running or new to tracking your runs, though, this is a superb device to consider.
It covers the basic features, like heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking, and backs them with more advanced ones, such as Garmin's PacePro feature, cadence alerts, recovery advice, daily workout suggestions and adaptive training plans via Garmin Connect.
In testing, we've found that the battery life typically ranges between 10 - 14 days, depending on GPS tracking, which is very solid.
Huawei Watch GT Runner
- Crisp, AMOLED display
- Accurate and helpful run tracking
- Smartwatch features not elite
- Not the best third-party app support
Huawei has invested plenty into the research and analysis of sports tracking over the last couple of years, and it pays off with the Watch GT Runner.
It doesn't feature the premium design we've grown accustomed to with other smartwatches from the company, but, crucially, this run-focused device is lightweight and offers protection that makes it ideal to wear all year round.
Naturally, it's the run tracking performance that really helps it shine, though. Huawei has revamped its running plans to be more dynamic and personalised, and the new antennae placement ensures GPS lock-on is snappy and accurate.
The smartwatch features - notably, the lack of offline music and contactless payment support - are lacking slightly, and the third-party apps are also limited, but this is a decent option for those who want a great looking watch with a strong focus on running.
Other running watches we considered
In the process of ranking the best running watches, we spent plenty of time wearing and exercising with the options above. We always consider a number of factors when it comes to recommending sports watches, and try to apply the same criteria when a new release is being considered for inclusion. These selections aren't all based on our testing, either, as we also try to factor in consumer reviews, brand quality and value.
In all of our buyer's guides, there are many products we test that don't quite make the final cut. Since they may be the right fit for some people, however, we've listed them below.
How to choose a running watch
There are plenty of options when it comes to buying a running watch, which makes the task of picking between them all the more complicated. Here are some considerations to help you choose.
Smart or sporty?
There was once a big divide between smartwatches and sports devices. However, that gap has now narrowed, with many smartwatches now integrating sporty features. Health and wellbeing are now at their core.
That might make smartwatches look attractive when you're browsing the features list, but they often fall short in one crucial area: battery life. Many of the dedicated fitness devices have a battery life that far surpasses a typical smartwatch, which typically ranges anywhere from 1-4 days.
Many sports devices now offer smartwatch features, too. Offline music and mobile payments are common across devices, and, while a smartwatch might offer more apps, you don't miss out completely when it comes to functions on a sports device.
Display and interaction
The display size dictates the overall size of the device, and, again, there's plenty to choose from. While big bulky devices give you plenty of screen space, they might just be too large.
From the Apple Watch to Garmin models, many offer a choice of size - and for those who just don't want a watch, there are also fitness trackers. These offer many desirable features in a much more compact form.
The display also dictates how you interact with a device: while touch is commonplace, it's not the most reliable method of interaction when you have sweaty hands or when you're running. That's why a number of devices, like the Garmin Forerunner models, offer button-based interaction.
While the Apple Watch might seem like it's a member of the biggest ecosystem, even more sensors are available in other models.
Garmin is a huge player here, offering support for things like bike power meters and a whole world of sensors, meaning you can track your sports in any number of ways. This is worth considering - is your device just for your weekend run, or do you want to venture further with cycling, for example?
What does all this data mean?
You'll be presented with a lot of data, but not all watches are equal. Each device has a platform that sits behind it, offering a range of different features.
Brands like Garmin and Polar, as examples, offer a lot of metrics through Garmin Connect and Polar Flow that can help you interpret the data. This can be really useful to target your training, with many devices using metrics specific to running, like running power or cadence.
It's also worth considering the rest of your lifestyle: what impact does your daily activity and sleep have on your recovery? Most devices will offer some of this information, too.
Do I need all these functions?
Bringing it back down to earth, it's worth asking yourself if you need all these functions. Much of it sounds impressive, but, if you only need speed, distance and pace, do you need all those other functions you're buying?
It might be that choosing something lower down a brand's scale will give you everything you need, and save you money in the process.
More about this story
Every product in this list has been tested in real-life situations, just as you would use it in your day-to-day life.
In the case of running watches, we selected from a large number of devices and tested their capabilities over a few weeks - and do the same to decide whether a new watch should make the list. This testing, of course, includes running with each model, and also testing out sleep tracking, health monitoring, daily activity logging and other sports modes. As every manufacturer also features a separate companion app and online platform, we also always factor this into our final rankings.
As with all our buyer's guides, recommending a selection of products at a range of different budgets is also an important part of our final list.
With any roundup, though, it's not possible to deliver a list that works for every type of user. That's why we lean on the experiences and opinions of the wider Pocket-lint team - as well as thoroughly assessing the areas above - in order to do our best in this regard.
What we always tend to avoid when compiling these picks are spec comparisons and marketing lines; we just want to provide an easy to understand summary that gives you an idea of what each running watch is like to use. Our verdicts are concise, but this is purely in the interest of brevity.
If you love tracking stats and crunching the numbers on your latest outdoor activity, you'll love The Gear Loop. Our new sister site is here to bring you the freshest news, the most honest reviews, informative guides and inspirational travel features that cover all outdoor active lifestyle pursuits, from sea to summit. Whether that’s running or cycling, winter sports or water sports, The Gear Loop has got it covered.