Best Running Watches in 2018
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 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. And 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.
Criteria for the Best Running Watches in 2018
In deciding on the best running watches, we looked for certain features and functionality that we felt would be most beneficial to runners. While most watches can be used for running, some place more of an emphasis on triathletes, hikers, paddlers, and skiers. For this list, we are focusing specifically on running.
Physically, we prefered watches that are lightweight with a clear, easy-to-read screen. Battery-life is important. We want enough power to get through several runs without a recharge. And we liked watches that made it easy to upload runs to a computer or phone.
More than just providing time and pace, we liked watches that made it a little easier to get through different types of runs. Some watches had interval timers that gave audible alerts at pre-set time intervals (great for doing a run/walk program or timed speed work). Other watches allowed even more programmable workouts like distance-based intervals and fully customized workouts.
Simplicity and easy controls were taken into account. Sometimes you just want to go for a run. And if you are spending time setting up your watch, adjusting the data screens, or just trying to get the watch to work – that’s a downside to us.
We also examined the ecosystem built for tracking your runs post-workout. Once you’ve gathered all this great data with your watch, the way to upload and view should be simply and easy to read.
We didn’t put too much weight on accuracy for the GPS watches. Accuracy is incredible 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.
With that being said (drum roll, please), here are our top running watches of 2018….
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 (see the Forerunner 230 below for a non-heart rate option) 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 an activity 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 isn’t the cheapest option out there (**editor’s note: the Forerunner 235 price dropped by $80 effective March 2018**). But it sits in the middle, price-wise, of most GPS watches and has enough features to justify the higher price.
Best Discontinued GPS Watch
Garmin Forerunner 230
For quite a bit less money, the Forerunner 230 is nearly identical the 235. The only feature missing is wrist-based heart rate. You’ll need a chest-strap if you want to monitor heart rate.
Otherwise, the watches are exactly the same in size, features, and customization. Even better, the 230 has been discontinued by Garmin so it often be found at 20-25% off the original $250 cost.
Best Top of the Line Watch
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
Originally released as a triathlon watch (see our full review of triathlon watches here), the Forerunner 735XT is also the best running watch in 2018. It tracks huge amounts of data and provides a ton of extra information and training aids when out on a run. Garmin has recently positioned the 735XT as their replacement to the Forerunner 630, their prior top-end running watch, by dropping the price $50 in mid-2017.
(**editor’s note: the Forerunner 735XT price dropped by $50 effective Nov 2017**)
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 235. 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 735XT better than the Forerunner 235 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 735XT 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 Forerunner 235 (14 hours GPS mode vs. 11 hours) and there are some fun extras like live Strava segments and bread-crumb route navigation.
Best Basic GPS Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
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.
Best Budget GPS Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
If you want a basic GPS watch with wrist heart rate for a better price than the Forerunner 35 ($50 less at the time of publication), the Polar M200 is your best option.
Like the Forerunner 35, 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 35.
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 35. These 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 Basic GPS Without Heart Rate
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 (now off MSRP, so it costs less than its original $140 price) and offers basic GPS functions with some nice add-on features.
Like all of Garmin’s watches, it tracks 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.
Best Budget GPS Watch
Even better, the TomTom Runner retails for about $100; however, you can find it for 20%-40% less on Amazon.
If you want to see our full list of the best budget GPS watches, read this article.
Best GPS Watch with Music
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.
Best Budget GPS Watch with Music
We already like the TomTom Runner as one of our top budget GPS watches. The new Spark 3 Music + Headphones has basic GPS features found on the Runner plus music storage and playback. It even comes with bluetooth headphones that pair with the watch. No longer do you need to bring a phone to listen to music while you run.
We also like that the Spark 3 has programmable intervals for improved training. You can even race against yourself from a past run.
Like many of the GPS watches on the market, this one will count steps and monitor sleep. It’s got a decent battery (11 hours in GPS mode) and wirelessly syncs runs to a phone. For indoor runs, it tracks pace and distance based on cadence.
The TomTom Spark 3 isn’t the most advanced or cheapest watch out there. But it’s one of the few that can store music. Combined with a simple user interface, it’s our best choice for running with music.
Best Non-GPS Watch
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.
Best Budget Non-GPS Watch
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. It’s 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.
How much do running watches cost?
Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $600 for a GPS running watch. 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 235 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 a 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? Do you want features like wrist heart rate or programmable workouts? Do you want to 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 emulate a certain athlete, do some research to make sure what they are using is actually a good product.