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The best running watch 2021: GPS watches to track your workouts

Woman running by a road, checking her running watch
(Image credit: Rido / Shutterstock)

We've put the latest running watches through their paces so you can pick the perfect GPS running buddy. Each of GPS watches will provide you with a wealth of information both during your run and afterwards, helping you track your progress and plan your training, and we've tested and ranked them to help you pick the right one for you.

Accurate GPS is a must, as are excellent biometrics (including heart rate and blood oxygen saturation), plus training tools to help you get the most from your sessions. We test each watch on a pre-measured course, and compare their heart rate data with figures from a chest-strap heart rate monitor to see how they measure up. We've also put their various training tools to the test, making sure they're genuinely useful and not just fancy add-ons. 

We've picked the very best watches for runners of every level, from beginners to ultra-runners, and each one listed here is the very best in its class.

If you're in need of some new footwear too, take a look at our guide to the best running shoes, where we've tested and ranked the best options available today.

The best running watches

Garmin Forerunner 945 with black band

The Garmin Forerunner 945 is our top rated running watch of 2021 (Image credit: Garmin)

The best watch for goal-chasing amateurs and serious athletes

Reasons to buy
+Accurate GPS and biometrics+Full-color maps+Excellent battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

The Garmin Forerunner 945 is the best running watch of 2021, packing everything a runner could want. Its location-tracking and biometrics are particularly accurate, and it's packed with genuinely useful training tools to help you get more from your runs.

One of our favorite features is the Training Load monitor, which measures your training over the last seven days and tells you whether you should dial it back to avoid over-training, or push yourself harder to improve fitness. Combined with the Body Battery function that measures how well you've recovered from the previous day's exertions, this helps you make every training run as effective as possible.

We were also particularly impressed by the full-color on-screen maps, which make navigation easy on such a display, and the sheer degree of customization on offer. Building your own interval sessions around time or distance, or example, is surprisingly straightforward.

The Garmin Fenix 6 is a classier looking running watch, but the Forerunner 945 balances that out with a slightly more affordable price, and is a superb training aid for the serious athlete, making it the best running watch overall.

Read our full Garmin Forerunner 945 review

Coros Pace 2 with blue band

The Coros Pace 2 has impressive specifications for a mid-range price (Image credit: Coros)

A lightweight, feature-packed mid-range running watch

Reasons to buy
+Extra light design+Excellent satellite positioning+High-res display
Reasons to avoid
-Screen is dark without backlight

The Coros Pace 2 is a superb mid-range running watch that's super lightweight, but heavy on features. At just 29g, it's barely noticeable on the wrist, but includes several features we'd expect to find in more expensive running watches, including an 'AI trainer' to help you manage your training load in preparation for events; interval, triathlon, and multi-sport modes; and compatibility with third-party sensors like chest-strap heart rate monitors and foot pods.

Positioning is excellent, with GPS supplemented by GLONASS and Beidu positioning (GALILEO support is coming in a future update). If you do happen to stray off the radar (in a tunnel, for example) the watch automatically calculates your cadence and stride length so you can keep monitoring your progress.

In our tests, our only complaint was that the screen was a little dim and could be tricky to read in daylight without a tap of the backlight button, which puts a small dent in its otherwise impressive battery life, but that's a small gripe. This is one of the best running watches around, and will serve road runners well.

Read our full Coros Pace 2 review

Garmin Instinct Solar with black band

The Garmin Instinct Solar is one of the toughest, most practical running watches around (Image credit: Garmin)

A tough watch that's perfect for serious distance runners

Reasons to buy
+Extremely long battery life+Advanced training tools+Highly accurate location tracking
Reasons to avoid
-Large, chunky design

The Garmin Instinct Solar is a super-tough running watch that has incredible battery life thanks to its photovoltaic glass lens, which keeps it topped up so you can go weeks between charges.

The regular Garmin Instinct is an excellent watch, and the Instinct Solar builds on its (extremely) solid foundation with new features like a pulse oximeter for tracking changes to blood oxygen saturation. Together with heart rate variability, this helps the watch (together with the Garmin Connect app) estimate your stress levels throughout the day so you can take action to manage them.

As you'd expect from a Garmin device, GPS positioning is accurate and reliable, and the Instinct Solar offers several great features that make it a wise choice for off-road expeditions, including TracBack navigation to help you get back to your starting point, and support for Garmin InReach satellite communications if you're going truly off-grid.

Its rugged plastic shell means the Instinct Solar isn't the best looking Garmin watch, but for heading off the beaten path on multi-day events, it's tough to beat.

Read our full Garmin Instinct Solar review

Garmin Fenix 6 with black band

The Garmin Fenix 6 is a top-end running watch, with a price to match (Image credit: Garmin)

The range-topping multisport Fenix gets an impressive upgrade

Reasons to buy
+Super accurate activity tracking+Intuitive use of widgets+Customizable battery saver
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive

If you're looking for a top-performing multi-sports and adventure watch, this latest, refreshed version of Garmin's Fenix line is as good as it gets - if your budget will stretch to it,

While its training tools are impressive, above all, the Fenix 6 is dependable. The heart rate monitor is accurate and unlike many running watches, also works underwater (great for triathletes or cross-training workouts). GPS connectivity is fast and reliable too, and we were impressed by the accuracy of the watch's on-board altimeter when testing it in the Alps.

Battery life is shorter than that of the Garmin Instinct Solar, but the Fenix 6 will still keep running for two weeks in regular use, or 36 hours with GPS in continuous use. For longer treks, check out the Fenix 6X, which boosts these number of 21 days and 60 hours respectively.

The Fenix 6 is a fantastic running watch, but its price will be a limiting factor for many runners. However, we've seen some significant discounts recently, so if you've got your heart set on it, then waiting a little while for a sale may pay off. We may well see a Fenix 7 released before long, which would cause its price to drop even further - stay tuned.

Read our full Garmin Fenix 6 review

Coros Apex with black band

The Coros Apex offers impressive navigation tools for wayfinding on and off the beaten path (Image credit: Coros)

A super smart training partner, packed with useful insights

Reasons to buy
+Intuitive interface+Smart, uncluttered design+Superb companion app
Reasons to avoid
-Screen lacks brightness

If you take your running seriously but the Garmin Forerunner 945 and Fenix 6 are too much for your budget, the Coros Apex is a great alternative, providing you with a vast pool of training data that you can put to good use.

This is a serious running watch built for data buffs. Working on increasing your cadence? Want to check your training load for the week? It’s all there, at your fingertips. GPS tracking is accurate (with impressively detailed maps), and Intelligent Stride Algorithm tracks your cadence and stride length over time so it can keep an accurate record even if your training run takes you through a tunnel and out of satellite range.

We were also impressed by the Apex's navigation tools, which make it a great running watch if you're interested in changing up your training and exploring new routes.

Like the Coros Pace 2, we found the display a little dark in daylight conditions, but enabling the gesture-activated backlight solves that problem neatly, providing a clear views of your pace, distance and heart rate mid-run without putting too much drain on the battery.

Read our full Coros Apex review

Polar Vantage V2 with black band

The Polar Vantage V2 provides some of the most impressive recovery stats of any running watch we've tested (Image credit: Polar)

A running watch to fine-tune and track your training

Reasons to buy
+Training and recovery insights+Excellent companion app
Reasons to avoid
-Laggy touchscreen-Limited set of watch faces

The Polar Vantage V2 shares a lot of DNA with the Polar Grit X (below), putting a wealth of biometric data and training tools at your fingertips, but the V2 has a few extras that we believe give it the edge and make it the best running watch for heading off-road.

The most important of these is a new fitness test, which gives you numerical values for your VO2 max, maximal aerobic power, and maximal aerobic speed. Repeating the test at a later date will give you a measurable indication of how your fitness is improving over time.

The Vantage V2 is lighter than the Grit X too, tipping the scales at 52g compared the the Grit X's 64g. That weight difference is down to a construction that uses aluminum rather than plastic and stainless steel. It's a less rugged look, but this is still a seriously tough device that can take all the knocks you throw at it.

The two are almost the same price, so unless you're particularly fond of the Grit X's chunkier looks (which is a perfectly valid preference) then we'd opt for the V2.

Read our full Polar Vantage V2 review

Polar Grit X with black band

The Polar Grit X has exceptional battery life, and will help long distance runners manage nutrition and hydration (Image credit: Polar)

The best running watch for multi-day events

Reasons to buy
+In-depth recovery insights+Responsive training suggestions+Superb companion app
Reasons to avoid
-Five-day battery life

As its name suggests, the Polar Grit X is built for serious athletes planning to their their adventures off the beaten track. If you're looking for a slightly more affordable alternative to the Garmin Fenix 6, this could be the best running watch for you.

Polar made its name in heart-rate monitoring tech, and as you'd expect, the Grit X offers super accurate biometrics. That data is put to good use too, with adaptive fuelling advice to help you stay hydrated and avoid bonking during long runs, plus recovery insights so you know how long to rest for, and when it's time to lace up your running shoes again.

There are intervals, timers and race pace options for training sessions, plus support for Strava Live segments if you're feeling particularly competitive.

All of those features are shared with the Polar Vantage V2 above, which also offers some more advanced training tools, but if those sound surplus to your running requirements and you like more rugged looks then the Polar Grit X is worth serious consideration.

If you're looking for something even tougher, and a little lighter, Polar recently added another two models: the Polar Grit X Pro and Grit X Titan. We're currently testing the Grit X Pro and will bring you a full review very soon.

Read our full Polar Grit X review

Garmin Enduro with gray band

The Garmin Enduro offer incredible battery life (Image credit: Garmin)

Brilliant battery life that's great for distance runners

Reasons to buy
+Excellent battery life+Wide range of sports covered+Good smartwatch features
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks full topo mapping

The Garmin Enduro runs similar software to Fenix 6, number four on our list, and has a similar display. But there’s one major way it stands out from this, and indeed all other Garmin watches: battery life.

The Enduro can go up to 65 days in smartwatch mode, and offers 80 hours of GPS battery life, when you factor in solar power. And if you keep operations to the basic minimum, the Garmin Eunduro will keep going for anywhere between 130 days and one year. 

In general, the Enduro gives you pretty much everything you could want to track runs. It provides advanced fitness tracking metrics and offers sleep monitoring too. Features include a barometric altimeter, a heart rate monitor, a pulse ox monitor, 24/7 fitness tracking and smartwatch features like notifications and payments. 

You don’t get full topographical mapping like you do on Garmin’s Fenix and Forerunner 945 watches. And it’s price will be prohibitive for many. But if you’re seeking a big, light watch that's a real battery powerhouse, the Enduro has a lot to offer. 

Read our full Garmin Enduro review

Apple Watch 7 with Starlight case and Marigold band

The Apple Watch 7 benefits from a wide range of third-party running apps from the likes of Strava and Runkeeper (Image credit: Apple)

The best running watch for regular everyday wear

Reasons to buy
+Always-on display+Sleep tracking+Third-party app support
Reasons to avoid
-Workout app lacks detail-Few upgrades from Watch 6

While the Apple Watch 7 won't give you the same breadth of training data as the dedicated running watches in this roundup, its sports tracking tools work perfectly well if you enjoy running for fun and general fitness rather than competitions.

In terms of features, it's not an enormous step up from the Apple Watch 6, but its new larger display makes it easy to see your stats at a glance during a training session. The always-on display makes things even simpler, and avoids the need to fiddle with the Smart Crown mid-run.

The Apple Watch 7 will also allow you to reap the benefits of Apple Fitness Plus, which lets you join fun instructor-led workouts on your Apple TV, iPhone or iPad, with heart rate stats from your watch displayed on-screen. 

It can't replace a dedicated sports watch for serious training, but its solid heart rate monitoring and support for third-party apps (if a run isn't on Strava, did it really happen?) mean the Apple Watch 7 is extremely versatile, and is the best running watch if you need a fully-featured smartwatch for everyday wear.

Read our full Apple Watch 7 review

Garmin Vivoactive 4 with gray band

The Garmin Vivoactive 4 isn't just a feature-packed running watch, it's also stylish enough to wear every day (Image credit: Garmin)

Garmin’s most stylish smart running watch yet

Reasons to buy
+Workout tracking with full GPS+On-watch music streaming
Reasons to avoid
-No training load monitoring-Poor ANT+ support

Is it a smartwatch, is it a GPS running watch, is it a fashion watch? It’s all three in one. This is the first Garmin watch that’s really clearly gone for the design-loving runner, going up against the likes of Apple Watch and Android Wear devices.

As you can probably imagine, like all the best running watches, it’s got all the Garmin smarts, meaning full GPS and heart rate tracking, multi-sport support and even on-watch music streaming for Deezer and Spotify (though the interface here could stand some improvement).

All that and battery life lasts a hefty four or five days of normal use or 18 hours of GPS training (six if you're also playing music). On the design side of things this running watch features a stainless steel bezel and comfy rubberized strap that can be swapped out to suit the occasion. 

A huge selection of watch faces and app options are available on Garmin Connect, which is open to developers, meaning more cool new additions all the time.

Read our full Garmin Vivoactive 4 review

What to look for in a running watch

When you're picking a running watch, one of the first things to consider is your current goal. Every runner can benefit from a dedicated GPS watch, but if you're aiming to complete your first 5K, your needs will be very different to a person aiming to set a new personal best in a marathon.

For new runners, a watch that will help you set up a simple training plan, and give your runs some variety are useful tools. The Garmin Forerunner 55, for example, gives workout suggestions so you don't get stuck in the same routine, even if you're not following a specific training plan. It also suggests how long you should rest and recover after each session so you get the most out of your training.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Polar Grit X keeps tabs on your fuelling strategy for long distance events and training sessions, letting you know when it's time to take on more carbs and water. It also works with services like TrainingPeaks, so you can download specialized plans to help you meet your next goal.

While you can use a smartwatch to track your runs, a dedicated running watch with physical buttons will always be an advantage. Not only does this allow you to control the watch without having to study the screen, it also lets you navigate its menus, pause and start workouts while wearing gloves, or with sweaty hands.

Good battery life is another important consideration. You don't want to be waiting for your watch to charge before heading out on a training session or, worse still, find that it goes flat partway through a run.

Additional tools like music and contactless payments can also be a very useful addition, allowing you to keep yourself occupied with music or a podcast during your training, and stop to pick up a bottle of water or quick snack if you aren't carrying supplies. These tools also make your running watch more practical for everyday wear, so you don't need to invest in a second smartwatch to use when you're not training.

We've factored in all these considerations when judging the watches above, so you don't have to search through specification sheets to make sure the device you're interested in checks all the right boxes.

Cat Ellis

Cat Ellis is the fitness and wellbeing editor at TechRadar. She's been a technology journalist for 11 years, and cut her teeth on magazines including PC Plus and PC Format before joining TechRadar. She's a trained run leader, and enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the pavement. If you have a story about fitness trackers, treadmills, running shoes, e-bikes, or any other fitness tech, drop her a line at catherine.ellis@futurenet.com.