A running watch is one of the best ways to help improve your 5km times, or keep tabs on the progress you’re making while training for a marathon, based on our experience of reviewing such devices.
Looking to get a new wearable to help track your runs but unsure which to get? You’re not alone as at the moment there are a crippling number of options to choose from.
Most smartwatches and fitness trackers have basic run tracking functionality, and if you’re a runner just getting started, some are actually great purchases. But, after years of testing wearables with more kilometers logged on Strava and Runkeeper than we care to admit, trust us when we say, not all smartwatches and trackers are fit for purpose as dedicated running watches.
Many trackers are missing key features, like in built GPS, and even if a watch ticks all the right boxes when you check its specs sheet, with real world use may fail to deliver uniform tracking and data you’ll want when training for a race, or looking to boost your 5km times.
If you go for a generalist tracker or smartwatch, based on our testing, you also run the risk of investing in a device that won’t deliver the battery life marathon and trail runners will need. This is a key reason we recommend mid-to-serious level athletes avoid even the best of smartwatches, like the Apple Watch 7 and Galaxy Watch 4 for training purposes.
That’s also why we’ve created this guide detailing the best running watches we’ve tested that are still on the market. Every wearable on this list has been used by one of our expert reviewers for at least a week to track a variety of different distances and run types, to ensure our advice is as accurate as possible. We’ve also made sure to include options for every budget and type of runner offering advice on the best premium options for serious racers down to entry level trackers for people who are just getting started on a treadmill.
How we test
Every running watch we test is used by the reviewer for at least a week – or longer, if the battery life lasts beyond that point or we need more time to trial its features. During testing, we evaluate key metrics including app support, usability, battery life, and the accuracy of fitness and distance tracking.
For distance tracking, we assess how accurately the device records runs on tracks we know the length of. We also evaluate the level of battery life lost per hour using features such as built-in or connected GPS. To check heart rate accuracy, we compare the results from the wearable to a dedicated HRM strap.
Next we combine the data recorded with our general experience of using the wearable day-to-day, revealing whether the device proved comfortable to wear, alongside any issues we may have encountered with unexpected bugs over the review period.
Garmin Forerunner 955 Solar
The best for serious runners and athletes
- Snappy and accurate multi-band GPS connectivity
- Comfortable discrete design
- Local music playback
- Limited smartwatch functionality
If you hop over to our best Garmin Watch of best fitness tracker guides, you’ll see the Garmin Fenix 7 is the best “top end” option we recommend for serious athletes. But, if you’re not interested in a tracker for extreme sports or only care about running specifically, then the Forerunner 955 is actually a better option.
Despite costing less than the baseline Fenix 7 it actually shares a lot of the same features and a few exclusives missing on its more premium sibling that during our tests made it as, if not better, for runners.
For starters, the device is a lot smaller, featuring a 1.3-inch transflective touch screen and chassis that’s a few millimeters thinner than what you find on the Fenix. This made it much more comfortable to wear during longer runs, and day-to-day for our reviewer, who was actually using the Fenix 7 as his daily tracker prior to reviewing the 955.
On top of that, it provides the same multi-band GPS support as the Fenix. This meant location tracking was accurate throughout testing and we never had any issue finding a GPS connection.
Add to this the same local music playback and local maps support and it became an easy recommendation. These are two key features that let you get guided, turn-by-turn directions on routes you’re not familiar with. The local music also let our tester enjoy a soundtrack to their run without needing to bring their phone along.
But what really sets it apart is its post-run analytics and coaching features. Unlike the Fenix and many other trackers, as well as distance, heart rate and training effect (which tells you how effective your last activity was) the device has a few useful add-on features. Our favourite was its training readiness service. Training readiness is an add-on that tells you how prepared your body is for a race or run.
The feature flags causes for lower scores, like poor sleep and offer active recommendations about how to get race ready. As an added bonus, the watch also factors races you’ve put into your calendar into its daily recommendations, making it easier to avoid over training ahead of the big event.
This plus the week-long battery life we enjoyed reviewing it, makes the Forerunner 955 the best option we’d recommend to any serious runner or racer at the moment. The only reason we recommend the Fenix 7 over it for more generalist or adventurous athletes is the fact that it has a plastic, not metal, chassis. This plus the lack of a Sapphire Glass option mean it’s not as rugged as the Fenix and a less reliable option for climbers, watersports and extreme sports athletes.
Reviewer: Alastair Stevenson
Full review: Garmin Forerunner 955 review
Apple Watch Series 7
Best-looking running watch
- Much faster charging
- BIgger screen is great
- Wide range of easy-to-use fitness features
- Battery life remains a day
- No neutral black or silver aluminium colour options
Not every runner will be happy to wear a watch that’s very clearly designed for sports. Some will prefer a smart-looking timepiece that can be worn at all times, proving useful for activities outside of running, too. If that sounds like you then the Apple Watch 7 is the best option at the moment.
Featuring a robust application library that comprises all the fitness apps you’d expect, including Strava and Runkeeper, the Watch 7 is the most attractive option on this list. Sporting a pebble-shaped design, the device is controlled using touch inputs and a physical watch crown.
Apple’s wearable is easy to use and surprisingly well stacked for tracking runs. It features optional LTE connectivity, full GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellite support and, thanks to the included SpO2 and ECG sensors, it backs up its accurate distance and run tracking with a host of general wellness features. These include fall detection and the ability to warn you of potential heart problems.
We found that GPS wasn’t quite as quick to connect as it was on the Fenix 7 in our tests, but distance tracking – for the most part – proved accurate, even when outdoors. The post-workout analytics offer all the detail and information entry to mid-level runners will need, and include heart rate zones, cadence as well as distance.
The only real drawback is the device’s battery life. Although the variable refresh rate, always-on screen is a great addition to such a smartwatch, it clearly puts a significant drain on the device’s battery. In our tests, we never got beyond a full day of use before the Apple Watch 7 required charging. On top of that, using it for local music playback during a 25-minute 5km run with distance tracking on, we regularly saw the device shed 10-15% of its battery life – which makes it ill-suited for tracking longer, more serious runs such as marathons.
Reviewer: Max Parker
Full review: Apple Watch 7 Review
Coros Vertix 2
The best for battery life
- Great battery life
- Reliable sports tracking
- Added map support
- Music player doesn’t work with third-party apps
- Heavier than original Vertix
- Missing ANT+ support
If battery life is a key concern and you need a watch that can survive extended GPS tracking, or multiple-day races, without requiring a top-up charge then – based on our testing – the Coros Vertix 2 is the running watch to buy.
Using the watch for more than a month, the wearable easily lasted over a month off a single charge. The watch saw incredibly heavy use over this time period, tracking multiple GPS-enabled runs each week.
Distance and fitness tracking also proved top-notch. The GPS connected in seconds and provided accurate distance tracking, with our reviewer never experiencing any dropouts or strange results using it.
The post-workout analytics on offer are excellent, too, covering those you’ll find on the Fenix 7, albeit in a slightly less intuitive to read app. Items on offer include pace, cadence, stride, running power, elevation and even training load in relation to your fitness level.
As an added bonus it also comes with a music player, so you can have a soundtrack on your run without having to lug your phone with you.
Reviewer: Michael Sawh
Full review: Coros Vertix 2 Review
Polar Pacer Pro
Best mid-level running watch
- Slim, lightweight design
- Snappier performance than other Polar watches
- Lots of useful training tools and insights
- Battery life drain outside of tracking
- Unattractive black bezel
- Smartwatch features aren’t fantastic
Something that we’ve discovered through reviewing so many running watches is that most of the top performers are prohibitively expensive, carrying price tags of $500/£500 and beyond.
If this far exceeds your budget, but you’re still looking for robust tracking and post-run analytics, then we suggest you consider the Polar Pacer Pro, which retails for a more modest $300/£300.
Despite costing a few hundred less, in our tests we were surprised by how competitive its feature set was against more premium running watches.
The Pacer Pro supports GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and QZSS satellite systems, with assisted-GPS tech to speed up getting a signal fix. Although the device wasn’t quite as quick to connect as the Garmin Epix, the model our reviewer tested it against, the Pacer Pro delivered far more reliable distance and heart rate tracking than many rival running watches at this price.
Again, its on-board navigation features didn’t feel quite as snappy and reactive as those of the Fenix 7, but they were good enough to use by our tester to stick to a new run route with which they weren’t familiar.
In general, post-workout analytics match those offered by Garmin, covering all the basics of pace and cadence, plus some custom metrics such as FuelWise, too. This is a measurement that uses data captured on the watch to gauge when and by how much you need to refuel your body at the end of a run. We found it a welcome addition, similar to Garmin’s body battery metric.
Reviewer: Michael Sawh
Full review: Polar Pacer Pro
Fitbit Versa 3
Best entry-level running watch
- Feature-packed for the price
- GPS is finally here
- Six-day battery with intensive use
- Fitbit’s apps and app store still need work
- The step count is just too eager
- Still no support for offline Spotify
- Fitbit Premium is essential for getting your money’s worth
If you’re a newbie runner who’s just starting out then the Fitbit Versa 3 is currently our recommended affordable running watch. For less than $200 we found it offers a wonderfully competitive feature set that includes all the bells and whistles any new runner will need to reduce their 5km times.
On test we found the device atypical to most of the sub-$200 running watches we’ve reviewed in a couple of ways. For starters, it looks very like an Apple Watch, featuring a pebble-shaped square screen. Second, it actually comes with built-in GPS. Both are rare features on a watch at this price, putting the Fitbit Versa 3 above competing band-design trackers. Most affordable trackers – such as the Vivosmart 5 that we reviewed recently – rely on connected GPS.
While the Versa 3’s GPS connection speeds don’t match those of any other wearables on this list, the fact that the device lets you track distance without you having to take your phone with you is a definite bonus. Tracking itself was also pretty uniform, with the device throwing up anomalies only in city areas, where tall buildings interrupted the GPS connection. Heart rate tracking proved solid, too, with issues thrown up only with rapid spikes – during a particularly nasty test route, for example, that featured a very tall hill.
The only serious drawback is that, unlike the Polar and pretty much every other wearable on this list, the Fitbit locks some of the more advanced post-run analytics behind a paywall. Thankfully, this isn’t a deal-breaker; the free data on offer is robust and sufficiently detailed for newbies and more casual runners. However, it’s a reason we recommend more serious athletes invest a little more and pick up the Polar instead.
Reviewer: Thomas Deehan
Full review: Fitbit Versa 3 Review
GPS lets your watch track the distance you run as well as location. If you plan to use the watch to run outdoors then we’d recommend investing in a tracker with the technology.
Not all running watches are fully waterproofed. If you need one that can survive under water you should invest in one with an ATM or IP rating. These are certifications that what depths and lengths of time a device can survive underwater.
You can see detailed breakdown of the core specs of all the running watches included in this list. The main thing to look out for is their GPS support, if they have local music playback and key extras, such as an SpO2 sensor.
First Reviewed Date
Apple Watch Series 7
Midnight, Starlight, Green, Blue, PRODUCT RED
Coros Vertix 2
50.3 x 50.3 x 15.7 MM
Polar Pacer Pro
45 x 45 x 11.5 MM
Android Wear 2.0
Carbon Grey, Snow White, Midnight Blue, Autumn Maroon, Aurora Green
Fitbit Versa 3
40.4 x 40.4 x 12.4 MM
Garmin Forerunner 955 Solar
46.5 x 45.6 x 14.4 INCHES