The best running watches 2020: for beginners, marathons and ultras
UPDATED: From budget GPS watches to high-tech wearables - these are the best running watches.
The best running watches can be just as important to serious runners as a great pair of shoes or even a running coach. That's because most of the best running watches these days double up as wrist-based coaches, helping you to perfect your pacing, boost your fitness and ultimately make you a stronger runner.
However, with products ranging from £50 to nigh on £1,000 the choice can be overwhelming and finding the best running watches for your needs can be tricky. That’s why for the past few months we’ve been clocking the miles with the latest GPS running watches, comparing how each of them performed, to find the best.
The surprise overall best running watch test winner is a relative newcomer, but we chose the Coros Apex for its ability to track performance and display data in a way that is understandable and accessible for amateurs and athletes alike. Price comes into play, too, because for just over £250 you get a multisport watch that punches well above its pay grade.
Old but gold, the Garmin Forerunner 235 was released back in 2015, but it’s testament to the brand’s foresight, future-proof tech – including VO2 max measurements and recovery advice, as well as the regular running metrics – and beginner-friendly design that this remains the best bargain running watch you can buy. The RRP is £199.99, but you can find deals for less that £150.
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The Shortlist: Best running watch
1. Coros Apex
The Coros Apex has a 46mm display and a silicone strap. Optical heart rate sensors provide data relating to stamina, recovery time, VO2 Max, threshold pace and more – accessed via the twist of a dial – and the battery lasts around 35 hours in normal mode.
2. Polar Vantage M
The Polar Vantage M is a lightweight multisport watch capable of tracking 130 sports. Available in a variety of colours, its Polar Precision Prime heart rate tracking provides insight on everything from VO2 Max to sleep quality, and the Training Benefit feature offers feedback immediately after a session.
3. Polar Vantage V
The Polar Vantage V has power tracking and advanced heart rate technology for in-depth training insights. The Recovery Pro feature advises optimum rest times for injury prevention and improved performance. It weighs 66g and the battery lasts for up to 40 hours in training mode.
4. Garmin Forerunner 235
A GPS running watch with Garmin Elevate heart rate technology, the Forerunner 235 tracks daily activity as well as all the essential running metrics. It can receive smart notifications, features customisable watch faces, and widgets which can be downloaded from Connect IQ.
5. Suunto 9
With a FusedSpeed feature to track performance when the GPS signal is lost, up to 120 hours of exercise tracking and a stainless steel case, the Suunto 9 is aimed at trail and ultra runners. It features over 80 sport modes and is water resistant to depths of up to 100m.
6. Garmin Forerunner 645 with music
The Garmin Forerunner 645 has a medium-sized colour display and comes with a silicone strap. Daily smart features and activity tracking are provided, while advanced running metrics such as ground contact time, balance, stride length and vertical ratio are recorded. The watch’s Training Effect, Training Load and Training Status features measure the effectiveness of your weekly routine.
7. Garmin fēnix 6
The new Garmin Fēnix 6 - alongside the 6S and 6X Pro - is the latest top-notch addition to the brand's already gleaming array of offerings. Available in Pro and Sapphire, editions the rugged GPS watch is the ultimate companion for those looking to really invest in a running watch. Featuring a Gorilla® Glass lens, the model also incorporates mapping, music, grade-adjusted pace monitoring and Pulse OX sensors. Available in either stainless steel, titanium or diamond-like carbon (DLC) coated steel depending on your model choice, this really is as goo as it gets in terms of integrated tech.
8. Fitbit Ionic
The Fitbit Ionic is a smartwatch and fitness tracker available in a range of styles and colours. The watch can store and play music, as well as a variety of workouts. Real-time performance stats and personal coaching are displayed on the large, full-colour LCD display.
9. Polar M200
Polar’s M200 running watch is a water-resistant device with heart rate, integrated GPS and 24/7 activity tracking. The 26mm display shows all the basic running metrics including pace, time and heart rate, as well as the amount of time spent in each heart rate training zone. The Polar Flow app goes into more detail about performance and progress.
10. Apple Watch Series 4
The Apple Watch Series 4 is a smartwatch with exercise tracking. It features a large display and up to 18 hours of battery life. As well as pace, distance and time tracking, an optical heart sensor provides information relating to training zones, and the watch notifies you if your heart rate is a cause for concern.
11. Apple Watch Series 5
The brand new wearable from Appl has a built-in compass which shows everything from elevation to latitude and longitude, as well as fall detection, emergency SOS on board and an ‘all-day’ battery life of 18 hours. What we're saying is, it's the perfect option for runners who want a capable tracking device and smartwatch rolled into one.
12. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is a premium multisport watch with smart and music features. Colour TopoActive Europe maps allow for on-screen navigation, while advanced satellite reception is ensured with GPS, GLONASS and Galileo compatibility. Straps are available in silicone, leather or titanium, and the large display is housed in either a stainless steel or titanium case.
Coros might not be a household name (yet), but with the excellent Apex, the US brand has created a watch that can hold its own against the better-known Garmins, Polars and Suuntos of this world – at a fraction of the price. A vast array of data is displayed in a way that’s accessible even to complete beginners, while the slick design and smooth-as-you-like strap help the watch sit unobtrusively on your wrist.
While some other reviews have questioned the accuracy of the watch’s heart rate readings, we had no such issues, and found heart-based features like Stamina and Training Effect genuinely useful performance and recovery aids. If there’s one slight gripe it’s that GPS occasionally takes a while to find where you are, especially in built-up areas, but the watch’s overall ease of use, comfort and training insight make it worth the wait.
The expert's view
How we selected the best running watches to test
As with running shoes, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to running watches. The amateur runner looking to complete their first 5 or 10k is unlikely to need the variety and depth of data required by a competitive athlete, so the vast functionality (and added cost) of certain models would be an unnecessary and wasted expense.
With that in mind, the products featured here represent a range of needs – from the activity and basic running tracking provided by the Fitbit Ionic and Apple Watch to the elevation-measuring excellence of the Suunto 9 and the more advanced athlete-focussed features provided by the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus.
We tested products from a range of manufacturers, with Polar, Garmin, Fitbit, Apple, Suunto and the lesser-known (in the UK at least) Coros all represented.
On the Garmin front, the Forerunner 645 is packed with all the features you would expect (including music) from the market leader in running watches, but its lower price point makes it more of an entry-level option than the high-tech Fenix 5 Plus, which is made for stat-hungry runners who want to analyse their every move.
Polar is the other brand with multiple products up for review, with its Vantage M and Vantage V put through their paces. Like the Fitbit Ionic, the Vantage M comes in at around £200, but unlike the Ionic it promises a whole host of multisport features usually reserved for pricier products – we wanted to test how this cut-price watch compared to the more expensive options.
The Polar Vantage V, on the other hand, boasts power tracking and recovery monitoring features befitting of the most serious, data-driven athletes – but is it worth the hike in price? Alternatively, the Polar M200 comes in at less than £100 (the cheapest watch on test), but does its affordability come at a cost in terms of performance?
The Suunto 9 boasts elevation-tracking excellence and unique GPS technology, so it was selected with trail runners in mind. We tested how it fares in an off-road environment, and whether the considerable outlay is only justifiable if you’re running serious miles.
For many of us Coros will be a new name, but the brand’s Apex watch has been making waves across the pond, not least because it’s a premium multisport watch that costs less than £300. But is that lower price, when compared to the likes of the Fenix 5 Plus and Suunto 9, reflected in reduced performance?
Finally, another US brand (which you may have heard of), Apple, completes the list with its Apple Watch Series 4. There are plenty of fitness trackers out there, but the Apple Watch – along with the Fitbit Ionic – were chosen because running is at the forefront of their designs. Is there any merit in opting for one of these over any of the other products that were designed with running, and only running, in mind?
How we tested the best running watches
Away from all the bells and whistles – altimeters, underwater functionality, route planning and so on – a running watch needs to provide three things:
Firstly, and most importantly, it needs to accurately track the pace at which you run – for most runners, pacing is the primary reason to invest in a watch. Secondly, it needs to be able to go the distance – the most accurate watch in the world is useless if it runs out of battery half an hour into a marathon training run. And thirdly, a running watch should be easy to use, both at home and on the run. When you’re on the move, the last thing you want is to spend half your time trying to read the screen or check the appropriate data – all the metrics you need should be readily accessible.
There are, of course, other factors to take into account. The design and look of the watch is important, especially if you plan on wearing it out and about for everyday fitness tracking. How it feels on your wrist, and whether it’s heavy or lightweight, will also inform its appeal.
When it comes to functionality, the increasing popularity of heart rate (HR) training means most running watches now provide a wrist-based HR measurement, but the accuracy of that reading can vary greatly from product to product, so that needs to be questioned. And, of course, in such a saturated market of fitness wearables, your watch of choice needs to bring something new to the table – a unique and useful selling point that makes it stand out from the crowd.
These devices were tested with all of the above in mind. The products that came out on top bring something genuinely useful to a run – and they do so reliably and without any unnecessary fuss.
The testing process itself took place over a three-week period, with each watch taken for a long run of eight miles or more, as well as a shorter but more intense interval session. To gauge their ease of use while running, every watch’s movement metrics – from cadence to elevation gain – were looked at on the move, with readability and ease of access also taken into account.
Many of the watches shortlisted here boast ‘multisport’ tracking – meaning running is just one of several activities that can be recorded and analysed. For the purposes of this guide, however, these devices were reviewed purely on their ability to add to the act of running – although the availability of everyday fitness tracking and other features runners might use were also taken into account.
Best Running Watch Reviews: The test results
Off-road enthusiasts may prefer the Suunto 9 for its ‘FusedSpeed’ feature, which usefully works out pace when GPS data becomes temporarily unavailable – as is often the case when venturing out on the trail. It also excels at tracking elevation gain/loss, and its incredible battery life (up to 40 hours) will appeal to lovers of long distance running.
Equally, the huge range of multisport features packed into the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus – from open-water swimming to mountain biking – make it hard to beat if you’re looking for a watch that can really do just about everything. Music and smart features are also thrown into the mix, and its built-in mapping and navigation features come into their own when you’re heading off the beaten path. However, at close to £500, its extensive functionality comes at a considerable cost – and a cost most runners simply don’t need to pay when more affordable options, such as the Coros Apex, are available.
Speaking of which, the Coros Apex may be the least well-known of the watches tested, but it came out on top thanks to its accuracy, style and ease of use. In short, when taking the average runner’s needs and ability into account, the Coros Apex is hard to beat. Currently available for well under £300, it also represents fine value for money.
Slightly higher up the price scale sits the Polar Vantage V, which we found notable for contrasting reasons: accuracy issues and outstanding endurance (up to 40 hours). There’s no problem with pacing – although you have to be a bit patient when searching for a GPS signal – but the calorie count is way off. According to the watch, our low-intensity weights session burned 420 calories (around the same as a 5k run), but other watches tested found similar workouts burn off less than half that number.
On the plus side, it is something of a pioneer. It was the first to include in-built power tracking, something usually measured by external accessories. This is a useful feature for runners looking to optimise their training, although those who run purely for fitness are unlikely to get much use out of it. The Vantage V is a perfectly good running watch, but a slightly slow-to-respond interface means that at its current price point (around £350) you’d be better off opting for a more polished Garmin. Something like the Forerunner 645, for example.
Garmin knows how to make quality running watches, and the Forerunner series showcases the very best of the brand’s design and user experience expertise. In short, Garmin knows what runners want, and the Forerunner 645 proves that. The colour screen and uncluttered displays are easy to read even in direct sunlight, while the option of button rather than touchscreen navigation makes for a more practical on-the-run experience (especially if you’re prone to sweaty hands).
For runners looking to fine-tune their form, the Forerunner 645 is on hand to measure cadence, stride length, ground contact time and, if you want to get technical, vertical oscillation (the amount you ‘bounce’) and vertical ratio (a measure of how efficient your running is).
Other useful features include the Training Status tool that tells you whether your training is on track, or whether you need to up the ante or indeed take your foot off the gas to avoid overtraining. It’s worth noting that an extra £50 buys you the music version of the Forerunner 645. However, if that’s an important feature for you we would recommend opting instead for the Apple Watch, which can play Apple Music and generally has better mastery over your tunes.
For less than £200, the Polar Vantage M and Garmin Forerunner 235 are two watches suitable for amateurs and pros alike – with the Forerunner 235 just sealing top spot in the best-value stakes (read on for more on that).
The Vantage M is lightweight, stylish and almost identical to the pricier Vantage V in terms of interface and navigation. It’s lacking some of the higher-specced model’s insight, but you still get big bang for your buck, with features like Training Load Pro – which allows you to see the strain each session is putting on your body – and the progress-tracking Running Index providing genuinely useful benchmarking that any runner can benefit from.
If £100 is your limit, Polar’s M200 is by far your best bet. While less feature-packed than other watches we tested, it still manages to accurately measure HR, elevation and run-to-run progress, while the accompanying Polar Flow app provides a decent amount of additional insight that will be more than enough for most first-timers. Temperamental GPS and a less-than-inspiring design, however, mean the Garmin Forerunner 235 keeps its best value crown
The best running watch overall reviewed:
Coros Apex review, £269.99
In the running world, comfort is king – just as your trainers and apparel need to be as comfy as possible, any tech you wear should go about its business virtually unnoticed. The Coros Apex is the perfect size, shape and feel for running. The silicone strap hugs your wrist, and it’s possible to get a snug fit without any of the stickiness or discomfort that can be caused by bulkier watches.
With just two buttons, on-screen navigation is intuitive: a traditional push button to the bottom right of the screen and a knob on the top right – simply twist it to cycle through the options on display. Not only is this more satisfying than clicking ‘up’ and ‘down’ buttons, it also serves a practical purpose, making it easy to access all the data from your run with one swift twist. And what a lot of data there is.
The crowning jewel of the Coros Apex is undoubtedly the detail it provides for every run. On completion, you get a host of stats across four screens – easily accessed with a twist of the dial – including calories burned and average time per mile/kilometre, but also a more unique set of measurements.
These include a Stamina reading, based on your HR and the intensity of your run, that estimates how much energy you had left in the tank. Based on that, the watch then advises how much time you need to recover before your next session (after a 10k it’s around nine hours).
It’s in the accompanying COROS app, though, that all this data really comes to life. The home screen shows calories burned, time spent expending active energy, exercise time, number of steps and HR, as well as your Training Load (whether you’re under-training, on track, or doing too much), resting HR, VO2 Max score, lactate threshold, threshold pace and stamina level. Crucially, all these stats are accompanied by an information option, which you can click on to get a better understanding of the data you’re reading.
Elsewhere in the app you can access specific runs to see maximum and average readings for cadence, pace, elevation and HR, as well as the percentage of time spent in each HR zone (from one to five).
All this and more is packed into a device that’s considerably cheaper than any other watch with similar levels of analysis and insight. The Coros Apex delivers an array of data to satisfy the most stat-hungry runners, but it displays those potentially complicated metrics in a way that allows even the most amateur of joggers to quickly understand.
The best running watch for value reviewed
Garmin Forerunner 235 review, £199.99
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a rare thing indeed – a piece of tech that’s stood the test of time. Despite being released four years ago, it remains a solid option for runners who want the basic benefits of a running watch without having to break the bank.
At face value, the design is nothing special – it looks a little clunky, and there’s too much plastic to make it stylish, but those are minor gripes that fade in the light of the watch’s precision performance. Distance, pace and time are reliably tracked, and we had no quibbles with the GPS, even when running in urban or wooded areas.
More impressive, though, are the Forerunner 235’s HR insights. Max HR, average HR and resting HR for the past seven days are all a single tap away. Over time these tell you when you need to ease off (if your resting HR is higher than normal) and whether your fitness is improving (if you’re able to maintain a lower average HR when running at the same intensity). Based on your HR readings, the Forerunner 235 also offers a VO2 Max reading – an impressive addition for a low-cost watch and a useful tool for tracking your fitness.
Other useful features include the Recovery Advisor (much like the Coros Apex, this tells you how much recovery time you need after a run) and Training Effort, which utilises the watch’s fine-tuned HR sensor to provide a score, from one to five, after each run.
The lower end of the scale suggests an easier run of low intensity (keep the Training Effort down here for longer endurance-boosting efforts), while fours and fives show that you’re pushing your limits – the sort of high-intensity session that will improve your fitness but can also lead to burnout if you’re in the red too often.
All this data is given more room to breathe in the well-polished Garmin Connect app, and on the watch itself all the metrics are just a tap or two away. If you want a running watch that does the basics brilliantly, you won’t find a better value option than the Forerunner 235.
Comparing the rest on test
When they’re used as running watches, there’s no doubt the Fitbit Ionic and Apple Watch lack the detail of the other products featured here. But for many runners, the depth of data provided by the likes of the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus, the Polar Vantage V and the Suunto 9 simply isn’t necessary. If you’re investing in a device primarily for pacing and general fitness tracking, both these smartwatches represent good options.
And there really isn’t much to choose between the two. Both look great, with slick designs that make them better for everyday wear than some running watches. Both boast waterproof resistance at depths up to 50m and perform exceptionally well – better than all the other watches listed – as all-round activity trackers. There’s also a fresh-out-of-the-box excitement, thanks to their elegant design, touchscreen navigation and immersive set-up experiences.
If you’re looking for one or the other, however, we would opt for the Fitbit Ionic from a performance and pricing perspective. While the Apple Watch’s smart features and Apple Music functionality make it a better smartwatch fit for everyday use, Fitbit built its name as a maker of fitness tech – and that shines through with the superior battery life (four to five days), ease of use and on-the-run accessibility. At around £150 cheaper, it’s also a no-brainer from a cost point of view.
Any running watches to avoid?
While Apple’s device is peerless as a smartwatch, if you’re looking for a running watch there are simply too many other running-specific options that represent far better value for money.
First, though, a nod to the Apple Watch’s major selling point – its compatibility with other Apple products and software. That means you can listen to Apple Music on the run, and sync with your iPhone’s Health app, Maps, Siri and more.
It also does the running basics well – including cadence and an accurate calorie count – and even lets you know whether your HR is a cause for concern. And, of course, its effortlessly cool design makes for a watch that’s as slick as any Apple product. But if you want a running watch, you don’t need to spend £429 on this one.
For a similar price, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is on a different planet in terms of the running-specific insights and performance tracking on offer. Equally, for considerably less expense, you can get any number of watches capable of doing more to help your running.