8 best running watches for everyone from beginners to ultra marathon runners
Long gone is the humble pedometer. Here is the tech-packed wristwear you need to keep on track with your fitness goals
The GPS running watch has a place on the wrist of every type and ability of runner – from those just starting out around the local park, to those tackling a half or full marathon perhaps looking for a PB, right through to extreme runners tackling a 250km+ ultra marathon across a desert.
When deciding on which watch is best for you, consider what you’re looking to get out of it. For example, do you need those more in depth analytics and metrics such as power, cadence, recovery and training status?
For some [insert training geeks here] these will for sure be great, however for the vast majority of us, all we really need is distance covered, time pace and heart rate.
For those who have had running watches before, it’s highly likely you’ll have a loyalty to one brand in particular – for reasons such as the arrangement and flow of menus, button commands, data screen layouts, the way alerts manifest themselves, the strap design etc.
However when it gets to that time, say every 2-5 years, when you’re having a think about upgrading, don’t rule out looking at one of the other brands – consider your options. We have put together our top selection of running watches – each and every one listed will serve you very well.
All have built-in optical heart rate monitors – this is a pretty standard feature now, and are really high quality – and a number have numerous additional hardware features at the top more expensive end. There are cheaper options out there, but if you’re in the market for a GPS watch that locates the satellites very quickly, and will then track your run accurately, there is sadly no shortcut on quality.
With cheaper options, you could well have just finished your run before the watch acquires satellite signal – we did experience this with cheaper models – and there’s nothing more frustrating (please note, none of those are listed below!).
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Here is our top selection...
Garmin Forerunner 935: £389.99, Garmin
A running watch that stands on the shoulders of giants, the 935 is Garmin’s 29th release in the Forerunner series (its line specifically for runners and triathletes), so it’s no surprise then that this flagship model is the best running watch on the market.
It boasts a great battery life while still being lightweight (49g) and has a very clear colour screen (NB, not touch screen). Its menus are easy to navigate using the annotated buttons, and little touches such as the autolap alert delivers a strong vibration and a backlit few seconds so you can glance at your stats even in the dark (others are more subtle meaning sometimes you’d miss the autolap alert).
As well as being great for running, it has the added bonus of being totally at home with multi-discipline activities such as swimming and cycling – it’s effectively the replacement to the 920XT for those familiar with Garmin watches.
This is a very impressive piece of hardware indeed – built in barometric altimeter, compass, gyroscope, accelerometer and thermometer – perhaps the only let down is Garmin Connect, but then does that really matter? All your data can be auto-synced with the likes of Strava, so we don’t see this as a particular drawback.
Polar Vantage V: £439, Polar
Polar has a very strong heritage in heart rate tech, and this – we think the most striking and good looking watch in this roundup – is equipped with probably the most advanced wrist-based optical monitor of the lot. It’s their flagship watch aimed at both running specific and multi-sport athletes with a host of built in hardware.
The built-in power meter will give you various watt readings, cadence, it’s a neat colour touchscreen that lights automatically when you turn your wrist to see the watch. It must be said, it’s middle of the road on the battery front, it comes in a little heavier at 66g and the button commands take some getting used to, but all in all, once you’ve customised the screens as you like and got used to it, this is a good watch. The brand’s app – Polar Flow – is pretty powerful and intuitive and allows you to delve further into your running stats if you’re into that.
Suunto 9 barro: £449, Suunto
Suunto’s flagship fifth generation GPS watch is a super robust choice that will put up with pretty much anything you can throw at it. If you’re looking for a purebred running watch to get a 10km personal best or marathon time, this probably isn’t the one – it’s heavier at 72g and has the less in depth running hardware of say, Garmin.
That’s not to say it’s not a good training and adventure aide, far from it. As a long distance challenge companion or daily lifestyle type watch; it will be great. It has a huge battery life (this is the main difference between this and the Spartan Ultra), if you’ll be uploading routes and navigating from your watch it’s a great for this and has a big touch colour display. Suunto’s app is probably the best of all the brand’s own in house apps. Oh, and it looks really cool, particularly in the more garish white or lime colours.
Garmin Forerunner 235: £199.99, Garmin
If you’re looking for the essence of a running watch, this is it – the perfect balance between price and functionality. If you go lower in the Garmin range, there is a noticeable drop in quality and reliability, and the 235 is the marker at which you have yourself a brilliantly executed piece of kit, tracking all those essential stats such as distance, pace, time, heart rate, cadence and training zones.
It’s really lightweight at 42g, so great for those PBs as it sits relatively unnoticed on your wrist. Not unsurprisingly, the battery life is less than the heavier Forerunner 935, but it’s perfectly sufficient for a typical week of training runs.
Polar Vantage M: £249, Polar
The Vantage M pulls in most of the latest tech Polar has to offer into a more affordable and lightweight (just 45g) package. It’s the next model down from the top of the range Vantage V, yet the only things you might miss are the built in power meter (but would you use that really?), a little extra battery life, and not being able to upload routes for navigation (from GPX files for example).
You’ve still got their accurate optical heart rate monitor and heart rate training zones, cadence, and a host of other metrics to analyse your training via the Polar Flow app.
FitBit Ionic: £279.99, FitBit
FitBit practically invented the now huge activity tracker segment and our obsession with counting steps, but with the Ionic we see a shift away from this into the smartwatch and sport specific space. Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t a watch that serious runners will be considering, but for many the Ionic will represent the perfect balance between meeting the less onerous demands of most amateur runners while being perfect for everyday life, plus the usual activity tracking benefits of a FitBit.
It can load numerous apps such as ApplePay and Shazam, and its running settings are simple but all most of us really need; distance, time, pace and heart rate. It’s very well built – a aluminium build – is very comfortable and features a full colour hi-res touch screen that’s also nice and bright.
Coros Apex: £269.99, Amazon
If you’re a fan of the Suunto 9 but perhaps don’t have the more top end budget required, you should have a serious think about this comparable option. Making its watch debut in 2018, Coros is the new kid on the block, however its built credibility very quickly, and with its latest release, the Apex, it’s a real consideration.
Its stand out feature is the whopping battery life – up to 30 days in regular watch use and up to 35 hours of battery life in full GPS/HR mode – and navigation is simple via two buttons to navigate through menus and data screens. It comes in either a 42mm or 46mm version, has a titanium case with sapphire crystal glass screen and is crammed with the usual top end hardware – barometric altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope and compass – so you’ll be served up all the rich training data you can consume.
Apple Watch Nike+: £429, Apple
You won’t be in anyway surprised to hear – the fourth iteration of Apple Watch is a very neat piece of product design and quite formidable. Its aluminium case is extremely tactile, and this special Nike+ version is aimed at the tech lover who has a penchant for running. In a similar way to the FitBit Ionic, running stats are more on the basic side – we’re talking distance, pace, heart rate – but again, really this is all the more casual runner will probably want.
Where it does stand quite clearly apart from anyway other watch is that it has an inbuilt electrical heart sensor (as well as optical) so readings will be a lot more accurate.
One drawback is that, assuming you’ll end up using the amazing added functionality such as phone, texts, Apple Pay, CityMapper, Shazam etc, you’ll only really get one day from a full battery, so you’ll be charging it – along with your phone – every night.
The verdict: GPS running watches
If you’re on more of a budget but are a keen and regular runner looking for a piece of kit that has pretty much all the top end functionality, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is your best bet, followed shortly by the Polar Vantage M.
For a running watch that doubles up for daily wear, activity and sleep tracking, the FitBit Ionic is a very well made and great option. But if you’re more of a rugged outdoors type, navigating from your watch, and doing long distance events, the Suunto 9 will be for you.
If however you’re able to invest a slightly larger sum of money, and want something that’ll serve you very well for years to come – and still be totally relevant if you end up doing more swimming or biking – the Garmin Forerunner 935 is your option. With the knowledge and experience Garmin has learned from over the years, it’s no surprise they’re number one.
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