After researching over 50 watches, we’ve come up with the best running watches available now. Almost all of these are GPS running watches – these have become the go-to watch for runners the past ten years.
But for all you runners who just want times and splits, we’ve included a couple chrono watches as well.
The majority of watches on our list are Garmins. Garmin has far surpassed other GPS watch brands in features, ease-of-use, and external accessories. It’s not surprising Garmin dominates the running watch market.
The GPS running watches we looked at come in a range of prices and styles. The most basic track time and lap splits as well as speed/pace and distance for GPS models.
Many track additional data to give you more feedback during a run and to help analyze workouts afterwards. Some include activity trackers (step counters) and alert notifications from your phone.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 245
GARMIN FORERUNNER 55
Garmin vivoactive 4/4S/Venu 2
Timex Ironman Sleek 150
Best Overall Running Watch
1. Garmin Forerunner 245
Remember that top of the line watch you thought about buying last year? The one with all the features you wanted but was just out of your price range? Well, that watch is here today with the Forerunner 245.
This lightweight watch has an improved 24-hour battery (with GPS), high-resolution color display, and can be programmed with custom workouts or an entire training plan for your next race. Use the built-in wrist heart rate monitor or sync a chest HRM to monitor heart rate.
Monitor your overall fitness with VO2 Max, training status, and training load. Combined with aerobic and anaerobic guidance received post-run, these metrics align to give you a high-level view of your overall fitness and how it’s improving.
Pair the Forerunner 245 with Garmin’s running pod and get stats related to running form. The pod tracks cadence, torso “bounce”, and ground contact, metrics to help you run with more efficiency and better form.
The Forerunner 245 also tracks bike rides and (new to this watch series) swimming, both in the pool and open water. Like earlier versions, this watch doubles as an activity tracker to monitor daily steps and displays phone notifications like texts and other alerts.
New safety features will send an email and text to select family and friends with your exact location. Use this with a single button push or turn on auto-incident detection that will do the same if you crash on your bike.
If you want to listen to music, the 245 comes in a music version to store up to 500 songs on the watch. Or stream Spotify from your phone. With either option, control playback directly on the watch.
There aren’t any features that you haven’t seen on other watches before. Instead, you have the best features from more expensive watches that are now available on Garmin’s mid-priced GPS running watch.
- Tracks running, cycling, swimming
- Awesome battery
- Lightweight design
- Music storage/playback option available
- Expensive compared to other GPS watches in class
- No switching between activities (aka multisport), so not good choice for triathletes
Best for Multisport Athletes
2. Garmin Forerunner 745
Released as a triathlon watch (see our full review of triathlon watches here), the Forerunner 745 is also a great running watch. It tracks huge amounts of data and has some great training aids when out on a run.
For runners, the watch tracks time/pace/distance and, like Garmin’s other high-end watches, has wrist heart rate monitoring. It’s thin and lightweight with a large, color display like the Forerunner 245. Custom workouts and intervals can be programmed into the watch to help with speed work, hill repeats, and other multi-step runs.
What makes the 745 better than the Forerunner 245 are the various metrics it tracks related to running form. These include cadence, vertical oscillation (i.e. how much you “bounce” running), and ground contact. Some of these require you to wear Garmin’s chest heart rate monitor, but they are nice features if you are interested in improving your running form.
The Forerunner 745 also has Garmin’s virtual runner features. These make it fun to run at a specific pace and compare how you are doing vs. prior runs (see our full article about virtual runner here).
Finally, the battery is improved over the last version (16 hours GPS mode vs. 14 hours). There are some fun extras like live Strava segments and bread-crumb route navigation.
- Great value for runners and triathletes
- Color, hi-res display
- Wrist heart rate
- Tracks running, biking, swimming
- Lacks music, Garmin Pay, and other newer Garmin features
Best Basic GPS Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
3. Garmin Forerunner 55
After you slide into your favorite running shoes, you need the right tool by your side for the run. The Garmin Forerunner 55 is a great sidekick for training sessions and daily runs.
The Forerunner 55 comes with a hi-res, color display. It’s lightweight and has up to a 20-hour battery.
One of the watch’s main features is GPS, which can be used to track your distance, intervals, and pace. During the run, you can use the intuitive button interface with sweaty hands to pause the timer or mark a lap. The watch even has handy controls for music playing on your phone, so you can play all of your favorite tunes while working out.
Also during the run, you can receive smart notifications right to your wrist for incoming phone calls and texts.
The Garmin Forerunner 55 offers a wide variety of wellness tracking features to monitor daily sleep, distance, calories burned, and steps. The watch even provides daily stress monitoring throughout the day. If your stress levels start to rise before, during, or after a run, make sure to use the relaxation breathing timer for several minutes to relax your mind and body.
The product’s body battery energy monitoring is another feature that can optimize your body’s energy simply by accessing your energy reserves any time of the day. The body battery energy monitoring ultimately enables you to plan your day for optimal rest and activity.
The watch is equipped with safety and tracking features that can provide emergency contacts with your real-time location.
The product is compatible with the free Garmin Coach adaptive training, which is an excellent plan that offers premium, customized coaching on your wrist. One component of the training plan is the ability to help you reach your training goals by predicting your race time.
- Thin and lightweight
- Color display
- Built-in wrist heart rate
- Emergency alert system
- Fairly expensive for Garmin’s budget watch
- “Genderized” colors
Best Budget GPS Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
4. Polar M200
If you want a basic GPS watch with wrist heart rate for a better price than the Forerunner 55, the Polar M200 is a good option.
Like the Forerunner 55, it has wrist heart rate with basic GPS functions. It’s simple and easy to use. And because it’s from Polar, there are additional metrics Polar provides to analyze training based on heart rate. Smartphone notification alerts also appear on the watch.
The downside is that the display is pretty small and hard to read. Not great for running, especially when trying to read those notifications.
It can also be used for activity tracking, but one thing we didn’t like is the lack of 24/7 heart rate monitoring. This is something Garmin provides on the Forerunner 55.
Additional watch bands can be purchased, too, if you want to swap out the strap for another color.
Ultimately, the M200 is a nice watch if you want to save a little cash next to the Forerunner 55. These GPS running watches are pretty similar except for the harder-to-read display on the M200 and the lack of Garmin’s tech support and overall ecosystem.
- Best budget watch with wrist heart rate
- Good color options
- Advanced heart rate features
- Hard to read screen
- Doesn’t track heart rate all day
Best Multi-Activity GPS Watch
5. Garmin vivoactive 4, 4S, and Garmin Venu 2 (pictured)
The Garmin vivoactive 4 builds off the success of the vivoactive 3 with music storage, added safety features, and underwater heart rate tracking. It remains a nice, multipurpose GPS watch that works well for running, cycling, swimming, and other activities.
A new option for runners with smaller wrists is the vivoactive 4S. This version of the watch is slightly smaller allowing it to sit more comfortably on thin wrists.
The Venu is the exact same watch as the vivoactive 4 but with a sharper, higher resolution AMOLED display for crisp clarity. The downside is you lose battery life, from 8 days to 5 in smartwatch mode.
All watches come with Garmin Pay, which allows you to make purchases with the device, kind of like Apple Pay. The good thing about Garmin Pay is that it can be used just about anywhere. The feature truly is as simple as “tap and go.”
The devices are compatible with the Connect IQ store, which is a great place to download widgets, apps, and watch faces. As soon as you download certain apps, you’ll be able to monitor the weather with AccuWeather MinuteCast, control home lights with the SmartThings App, and even track your ride with the Uber App.
In addition, you’ll also have the opportunity to use the Face It Watch Face App, a free app that can personalize your watch. All you’ll need to do is download the app, select a picture from your photo library, customize the image, and make it your watch’s face.
The watches also include several preloaded activity profiles. Whether you choose to ride a bike, go for a swim, play golf, participate in a yoga class, or engage in stand-up paddleboard, you’ll be able to track the specific details of your activity with the product’s built-in GPS.
The Garmin vivoactive 4/4S is waterproof. The product can be used in the swimming pool and shower. Now, these watches can also track your heart rate underwater via the wrist HRM.
Also new are improved safety features. The vivoactive 4/4S and Venu 2 have a one-button safety alert, sending out an email and text to friends and family with location data when activated. The auto-crash feature does the same thing automatically when the watches sense you’ve gotten into an accident on your bike.
The watches have a touch screen with a Side-Swipe interface. This makes it easy to scroll quickly on the menu, whether you use your index finger or thumb.
Garmin vivoactive 4/4S/Venu 2 will ensure that your workouts stay fresh and invigorating by enabling you to download and create customizable workouts. The types of customizable workouts that you can create can range from strength and cardio to running and cycling. Once you have downloaded the workouts, the watch will keep track of your rest time, reps, sets, and exercises for you.
For music lovers, the watches come with built-in music storage. They store music, control playback, and can stream songs and playlists from Spotify.
- Tracks numerous activities besides running
- Garmin Pay
- Clear, crisp, color display, especially on Venu
- Wrist heart rate
- Not a true, dedicated running watch
- No multisport for triathletes
Best Budget GPS Watch
6. Timex Ironman GPS
The Timex GPS keeps it simple: time/pace/distance. It’s thin, lightweight, and easy to use. The screen can be a tad hard to read. But it’s got a nice battery-life of 12 hours in GPS mode.
Even better, the Ironman Ironman GPS retails for about $100, making it one of the best buys for GPS watches out there.
If you want to see our full list of the best budget GPS running watches, read this article.
- Cheap, but gets the job one
- Simple to use
- Lacks features beyond GPS tracking
Best GPS Watch with Music
7. Garmin Forerunner 645
Garmin’s latest running GPS watch is an upgrade to the Forerunner 630, which had been Garmin’s top of the line running watch. The Forerunner 645 is Garmin’s only watch to store and play music (via Bluetooth headphones) directly on the watch. You’ll also feel comfortable leaving your wallet at home because the Forerunner 645 includes contactless payments.
The Forerunner 645 builds on the advanced features in Forerunner 630. This includes running dynamics to monitor your running form and provide aerobic and fitness feedback. While the 630 required that you wear a chest heart rate monitor, the 645 has wrist-based heart rate. You do, however, need to wear the Running Dynamics Pod to utilize some of these features.
For triathletes and swimmers, the Forerunner 645 tracks pool swims and is compatible with Garmin’s cycling accessories. The mapping and navigation features are stronger on this watch than other watches we like. It offers basic bread-crumb maps, course uploads, and TracBack to help find your way home if you lose your way.
The downside to the music storage and wrist heart rate monitoring is the poor battery. While you’ll get up to 7 days in non-GPS mode, the Forerunner 645 will only last about 5 hours in GPS mode with music. For most runners, this means you’ll only get a few runs in before it needs recharging.
- Tons of running-related features
- Tracks overall fitness level
- Helps to monitor running form (when using Garmin’s Run Pod)
- Music playback, storage, and Spotify compatibility
- Not that much of an upgrade over the Forerunner 245
Best Value GPS Watch with Music
8. Polar M600
The Polar M600 combines the best features of a smartwatch with the functionality of a stand-alone GPS watch.
For music playback, the M600 utilizes Google Play Music to store 4GB of music directly on the watch. Play, pause, rewind, or skip ahead, directly from the watch.
The M600 also has the best features of a GPS watch. Besides tracking time/speed/distance, it has wrist-based heart rate plus Polar’s suite of running data. These features come from heart rate data – Polar uses this to show you how beneficial your run was to your overall training, how hard you’ve been training, and when it’s time to recover.
The Polar M600 is waterproof and can track basic swim metrics, if you incorporate that into your training.
Like many of the best GPS running watches on our list, the M600 doubles as a fitness tracker to count steps, create daily step goals, and monitor sleep. It also runs on Google’s Wear OS. Think of this as Google’s answer to an Apple iWatch. You can download apps to the watch that work in sync with your Android phone. You’ll also be able to receive and respond to messages right from the watch.
The only things we don’t like are that the phone is a bit bulky. And 8 hours of battery in GPS mode isn’t great. Otherwise, this is a great alternative to the Garmin Forerunner 645.
- Music storage and playback
- Comes with Polar’s Smartcoach features
- Wrist heart rate
- Bulky design
- Average battery life
Best Non-GPS Watch
9. Timex Ironman Sleek 150
A nice, basic watch. Great if you’re only interested in a timer with plenty of memory for lap splits. The screen is big, it runs on a plain watch battery, so recharging isn’t necessary. The Sleek 150 has a touch-screen, requiring only a tap on the watch face to mark a lap.
The Sleek 150 is water-resistant to 100m and has enough memory for 5 workouts. Additionally, it has some nice timing features that can be set to remind you when to drink and eat (based on timed intervals). Timed intervals can also be programmed if you are doing a specific timed speed workout.
- Basic stopwatch-style watch
- Battery doesn’t need to be recharged
- No GPS
- Minimal features
Best Budget Non-GPS Watch
10. Timex Ironman Sleek 50
A classic. Feather-light, slim. When you want to feel free and only need to know your time and splits, the Ironman Sleek 50 fits the bill. It’s a water-resistant stop-watch with enough memory for 50 laps. This is watch we like for races or any workout where you don’t need to know your distance or real-time pace.
Besides a stopwatch, the Ironman Sleek 50 has a countdown timer and alarm settings. Its INDIGLO light makes it easy to read in low-light conditions. Best of all, it’s a plain, old watch so no need to worry about charging the battery.
- Easy to read in dark
- Records up to 50 laps
- No GPS
- Minimal features
Best Discontinued GPS Watches
These three watches by Garmin are no longer being manufactured, but there are still plenty available at discount. And all remain great watches for running.
11. Garmin Forerunner 235
The Forerunner 235 hits the sweet spot for us with a mix of great features, simple design, a reasonable price, and enough extra functions to make our runs more fun without feature-overload. Plus it comes with wrist-based heart rate and good battery life.
With a nice, big screen and readable display, the Forerunner 235 is easy to view during a run. It also has a built-in accelerometer, so it can track runs both outside and indoors on a treadmill. It doubles as a fitness tracker to count steps, set daily step goals, and monitor sleep. Post-run, workouts can be uploaded wirelessly to a smartphone where a variety of data including pace, distance, elevation, and cadence can be analyzed.
For training, the Forerunner 235 supports interval workouts for distance and time (including a run/walk timer) as well as customized, advanced workouts. Training plans can even be downloaded directly onto the watch.
The Forerunner 235 sits in the middle, price-wise, of most GPS running watches. It’s a great combination of value and features.
- Lightweight with good battery
- Advanced running features
- Color, hi-res display
- No music storage
- Bigger than latest Forerunner 245
12. Garmin Forerunner 35
This watch just works. Simple, easy-to-use, nice design, and readable screen. The Forerunner 35 tracks basic info with the addition of wrist-based heart rate. It’s currently our second favorite running watch.
It’s not the cheapest watch out there in this category – but you always pay a slightly higher premium for a Garmin. With that, you get Garmin’s system for uploading/analyzing runs, great tech support if things go wrong, and the accuracy and straight-up great functionality that Garmin provides.
Beyond the basics, Garmin threw in a few additional features like interval workouts, activity tracking, and smartphone notifications into the watch. There are multiple color options but the bands can’t be swapped out. It can also track treadmill workouts.
This is the watch to get if you want an uncomplicated watch with wrist heart rate.
- Slick design with good battery
- Good value for basic watch
- Wrist heart rate
- Black and white display
- No real-time elevation tracking
13. Garmin Forerunner 25
If you want a basic GPS watch without wrist heart rate, then the Forerunner 25 is your best option. This is Garmin’s cheapest watch and offers basic GPS functions with some nice add-on features.
Like all of Garmin’s GPS running watches, it doubles as a fitness tracker and counts steps, sets daily goals, and monitors sleep. Bluetooth syncing provides smartphone notifications and wireless uploads to a phone. The watch is easy to use and the screen is a decent size and readable.
Battery life is pretty good for a watch at this price (8-10 hours in GPS) mode and it comes in a few different color options.
- Small, lightweight
- Great price
- Receive text alerts
- Counts steps
- Average battery
- Thick design, a bit clunky
Criteria for the Best Running Watches in 2021
In deciding on the best GPS running watches, we looked for certain features that we feel are most beneficial to runners.
While most watches can be used for running, some put more of an emphasis on triathletes, hikers, paddlers, and skiers. For this list, we are focusing specifically on running.
GPS vs Chronograph
The majority of these watches are GPS, meaning they track time, speed, and distance during your run. Chronograph watches are your basic stopwatch-style watches.
If you are on a budget and only need a watch with timing abilities, stick with a chronograph watch. These are inexpensive, lightweight, with batteries that last years.
But GPS watches are most common and extremely popular. They provide a ton of information that’s useful not just during your run, but also post-run when you’re reviewing your run. Many of these watches are lightweight and can go several days without requiring charging.
But GPS watches are more expensive and are still bulkier than a chronograph watch.
Weight and Display
Physically, we preferred watches that are lightweight with a clear, easy-to-read screen. Lightweight, so you don’t notice it on your wrist. And a clear display is key to seeing the watch mid-run, especially if you are in a race or doing speedwork.
We want enough power to get through several runs without a recharge. Most new watches have a great battery life. Many people shopping for a deal (because who doesn’t love a deal) choose an older model that’s been discontinued. While these are often a great deal, they often are big and have inferior batteries.
We liked watches that made it easy to upload runs to a computer or phone. Most current GPS watches will sync wirelessly to a phone using Bluetooth.
GPS watches today are loaded with features. There is a direct correlation between price and number of features.
Some of the better features include:
- Interval timers that gave audible alerts at pre-set time intervals (great for doing a run/walk program or timed speed work)
- Programmable workouts like distance-based intervals and fully customized workouts
- Wrist heart rate monitors
- Text and other alerts (when paired with a phone)
- Cadence, elevation, and post-run recovery tracking
- Music storage
Simplicity and User Experience
Sometimes you just want to go for a run. And if you are spending time setting up your watch, adjusting data screens, or just trying to get the watch to work – that’s a downside to us.
We like watches that were intuitive and easy to use.
We didn’t put too much weight on accuracy for the GPS watches. Accuracy is incredibly variable in terms of overall distance and especially real-time pace. Factors including tree and cloud cover, nearby buildings, and terrain all play a role in GPS accuracy. And with current GPS technology, all the watches we cover in this list are very accurate over the long haul.
How much do running watches cost?
Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $600 for the best GPS running watches. A bare-bones discontinued GPS watch can be found for as little as $50, but a better Garmin budget watch will probably cost about $100. These will typically give you time, pace, and distance.
The cost rises as more features are added. We feel like the best GPS watch for most runners is the Garmin Forerunner 245 which costs $300. Here you get wrist heart rate, a large, easy-to-read screen, a good battery, and more features to help you train better.
If you don’t care about GPS, a basic chrono watch costs as little as $15 although we like the Timex Ironman watches which do a better job counting laps and look nicer.
How do I choose the best GPS running watch?
For the long answer, check out our article on buying a GPS watch.
But the shorter answer is that you need to decide where your budget meets the features you want.
Do you want a basic GPS watch? Would you like wrist heart rate or programmable workouts? Will you use it for other activities besides running? High-end watches usually have a better battery and do a good job tracking cycling, swimming, and skiing.
One other thing to consider is that as more features are added to a watch, the more complicated it becomes. So do you value simplicity over features? GPS watches are fairly sophisticated pieces of technology. They are made to be as user-friendly as possible, but when you have hundreds of features that are controlled by a few buttons, there can be a learning curve.
I heard Meb Keflezighi wears an Epson watch – should I buy one?
Epson – despite being a printer company – actually makes some decent GPS watches. They don’t cost too much and have a pretty good battery.
That being said, Meb (and any other elite runners) get endorsement money to wear certain products. This doesn’t mean they are good or bad. It just means Meb is getting a check to wear it.
So if you want to emulate a certain athlete, do some research to make sure what they are using is actually a good product.