The Best Running Watches for Fitness Motivation

Marathon running has taken off over the past decade, not just in the United States but in other countries as well. According to a study conducted by the International Association of Athletics Federations and RunRepeat, marathon running is 20.97% more popular in North America and 49.43% more popular around the world than it was in 2008.

Today’s runners are using technology to help them prepare for big events. Apps like Runtastic, MapMyRun, RunKeeper and others harness the computing power of smartphones to help runners get in shape and maximize their training sessions. While running apps are useful and convenient, smartphones are often not. They tend to break easily and they are too bulky and hard to use while running. Poor battery performance can be an issue, as well.

Running watches not only address all the abovementioned problems, but also offer features that smartphones simply can’t provide. For example, all running watches are equipped with optical heart sensors. These let you track how well your body is adapting to your workouts. Another common feature is GPS tracking, which gives you a bird’s eye view of where you’ve been during your run. Other types of sensors– like heat and altitude detectors– give you the ability to gather even more data. Some running watches can even help you optimize the way you sleep.

Here are the best running watches you can buy:

  • The Garmin Forerunner 35 is simple, affordable and equipped with all the features you need to start tracking your runs.
  • If you’re an analytical-minded runner that loves to pore through statistics, the Garmin Forerunner 945 may be your best option.
  • The Coros Pace GPS Watch offers a fuss-free user experience and comes with an extra comfy silicon wristband.
  • When it comes to accurate GPS tracking, it’s hard to beat the Suunto 9 GPS Watch.
  • The most unique thing about the Polar Vantage V is that it has special modes for over 80 different sports.

The best value running watch

Garmin Forerunner 35

The Garmin Forerunner 35 might make a thoughtful gift for someone that’s trying to get in shape. It’s inexpensive, but not cheaply made. What it does do, it does quite well. Its built-in GPS unit isn’t very power efficient, but it’s dependable and doesn’t often lose its connection. With the GPS on, the batteries last about 13 hours– which is about average. When used as an ordinary watch, you can use the Forerunner 35 for about nine days before it will run out of power.

Good

  • Affordable price tag. This running watch is simple, but works well and is very affordable.
  • Bright, easy-to-read display. The high contrast display looks sharp and the built-in backlight contributes to its readability.
  • Above average battery life. One charge lasts nine days in watch mode or 13 hours with the GPS feature on.
  • Precise GPS tracking. The built-in GPS unit does a good job of accurately mapping out your runs.
  • Receive notifications from your phone. Check text messages and receive app alerts.
  • Built-in pedometer. The pedometer is useful for tracking your day-to-day activity levels.
  • Vibrating alerts. If you sit still for an extended period of time, the Forerunner 35 will buzz to remind you to get moving.

Bad

  • Limited features. You can’t change the display or use your Forerunner 35 to listen to music.
  • The heart sensor isn’t very accurate. Sometimes it loses contact with your heartbeat.

In a nutshell

The Garmin Forerunner 35 is an inexpensive, no-frills running watch that sports a nice, bright-looking display. If you don’t care about all the extra bells and whistles that come with more expensive running watches, it could be your best option.

Buy Garmin Forerunner 35 from Amazon

The best running watch for analyzing running statistics

Garmin Forerunner 945

The Garmin Forerunner 945 is tailor made to appeal to statistics geeks. Its sensors measure not only heart rate, but also heat, altitude and a variety of other factors to determine how much each running session contributes to your overall fitness plan. Given its smartwatch features– like contactless payments and built-in music storage, for example– it’s surprisingly power efficient. One charge will last for 36 hours in GPS mode.

Good

  • Advanced features for runners. The watch factors heart rate, heat, altitude and other factors to estimate how much your session has benefited your overall training over the span of the last seven days.
  • Accurate GPS mapping. The GPS unit creates a precise map of your run, which appears right on the watch.
  • Built-in music. You can download music or stream from Spotify and Deezer as well as transfer music files to your Forerunner 945’s hard drive.
  • Digital wallet payments feature. Garmin Pay lets you make contactless payments in stores.
  • Impressive battery life. One charge lasts 36 hours with GPS on and as long as two weeks when you use it as an ordinary watch.
  • Emergency notifications. Quickly send for help if you find yourself in a crisis situation.
  • Resists scratches and cracks. The display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass DX.

Bad

  • Expensive. The Forerunner 945 does what it does well, but it’s also one of the priciest running watches on the market.
  • The advanced statistics can be hard to understand at first. Learning how to navigate and interpret the data that the Forerunner 945 gathers may take some time.

In a nutshell

If you don’t think that you’ll actually use the Forerunner 945’s number-crunching features, you may want to go with a different running watch. Other less expensive running watches can do all the other things that the Forerunner 945 can do.

Buy Garmin Forerunner 945 from Amazon

The most user-friendly running watch

Coros Pace GPS Watch

You’ll be hard pressed to find a running watch that offers a better user experience than the Coros Pace. From the ergonomic wristband to the intuitive interface to the quick and painless setup process, it’s obvious that Coros was aiming at runners that like gadgets but don’t especially enjoy fiddling with them. Other running watches have better batteries, but Coros’s unique power saving feature lets you squeeze up to 25 hours of use time in GPS mode out of its power source.

Good

  • Best-in-class user experience. The four buttons let you move through the intuitive user interface with ease.
  • Comfortable wristband. The wristband that comes with the watch is durable but feels cosy and is made out of silicon.
  • Quick setup. All you have to do is charge it up and follow the simple setup directions to get started.
  • A single battery charge lasts up to 30 days. GPS mode reduces battery life to 25 hours, but a new power-saving mode called UltraMax GPS squeezes even more tracking time out of a single charge.
  • Four different exercise modes. The four modes include running, cycling, swimming and triathlon.
  • Above-average GPS accuracy. Sometimes the signal gets lost near buildings and tunnels, but it does a fairly good job of mapping your exercise session overall.

Bad

  • Limited features. There is no sleep tracking feature and you can’t play music or pay for things in stores with the Coros Pace, either.

In a nutshell

This running watch from Coros makes up for its lack of smartwatch features with its attention to detail when it comes to user experience. If you want a running watch that’s efficient and easy to use, the Coros Pace could be your best option.

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The most accurate running watch for GPS tracking

Suunto 9 GPS Watch

GPS sensors are less expensive than they were in the recent past, but they are still probably one of the priciest components of a smartwatch. Rather than try to cut corners there, Suunto has gone in the opposite direction with their Suunto 9 GPS Watch. They’ve developed a proprietary algorithm called FusedTrack, which processes data gathered from a variety of sensors to create a more accurate map of where you’ve been during your run.

Good

  • Very accurate GPS tracking. The Suunto 9 is equipped with a feature called FusedTrack, which combines GPS tracking with data from the compass, gyro and accelerometer.
  • Smartphone notifications. You can check your messages, email and phone calls without having to take your phone out of your pocket.
  • Touchscreen display. You can swipe the screen after you read an alert when you’re ready to go back to your workout.
  • Good battery optimization. This watch’s power conservation settings allow it to work in tracking mode for up to 4.5 days straight.
  • Seven different available colors. Choose from a wide variety of styles, from elegant gold leather to highly visible lime.
  • Weather alerts. Find out when storms are approaching, learn about weather trends, sunset/sunrise times and more.

Bad

  • Simplified sleep tracking feature. The sleep tracking feature doesn’t break down your sleep time into cycles or track your movement while sleeping.
  • No digital wallet or music. At this price range, you might expect this watch to do more.

In a nutshell

If GPS accuracy is your main priority, it doesn’t get much better than the Suunto 9. It’s somewhat pricey and doesn’t have a music feature, but FusedTrack gives it the ability to create highly maps of your running sessions.

Buy Suunto 9 GPS Watch from Amazon

The best multi-sport running watch

Polar Vantage V

Some running watches are only designed for running. Even if they’re water resistant, their sensors don’t usually work properly in water. That’s where the Polar Vantage V comes in. Instead of six heart rate sensors, the Polar Vantage V is equipped with nine. This allows the watch to track your heart rate while you swim.

Good

  • Adapts to nearly any type of sport. The Polar Vantage V has special modes for just about every sport, from wheelchair racing to snowshoe trekking and more.
  • Best-in-class heart rate tracking. With nine built-in heart rate sensors, the Polar Vantage V is one of the most accurate heart rate trackers on the market.
  • Accurate GPS tracking. The GPS sensor is quite precise compared to other GPS running watches.
  • Bright, touch-sensitive screen. You can use buttons or the touch screen to navigate through the Polar Vantage V’s interface.
  • Good battery life. One charge lasts 40 hours in tracking mode, which is more than enough time to get through very long training sessions.
  • Unique features. Few other running watches have a meditation feature. The VO2 level and sleep tracker are useful, as well. Another function called Recovery Pro estimates how much recovery time you need after a workout, while Training Benefit provides post-workout feedback.

Bad

  • The interface takes some time to learn. The watch has perhaps too many controls– five buttons and a touchscreen.
  • Lacks key smartwatch features. While the features that this watch does have are well-done, the fact that there is no compass, music storage, navigation or maps feature is a bit disappointing.

In a nutshell

If you don’t mind its slightly clunky interface and you enjoy swimming, the Polar Vantage V is worth a hard look. It’s a running watch that adapts to many other sports, including a wide variety of different watersports.

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Buying guide for running watches

Key considerations

GPS accuracy

GPS is a key running watch feature. When you activate your running watch’s GPS mode, it will begin tracking you and collecting data about your run. It’s important to keep in mind that some GPS units are more accurate than others. Inaccurate GPS units often get lost when you approach tall buildings or run into tunnels or under bridges. This can severely affect the quality of the data that you collect and prevent you from assessing your runs accurately.

Smartwatch features

Some running watches only track your steps and map out your runs, but others are equipped with music apps, digital wallets and other smart features. Note that the more smart features you get, the more you’ll have to pay. If you want a smart feature-enabled running watch, expect to pay about twice as much.

Durability

It makes sense to check your prospective watch’s International Protection Marking (aka IP rating) before you buy, since this will tell you how well it can withstand the elements. Another durability standard is MIL-STD-810. This is the same standard that the United States Military uses to test the durability of its electronic equipment.

Water resistance

If you’re not a swimmer, then you can probably get away with using a running watch that only has basic splash protection. On the other hand, if your running watch has a swimming mode, you should check to make sure that it’s watertight enough to survive lengthy water immersion.

Heart rate tracking

Most running watches have six heart rate sensors, but some have as many as nine. The more sensors a running watch has, the more accurate it tends to be. Running watches that have an EKG sensor are capable of providing more detailed information about your heart’s health.

Battery life

Most running watches can last a week or more when the GPS is off. However, GPS units tend to be power hogs. If you’re a marathon runner, you’re going to need a watch that can go the complete distance. Energy efficiency may not be a major concern for casual runners, though.

Buttons vs. touch screen controls

Most running watch interfaces rely on buttons, but others are controlled by touch. Still other running watches incorporate both touch and button controls. Button-based interfaces are generally easier to use compared to touch screen interfaces.

Workout modes

Some running watches are meant to be used for running and running only. Multi-sport running watches can adapt to a variety of different sports.

Sleep tracking

Sleep tracking monitors your body movements at night and uses this information to chart out your sleep cycles and estimate the quality of sleep that you’re getting.

Emergency notifications

Emergency messaging will help you find assistance if you encounter a crisis situation when you’re out running. Weather alerts let you know when storms and other dangerous weather conditions are about to occur.

Price ranges

Budget

Basic running watches in the $150 price range have stripped-down features. They usually lack music storage, full color screens, digital wallets and other smartwatch features found in more expensive running watches.

Mid-range

If you’re willing to spend around $200, you’ll be able to get improved battery life, better GPS tracking and other feature improvements. Most mid-range running watches are still fairly basic and can’t play music or run digital wallet apps.

High-end

Running watches that cost $400 or more are very similar to full-featured smartwatches in terms of features. However, they are more rugged and cater to athletes with unique fitness apps and more precise GPS tracking.

Frequently asked questions

Q: What’s the difference between running watches and smartwatches?
A: Running watches are generally more durable than smartwatches, but most have a smaller selection of apps to choose from. Another key difference is that most running watches have more and better sensors.

Q: Can you use a running watch for other fitness activities?
A: Many running watches can be used to track other physical activities, but others have narrower use cases. Some waterproof running watches are capable of counting your strokes when you swim.

Q: Are there any health or security risks associated with using a running watch?
A: Like smartphones, running watches emit a low level of radiation. The FDA believes that this radiation is not potent enough to cause health problems in the human body. As far as security concerns go, anti-virus software company Kaspersky concluded that even though there are some potential exploits, hackers wouldn’t be interested in the type of information that a smartwatch or running watch would provide.

Tips

  • You probably don’t need to your running watch’s display to be at maximum brightness all the time. If lighting conditions allow it, turn the brightness down to conserve battery power.
  • You can improve your running watch’s heart rate accuracy by moistening its sensors. Even a bit of saliva will improve conductivity and enable more precise tracking.
  • Another way to ensure better heart rate tracking is to make sure that your running watch fits snugly around the wrist. Tighten the wristband if you need to do so. Because most heart rate sensors are optical, a tighter fit typically means more accuracy.
  • Be sure to keep your running watch clean. Dried sweat can stop the sensors from working properly. Rinsing the watch with soap and water will usually do the trick.
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