The Best Garmin Running Watches in 2018
Every runner has different needs when they run. Whether you run marathons, want to stick to a budget, prefer a multisport watch, or want a little of everything, Garmin has a watch to fit your needs.
Garmin has been at the forefront of GPS watches for years. It’s no accident they have the best running watches on the market. While Garmin’s watches are not inexpensive, you get a great watch that’s durable with terrific technical support and a one-year warranty.
We’ll review the best Garmin watches and explore who they are designed for as well as there best features.
Top 3 Best and Favorites
1. Garmin fenix 5X Plus – Best for All Activities
The fenix 5X Plus is Garmin’s most robust, featured-packed watch. It works great not just for running, but also cycling, swimming, hiking, skiing, paddle sports, plus a ton of other activities.
The first thing that stands out is that this is a big watch. Garmin watches seem to love industrial styles, and this watch is no exception to the rule. With its size comes a large screen with 240 X 240 resolution.
The fenix 5X Plus comes with color street and topo maps that can viewed right on the watch. This is a huge deal when navigating new routes or finding your way on the trails. It also comes with a barometer for elevation tracking. Garmin has built some nice climb and elevation tracking features into the watch.
Wrist heart rate monitoring is standard. And new to the Plus version is Garmin Pay – pay for things directly with your watch. It can also store music and one of the few watches that syncs Spotify playlists.
For running, the fenix 5X Plus can be programmed with workouts or use Garmin’s virtual training features to track pace. Advanced metrics are monitored like cadence, fitness level, and fitness recovery time.
Battery performance is still pretty good (not as good as older fenix watches). You’ll get 20 days in regular watch mode. 13 hours in GPS mode.
Watch bands and the watch face can be customized quickly and easily.
- Tons of running features
- On-screen topo and street maps
- Large display
- The watch runs big and some users with smaller wrists may not get the right fit
- Very expensive
2. Garmin Forerunner 935 – Best Multi-sport Watch
The Forerunner 935 is the top of the line watch for triathletes. Like the fenix 5X Plus, it has tons of features for runners, cyclists, and swimmers alike. It has an extended battery life designed for long workouts or races – up to 24 hours in GPS mode.
Like the fenix, it can track a long list of activities. In fact, the Forerunner 935 and fenix series are very similar. The biggest difference is the thinner and sleek design of the 935. It has a plastic casing, so it’s not quite as robust. But the thinner design makes it easier to peel off a wet suit during a tri.
For runners, get advanced metrics including training status and training load. These help evaluate your runs to ensure you don’t under or over train. It also helps with form when paired with Garmin’s Running Pod. This little device tracks cadence, foot strike, and how much you bounce up and down. Together, it will help improve the efficiency of your running form.
Like most of Garmin’s watches, the Forerunner 935 has wrist-based heart rate monitoring. But you can also wear a standard chest strap for more accurate tracking. The 935 can be purchased with stronger heart rate monitors to wear while open or pool swimming.
Triathletes can track open and pool swims. Transitions at triathlons are smooth with one-button switching between activities.
For Strava users, the Forerunner 935 syncs with Strava to let you know when you are starting and finishing a segment. It also lets you know when you’ve hit a new PR for that segment.
- Extended battery life
- Sleek and comfortable design
- Able to view four screens simultaneously
- Expensive compared to some similar products
3. Garmin Forerunner 645 – Best Running Watch with Music
The Forerunner 645 is Garmin’s best running watch. It was also its first with music storage. Listen to music on the go while leaving your phone behind.
Once paired with your Bluetooth headphones, it’s easy to get started listening to music on your watch. Currently, it supports iHeartRadio, local music stations, and music stored directly on the watch. The Forerunner 645 offers robust music controls, allowing you to play, pause, skip tracks, organize your playlist, and change music all from the watch.
The Forerunner 645 is also a robust running watch. It’s lightweight, small, and has a soft, flexible rubber band that’s comfortable to wear.
The Forerunner 645 also gives you elevation information, wrist heart rate monitoring, and VO2 max readouts. The watch also recommends how long of a recovery time you should take while advising how hard you should push yourself on the next run to maximize your workout.
Like many of Garmin’s watches, it doubles as a fitness tracker. It will count steps, track sleep, and provide smartphone notifications that help you keep track of your goals all day.
The battery life is pretty good… unless you are listening to music. Up to 14 hours in GPS mode. But only 5 hours when running with music.
- Can sync up with Bluetooth compatible headsets
- Easy controls for music
- Streams local radio and iHeartRadio
- Some consumers reported difficulty getting their watch to recognize MP3 files
- Runners noticed that Bluetooth could get cut off if they move their wrist wrong
- Poor battery life when listening to music
4. Garmin Forerunner 735XT – Top Budget Triathlon Watch
As far as the Forerunner line goes, this watch is one of the better versions if you’re on a budget. It features a sleek design with an easy to read screen and feels light on your wrist. Like the 935, this watch is geared towards triathletes. But it functions incredible well for running.
The 735XT comes in two colors, black and frost blue. The straps are rubberized but easy and wide enough to fasten quickly. The resolution is good although not as sharp as the 935.
The Forerunner 735XT can be programmed with running workouts. It also tracks advanced running form metrics with the Garmin Running Pod. It has a wrist heart rate monitor but can be paired with a traditional chest strap.
Multi-sport athletes will appreciate the swim tracking in pool and open water. Cycling tracking is also good – the 735XT can be paired with various cycling accessories.
You might be wondering how this watch differs from the 935. First, the battery isn’t as strong. Expect up to 14 hours in GPS mode vs. 24 on the 935.
It lacks the breadcrumb map and navigation features found on the 935. It also lacks a barometer for accurate elevation data.
But at $150 less than the 935, it’s a great option for runners or triathletes who want a budget-friendly watch.
- Big display
- Budget friendly price
- Customizable training modes
- Comfortable and light
- Limited color options
- Less battery compared to the 935
5. Garmin vivoactive 3 – Best Smartwatch for Running
The vivoactive 3 is Garmin’s version of a smartwatch. It’s made for everyday wear, but has GPS tracking that make it well suited for running.
Like most of Garmin’s watches, the vivoactive 3 has wrist heart rate, doubles as a fitness tracker, and provides phone notifications on the watch face.
But the vivoactive 3 has some added features for casual wear. You can download multiple watch faces and apps for a customized display. It has Garmin Pay for on-the-go payments. And it combines a touch screen with a single button to control the watch. Interestingly, you can flip the phone upside down to move the button for wearing on either wrist.
The vivoactive 3 comes in a sleek design. It’s one of the few that Garmin made to look more like a standard watch, tossing out the bulky, rugged look for a more sleek and modern design. This model is a more affordable option to the pricey fenix 5X, but still comes with a large batch of features for running and working out.
In addition to tracking time, pace, and distance, the vivoactive 3 has auto-pause, advanced workouts, and downloadable training plans. LiveTrack is available – this feature allows friends and family to track your location on a map in real-time, great for trying to find you in big races.
The vivoactive 3 has a secure strap that’s easy to get on and a 1.2-inch diameter screen with 240 X 240-pixel display. The watch is waterproof up to 50 meters, wear it in the shower or the pool. The screen is fashioned out of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 to really make this watch durable.
The vivoactive 3 comes in two options: with or without music. The music version costs about $50 more, but allows you to store music on the watch for listening without a phone.
- Good display
- Corning Gorilla Glass makes it durable
- Affordable without compromising features or looks
- iOS users can’t respond to texts
- Lacks some of the robust running features found on other Garmin’s
6. Garmin Forerunner 235 – Top Running Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
The Forerunner 235 is Garmin’s go-to running watch. With a color screen, good battery, and wrist-heart rate offered at a great price, the 235 is great watch for runners of all experience levels.
The Forerunner 235 is lightweight and comfortable. It has a large, color display with clear resolution. It comes in 3 different color options. The band is made with light silicon that helps keep its comfortable feel, and as an added plus, the silicon helps keep runners cool.
The Forerunner 235 tracks distance, pace, and time. It doubles as a fitness tracker and counts steps and monitors sleep. For runners, the watch has advanced workouts and interval training. It uses heart rate to determine your VO2 max and to track how effective your training runs are.
With the Garmin Connect app, data is automatically uploaded when near your phone. You’ll also receive phone notifications on the watch.
The Forerunner 235 has been out for a few years now. It may be on the end of its Garmin lifecycle – i.e. it might be discontinued at some point in the near future. But it’s still a nice watch offered at a good price.
- Large, color screen
- Lightweight design
- Good value
- Hasn’t been updated in a couple of years, may be out of date soon
7. Garmin Forerunner 35 – Best Basic Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
Garmin’s Forerunner 35 is their best basic GPS watch. This watch has GPS, wrist heart rate monitor, tracks your steps, and offers basic smartphone notifications. This watch is perfect if you want a basic, but stylish GPS watch.
The design of the Forerunner 35 resembles an Apple watch. It has a black and white, square-shaped display. The display features 128 X 128-pixel resolution, easy to read and brighter than other models that are a similar price. A pretty good battery with up to 13 hours in GPS mode.
The watch tracks time, pace, and distance with GPS for outdoor runs. But it also has profiles to track indoor runs, cardio, walking, and biking. You can program intervals on the watch. Or for beginner runners, you can program run/walk intervals (i.e. 60 sec run / 60 sec walk).
It may not be as flashy as other Forerunner models, but the 35 allows you to receive smartphone notifications from your watch. You can read texts, see who is calling, and have the ability to accept or deny each call without lifting your phone.
- Nice design and look
- Good battery life
- No advanced running features
8. Garmin Forerunner 230 – Best Budget Running Watch
Garmin’s Forerunner 230 is an excellent budget-friendly watch that offers features to help bring out the best in their runners, especially ones that are looking to increase their 10k score. With the ability to create custom workouts and training plans for free from Garmin’s Connect desktop app, this watch may be just what you need to give your next marathon the edge it needs.
While the Forerunner 230 isn’t equipped with a heart rate monitor, it can pair up with chest-strapped heart rate monitors. The 230 does have a recovery advisor implemented that provides real-time assessments of your recovery within the first few minutes.
Garmin’s Training Effects feature will lay out an easy to understand five-point scale of your work out that gives you a comprehensive look at where your strengths and weaknesses are. Personal Records helps keep you motivated by alerting you when you’ve achieved a new personal best so you can always strive to go farther with every workout.
- The screen is 44 percent larger than 225 models.
- VO2 Max Estimates.
- Essential running data.
- No wrist heart rate sensor.
8. Garmin Forerunner 25 – Best Simple Watch
When all you need is a simple running watch, the Forerunner 25 is a perfect fit. The design of the watch is simple. It track time, speed, and distance. No wrist heart rate and no advanced running features. Just a basic watch with GPS.
The Forerunner 25 has a square shape, thicker than most of Garmin’s other watches. The screen carries a 128 X 128-pixel black and white display.
There are four color options: black and blue, black and red, white and pink, and black and purple. The black/blue, and black/red versions come with a larger watch face and longer battery. The smaller versions are a better fit for small wrists.
While the watch is basic, it does have a few features. It syncs wirelessly to the Garmin Connect Mobile app via Bluetooth to upload runs. It acts as a fitness tracker and counts steps, monitors sleep, and sets daily step goals. When it’s near a phone, you’ll also receive phone notifications.
Expect a 10 hour battery for the larger sized 25s and up to 8 on the smaller watches. Not great, but at about $99, it’s hard to find an equally good watch at this price.
- Easy to use
- No heart rate monitor
- Average battery life
9. Garmin vivosport – Best Fitness Tracker for Running
If you are just getting started running – or prefer to have a fitness tracker that can function as a running watch – the vivosport is Garmin’s best option.
The watch is primarily for tracking steps, sleep, and general working out. But it has GPS for accurate run tracking. It also has wrist heart rate for all-day heart rate monitoring.
It’s a slim, lightweight design. Good battery life with 7 days in non-GPS mode – 8 hours in GPS mode. It can’t store music. But you can control music from your phone directly on the watch with its nice touchscreen, color display.
We wouldn’t recommend this watch for experienced runners. But if you have a basic fitness routine that includes outdoor running, the vivosport is a good option for accurate outdoor tracking.
- Lightweight, easy to use
- Sleek design
- Good battery life
- Good value for price
- No advanced running features
- Small-ish display