Running with a GPS watch can be a huge advantage; you can use it to maintain a pace, check distance, altitude, get directions and of course to download the data from to review with a post run coffee.
However, with so many running watches on the market it can be confusing to know what you should be looking for. In this guide we take a look at the best GPS running watches and review which features are a necessity and which are simply a nice to have to enable you to find the perfect watch.
The Best GPS Watches For Running
Garmin Forerunner 235
Lightweight, feature packed and really easy to use, although the Optical Heart Rate function might not be the most accurate all of the time.
Without a doubt one of the best GPS running watches on the market; the Forerunner 235 uses Optical Heart Rate technology, gathering data from the wrist rather than a chest strap (although, a chest strap can be used). The watch is thin and noticeable light – certainly one of the lightest that we’ve tested. The in built accelerometer measures data such as cadence and stride length, and is useful while running indoors on a tradmill as it does a fantastic job estimating pace and distance. The Forerunner 235 is simple to use and the screens can be tailored to your personal preference with the option to display 4 fields per screen.
You can create simple workouts on the fly using the watch interface and more complicated sessions can be created on the Garmin App and transferred to the device.
The Garmin Forerunner 235 features a useful ‘Finish Time Predictor’ which uses speed and distance calculations to predict what time you will finish your run in which is fantastic for racing. We particularly like the cadence data which helps you work on running efficiency watch also comes with an in-built predictor of recovery time and estimates your VO2 max, allowing you to track fitness improvements.
The Garmin 235 also doubles as an activity tracker meaning that it will track your daily steps, calories and sleep pattern.
Suunto Ambit3 Run
A good choice for mountain runners who want the benefit of navigation features. Size can mean that this isn’t an every day choice for some runners and lacks activity tracking.
The Ambit 3 Run is a solid, chunky watch and the heaviest on that we’ve tested. While this wont be an everyday watch for some (although it does have a certain rugged appeal) it does give you confidence that no matter what the trail throws at you, this watch can certainly handle it.
While heart rate recording is done via chest strap, the Suunto Ambit 3 Run made our list of best GPS running watches partly down to the fact that you can set the GPS recording intervals to either 1, 5 or 60 seconds giving the watch 10, 15 or 100 hours of battery life making it an excellent choice for ultra athletes.
All the major configuration is done via the Suunto Movescount app which allows you to set everything up just how you’d like it.
This is truly a rugged watch best suited to trail and mountain running; the unit features digital compas, GPS altimeter and displays grid references. You can upload GPX checkpoints to the device and follow the on-screen directions.
An attractive watch packed with useful training features and one of the better value for money GPS running watches on the market.
The sleek M400 is a running watch and activity tracker which tracks steps, calories and promotes a more healthy lifestyle. It uses a chest strap to record heart rate and has an inbuilt accelerometer to measure movement and calculate cadence. Set up and configuration is done via the Polar Flow website and app which allows you to configure your training screens. The polar M400 features audible alerts to keep you in the right zones and a wealth of data is available mid-run via scrolling screens. What really elevated this watch and helped it to make our list of best gps running watches is the fact that it has a pretty cool ‘back to start’ function that allows you to get back to your start point should you get lost.
The Polar M400 features a ‘smart coaching’ function that gives you post run analysis after each session telling you more about the benefits gained from each session.
TomTom Runner 2 Cardio + Music
Suits runners who like their music while training. Easy to operate and stylish enough to wear as an everyday watch.
The TomTom uses Optical heart Rate technology that does away with a chest strap and takes heart rate data from the skin at the top of the wrist which is a great feature for those who find chest straps to be uncomfortable or restrictive.
The TomTom Runner 2 has the ability to store up to 3GB of music which it sends to the supplied wireless headphones.
Along with a running mode the TomTom has a swim, cycle, gym and treadmill mode. While the device has plenty of features one that really stands out is the ability to ‘race’ against previous times. The TomTom Runner 2 also allows you to set training zones and will alert you should you slip out of zone. For new runners looking for an easy to use watch, this is certainly one of the best GPS running watches out there.
What To Look For In A GPS Running Watch
While the main purpose of a GPS watch for many runners is to keep an accurate log of their mileage, they can be extremely useful to get more from your training. Lap timers can help you plan your interval training while the ability to download your training data and upload it to Strava or TrainingPeaks can really help those athletes with coaches.
When buying a GPS running watch, there are 3 features that all watches need and 3 additional features that you’ll want to look out for.
It goes without saying that battery life is extremely important when considering which running watch to go for – the last thing you’ll want is to be half way through a long training session only to have your watch shut down due to low battery! Some models allow you to set the rate at which they gather data which allows you to preserve battery life – extremely useful for those ultra distance athletes.
While many watches now connect with our phones, you’ll want to find a watch that allows you to set audible or vibrate alerts to let you know when you slip out of a target heart rate zone or pace.
Heart Rate Data
While many running watches now come with a built in ‘optical heart rate sensor’ you shouldn’t discount those watches that require an additional heart rate strap. The main thing you should look for is that heart rate is available through one means or another.
Each brand will come with its own proprietary training software and interface. It’s worth noting that some such as the Garmin operating system are significantly more intuitive than others.
For mountain and trail runners some watches come with the ability to not only provide you with altitude, compass bearing or even a longitude and latitude but also the ability to load routes straight to your device and follow the route from your watch.
Some of the best GPS running watches now come loaded with ‘smart’ technology that can allow you to do everything from taking calls and reading text messages on your device right through to automatically uploading your training data.
When To Use A GPS Running Watch
A GPS running watch is a crucial tool for helping you get more from your run training and racing.
When you combine a GPS running watch, heart rate data and a long run, something great happens. Everyone knows that a long run should be easy and steady, however, very few of us properly pace our long runs. Using your GPS watch to track heart rate means that you have more visibility of heart rate and can help ensure that you stick to around 75% of your max heart rate – the sweet spot for long runs.