The best running watch is a real step up if you have only used the best fitness trackers before. Not like fitness trackers are anything to be frowned upon nowadays but the GPS-enabled, VO2 max estimating, running coach featuring multisport watches are certainly the pinnacle of fitness wearables.
The best fitness watch, unlike most fitness bands, not only has a range of sensors (heart rate sensor, accelerometer, barometer etc) and built-in GPS, but they also tend to be more accurate, and usually they look better, too. The best running watches, despite their name, have the ability to track way more than just runs. They can track workouts, cycling, swimming, rowing… and loads more.
If you're looking at ways to get fit in 2021 and lose belly fat, using a running watch can come in handy. Running watches track heart rate in real time, on your wrist, and are capable of estimating the calories you burned throughout the day, giving you a clearer picture of your energy needs.
Running watches can also teach you how to run faster by calculating VO2 max levels, cadence and heart rate zones as you run. Some of them, like the top of the range Garmin models, can also be connected to the best heart rate monitors so you can get even more data out of your runs.
What is the best running watch?
First, a few words on the Apple Watch Series 5. Particularly for more casual runners (and gym users, and even cyclists and hikers), the Apple Watch Series 5 will provide all the fitness watch features they need, and it also does a whole range of other things that 'proper' running watches cannot do. However, you will need to charge the watch every day, and this watch is not ideal for proper training, either.
Our favourite running watch at present is the Garmin Forerunner 245 because it represents a good balance between price and functionality and it's versatile enough for runners of all abilities as well as being powerful enough to satisfy stat-hungry semi-pros as well.
Garmin makes more running watches than anyone else and – in our opinion – the best of them are the finest running watches you can buy. Depending on your taste and your budget, you can opt in for the latest and greatest Garmin Forerunner model, the Garmin Forerunner 945 or you can also choose the previous generation and go with the Forerunner 935 if you are on a tighter budget.
For off-road adventures, you can choose the Suunto 9 Baro or the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, both having excellent battery management options also being more rugged, too. For the same reason, they are also a bit heavier than some of the other models on the list. Don't forget to put on your trail running shoes too.
If you have less than £200/$200 to burn, you can get a Fitbit Versa 3; this smartwatch is aimed at more casual users but can track all the key body metrics, as well as being comfortable enough to wear for sleeping. It also has with a great screen. Alternatively, the Polar Ignite is a good entry level fitness watch/fitness tracker with great functions and a decent touch screen.
Talking about Polar: the Ignite might not be the best Polar watch but it's pretty decent nevertheless. Just like the Suunto 7 is not the best Suunto watch but you should buy it anyway as it received a massive update recently.
How to buy the best running watch for your needs
For the record, you don't necessarily need a running watch to log indoor or outdoor activity. You can use your smartphone's GPS to track your geo-location and a heart rate monitor, like the Polar H9, to track the activity itself.
However, running watches provide heart rate sensing and GPS tracking on your wrist and thanks to their screens, you can keep an eye out on all the data in real time. On some models, you can also check the map and your exact position on the watch itself as you run, without having to consult your phone
Probably the best advice when shopping for a sports watch is to buy one that's a bit more advanced than you currently need it to be. If you've literally just hauled yourself off the sofa for the first time in a decade, you might well think you'd rather not know your heart-rate, but in nine months' time, after you mastered the art of how to lose belly fat fast, you may feel very differently. Likewise, if you've been running for a while, you may be heading towards that point where you'll want to know more about your cadence or lactate threshold.
If you're only going to use your watch in the gym, you may be able to get by with just heart-rate tracking and the ability to time intervals. How about cyclists? More casual pedal pushers can make do with GPS and the ability to track time, speed and distance. But as you get more into it, you could be swayed by the ability to link to power meters and the rest of the Lycra warrior's arsenal of ANT+ and Bluetooth paraphernalia.
Using a smartwatch as a dedicated running watch is still not as satisfying as it should be. The Fitbit Ionic is an excellent fitness watch but its smartwatch credentials are limited so far by a lack of apps and an unnecessarily fiddly contactless payment system.
Almost all of these watches sync with their respective mobile apps (Gamin Connect, Polar Flow etc.) and third party apps, like Strava as well. These let you dig deeper into the details, create and download pre-planned coaching lessons and set up goal-specific training plans to help you achieve your running and fitness goals.
Wrist heart rate tracking: what you need to know
A lot of running watches now offer heart rate tracking direct from the wrist. The technology used in the running watches is different from heart rate monitors: the former uses optical sensors which reads pulse using lasers and therefore requires the watch and the sensor to be close to the skin for accurate readings.
Here is our best advice on buying a running watch; you can read reams more about the matter online.
1. When it works, a good, wrist-mounted heart-rate tracker is sufficiently accurate for most users.
2. For daily tracking of your resting and active pulse rate, it is more than adequate.
3. For running, it is broadly speaking fine.
4. For very high-intensity exercise, anything where your muscles are highly tensed and for anyone who just sweats a lot, wrist HR is barely fit for purpose. Moisture causes the light from the tracker to refract, ruining its accuracy and in many cases, stopping it working entirely.
5. In all cases except all-day tracking, a chest strap is a more accurate option. We're not saying those are perfect, but they're more accurate in general.
The best running watches, in order
The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is the ultimate smartphone-free GPS running watch for the price conscious runner. Other multi-sport watches, like the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro or the Polar Vantage V, might provide more metrics, but for the low price point, the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is a more than capable device.
The GPS+GLONASS+Galileo positioning system is quick and accurate, tracking your movement outdoors with high precision. The battery can last up to seven days in smartwatch mode and six hours in GPS mode with music, meaning that you won't have to charge it more than three times in two weeks.
The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music also supports Garmin Coach, an adaptive training guide that can train you up to run a certain distance (5k, 10k or half marathon) within a certain time limit, set by you. The plan adapts to your training load and progression and adjusts it accordingly.
You can check your progress and pore over data from previous activities using the Garmin Connect app. In the app, you can also collect badges for a range of activities, a fun way to stay motivated!
The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is a bit on the light side, though, which is of course great if you use it for running, but you also won't get the sense that you have something substantial wrapped around your wrist.
• Read our full Garmin Forerunner 245 review here
The Garmin Forerunner 945 is a great compromise between top-notch features and price, whilst not being a compromise at all. Many people will say 'but it looks the same as the Forerunner 935' and you know what? They are right. But whilst the Forerunner 945 has retained the look and feel of the Forerunner 935, in the inside, it has been completely revamped.
For starters, it uses Garmin's new Elevate optical heart rate sensor, which is more accurate, even under water, than the 935's sensor. The Forerunner 945 also uses a new GPS chip that manages battery life better and it is more accurate than its predecessor as well.
The Forerunner 935 didn't have any onboard music storage and wasn't Garmin Pay ready either, unlike the Forerunner 945, which is. You won't use any of these features on races, probably, but we can safely assume that you will wear the smartwatch on non-race days, too, where they might come in handy.
The Forerunner 945 also has many of Garmin's latest-gen features, including PulseOx, Live Event Sharing, accident detection and assistance, Body Battery energy monitor, Training Load Focus and many more. Some of these features are more casual than hardcore, but that's okay, if I were Garmin, I would like to make my top-tier products more appealing to everyday users too.
The Garmin Forerunner 945 comes with on-board maps as well. Granted, the 1.2" screen is not as detailed as your smartphone, but if you want to break away from the phone screen for a bit and still want to be able to navigate in the same time, the Garmin Forerunner 945 has got your back.
• Read our Polar Vantage V review
The Polar Vantage V is a peculiar flagship smartwatch. First of all, it most usually retails for less than the likes of Garmin Forerunner 945 or the Suunto 9 Baro which can be a big plus to many people out there. It also has some very unique features which might arouse some runners out there, especially the running power metric, measured on the wrist.
It also looks a bit more like a fashion watch as opposed to a multi-sport smartwatch. The strap colours you can choose from aren't black and even more black, but bright orange, vibrant blue and white. Polar doesn't want you to blend in. They want their watches to stand out and be seen.
There is a lot to love on the Polar Vantage V. It has a large touchscreen display, hidden under Gorilla Glass lens and no less than nine sensors on the back. It uses a GPS+GLONASS tracking system, which doesn't pick the signal up as fast as Garmins, for example, but it does the job just fine.
The battery will last long enough, too, it has enough juice for 40 hours of tracking, so considering average use, you will be able to go between two charges for a good week.
And of course, the Polar Vantage V has all the fitness tracking features you'll ever need, and more, like sleep stage tracking, Nightly Recharge (which shows you how your body was able to recover from stress or training), Serene (guided breathing exercise), steps and activity tracking.
Since it is a Polar watch, the Polar Vantage V focuses a lot on recovery, too, with features like Training Load Pro, which measures cardio, muscle and perceived load, all on the wrist and without any external straps or pods needed.
• Read our full Coros Pace 2 review
The Coros Pace 2 is one of the best running watches that was released in 2020. It might provide less casual features than some Garmins, but the running features on offer here are pretty much spot on. Its predecessor, the Pace was a good watch but the Pace 2 improved on all the key features such as battery life and sensors, and did it without you having to pay the premium.
For us, the best part of the Coros Pace 2 is its screen. It's sharp, it's bright and it is just a joy to look at. The always-on memory LCD screen might be handsome but is doesn't eat away battery power: impressively, the Pace 2 can go for up to 30 hours between two charges in GPS mode. In smartwatch mode it can go well over two weeks without having to charge it.
The Pace 2 gets the basics right but as well as that, it also has a couple of tricks up in its sleeve. For example, it measures running power on the wrist, without any additional sensors required. It also has ABC sensors (accelerometer, barometric altimeter and compass) on board so it can better monitor outdoor conditions and provide you with all the extra data.
According to Coros, the Pace 2 is also the lightest running watch on the market today: it weighs only 29 grams and that includes the nylon band too. And if all this didn't convince you to get the Pace 2, we'll let you know that Coros is now endorsed by the Eliud Kipchoge, the fastest marathon runner in the world. If he likes Coros, we do too.
• Read our Garmin Fenix 6 Pro review
The Garmin Fenix 6 Pro is a great smartwatch for anyone who loves the Great Outdoors and it is especially good for triathletes and trail runners. The Fenix 6 has a multisport mode which makes switching between sport modes as easy as pressing a button.
Garmin managed to improve on the formula that made the Fenix 5 Plus so great, further enhancing the battery life and also tweaking the user interface, which is now way easier to glance over, thanks to the new widget view.
If anything, the Fenix 6 Pro is more rugged than light, but it is far from being too heavy. The Titanium version is 11 grams lighter than the steel version, making it on par with other smartwatches on this list.
The Garmin Fenix 6 Series is not flawless, though. They not only retail for more than many of the watches on this list, but it is also very overpoweredd: it feels more like a demonstration from Garmin of what their technology is capable of than a good set of features runners might appreciate. It's doubtful, for example, that many people will want to use the Garmin Fenix 6 for points-of-interest navigation in urban areas, although the watch is capable of doing just that.
Nevertheless, if you can justify the price – and weight – of the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, you should definitely get one because it just feels great on the wrist and really represents what fitness smartwatches are capable of.
The Suunto 9 Baro is pretty much identical to the Suunto 9, apart from two key factors: the Baro has a barometer – as the name suggests – and also comes with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass at the front. For these two features, you will need to pay around 20% premium, but it'll be worth it.
The Suunto 9 Baro's extra features will be appreciated most by trail runners and hikers who scale mountains and would like to keep track of the altitude gain/loss of their runs. Even better for them, the Suunto 9 Baro features a storm alarm, so you can find shelter in time, or just skip outdoor training altogether, depending on your mood.
The extra features offered by the Suunto 9 Baro don't compromise the excellent battery life, another bonus for people who not only like running in mountains, but also do it for long periods of time each time. We understand that we are talking about a niche market here, but for those, the Suunto 9 Baro is heaven sent.
You start to take running seriously when you finally get a Garmin watch. Sure, many fitness wearables can be used to track activities, but getting a dedicated running watch from 'the' brand is as much of a statement as it is a great tool to improve your running technique. And although we all want to get a Forerunner 945, even we must admit it is a bit overpowered and overpriced for beginner runners.
For them, the Garmin Forerunner 45 would do just fine. This lower mid-range watch from Garmin gets the basics right: it has an optical heart rate sensor, built-in GPS, supports smart notifications and the Garmin Coach feature too. The Forerunner 45 also offers a range of 'casual' features for those who are interested, including stress tracking, 'Body Battery energy monitoring' and general fitness stats as well.
The 1.04" screen has a resolution of 208*208 pixels and it has enough contrast so you can see the stats on it in broad daylight. Garmin's user interface is great as it doesn't try to give you an eyestrain by showing too much information using tiny fonts (looking at you, Suunto 5).
The Garmin Forerunner 45 won't need to be charged every night for sure. The battery will last for roughly a week, maybe more like 4-5 days depending on your GPS tracking activity. The battery charges up rather quickly too, another brownie-point for the Forerunner 45.
As for sport-profiles, the Forerunner 45 has quite a few, even some gym activity ones such as Cardio and Elliptical Training, Stair Stepping, Yoga. These need to be added through the Garmin Connect app. And although the Forerunner 45 is water resistant, it doesn't track water activities but at least you don't have to worry taking a shower in it.
The Garmin Forerunner 645's screen is clear and easy to read, with a button-activated light for darker conditions. The buttons are satisfying to use and it's the watch itself is very lightweight (42g), attractively thing, especially by fitness wearable standards.
The 645 incorporates GPS and wrist heart-rate tracking, which is good for monitoring your resting and all-day rates, if not necessarily ideal for when running or working out, due to the usual wrist HR issues of minor inaccuracy when working properly, and the fact it sometimes loses your pulse entirely. we'd recommend a chest strap for gym exercise or cycling, but for running the wrist system is generally fine.
Having said that, Runners could also consider adding one of Garmin's specialist HRM-Run heart-rate straps. These don't just give much better cardio tracking than the wrist-based system built into the 945, they also incorporate motion sensing that allows tracking of cadence, ground contact time and vertical oscillation. It's arguable how useful that is to most runners, but some will find it of almost obsessive interest. The brand also does waterproof HR straps with built-in data storage, for swimmers and triathletes.
Cyclists can also pair the Forerunner 645 with ANT+ and Bluetooth bike accessories from power meters to Garmin smart lights.
The 645 provides accurate GPS tracking of your runs and cycles, and crunches a lot of data based on your cardiovascular efforts in all forms of exercise. This means it can suggest recovery times, make a decent stab at estimating your VO2 Max, tell you how optimal your training load and lots, lots more.
The Suunto 7 has plenty to offer: a sharp display, plenty of smart functionality, good heart rate sensor and built-in GPS, not to mention the offline maps and the really cool heatmaps.
The controls are slightly confusing at first, the mix of touch and push button operation which – combined with the laggy Wear OS interface – can cause frustration, especially until you get used to the shortcomings of the system.
• Read our Suunto 7 review
On a scale from Garmin Forerunner 945 to Fitbit Versa 2, the Suunto 7 sits closer to the former but still gives the impression that it's the latter on steroids. One thing that pushes the Suunto 7 towards the Fitbit Versa 2 end of the scale is the battery life.
You will be lucky to go two days between two charges, which is not too bad for a Wear OS watch with a huge display, but it is not great compared to running watches like the Suunto 9 (a bit higher above this list) or even the aforementioned Garmin Venu (not on this list) which can last up to five days (it has a smaller display, mind).
The biggest issue with the Suunto 7 is its price; it might be an Apple Watch competitor, but I doubt many people would choose a Suunto over an Apple Watch. Once the price has dropped slightly (watch out for those sweet discounts here at T3!), I will be able to wholeheartedly recommend the Suunto.
With the ability to store more than 300 songs and to detect crunches and other gym workouts, as well as having built-in GPS and pulse tracking, this is the most complete fitness watch Fitbit has ever produced.
The Ionic's heart rate monitor is a bit peculiar. It seems very accurate once you're into more intense activity, but very inaccurate at lower levels, when exercising. The issue with this is that some people like to exercise in the more relaxed, so-called 'fat burning' zone. We're not sure they'll get anywhere with the Ionic, because it is less accurate at that kind of level. For tracking resting/average heart-rate and workouts in the higher cardio/threshold/intense zones the Ionic is good. It's just the area in between where it seems to go haywire.
Fitbit claims 4+ days of battery, although as with every watch on the market, the more you use it on a regular basis, the less time the battery will last. For a running watch that is not bad and for a smartwatch, it's great.
Being a Fitbit, the Ionic also tracks your steps, distance covered, calories burned in one day and how well you've slept. It also tracks how many flights of stairs you’ve walked up, and reminds you to move when you been sitting for too long. This feature is a bit peculiar as it also tracks your movements outdoors. So if you walk or cycle up a hill, that will be logged as climbing stairs. It's handy if you want to know how many flights of stairs a hill is equivalent to.
The Ionic also has personalised coaching workouts that guide you through specific exercises. This could one day be useful, but if you spend too much time looking at the screen of your watch, you won’t execute the drill properly.
The Ionic is water resistant up to 50 meters and will have a go at tracking lengths, distance and time. No wrist heart-rate trackers can work underwater, and the Ionic is no exception.
Finally, to train better and become stronger (or faster), you need rest and recovery. The Fitbit Ionic monitors not just your hours of sleep but also the quality, according to your heart rate activity and your night movements. It then breaks your night down into deep, light and REM sleep, which is pretty advanced.
I like the premise of the Casio GBD-H1000. The Japanese manufacturer tried its best to deliver functional G-SHOCK for runners and included all the sensors the designers could think of: we have an optical heart rate sensor, a magnetic sensor, pressure sensor, thermo sensor and finally, an accelerator included in the rather large body of the GBD-H1000.
You have to love the bulkiness of the GBD-H1000. It might put some runners off to have such a large and heavy – it weighs over 100 grams – running watch wrapped around their skinny wrists but if you decide to pay £379/$399 for a G-SHOCK running watch, you will want it to be seen. The strap is not hinged, though, so if your wrists are actually small, that might make reading heart rate more difficult for the watch. Not like optical heart rate sensors are precise to start with.
The problems start when you want to use the Casio GBD-H1000 for tracking activities. For starters, it is not a multi-sport watch: the GBD-H1000 only tracks runs. Also, although it has built-in GPS, it takes forever for the watch to pick up the signal. What you can do is to start the watch as you go outside and warm up, by the time you've finished with your warm up, the GPS signal should be ready for you.
The other issue is the precision of the optical heart rate sensor, or the lack thereof. The heart rate readings are way off and tightening the watch around the wrist just makes it worse. This in turn screws-up your training load and VO2 max estimation, making those features pretty useless.
On the upside, the Casio Move is a decent app, especially considering it's just been launched. The runs are easy to find and it is really cool that the route is coloured differently based on your heart rate at that point. VO2 max and training status are also clearly displayed.
Maybe a bit further down the line, once the the sensors and the software have been tweaked, the Casio GBD-H1000 will be a good buy for even serious runners, but until then, it will remain the choice of fashion conscious runners who don't mind a bit of inaccuracy.
• Casio G-Shock GBD-H1000 review: a running watch that's maybe a bit too rough around the edges
• Read our Polar Ignite review
The Polar Ignite is a great fitness watch geared towards runners and cyclists alike. It can also give you valuable insight on a range of other activities and even on your sleep.
Thanks to the built-in GPS, there is no need to carry around the phone with you when you go out for a run to be able to track your course. Recording an exercise is as easy as pressing the button on the side and tapping on the icon of the desired activity, doesn't take you more than two seconds.
The Ignite has a continuous heart-rate monitoring function as well. Granted, this isn't the most precise tracker, but none of the wrist-based HR trackers are precise enough to replace your GP, really.
The metrics monitored by the Polar Ignite are more than enough for most serious amateurs, people this fitness watch was designed for. Not only it gives you stats after the exercise has been finished on the watch face, once synchronised with the Polar Flow app, you can analyse your training in even more depth.
You can also track your sleeps with the Polar Ignite. The only issue is – and this is something all fitness trackers have in common – is that wearing a tracker 'snugly' is not comfortable on the long run.
For this price, though, the Polar Ignite is well the investment. Coupled up the with Polar Flow app and the adaptive recommendation system, it can help you immensely to improve your fitness levels.