The best GPS running watch isn’t always the most expensive one on the market. It’s the one with the features that are truly going to help improve your training.
For some runners that means focusing on the wrist based heart rate, for others it’s elevation gain on the trails and reminders to fuel on long runs, while others just want it to fit in to their day with notifications and then track distance.
Over the last decade of writing this blog, I have tested a WIDE variety of GPS running watches and my favorites have changed through the years.
Best Running Watch
For 2020-2021 here’s where I would put my money if investing in a new running watch. I’m always testing the new models, so I’ll update this as things change, but often I am all about getting last years model if it means saving $200!
I’ll give you a break down by the major categories, but if you want to do more digging or compare watches, I’ve done that for you in a number of articles:
Best Running Watch for Beginners
The biggest issue I find for new runners is sticker shock when they jump to the high end watches and think that’s what they need. Nope my friends, 90% of us are probably fine with what are now entry level watches.
They provide GPS, wrist based HR, multi-sport, usually pretty good battery life, features for intervals and plenty more!
✅Garmin 45 is where I would start.While there is a Garmin 35 that’s cheaper it does not connect to as many satellites, meaning it could be less accurate especially in cities around a lot of buildings or on trails. For the few extra dollars, I would go to the 45.
Best Overall Running Watch
If asked which watch I am in love with right now and would 100% recommend it’s going to be:
✅ Polar Vantage V2 >>
- Polar Vantage V and V2 have the most sophisticated wrist based HR on the market and I’ve found it to be insanely accurate over many months of testing (including an Ultramarathon).
- I LOVE both so if one is way cheaper at some point, you won’t be disappointed getting V instead of V2. It just has a few more upgrades.
- Both are super easy for me to customize screens, to scroll through data during the day and set up workouts
- I like that it shows me the weather, provides me on screen workouts to follow for mobility or strength
- The battery life is incredible and when turning on GPS it will tell me just how many hours I can get out of it. No more wondering if it might make it through a long run.
- It tracks elevation gain and descent, along with altitude – so it’s great for trail running.
- You can load maps to it which is great for trails or new cities.
Note – the Polar Vantage M is cheaper. I don’t like it! It doesn’t have the same HR reading technology.
Best Running Watch for Women
Are there certain watches that are actually better for women?
In my view, only from the perspective that some watches are smaller and therefore more comfortable on a slimmer wrist. That could apply to some men as well. As someone with a smaller wrist, here is my take:
- Garmin lists these watches with an S in the name. (Example is the Garmin 45s linked above.)
- Garmin Connect app does also contain a period tracker and that data can be very useful in training around your cycle
- Coros was super big on my wrist and I couldn’t get the strap tight enough for a good HR reading
- Polar Vantage is a very light weight watch, so maybe bigger than some of the Garmin S models, but doesn’t overwhelm me and the strap gives me plenty of room to tighten even further than I have.
- FitBit gets billed as best for women and while it is smaller, I think you’re missing out on many of the best features of GPS watches.
Cheap Running Watches
When looking for a budget running watch, I’m always thinking about what features do you need and what would be a waste to buy a cheap watch and find out it doesn’t really do much.
Option 1: Use the free running apps on your phone.
- You can track distance and pace just fine!
- You can even pair a chest strap with many of the phone apps so that you’ll have HR data too.
✅Option 2: The Garmin 45s is back again! As noted it’s what I recommend for beginners because it’s on the budget friendly side, but with all of the features you need.
Option 3: Go for a smartwatch like a FitBit charge or an older Apple watch. While I have seen data that makes me wonder about the accuracy of the HR function and the GPS, if you don’t need perfect, go for it. These are going to give you LOTS of bells and whistles for less money.
And for a little throwback, oh yes this was my joy at getting my first ever Garmin…so many, many…many miles ago.This is how you know I’ve been blogging too long…Christmas 2004. Fuzzy small photos, random graphics…I had it all.
Best Running Watch for Trail Running
Many of my trail running friends LOVE Suunto and Coros watches. I can absolutely see why from the data provided. Unfortunately, I struggled with both models due to inaccurate HR data.
I even had my husband try wearing the watches during different activities and he got frustrated watching it hit 180 as we would be hiking downhill. With that said, obviously the solution is to wear a chest strap or not be concerned with HR data!
- ✅Garmin Fenix 6 – I admit to being someone who really likes the Fenix series. I’m impressed with the fit of the watch, the battery life, the ability to download maps, pulse oximeter and that there is an S version for the smaller wrist.
- Coros Apex Premium has some serious battery life, features like blood oxygen monitoring and so much more that’s going to appeal to those spending many miles on the trails. Like I said it’s a bigger watch on the wrist and you have to get used to the dial to access data, but that was also a LOVED feature by many. It’s also the most cost effective.
- Suunto 9 Barro – you know I was going to include this…but looking more at the features the price point doesn’t make it anywhere near as good as the Fenix or Polar.
- Polar Grit X – It will be no surprise to find another Polar watch that I’m a fan of. Stellar battery life, military grade durability (and look), same great HR as the Vantage, sleep tracking and other smart features. The main difference from the Fenix is the quality on the on screen maps for navigation, it’s just not as good.
I’ve found that there are definitely personal preferences to watches, just like shoes.
But there are also some things that universally make for a better watch these days.
GPS Running Watch Mistakes
Not only do I LOVE talking running gear with you, but you often ask me what you really need.
Looking at the list above, it’s REALLY easy to get super excited about the high end running watches. But do you actually need all of those features?
Sometimes you may end up disliking a watch because it’s more than you need and you can’t easily get to what you want. Or you simply spent way too much which means less money for new running shoes.
1 ) Buying More Than You Need
Looking at my plethora of watches, I’m the first to admit I get very excited by all the gizmos, gadgets, wickety, wackets that come out each year. And then just as quickly go back to using the features that really matter to me.
This is one of the features appearing on a lot of watches now. I’ve written a whole article to help you use that feature, but most of us aren’t.
Additional sports Metrics:
The Garmin Fenix 5 is one of the more advanced watches and includes features like tracking our Ski/Snowboarding adventures for speed, distance, vertical drop and an automatic run counter. Meanwhile in golf mode it gives you yardage to the front, back and middle of the green for any single course you’ve downloaded.
Do you spend a lot of time on the trails, hiking, running, biking? Is it possible you’ll get lost and need to know your exact location?
Then the Suunto Sport might be worth the extra coins to get a more specific marking that GPS altitude. It’s also going to tell you the air pressure, provide storm warnings and temperature readings. And it allows you to navigate to a specific point of interest, no worries about your phone WiFi.
Sleep, food, life tracking:
These puppies can do it all now. And while I’m enjoying the daily step counts, do I want to sleep in my watch? Do you need to have your phone interrupt even more of your life my lighting up your wrist? Debatable.
All great…but possibly overkill for a lot of us.
I mean, I know if I slept well or didn’t.
2) Ignoring the HR Function
Heart rate training can provide so much information to enhance your running. But first let me say, you gotta ditch the models that require the chest strap. I’ve had enough scrapping and dipping and dropping of those things to last a lifetime.
A new world of training opened up with the advancement of HR through the wrist strap.
Now, I’m using the new Polar Vantage V daily because it has the most sophisticated HR in wrist tech right now.
I get a lot of questions about wrist based accuracy: I’ve had a great luck with it, in certain watches. That’s the key, some just aren’t as good.
There are definitely issues in extreme cold because your blood flow changes and skin temp can make readings harder. I had spiking issue with all the chest straps, but not those specific wrist readers.
Why use HR?
- Allows you to measure intensity
- Allows you to measure fitness progress – overtime you should have a lower heart rate for the same pace
- Allows you to see when you’re overtraining (HR Is running higher than normal or you can’t get your HR up)
- Allows you to do things like a Low Heart Rate training plan to build a better cardio base
3) Signal Impatience
We’ve all wigged out over finishing a race to see our watch show an entirely different distance than the one we signed up for, which we can often blame on tall buildings, running under bridges or other signal interrupters that most watches will be prone to.
Some watches are known to have better GPS signals and tracking:
- Polar is now using FOUR satellite systems which should make them very accurate
- Garmin is the most well know for their variety of GPS products
- Suunto has more tools built in like the altimeter to improve accuracy
- All of these watches are likely more accurate than your smartphone due to their technology
While you’re standing impatiently hoping from foot to foot with your arm in the air, your watch is trying to latch on to at least 3 of the 24 satellites orbiting Earth.
You can help improve the accuracy by:
- Ensuring you’ve updated your watch software
- Giving the watch a full minute to completely connect, the more it connects to the stronger your signal as you pass under things. Feel free to turn it on inside next to a window.
- Save locations to speed up GPS locating (if your watch allows it)
- Look for a watch with GLONASS for improved accuracy, but possibly shorter battery life
- Upload your data – many of the online tools will actually “clean up” the watch data for improved accuracy.
4) Switching Apps
Each watch comes with their own App to upload your data (and manage the watch), which is great unless you’ve been using something else previously or tend to be a watch hopper like me.
While it sounds minor, trust me after years of running you’ll wish you had all of your information in one place. It’s extremely helpful to see your year over year data or to compare training cycles when trying to see what has worked previously or trends in injuries.
Having mine in one place allowed me to put my return to running post surgery in perspective and see what’s possible!
Not sure which app to work with?
Checkout these free running apps >>
While our watches provide a wealth of data and can ensure we aren’t going out guns blazing on a 20 mile run, they can also take away from your ability to learn pacing. It disconnects you from understanding what hard, easy and medium efforts feel like.
And for a lot of runners, eh hem like my husband, it causes you to push too hard wanting every run to be better than the last. Remember it’s a tool and a guide, but don’t let it run you.
Read this on learning to pace yourself and remember to not be stuck looking at it all the time.
BONUS: The forgotten charge
Make a habit of keeping your watch charger in the same spot as your phone, you’ll be more likely to plug it in and ensure it’s ready for your next sweat session. Because nothing stops a good run in it’s tracks like realizing you’re without a means to measure it!
Of course you could run sans watch, but when every run has a goal that can be easier said than done.
Looking for more reviews to find the best things for you run?
Checkout our full page of my must have running gear reviews and guides to save you time searching and money! I share what’s worked for me and fellow runners, along with what wasn’t worth the price tag.
A few common requests:
What matters most to you in a watch?
Do you use all the features on your watch?
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