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5 best running watches

From mini-run and 5k to marathon personal-best chasers and ultrarun adventurers, there is wristwear to help (hopefully)

If you’re serious about improving your running, and you’ve got the budget to back up your ambition, the Garmin Forerunner 645 is hard to beat ( Getty )

If a run isn’t tracked, did it really happen? Of course it did. But the chorus of beeps at the starting line of any race – from a park run to a marathon – as everyone fires up their GPS-tracking should tell you something. The running watch is now as much a part of our essential running kit as trainers. Well, almost. 

These days it’s not just about using GPS to track pace and distance, either. Good running watches now offer a huge range of features to help you improve your performance and chase personal bests.

For a couple of hundred quid you can buy yourself a coaching device that offers insights on everything from when and how hard you should run, to which aspects of your running form need work – both in real time and against personal bests. Watches even tell you how long you need to recover from your last sweat session before going out and do it all again.

If you’re looking to supercharge your run with one of these great gadgets, here’s our list of the best running watches you can buy right now. Plus, what to look out for while you’re choosing your perfect run partner.

Key to choosing the watch are where, when and how are you going to use it. It’s good to go for one with features that are a little more advanced than the one you have. That way you won’t end up outrunning your watch as you improve.

You want a watch that can outlast you on any single run. You should expect at least eight hours of GPS runtime from most watches, though this can drop if you’re using heart rate, smartwatch features and playing music.

 A good running watch should also last with three to four days normal usage without needing to be charged. What’s normal? We like to think of it as a couple of hour-long workouts with daily use and a two-hour long run thrown in.

(If you’re considering ultrarunning, look for a watch with more longevity, and one that lets you tweak the tracking and power settings so it lasts longer.)

Heart rate is a good way to measure your workout intensity so you can train smarter ensuring each session delivers the right training effect. Many new watches now boast optical heart-rate sensors built in, others will let you pair additional heart rate monitors such as chest or arm straps to power the heart rate data. The debate about which is more accurate continues but on the whole, if accuracy is paramount go for a watch that lets you pair a chest strap. If you’re not in the world of marginal gains the built in wrist trackers are hard to beat for convenience.

There are two important parts to your running watch, the device itself and the partner app/web tool you use to analyse all your data. The apps vary wildly in quality and people either love or hate them. The good news is that they’re mainly free so it’s well worth downloading them and having a play before you invest in your watch. You’re going to be saddled with it so it’s smart to make sure you like it.

Smartwatches such as the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear Sport and Fitbit Ionic offer run tracking to various levels. Aiming to be an all-day watch, ones such as the Garmin Forerunner 645 also now offer smart notifications. So what’s best? Having tested both, smartwatches still don’t do running as well as dedicated devices. If race-day accuracy and reliability is important to you then go for a running watch. If you run a bit for fitness and fun and you want a watch with style that you can wear all day and use to see your WhatsApp messages, then a smartwatch might be best for you.

We put each watch – and plenty more that didn’t make the list – through its paces on the road, track and treadmill and over a range of distances, from 5k up to marathon. We judged them on accuracy, comfort, ease of use and the all-important battery life. And, of course, price.

​Garmin Forerunner 645 Music: £400, Run4It

Battery life: 14 hours in GPS mode without music, 5 hours with music
Built-in heart rate: Yes
Weight: 42.2g
Waterproof: 50 metres
Multi-sport: Yes

The first Garmin device to boast a built-in music player, the Forerunner has storage for up to 500 songs so you can connect to your Bluetooth headphones and run phone-free. However, this stylish, lightweight watch is a serious running tool too. It’s incredibly easy to use, extremely customisable and its vast array of running, multi-sport and fitness features make it stand out.

The GPS is excellent with superfast hookup and reliable accuracy while built-in optical heart rate – you can pair with a chest strap for better accuracy – powers a long list of coaching, performance and fitness metrics. The in-run highlights include heart rate zone training and a real- time assessment of your performance condition (comparing your real-time condition to your average fitness level).

Post-run you get VO2 Max estimates to help you monitor fitness improvements, training load and training status feedback so you can see the effect of your most recent run, plus recovery time recommendations so you know when to go again.

When you’re not running it’ll also track steps, general activity and monitor sleep, though don’t expect too much from the latter. All of the data is fed wirelessly to a much-improved Garmin Connect partner app which can sometimes be a little bit impenetrable but is still much better than its competitors. Connect also syncs your stats straight to Strava so you can keep your competitive edge in that active community.

The 645’s smartwatch skills are ample, too, with on-watch notifications for most apps streamed from your phone and it’s also compatible with Garmin Pay, a new contactless payment system so you buy that post-run coffee with the tap of your wrist.

If music isn’t important we’d highly recommend looking at the music-free version which is £50 cheaper too.

Buy now

Polar M430: £155, Amazon

Battery life: 8 hours in GPS mode with optical heart rate, up to 30 hours in GPS Power Save Mode with optical heart rate.
GPS: Yes
Built-in heart rate: Yes
Weight: 51g
Waterproof: 30 metres
Multi-sport: Yes

The Polar M400 was Europe’s top-selling running watch, and its successor the M430 has all the features that made that device so popular and more. It retains the pin-point-accurate GPS but adds heart-rate tracking from the wrist, smart notifications and sleep-tracking to offer enough performance enhancing prowess to satisfy everyone from from mini-run and 5k right up to marathon personal-best chasers.

Granted it isn’t the prettiest watch on this list and the basic design – there’s no colour touchscreen or shiny bezel here – might put some people off but behind it’s retro face and old-school sporty design, this is a running watch that’s comfortable, brilliantly easy to use on the move and crammed full of running features to help you train smarter and run better.  

The built-in optical heart rate sensor is as accurate as wrist-based tacking gets. It powers continuous heart-rate tracking so you can keep tabs on your resting heart rate and make the most of heart-rate-zone training. We also loved the clever Zone Lock feature hich lets you specify a target heart rate or pace and get audio and vibration alerts if you stray outside.

Cadence – the number of times your feet strike the ground – is measured from the wrist thanks to a built in accelerometer and that also means treadmill runs are covered too.    

Away from running, there’s 24/7 activity-tracking with alerts when you’ve been sedentary too long, sleep-tracking – though as with Garmin this is still pretty basic – and it can be paired with your smartphone for notifications on incoming calls and updates from you apps.

The Polar Flow partner app and web tools offer adaptive coaching plans, detailed analysis and community features, though they’re starting to look a little dated. As with Garmin Connect, Flow auto-syncs with Strava too so your segment chasing can continue unabated.

Buy now

Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + cellular): £320, Apple

Battery life: Up to 5 hours with GPS, up to 4 hours with GPS and LTE, up to 3 hours with GPS, LTE and music streaming.
GPS: Yes (+GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS)
Built-in heart rate: Yes
Weight: 44g*
Waterproof: 50 metres
Multi-sport: Yes

It’s taken a while but the Apple Watch is now the smartwatch with the most serious running credentials. No other watch gets closer to the running nirvana, unburdened by keys, cash and phone.

The addition of LTE – longterm evolution or  data connectivity to us – means you can make calls without your phone. Music can also be stored on the watch and streamed to your Bluetooth headphones. There are apps that work with smart locks to let you unlock your front door or hail an Uber should you pull up injured. Then there’s Apple Pay so you can buy water.

It’s not all about the convenient smartwatch features either, there’s much-improved GPS with instant fix and new heart rate tracking skills. The built-in optical sensor now tracks resting heart rate over time and heart rate variability too, making it easier to see your fitness progression.

The latest iOS updates will also add cadence and pace alerts, while Apple GymKit brings clever indoor skills, syncing data from your watch to treadmills and vice-versa, with a single tap, for the best indoor tracking set up we’ve seen from any watch.

However, there’s still a big question mark over battery life and you won’t get any of the deep-level running dynamics insights that you find on the high-end Garmin and Polar devices. So there’s still a way to go before the watch moves from great casual running partner to serious performance tool but it’s heading in the right direction.

Buy now

Fitbit Ionic: £240, Argos

Battery life: Up to 10 hours in GPS mode
GPS: Yes
Built-in heart rate: Yes
Weight: 45-47g depending on choice of straps.
Waterproof: 50 metres
Multi-sport: Yes

The first smartwatch from Fitbit, the Ionic is really built for all-round fitness but there are more than enough running features to make it a solid choice for runners. The blocky design won’t be to everyone’s taste and though you can switch up the straps, this isn’t the most comfortable watch to wear particularly for long periods.

However, with a multiday battery life, reliable GPS, wrist-based heart rate, built-in music storage and personalised voice-coaching, there’s still plenty to recommend it. The accuracy of the optical heart rate is on a par with Garmin and Polar’s optical wrist-based HR trackers and the bright, crisp, hi-res colour touchscreen is one of the best we’ve seen. It’s really easy to read on the move in all conditions.

When you team up the Ionic with the Fitbit Coach App it really comes to life though,  and you can unlock a range of expert-led running audio workouts for the treadmill and outdoor runs, all designed to improve endurance, speed, and form. Many of these come with useful videos to guide you through the drills.  

If you’re running for general fitness, there’s an excellent personalised and colour-coded cardio fitness score that helps you monitor your cardio progress and compare yourself to those in your age group. Another highlight is Run Detect, which lets you start a session without pressing any buttons, and automatically registers your run.

Sleep-tracking is a little more detailed than on some watches with light, deep and REM sleep stages all detected to build a more useful picture of your sleep efficiency. There’s an Ionic Adidas Edition too at the same price, the main differences being the a custom strap and an Adidas watch face.

Buy now

Garmin Forerunner 935: £440, Garmin

Battery life: 24 hours in GPS mode or up 50 hours in UltraTrac mode with wrist-based heart rate.
Built-in heart rate: Yes
Weight: 49g
Waterproof: 50 metres
Multi-sport: Yes

Hands down the most fully featured running watch you can buy, the Forerunner 935 is built for people who are very serious about their sport – and have the budget to go chasing those marginal gains.

A step up from the Forerunner 645, there’s not much this multi-talented, multi-sport watch can’t do, though if you want to stream music you’ll need to look elsewhere

The list of run data the 935 tracks is extraordinary, particularly if you pair it with a Garmin Run HRM chest strap or Garmin’s Running Dynamics Footpod. In-run you get real-time insights into vital efficiency metrics such as cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time and ground contact balance. The 935 will also tell your current performance condition, a great way to see if you’re running below par on given day. Add a whole host of post-run feedback on training effect, training load and recovery time recommendations and this as close as you get to having a running coach on your wrist.

The GPS is fast and highly accurate, the built in optical heart-ate monitor responds fantastically in real-time to changes of pace and intensity but the standout feature is the battery life. This is one of the few watches that’ll cope with ultra runs, easily running for up to 24 hours in GPS mode or double that if you’re willing to sacrifice some distance accuracy for longevity in UltraTrac mode.

Even though it’s a little chunkier than the other watches on this list, it’s actually one of the more comfortable to wear. The screen is easy to read outdoors in all conditions and though there’s no touchscreen the five side buttons make it easy to use on the run.   

There’s excellent customisation for in-run screens and alerts, so you can tailor what you see and your audio and vibrating reminders to your training needs. We also loved being able to create bespoke interval sessions on the watch itself and the Garmin Connect app is among the best on test.

Buy now

Verdict: Men's running watches

If you’re serious about improving your running, and you’ve got the budget to back up your ambition, the Garmin Forerunner 645 is hard to beat. Stylish, lightweight and with an incredible suite of running and performance features, plus smartwatch and activity tracking skills, it’s strides ahead of the competition.   

For those looking to keep things a little more simple or on a tighter budget, the Polar M430 offers, bang for buck, the best run-tracking. It’s uncomplicated yet insightful and a perfect option for anyone looking to steadily improve their running fitness.

Finally, if what you’re really after is a smartwatch with running skills, and you’re happy to run with your phone, sub-£200 the Fitbit Versa is well worth a look. Though it’s not as capable as the Apple Watch or its sibling the Ionic, it does have style, features and a killer battery life that make it a compelling consideration for the price tag.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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