The Best Running Watches: GPS and More, On Your Wrist
Advancing technology has made just about every facet of our lives easier, and serious runners in particular have a lot to be thankful for. Gone are the days of planning out a jogging route on a paper map, trying to estimate the total distance and guess at what the terrain and elevation will be like. In fact, almost gone are the days of carting around your smartphone while you run, either holding it uncomfortably in your sweaty hands or wearing it on an awkward arm band – enter the running watches!
There are several dozen running watches on the market today, and they all do a whole lot more than time your jog. They’re well-appointed wrist computers that track all of your fitness details. Some can even run a playlist while you go; pair one with a pair of BlueTooth headphones, and you can head down the road or trail wire free. Of course, some running watches are better gear than others.
Here are the ones we like the best.
Running Watches With GPS
A GPS sensor chip is what separates the dedicated running watches from the ordinary fitness trackers, and having one is a huge stride forward for running enthusiasts.
Whether you’re on the road or on the trails, an on-board GPS provides the most accurate location and distance information. Of course, this advancement comes with a cost: GPS-enabled running watches, while on the whole superior to non-GPS models, tend to cost considerably more than their lesser counterparts.
If you run just for the fun of it, or if you’re more interested in other data like your time, your heart rate, or other vitals, you may not find the extra cost of a GPS worth it.
However, if you, like many runners, prefer to keep close tabs on your distance and times, having an on-board GPS is invaluable, and purchasing a running watch with GPS is an investment in achieving your personal athletic goals.
Check out these models.
1. TomTom Runner Cardio
It’s no surprise that an industry leader in navigation products makes a great GPS-enabled running watch. TomTom’s Runner Cardio is a real powerhouse. It uses TomTom’s QuickGPSFix technology to accurately and (as the name implies) quickly establish location and distance.
The user experience is fairly simple and straightforward, with intuitive menus the TomTom Runner Cardio is one of the best running trackers on the market. It’s got a built-in heart monitor so you can really track your performance, and to see your progress, it syncs with the free TomTom MySports app (which is available for both iOS and Android). Plus, it’s a great looking device that you’ll gladly wear on your wrist.
The only downside? It’s not cheap, retailing for £219.
If you’re set on a TomTom but don’t have that kind of cash on hand, you might check out the simpler but still GPS-enabled TomTom Runner for just £99.
You won’t get the heart monitor on that model, but if you want to spend a bit more — say, £159 — you can get the Runner with a separate heart rate monitor.
2. Garmin Forerunner 620
If you’re in the market for the Rolls Royce of all GPS running watches, say hello to the Garmin Forerunner 620. It’s definitely at the high end of the cost spectrum, with a retail price of £359, but as far as features go, there’s very little this watch can’t do. It’s got the GPS, the heart rate monitor, and a full colour touch screen display.
It tracks everything:
- and even recovery.
If you want to add on a separate monitor for £79, you’ll get all sorts of details about your cadence, ground contact time, and more. Plus, it automatically uploads all of your data to Garmin Connect so you can see your progress and share it via social media.
About the only thing the Forerunner 620 won’t do is sync with your music; you’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a deal breaker.
Or, for a less robust Forerunner at a less robust price, you might consider the 220 Forerunner model, which retails for £249 but can often be found for under £200.
The 220 doesn’t offer the same recovery information, and there’s no heart rate monitor, but it’s still GPS enabled and has the sleek touch screen interface.
3. Garmin Vivoactive
This one is part smartwatch, part fitness tracker, and all class. It’s a running and sports watch that’s designed to be worn all day.
When you’re at rest or at work, it syncs with your smartphone to give you alerts, notifications, reminders, and messages. But, when you’re ready to move, the Garmin Vivoactive is ready to move with you. You can track all the details of your run on its colour touch screen, but you can also use it for golfing, biking, and even swimming.
There are two models: the standard one, which retails for £199, or the heart rate monitor-enabled one, which goes for £229. It’s great to have the option and pay for the heart rate monitor only if you want it.
Whichever model you choose, the Vivoactive is a sleek, low profile, highly functional running watch/smartwatch hybrid that is well worth your attention.
4. Fitbit Surge
Fitbit bills its Surge model as “the ultimate fitness super watch,” and that’s pretty accurate. This is the running watch at the very top of their tracker line, and a GPS sensor chip is just the start of what this slim, lightweight wristlet can do.
It’s got a built-in heart rate monitor, and it can track so much more than running:
- and more.
A big standout of the Surge is that, unlike a lot of other running watches, you have the ability to control your music with just a few taps on your wrist. When synced with the corresponding app, you have access to graphical readouts of your progress so you can see what you’ve done and set realistic goals.
The Fitbit Surge retails for £199 — very comparable to other running watches with similar features. However, the low profile and sleek, unassuming aesthetic of the Surge makes it perfect for all day (and all night) wear.
It’s not quite a smartwatch, but it’s a quality, feature-rich running watch that you may never take off.
5. Polar V800
Designed for extremely serious runners who are not afraid to drop some serious cash on training gear, the Polar V800 feels less like a running watch and more like a professional training tool.
Not only is it perfect for runners who are looking to push themselves further, but it’s also ideal for triathletes, as it can track cycling and swimming as well. (It’s waterproof up to 30m.)
When paired with the free Polar Flow app, you’ve got a full smart coaching kit that can help you analyse what you’ve done, plan what you’ll do, and even give you some helpful pointers.
The V800 retails for £399, though it’s easy enough to find one for under £300. If you’re really devoted to your running, you may want a few accessories to go with it, like a chest strap for the most accurate heart rate monitoring (which will set you back about £50) or a cadence sensor (for about £35). This is not an inexpensive device by any means.
If you like what Polar has to offer but want a GPS running watch that’s a bit less costly, check out their RC3GPS HR running watch, which retails for £249 and can often be found for under £200.
6. Suunto Ambit3 Sport Running Watch
In the GPS running watch market, biggest isn’t always greatest, and we have the Suunto Ambit3 Sport to substantiate that. The watch is generally small and not that feature-rich, but this size and simplicity is what actually makes it appealing to so many people. You would agree with me that most of the features found in other more versatile GPS running watches and omitted in the Ambit3 are those that very few outdoor athletes will actually need. To put it simply, the watch offers all the necessary features and nothing more.
The running watch sports the all-important GPS feature, which blends awesomely with the time instrumentation to communicate speed, distance, time, laps and general performance in the most accurate manner possible. Its customised apps, on top of that, offer an array of algorithms to interpret these raw data into clear figures and numerals, while a built-in Bluetooth antenna facilitates for wireless communication with a number of aftermarket sensors. You can find it retailing for less than £200 and tt’s really worth a try.
7. Nike+ Sportwatch GPS
Thanks to its versatility and performance, the Nike+ Sportwatch GPS belongs at the top of the pie, and there should be no discussion about it. Though not as sophisticated as some other products on this list, Nike got it spot-on with this running watch’s reliability, accuracy, ease of use and every other aspect that would matter to a runner. It’s simply a joy using this device. No unnecessary complexity has been attached to the interface, and the options are few and useful. This simplicity, together with Nike’s world-class user-friendly branding makes a very-easy-to-use watch and the ultimate choice of a dedicated runner.
As a standout feature, a USB plug is integrated into the watch to all but set the pace for competitors. No one fancies the encounter with cords in this century anymore, and leaving out one cord in the mix was a very huge, clever and appreciated move by Nike.
Secondly, in what seems like a mission to build an entire tracking infrastructure and community, the Sportwatch works in sync with other Nike Devices such as the Nike+ Fuel Band to monitor and record runs and workout stats, much to the joy of loyal consumers of Nike products. The information from Fuel Band is then calculated and summed up in the Nike+ website to give you a long-term record of your day-to-day progress. And that’s the future!
8. New Balance NX980 GPS Trainer
Though New Balance neglected one or two important features (such as a clear display), considerable thought and design was put and the GPS Trainer is on the whole an excellent effort. Its instrumentation is reliable, the body is solid, and its features are few and simple but effective and enough for an average outdoor athlete. Everything about this GPS running watch is beautiful except its inability to save data externally and lack of a button lock.
Perhaps the GPS Trainer’s greatest upside is its price. If you’re operating on a tight budget, the running watch can save you a whole £100 and still have you enjoying heart rate monitoring and other features you would expect to find in more expensive options.
From an accuracy angle, the NX980 GPS Trainer is at the top there with the Nike+ Sportwatch and the Garmin Forerunner. Its durability and efficiency also seem well worked on, and some short term failures common with these kinds of products such as data integrity are addressed.
It’s not the biggest nor the smallest, the best nor the worst, but the GPS Trainer is a force the running watch market should be aware of and learn to deal with because it delivers… affordably.
Running Watches Without GPS
If a running watch doesn’t have built-in GPS, is it really a running watch? Ultimately, that’s up to the user to decide.
What we know is that while these fitness watches may not be right for serious runners who are training for a marathon (or even a half marathon), they are high quality, budget friendly fitness trackers that will give you a lot of data about your physical activity.
They’re actually more multi-purpose than the high end GPS running watches, and each one has its own list of helpful features. Plus, they’re more beefed up than ordinary lower cost fitness trackers.
If you’re a casual runner who’s looking for a high performance tracker that will do more than simply tell you your route and distance, we’d recommend giving one of these devices a try.
9. Garmin Vivosmart
While it’s a bit disconcerting that a product from a navigational equipment company does not have a built-in GPS, the Garmin Vivosmart is still an impressive wristband.
We hesitate to call it a full-on running watch, as its aesthetics and its functionality don’t measure up to the products mentioned earlier in this article. Still, if you’re a more casual runner and you want a high quality fitness tracker that doubles as a smartphone satellite (the Vivosmart can display alerts, notifications, and messages), this is a good one to consider.
Its activity tracking is good, its clean aesthetics are better, and for £139, the Vivosmart is a solid investment in your running hobby and overall health.
10. Mio Fuse
Talk about sleek: this slim wristlet not only looks great, but it has a heart rate monitor that is, Mio claims, just as accurate as a chest strap. It tracks all of your activity — workouts and otherwise — and logs it in the Mio GO app so you can train smarter.
Like the other trackers by Mio, this one has no GPS, but it still provides all of the details that weekend workout warriors will appreciate: distance, speed, pace, calories burned, and of course, full heart data. The price is right, too: £129.
11. Basis Peak
An update of the extremely popular Basis Carbon Steel sports watch, the Peak is a high end fitness tracker with an accurate heart rate monitor built right in.
Interacting with it is easy, as it’s got a touch screen display, and it will track everything you’d expect from a high quality tracker: all of your activity data, and all of your sleep details. It can also automatically if you’re running, walking, or biking.
Now that’s smart!
The only potential drawback is that it must sync with a smartphone or tablet to work. However, if you’re reading this, you probably have one. And, it transmits all of your information to the Basis app so that you can see your patterns and make improvements. At £169, it’s nearly as much as a GPS running watch, but you still get quite a lot for the price.
GPS Compatible Running Watches
The following selection was initially called “Running Watches sort of with GPS”. Yes, sort of.
It’s hard to categorise the following watch because while it is GPS compatible, it doesn’t have its own GPS sensor chip.
What we do know is that it’s a good, rugged running watch at a good price. It will give you the same route and distance details as the more expensive models mentioned above — it just does it in a slightly roundabout way.
12. Runtastic Orbit
This running watch syncs with the GPS on your phone to provide you with distance information. You get the running data you need without having to pay for a device with a built in GPS sensor chip: the Runtastic Orbit retails for just £99 (and can often be found for a bit less).
However, this means that you have to have your phone on you when you go for a run. If you use your phone for motivational music, then this is not a big deal, but if you don’t, you now have one more thing to carry.
On the upside, the Runtastic Orbit is fully waterproof, so you can swim with it. It offers all of the usual fitness tracker stuff, but it does not have a built-in heart rate monitor. However, for the price, this is a great compromise between a fully-appointed GPS running watch and a basic fitness tracker.
Is it for serious runners? Probably not. But for hobby runners, as well as runners on a tight budget, the Runtastic Orbit is a solid choice.
Best Running Watch of the Future
13. The Apple Smart Watch
We predict that in just a few years, the Apple Watch will trump all of these devices as the best running watch on the market. We just can’t put it on this list now.
Because the first generation Apple Watch has, much to the frustration of runners everywhere, no GPS!
However, we feel like this is a feature that Apple will add in future generations. Think about it: the first iteration of the iPad didn’t have any cameras on it. Sounds crazy, right? We’re guessing that the first Apple Watch is lacking features that Apple will build into future versions.
Within a few years — say, by the third generation — the Apple Watch should have onboard GPS, either standard or as an option. That, plus all of the other advantages that the Apple Watch affords, will make it the best running watch on the market.
But who knows — something else may come along between now and then that’s even better.
Competition on the Running Watches Market
The running watch business is booming. Everyone is trying to come up with a better device to oust their rival. Manufacturers are sweating blood to give everything to the athlete (except the ability to run of course) through their small devices. It’s becoming a crowded market, and sure the competition is tight, to the athlete’s advantage. Even shoe makers are taking a crack at getting something from the ever growing demand for fitness trackers and running watches. (I don’t mean to mention names, but New Balance is primarily a shoe manufacturer in case you forgot.)
They are becoming a must-have for every sportsman, every runner, just like track suits and snickers, and everyone is aiming at getting the best running watch there is on the market.
But Are Running Watches All That Important Really?
Yes they are. They really are, especially for dedicated runners and pro athletes. These things have been shown to better performances incredibly. With built-in GPS in almost every new product coming out, runners – who’ve been the first to adopt this technology – can now easily record:
- distance covered
- and other aspects of performance
and use data from previous runs to monitor their progress and try to improve on their performances.
Even the need for a third party during training, which was paramount to pro athletes some time back, is growing unnecessary. They can now go jogging without having to alert anyone to jog along and record some stats for them. There is simply a lot of beauty in these devices.
Battery dying too fast
Taking a look at the flipside, there is nothing much to talk about, especially concerning the market as a whole. You might need to single out specific devices to spot weaknesses. There is one shared downside that we can’t go without mentioning, though, and that’s battery life. Most of these running watches can only run for ten hours at most without requiring charge, and that’s a point of concern for athletes who hold long away-from-home training sessions. If only manufacturers could improve on this aspect, then athletes could as well bank on these devices as their ultimate assistants.
Fitness Tracker Vs Running Watch
There have been unending online debates over which between fitness trackers and running watches are a better option for athletes, and looking at most reviews and comments, you would almost concur that there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the subject.
Well, it all depends on why you would need any of these devices. As far as we are concerned these are two, though similar, very different things. For athletics, you have everything you need in a running watch, at an affordable cost. But if you’re doing workouts for general body fitness or want to track your general activity, then a fitness tracker would be of greater importance because, of course, of the heart rate monitoring, body temperature measurement etc., which are vital aspects of fitness programs.
However, if we had to present these two devices on a level platform, all factors constant, fitness trackers would probably take the crown. There is a lot of versatility and efficiency in them. Many of them also have touch screens, have a bigger memory, have better display, boast longer battery life and have everything the best running watch can offer. So which one between a fitness tracker and a running watch? You know your objective and budget more than anyone.
Which Running Watch Is For You?
You’ve basically got two options: a serious running watch with built-in GPS, or more of a GPS-less fitness tracker that gives you good but ultimately incomplete data about your activity. How dedicated you are to your training will greatly influence your decision, as will your budget.
However, no matter what you choose, we feel like you can’t go wrong with any of the options on this list. They’re all quality devices by well-regarded manufacturers that will keep you well informed about your running and your overall health.