8 best running watches: GPS wristwear for tracking your workouts

The world of running watches can be big, confusing, bewildering and annoying. Especially when, all you want to do is slap something on your wrist so that you can actually get on with the miles.

There’s a whole array of watches to choose from. Starting with the very simple ones that offer limited tracking features, to those that aim to track your whole physical and digital life. The latter models tend to offer up-to-date metrics on everything, from how much water you’ve drunk to how fast your heart is beating.

But, the central job of a running watch is to, well, watch you run. They usually include both a GPS tracker and a heart-rate monitor, so that you can gather all the information you need. Plus, you can use the tech or its associated apps to check you’re training the right amount and see whether that work is paying off by making you faster.

Many running watches offer much more than that, too: from health features that tell you how tired you are to broader smartwatch ones such as the option to message friends.

But the products on this list have been chosen on the basis of their performance as tools for runners specifically.

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Here’s a rundown of the best, whether you’re just starting out on your couch to 5k journey, training for that next marathon personal best, or, like us, are interested in improving your times with the aid of the reams of data a watch like this can provide.

The best running watches for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Garmin forerunner 945: £499, Wiggle.co.uk
  • Best for pacing – Garmin forerunner 245: £224, Wiggle.co.uk
  • Best for navigation – Wahoo elemnt rival MultiSport GPS Watch: £349.99, Wiggle.co.uk
  • Best for GPS accuracy – Apple Watch Series 6 GPS, 40mm: £379, Apple.com
  • Best budget Apple product– Apple Watch SE GPS, 40mm: £269, Apple.com
  • Best for beginners – Fitbit Versa 3: £199, Currys.co.uk
  • Best for under £200 – Coros pace 2: £179.99, Wiggle.co.uk
  • Best for under £100 – Whoop strap: From £18 per month, Whoop.com

Garmin forerunner 945

Best: Overall

  • Battery life: 10 hours in in GPS mode, up to two weeks in smartwatch mode
  • Touch screen: No
  • Additional features: Bluetooth, GPS
  • Music storage: Yes
  • Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

The forerunner 945 is the closest you’ll get to the ultimate running watch. It packs just about every running-focused technology Garmin has into a shell that’s light enough not to weigh you down even on the longest run.

The 945 is fairly expensive, of course, but for that price you get premium design and top-level features. For your money you’ll get: your music synced to your watch; an almost befuddling amount of metrics on both your workout performance and your all-round health; full maps to plot out your long runs and adventures; a battery life that will last longer than you do; and top safety tracking features.

Garmin does offer a range of other options within its forerunner line-up (from £159.99, Garmin.com) that may better suit those on a lower budget. But, for serious runners and marathon lovers, you really can’t go wrong here.

Garmin forerunner 245

Best: For pacing

  • Battery life: Up to 7 days in smartwatch mode, up to 24 hours in GPS mode
  • Touch screen: No
  • Additional features: Bluetooth, 64MB storage, safety and tracking feature, waterproof
  • Music storage: No
  • Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

Some cheaper running watches skimp on accuracy or build in a way that can be downright stressful when running. Whatever price you pay, you deserve to have a watch that will accurately track a run and survive any knocks it picks up while you’re out – because if it won’t, then there’s hardly any point in wearing one at all.

The 245 doesn’t do that. It has a lower price largely because it is lacking in features, rather than performance, but you still get access to Garmin’s very good GPS tracking and many of its running tools. You get your route and heart rate plotted when you get back from your run, and safety features that ensure you’re safe while you’re on it. If you wear it beyond your training sessions, you’ll get info on how your heart rate varies across the day.

It’s worth opting for the music version of the 245 (£299.99, Wiggle.co.uk) if that extra functionality appeals to you. Only that model can sync music for listening – otherwise, you’ll have to use your phone for tunes on the go.

Wahoo elemnt rival

Best: For navigation

  • Battery life: Up to 14 days
  • Touch screen: No
  • Additional features: Planned workouts and iOS music control
  • Music storage: No
  • Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

Until now, Wahoo has been most associated with its (very good) bike technology, such as its cyclo-computers and turbo trainers. The elemnt rival was released late last year and marks the brand’s first foray off the bike.

The company is still very young, and as such has yet to catch up with the features its more mature counterparts boast. And we think this is more of a triathlon watch than it is a running one – partly due to the fact its standout feature is touchless transitions, meaning it will automatically sense when you move between disciplines. But if you are already in the Wahoo ecosystem from cycling, and want to stay within it for your watch, it’s a great choice. What it’s lacking in features it almost makes up for in its very elegant design.

Apple Watch series 6

Best: For GPS accuracy

  • Battery life: Up to 18 hours
  • Touch screen: Yes
  • Additional features: Sleep and blood oxygen tracking, Swimproof, three months free workouts with Apple Fitness+, fall detection
  • Music storage: Yes
  • Display resolution: 324 x 394 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

The Apple Watch is the smartest smartwatch there is, both in terms of its vast array of apps and features as well as its looks, which are far more customisable than any other major wearable. It also happens to be a really great fitness watch. And because it takes advantage of all the smarts in your iPhone as well as the Watch itself, it’s a great way of tracking every exercise, alongside the details of the rest of your life.

Its run-tracking features are somewhat limited – it can’t, for example, let you follow a track on a map, and the information it gives you during a run is fairly minimal. It also suffers from a relatively short battery life, which lasts long enough for a marathon, but no longer.

It’s still a great product though, with a really exceptional heart-rate monitor and very accurate GPS. Its regular reminders to stay active work great, especially if you’re just getting into running or any other kind of exercise.

Apple Watch SE

Best: Budget Apple product

  • Battery life: Up to 18 hours
  • Touch screen: Yes
  • Additional features: Take calls and reply to texts, swim-proof, track underwater activity
  • Music storage: Yes
  • Display resolution: 394 × 324 pixels or 448 × 368 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

If you only want your Apple Watch for running and don’t want to spend the full price to get the latest version, then the Apple Watch SE offers more than enough for tracking your outings. It costs less because it is lacking in many of the big features of its premium sibling: you’ll miss out on its blood oxygen tracking, always-on display and ECG monitoring, and it has a number of other performance downgrades.

But, it’s just as good at actually tracking your runs. Or almost, since the heart-rate sensor and GPS technology are slightly less precise, but the difference is likely to be imperceptible. So, if you want to get running and do it within the Apple ecosystem without spending the full price of a top-of-the-range Apple Watch, the SE is exactly the wearable you need.

Fitbit versa 3

Best: For beginners

  • Battery life: 6 days
  • Touch screen: Yes
  • Additional features: Contactless payments via FitBit Pay, voice control, guided breathing sessions
  • Music storage: No
  • Display resolution: 336 x 336 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

There’s a reason Fitbit is practically synonymous with fitness tracking: it offers a huge range of different bands and watches, all of which are targeted at making sure you keep active and logging just how much you do. But its running options are a little more limited, in large part because many of the brand’s models don’t offer GPS or the big display you’re going to want.

The versa 3, however, is Fitbit’s entry into the runners’ market. It has a chunky screen and decent battery life, alongside integrated GPS and heart-rate sensing. It doesn’t have all the developed training features that some of the other watches in this list do, and you’re less likely to see it on the wrist of a very serious runner. But if you’re particularly keen on a Fitbit, or want something like an Apple Watch but you have an Android phone, then this is among the best you can buy.

Read more: Fitbit Versa 3 vs Fitbit Sense: Which fitness smartwatch is best?

Coros pace 2

Best: For under £200

  • Battery life: 30 hours
  • Touch screen: No
  • Additional features: Thermometer, recommended rest times, free workout programmes available on Coros website
  • Music storage: No
  • Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
  • Water rating: Up to 5ATM

The shocking thing about the Coros pace 2 is its astonishing price – it’s far cheaper than its competitors. Even at only £179.99, it competes with much more premium watches. You’ll still get access to plenty of clever features, it has a light design and a long battery life. It could be a great option if you’re still not sure you fully want to step into the world of running watches – spending hundreds of pounds on something you’re not sure you will use might seem a bit daunting.

Whoop strap

Best: For under £100

  • Battery life: 5 days
  • Touch screen: No
  • Additional features: Measures recovery and sleep, on-the-go charging
  • Music storage: No
  • Display resolution: No display
  • Water rating: Up to 3ATM

One of the most interesting ways of tracking your running isn’t actually a watch at all – but it does strap around your wrist and log how hard you’re working, therefore functioning much like the other models on this list. It’s the Whoop strap, which doesn’t include any kind of screen at all. Instead, all of the information about your running is controlled within the app, including its innovative “strain” gauge that measures how hard you’re taxing your cardiovascular system and encourages you to optimise your activity and rest.

It’s a smart system that offers many of the same advantages of a running watch without the stress of tracking yourself, having endless notifications pushed to your device, or having a glaring big watch on your wrist. But you do, of course, miss out on many of the central features of the more traditional products in this bracket.

The frustrating thing about the Whoop service is that you pay a monthly subscription to get access to the data it collects on you, rather than buying the watch outright. That potentially makes it less of a risk to get into, since the band is cheap, but it also means the cost builds up over time.

Running watches FAQs

How do I choose a running watch?

Choosing a running watch is down to personal preference and there are a few things to consider to make sure you get the one that is best for you:

  • Data tracking – If you want to simply track distance, time, and/or pace, we’d recommend opting for a basic running watch. But, some devices can also monitor things like heart rate, different sports, more advanced running metrics and sleep. Once you decide what you want your watch to do, it’ll be easier to find the best one for you.
  • Third-party apps – If you’re already using an app to track your runs, such as Strava or MapMyRun, you may want to get a watch that is compatible with these apps, so you can leave your phone at home yet still log your workouts.
  • Battery life – Opting for a running watch that has a strong battery life is important so it doesn’t run out of charge halfway through a run.
  • Waterproofing: This isn’t available on all watches.

How much should I spend on a running watch?

This very much depends on how many features you want your watch to have. For a basic running watch, you’re looking at a watch in the region of £190, while the more high-tech options will inevitably set you back more.

Are running watches accurate?

As a general rule, a high-quality running watch will provide a decent level of accuracy. Many runners claim that there’s an error of approximately 1 per cent, making them a great choice.

Which running watches connect to Strava?

The retailers in this round-up, including Apple, Garmin, Fitbit and Coros, let you connect your watch and sync your data to Strava.

The verdict: Running watches

Garmin is the most famous running watch manufacturer, and for good reason. Its products offer reliable run tracking as well as helpful ways of making use of the vast amounts of data that they collect about you. You’re unlikely to be disappointed with whichever member of the forerunner line-up fits your budget, since the whole range is high quality. However, for serious running and marathon training we think that the forerunner 945 is a safe bet.

But – with all the caveats about it only working with an iPhone and more – it’s worth considering an Apple Watch, too, if you want a truly smart watch that also tracks runs.

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Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.