The world of running watches can be big, confusing, bewildering and annoying, especially when all you want to do is get something on your wrist so that you can actually get on with the miles.
There’s a whole array of watches, from the very simple ones that offer limited tracking features, to those that aim to track your whole physical and digital life by offering up-to-date metrics on everything from how much water you’ve drunk to how fast your heart is beating.
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.
You can then use either the watch or its associated apps on your phone 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.
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.
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Garmin forerunner 945
The forerunner 945 is as close to the ultimate running watch as currently exists: 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.
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.
The 945 is fairly expensive, of course, but for that price you get premium design and top-level features. Garmin does offer a range of other options within its forerunner line-up (from £159.99, Gardmin.com) that may better suit those on a lower budget.
The fenix 6 series (from £529.99, Garmin.com), meanwhile, is the brand’s flagship watch and includes a few more features as well as an outdoors-focused design. The company also recently introduced the enduro (from 699.99, Garmin.com), which is a version of the fenix focused on better battery life, but without the same mapping features. Both are great if you want something a bit more rugged and robust.
Garmin forerunner 245
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.
Garmin also offers the forerunner 745 (£399.99, Wiggle.co.uk), which is somewhere between the 945 and 245 and marks a nice upgrade.
Wahoo elemnt rival
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 the elemnt rival is more of a triathlon watch than it is a running one – this can be seen in 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
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 everything about your running and other 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 exercises.
Apple Watch SE
If you only or mostly 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
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.
Coros pace 2
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, and you’ll get access to plenty of clever features, its 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.
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.
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.
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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