When you’re training for an event, you want a quick way to track your progress. The best running watches are more than just a way to log how many miles you’ve run. When you find ones with the right features, they can be powerful training tools that you can use to your advantage.
Quick Look: Our Top Picks
How Tech Savvy Are You?
Do you shudder at the idea of learning the ins and outs of a new running watch? Or do you gleefully play with new buttons and features on every device you buy?
Your comfort level with technology makes a big difference as to what type of watch you should buy. If a watch has 10 different features, but you don’t want to take the time to learn any of them, you should look for a basic model that won’t be a waste of your money.
If you’ll never use it because you’re intimidated by the eight different buttons and the inch thick user’s guide that comes with it, you should look for a simpler one.
On the flip side, if you are let down by how simplistic a watch is, you should look for one with a few more bells and whistles.
What Should You Look for in a Good Running Watch?
Today’s watches have some incredible features. If you find the right watch, all you need to worry about is showing up and doing your workout -- the watch can do most of the heavy lifting. Here are some features you might want to consider when buying a watch.
Price: If you don’t have much to spend, you may have to settle for a watch that doesn’t offer top-of-the-line features, like recommended recovery time displays.
GPS: GPS is a great tool -- it lets you know how far you’ve run. In the old days of running, you’d map your distance out with your car before or after you ran your course to see how far you went. GPS isn’t always 100 percent accurate, but it gives you a great indication how far your run was, so most runners want this function on their running watches.
Can it help track your PRs?: Don’t just consider what your current goals are. Do some soul-searching and figure out where you want to be as a runner a few years down the road. If you want to continually beat your PRs year after year, you’ll want a watch that can go the distance with you. You might not use all the features on the watch right now, but you might need them in the not-so-very-distant future.
Recovery time calculations: If you’re the type who doesn’t like to go one single day without a run, it might help you if your watch offers you information about how much recovery time you need after a run. Seeing a number of hours, or even days, in print might help you take your recovery time a little more seriously. That, in turn, can ward off injuries.
You need a training plan: Many running watches provide training plans that can help you train for races you haven’t done before, whether they’re 5ks or marathons. If you’re a runner who is planning to tackle a new running goal, that might interest you.
If knowing your heart rate is important to you: If you’re following a very specific training regimen that calls for you to be in a certain heart rate zone for a particular number of minutes, you’d get a lot of use out of a heart rate monitor. If you prefer not to know your heart rate and you just let your perceived exertion levels be your guide, you might not need this function.
How long your runs will be: There’s nothing worse than being in mile 20 of a marathon only to look down and realize your watch stopped working because of a low-battery. Many watches will deliver five hours of power, but if you are an ultra runner, you’ll need something with longer staying power.
If you want help with your running form: If you’re more than the weekend warrior sort of runner and will do anything to get to the next level, you might want a higher-end watch that helps you with your form. Some watches will monitor your cadence and vertical oscillation for you. Having that information might increase your running efficiency or even ward off injuries if you use that information to correct poor form.
If you like to run indoors: If you’re running indoors, your GPS function won’t cut it when it comes to measuring distance. You’ll want a watch with an internal accelerometer to get around this problem.
The ability to customize interval training sessions: If you’re trying to break through to the next level with your training, interval sessions can be your best friend. With proper interval sessions, you can become faster and fitter.
The 5 Best Running Watches
For all you runners out there who want a basic, easy-to-operate watch, this is a great pick. It’s one of the most affordable watches out there for what it offers. And the best part for runners who aren’t tech savvy is that it has only four buttons that are user-friendly.
- You’ll get a GPS feature that measures distance accurately.
- It will track your speed and pace, as well as the calories you’ve burned during your workout.
- For extra motivation during your runs, you can set a virtual pace that will beep if you fall below your goal pace. That comes in handy during races when you set it to beat your current PR.
- You’ll have a few color options with this watch, including some bright, fun colors.
- Quickly acquires satellites for GPS tracking.
- The face of this watch isn’t too big and bulky, compared to other watches.
- If you’ve set a new PR, this watch will let you know.
- This watch is really affordable compared to others on the market.
- You can upload your data on the computer and study your stats like elevation gains and it will trace the route you took.
- This watch doesn’t work indoors very well.
- Battery only holds power for 5 hours tops.
This watch should fit into most runner’s price range. It offers a battery life that will get the slowest of marathoners through their race.
- The battery lasts up to 8 hours.
- It has an extra large display screen so runners who don’t have perfect vision will easily be able to see their statistics.
- It comes with a built-in GPS and a heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor uses an optical sensor.
- This watch also comes with five intensity zones, which can help move your training along.
- It will measure your pace, as well as speed, distance, and how many calories you have burned.
- You can use it indoors as well as outside.
- It offers Bluetooth Smart Connectivity.
- This watch is waterproof, so running in the rain is no problem.
- Its interval training lets you set beeps and vibrations to alert you to changes in the routine.
- The heart rate monitor isn’t always accurate -- it can show a significantly higher heart rate than what you have. This can cause your workouts to be less intense.
- The Bluetooth connection doesn’t work the greatest with your phone apps, which can be a big problem for runners who don’t want to fuss with connection problems every time they want to upload data.
3. Garmin Forerunner 230
Garmin is one of the most popular watch brands with runners for a reason -- they offer quality, long-lasting performance for a reasonable price. The Forerunner 230 is another winner they’ve produced.
- You can buy this model either with or without a heart rate monitor. It’s nice that runners have the choice instead of simply being stuck with whatever this model offers.
- It has a high-resolution color display face, which is nice because you won’t get that grainy writing that some watches have.
- This is a beast for indoor use because it has a built-in accelerometer that will gauge both pace and distance. The accelerometer will also come in handy when you’re running outdoors, but you go through a tunnel.
- If you want to keep all your fans updated about your progress, you can use the live tracking and social media updates that the phone offers.
- It will alert you when you’ve just smoked your own record.
- This watch is compatible with Garmin Connect’s free training plans.
- If you want to be notified if your heart rate or pace isn’t where you want it to be, you can set up alerts.
- The pace alarm can be wrong if you’re running through tunnels or bridges. That can cause you to think you’re on track when you aren’t, which is big to runners who are going for PRs.
- The display face scratches fairly easily.
4. Polar RC3 GPS Sports Watch
This watch is an option for runners who are looking for a way to increase their performance and don’t want to pay much to do it.
- This watch has both GPS and a heart rate monitor.
- The RC3 won’t make you feel like you’re lifting weights each time you lift your arm -- it’s lightweight.
- The rechargeable battery can get you up to 12 hours of GPS use, which is more than enough time for most training needs.
- It offers options that analyze your training efforts, like running index and training benefit.
- You’ll always know your altitude both during your run and after when you’re analyzing your data.
- This watch is compatible with polarpersonaltrainer.com, which is a training diary you get free access to.
- It tracks how many calories you’ve burned.
- It isn’t waterproof.
- You can’t change the level of brightness on the display watch -- what you see is what you get.
- The GPS won’t work well indoors, so if you like to train inside, you’ll want to find a different watch.
- The GPS takes a few minutes to find an accurate signal, which might annoy some runners who want it to work instantaneously.
The Fenix 3 is like the Cadillac of Garmin’s running watches. This thing can do everything, and as a result, it’s much pricier than many other watches.
- This GPS watch measures your heart rate on your wrist, which means you won’t have to wear a pesky chest strap.
- The Fenix 3 comes with a 1.2-inch high-resolution color display that you’ll be able to see even on sunny days.
- You can run in the rain, or even swim while wearing this watch.
- When you come across Wi-Fi hotspots, you can sync your stats with Garmin Connect.
- You can use this watch to monitor your sleep, for a fuller picture of all the variables that might influence how well you run.
- It tracks how many calories you’ve burned.
- This offers training features that will give you an edge -- vertical oscillation, vertical ratio, cadence, VO2 max and advice about recovery time.
- It has a 3-axis compass, barometer and altimeter, and TracBack.
- The GPS signal picks up quickly and is accurate.
- This watch is big and heavy, which may be offputting for some runners.
- It’s hard to figure out how to operate because there are so many features. This watch has a pretty steep learning curve.
And the winner is …
Everyone’s opinion is going to vary when it comes to which watch is best because we all have different needs. But my favorite is the Garmin Forerunner 10. I hate watches that are difficult to operate, and this watch is the simplest one I’ve ever found. Even non-techie people like me can figure it out.
It tracks my distance and does a great job of it. I do most of my running outside, so the GPS not working indoors isn’t a big deal for me. It doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, but that’s not a deal-breaker to me because I like to go by my perceived effort anyway.
The price is right for my budget, and it’s not so expensive that I would be heartbroken if it stopped working. And, the fit feels comfortable. Other watches I tried felt too big and heavy. They distracted me when I was running. This one just feels right.