Best Running Watch for Runners, Gym, Cycling and Workouts

June 29, 2019

If your new year's resolution for 2019 involved going from couch to 5km or from 5km to marathon, well done – it's nearly summer and you're clearly still at it. Best get a move on if you're training for this month's London 26-miler, mind. That means you'll want the best running watch to help you further along the road to fitness.

The best running watches are a real step up from most fitness trackers, which tend to be more about tracking steps walked and hours slept, neither of which are going to exactly push you to Olympian heights.

Garmin vívoactive 3 Music, GPS Smartwatch with Music Storage and Built-in Sports Apps

All of these watches pack GPS, for accurate tracking of your run distance and speed, and all either have heart-rate monitors built-in or allow you to pair an external chest strap – do have a read below of my take on wrist heart-rate tracking.

Running watches are all also suitable, to varying degrees, for tracking your prowess in the gym, using the heart rate monitoring to help estimate how many calories you've shed if you're looking to monitor or lose weight.

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Many are also useful as wrist-mounted bike computers, and for hiking and general 'working out'. Perhaps this article should be called the best fitness watch, in fact…

The best watches from brands including Garmin and Fitbit tend to see discounts on a regular basis. We check prices from thousands of retailers every day (okay, our computers do) and that's why here is where you'll find the best prices for the best running watches.

The best running watches, in order

1. Garmin Forerunner 645

The best running watch and also very handy for cycling and gym

Garmin Forerunner 645 Music, GPS Running Watch with Pay Contactless Payments

Reasons to buy
  • Numerous useful running metrics
  • Apps for most fitness activities
  • Quite stylish as such things go
Reasons to avoid
  • Sprawling and occasionally obtuse mobile app

Garmin dominates the running/fitness watch category so totally, it's almost embarrassing for the competition. The most recent addition to their premium line, the Garmin 645 continues to demonstrate why.

The screen is clear and easy to read, with a button-activated light for darker conditions. The buttons are satisfying to use and it's a very lightweight (42g), attractive 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. I'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. 

Garmin Garmin HRM-Run

Garmin Garmin HRM-Run

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. As a result, the app that shows you all this does sprawl somewhat, but you get used to it eventually.

The 645 also counts your steps and stairs climbed, like a fitness band, and more usefully, counts and lets you set targets for your 'intensity minutes' – the amount of time spent doing something more exerting than walking to the shops.

The Garmin 645 is sufficiently attractive that you're able to wear it all the time, so this works really well. The battery life ('7 days general use; 5 hours in GPS mode', which equates to about 4 days of use if you're working out regularly) is more than adequate, though less than some bulkier Garmin watches. It charges quickly, too.

There are also notifications from your preferred messaging services.

Overall, this is narrowly the best Garmin running watch and therefore the best running watch. The only caveat I'd add to that is the shorter battery life may drive some users nuts, so they might be better served with a Forerunner 235 or 935.

You can also get the Garmin 645 Music. Here, the smartwatch features also include, as the name suggests, a music player – so you can leave your phone behind on runs and still use your Power Playlist. This involves either copying MP3s onto the device – how old skool – or, since a recent firmware update, offlining Spotify playlists.

2. Garmin Forerunner 235

The best value of running and fitness watch

Garmin Forerunner 235 - Marsala
Reasons to buy
  • Keenly priced 
  • Enough data for most runners
Reasons to avoid
  • Not as powerful as the 630
  • Usual wrist heart rate caveats
Garmin Forerunner 235 - Marsala (Renewed)

During a run, it tracks speed, distance, and cadence, with the option to share your 'Live Track' with others. 

Afterward, you can look at things like your VO2 Max estimate, calories burned and suggested recovery times. The watch and its app can also give you advanced workouts via voice prompt, a 'race predictor' that suggests how long it'll take you to run 5K, 10K and a marathon. HR zones can be set, too. 

Garmin Forerunner 235

When you’re running at a more demanding pace or a high-intensity interval, you’ll probably look at one or two fields – speed and heart rate, most likely – but the rest can be highly beneficial if you’re coaching yourself or someone else. Do bear in mind that the biggest gains are made not just with data but by feeling your own body during the session, though.

Like the 630, the 235 can track your activities on the bike, but it won’t work as precisely as the triathlon-specific Forerunner 935. It's also water-resistant up to 5 atmospheres

The 235 will store up to 200 hours of activities, and its battery life is about 11 hours when in GPS mode – for most users, that probably equates to five days to a week of use.

The Forerunner 235 is a great mid-range option for people who want more than just pace, distance and time but aren't looking for the more elite-level insights that come with the likes of the Forerunner 630/635 (above) and 935 (below).

3. Garmin Forerunner 935

The best watch for the triathlon. Best fitness watch overall really, but over-specced for most users

Garmin Forerunner 935 Running GPS Unit
Reasons to buy
  • Endlessly versatile
  • Good on land, sea, gym, pool, track
  • Metrics galore
Reasons to avoid
  • Do you need all that?

Built for triathletes, the Forerunner 935 is in many ways the ultimate fitness device to date. Pair it with Garmin's land and water heart-rate straps and you will learn more about your running and swimming than you ever thought possible.

Add its range of bike power meters and sundry other high-end two-wheel accouterments and you have an incredibly powerful bike computer on your wrist.

And then you'll realize you've spent well on the way to a grand. If you want to know your lactate threshold, VO2 Max, stress levels and (via the optional extras) cadence, stride length, ground contact time, oscillation and a whole lot more, look no further.

It's disappointing that even at this price if you insist on sweating, the wrist HR is not really up to it. Access to so many metrics also makes you realize what a damnable mess Garmin's Connect app is. 

However, for the hardcore, triathletes and iron persons, or runners and gym-goers with money to burn, this is the best of the best. 

The only reason it's not at the top of this list is that for most runners and those who are generally serious about their exercise, but aren't triathletes, the Forerunner 630, paired with a chest strap, will be just as useful. 

4. Suunto 9 GPS Watch

Best running watch for long distances and off-road

Suunto 9 Multisport GPS Watch with Baro and Wrist Heart Rate
Reasons to buy
  • Seems very rugged
  • Long battery life
  • Solid cardio info
Reasons to avoid
  • Not many additional insights
  • Chunky as hell

Gosh look, a watch not made by Garmin. This is easiest Suunto's best running watch to date and also handy in the gym if you can live with its manly mega-chunk dimensions.

The selling points here are robust build, excellent GPS, solid cardio tracking and a battery that can last up to 120 hours. Although switching on the Ultra battery mode does sacrifice a bit of GPS accuracy, since the Suunto 9 Baro is aimed at those who run where there are no roads, that seems less important than the sheer longevity.

I wasn't too impressed with the range of training insights on offer from the 9 Baro, but it at least gives what seem like very realistic training effort and recovery time scores. 

It's a very well made watch – it should be, with an RRP over £500 – but if you're used to a Garmin's array of 5 buttons, you will miss the 2 on the left when making the move to Suunto's naturally more fiddly control system.

5. Polar M200 GPS Running Watch

Great value, the purist's running watch

Polar M200 GPS Running Watch White
Reasons to buy
  • Empty List
Reasons to avoid
  • Empty List

One of the latest wearables from hardcore runners' favorite Polar, the Polar 200 fits neatly into the affordable end of the GPS running watches market. The rounded shape isn’t particularly eye-catching on its own, but a choice of searing colors are available as well as standard black or white. You can switch wristbands, too. The end result is pretty ugly, whatever you choose, but at least it's varied.

First and foremost the Polar 200 will, of course, track your running workout so you can see the route afterward together with the total distance, your speed and pace, your heart rate through the optical sensor, calories burned and HR zones. These are enough numbers to look at if you want to train simply, but effectively.

The best thing the M200 has, like other Polar devices, is the Polar Running Programme for your desired event. Once you choose your desired distance –
5k, 10k, half or full marathon) and date, you can sync a progressive program ahead of the event and have it ready to go on your watch. 

The program's available range is from 9 to 14 weeks according to your goal and includes strength, core and mobility exercises. These won’t be as specific as the one you’d have tailored for you by a personal trainer, but for those on a budget, it’s a handy option.

The M200 will also tell you how many steps you’ve walked, how many calories you’ve burned, how many hours of sleep you’ve had, and how well you actually slept, based on your wrist moving throughout the night (a restless night has a lot of movement and a restful one has less). It’s more of an 'interesting' stat rather than one I'd pay much attention to it.

What is the best running watch?

Particularly for more casual runners (and gym users, and even cyclists and hikers), this will be all the running watch they need. It also does a whole range of other things that 'proper' running watches cannot do. However, the need to charge it every day means I generally recommend a dedicated fitness device that has longer battery life. 

So, back to business, and our favorite running watch at present is the Garmin Forerunner 645, closely followed by the Garmin Forerunner 630. These are watches that are versatile enough for runners of all abilities, and powerful enough to satisfy stat-hungry semi-pros. They are a tad pricey.

The 630 does NOT include a built-in pulse reader. That's actually another reason it's our #1: although wrist-mounted heart rate tracking is more convenient, and certainly not a bad thing, we prefer strap-on, chest-mounted heart-rate monitors for their accuracy and reliability.

Garmin makes more running watches than anyone else and, in our opinion, the best of them are the finest running watches you can buy. The Forerunner 935 is the best of all, but could be considered over-specced and over-priced for most people's needs – it's really aimed at triathletes. Off-road, the Suunto 9 Baro is all the watch anyone could possibly need.

How to buy a running watch

Although you could use your phone's GPS and apps such as Strava and Endomondo to track miles run, there's a real benefit to having your real-time stats where you can keep an eye them during your run, which is where watches come in. The ability to track your pulse, 'live', is another huge plus.

Probably the best advice when shopping for a fitness 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 couch for the first time in a decade, you might well think you'd rather not know your heart-rate, but in nine months' time, and several stone lighter, 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. Fitbit's 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.

The latest Apple/Nike collaboration is the best 'proper' smartwatch option so far, with the addition of new sensors such as a barometer and the fact that you no longer need to have your iPhone on you in order to use it. 

The Nike+ app remains more about motivation than stat-tracking, but there's nothing wrong with that. However, it has a much shorter battery life than the dedicated running watches here – no more than a day if you're using it for running, really.  

Almost all of these watches sync with a mobile app and online tracking tools on the desktop. 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.

Prices vary, with some coming in at under £100, though if you're looking for something really useful, expect to spend north of £200. Certain of Garmin's seemingly endless stream of Fenix variants can set you back over a grand if you're feeling flush.

Wrist heart rate tracking: what you need to know

A lot of running watches now offer pulse tracking directly from the wrist. This involves bouncing light off of your veins to detect the rate at which blood is pulsing through them.

This is perfectly sound science, but a slightly controversial area when it comes to fitness. Here is T3's advice on it; 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. For the same reason, it is entirely useless when swimming.
  5. In short, light-based, wrist-mounted, HR tracking either works fine for monitoring your heart rate during exercise – for lower intensity runs where you're not sweating buckets – or it doesn't work at all. There are no half measures.
  6. In all cases except all-day tracking, a chest strap is better. We're not saying those are perfect, but they're better.
  7. Heart rate-based training is largely pointless if you don't know your maximum heart rate and have accurate zones ('fat-burning', aerobic, anaerobic, threshold, etc) set up. It's a fraught area.

These are our favorite running and exercise watches, starting with our pick of the bunch, the Garmin Forerunner 630. The remainder is roughly in order but we've also indicated what type of activity each one is 'best for'.