There are lots of wearables on the market, but running watches tend to be some of the top performers in the whole category. With better battery life, improved performance insights and smarter design, the demand for better running watches grows each year as we sift through the latest offerings from the likes of Garmin, Polar and Suunto in search of the best of the best.
Of course we still want highly accurate GPS, idiot-grade usability for when our running brains get tired and excellent partner apps to help us learn from our stats and stay motivated.
We've already seen a new crop of running partners that haven’t disappointed in 2018 with a few familiar (watch) faces getting a welcome overhaul and the odd newcomer joining the fight for that space on our wrist.
‘But what’s the best?’ we hear you ask. Well, from the perfect partner for trail running through to the ideal watch for marathons, we’ve run with every watch on this list and selected the best devices for every running need.
- On a budget? Read our best cheap running watch guide
- Specifically here for a Garmin? Our best Garmin watch guide is for you
- Looking to head to the pool? We have a best swim watch buying guide too
Note: we've ranked our best running watches from cheapest to most expensive according to prices at time of writing. We're currently testing plenty more - so keep coming back to see if other options make it into the listings!
1. Polar M430
Polar’s best-selling tracker with a HR upgrade
Polar’s fuss-free M400 was Europe’s best selling running watch for a reason. Simple, effective and at a good price, the company was clearly onto a winner.
Thankfully with the new Polar M430 they’ve heeded the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke’ and kept most of what made the M400 a favorite but added some useful new skills.
Still easy to use, with a durable, if unremarkable design, the biggest upgrade is that the M430 now comes with built-in heart rate (HR) monitoring for zone training and continuous HR tracking off the wrist, so you can monitor your resting heart rate and your fitness progress.
There’s also sleep tracking and smart notifications and the benefit of the ever-improving Polar Flow app, which allows you to add smart coaching to your wrist for training that’s tailored to your abilities and goals, as well as providing one of the best 'see your day' views of everything you've done.
Somehow the wizards at Polar have squeezed in these extra smarts while still offering a decent battery life of up to 30 hours of training tracking. While it lacks some of the deeper running dynamics you’ll find on the Polar V800 or Garmin Forerunner 935, this is a very accomplished running watch at a very reasonable price.
Read the full Polar M430 review
2. Garmin Forerunner 235
Brilliant for serious runners on a budget
This reasonably affordable watch offers everything the world of Garmin has perfected for runners, in compact form. That means GPS tracking for 11 hours and activity tracking 24/7 for nine days on a single charge.
It also means you get wrist-based continuous heart rate and Garmin's many apps for things like custom watch faces or marathon-specific training apps. You can enjoy smartphone notifications, audio prompts, live tracking and of course the Garmin Connect app for an in-depth analysis of your efforts.
While out on a run you can use information like aerobic Training Effect to ensure you don’t push yourself too far and hinder training, all while powering through heart rate zones to ensure progress - and following that, monitoring your VO2 Max will show how you're getting fitter (although pay no heed to the utterly inaccurate race time predictors).
Another nice feature: if you ever get lost you can use the Back To Start feature to be guided right back to where you came from.
Read the full Garmin Forerunner 235 review
3. Garmin Vivoactive 3
Garmin’s most stylish smart running watch activity tracker yet
Is it a smartwatch, is it a GPS sports 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 it’s got all the Garmin smarts, meaning GPS and heart rate tracking, multi-sport support and even Garmin Pay, which allows you to make contactless payments even without your phone.
All that and battery life lasts a hefty seven days of normal use or 13 hours of GPS training. On the design side of things this 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 the full Garmin Vivoactive 3 review
4. Fitbit Ionic
The first ever Fitbit smartwatch with fitness at its heart
A fitness-focused smartwatch without most of the auxiliary digital distractions you get from an Apple Watch, the Fitbit Ionic is the company's first fully-fledged smartwatch and it comes with plenty to make it a solid choice for runners.
There's multi-day battery life, continuous heart-rate tracking, GPS, personalised voice coaching, sleep stage tracking and the ability to store music for offline listening via Bluetooth headphones. And for those who like it, there's auto pause to automatically spot when you've come to a stop at traffic lights.
Fitbit has gone all out to make the Ionic a useful training tool too. With the Fitbit Coach App you can access a range of expert-led running audio workouts for the treadmill and outdoor runs, designed to improve endurance, speed, and form.
While it doesn’t have the range of third party apps you'll find on the App Store or Google Play Store, you can access a smaller range of popular apps through the Fitbit OS, while all of your stats are synced back to the all-conquering Fitbit app.
The bright, hi-res, Gorilla Glass coated touchscreen is also water resistant to 50m, making it rugged enough for hitting the trails and swim-proof for when you decide to rest those legs.
Although we think the Ionic is the best Fitbit device on offer for runners, it's worth mentioning that the Fitbit Versa could be a better option for some of you. It's crucially not packing GPS, so it's not great for those who love the great outdoors.
But if you run and visit the gym regularly, or like to run on a treadmill, it could be a better all-rounder option for those who want a stylish lifestyle smartwatch that can also handle fitness well.
Read the full Fitbit Ionic review
5. Samsung Galaxy Watch
A smartwatch with good running skills
The Galaxy Watch is Samsung's most refined smartwatch yet due to its good fitness tracking features and four-day battery life. (You'll only get the full four days if you opt for the larger 46mm size that we liked and recommend in our review.)
All of the watch's great features are packaged inside a sophisticated-looking circular silver-and-black smartwatch that has a rotating bezel for effortless menu navigation. Be warned, third-party apps are lacking and its iOS support is limited if you're using an iPhone. That means this is best for Samsung fans.
The Galaxy watch has automatic exercise tracking for some workouts, most notably running and walking, which it identifies after a few minutes in our testing.
It handles runs well, providing a wealth of data and easy-to-control functionality as you're pounding the pavement.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy Watch review
6. Suunto Ambit3 Vertical
Rugged running watch idea for hitting the trails
Another great watch for athletes who care about the literal highs and lows of running. The Suunto Ambit3 Vertical includes an altimeter, barometer, compass, GPS and a thermometer to track all of your outdoor exploits in exhaustive detail.
With its rugged off-road looks, excellent navigation and huge wealth of features, the Suunto Ambit 3 Run is a great trail-running watch for athletes who care about the literal highs and lows of running.
On board, there's an altimeter, barometer, compass, GPS and a thermometer to track all of your outdoor exploits in exhaustive detail. It is also suitable for the city, but there are probably better road-running options out there.
The watch also features limited smartphone notifications (including caller ID and email support) thanks to Bluetooth pairing. It may only have a monochrome display, but that pays dividends in battery life, which will last multiple days even with regular GPS usage. One downside, if you want heart rate readings you’ll need an additional strap.
Read the full Suunto Ambit 3 review
7. Polar Vantage V
Almost like having a coach on your wrist
Perhaps our favorite Polar watch ever is here, and it's called the Vantage V. It's a far more lightweight and stylish design than you'll get from a lot of other products the brand has created.
It's one of the best for tracking lots of stats including recovery and training insights that not every running watch allows you to see. It's also particularly unique for its insight into a running metric called Power.
Power is a way to monitor the amount of effort you're putting into your run, and that can be particularly useful for anyone training that doesn't want to overdo it and run the risk of an injury.
Most athletes will find something useful on the Vantage V, and with a battery life that can cope with 40 hours straight of continuous workout training you will likely be happy with what this watch provides for the price.
Read the full Polar Vantage V review
8. Apple Watch 4
For casual runners who like to jog in style
The Watch 4 may not look hugely different to previous iterations of Apple's popular wearable, but it's had a pretty decent upgrade. Design-wise, the screen offers far more visibility, which is perfect for fitness. There's also additional health features, as well as better battery life.
In many ways it's our favorite all-rounder smartwatch and a great running companion to boot.
It has automatic exercise detection, which is great for keeping up with you when you forget to start something. Although this isn't across every exercise, but it's good news for those who run, as if you forget to start it manually you'll get an alert telling you that there's an exercise in progress and asking if you want to track it.
During our review testing, we tried this on a run and it popped up after just six minutes, allowing us to save the activity up to that point - that's useful and picks it up nicely, although won't stop until you've stopped for a few minutes.
Although it's worth mentioning that the data it collects before it notices the run isn't that accurate - curiously, while the distances and times were correct on the Apple Watch 4 compared to a Garmin device that we were using on the other wrist, the Apple Watch 4 had us down as much faster than the relaxed pace we were doing.
Once the run was properly underway, we enjoyed what the Apple Watch had to offer: the usual metrics of distance, pace, heart rate and average pace were all there - you'll need to set up Rolling Pace, where it will show you how fast you managed to run from a mile or a kilometer before your current step.
Read the full Apple Watch 4 review
9. Garmin Forerunner 935
Advanced tracking tool for goal-chasing amateurs and serious athletes
A bit like having a Fenix 5X crammed into a slimmer body, with the Forerunner 935 Garmin has taken everything it learned from years of making GPS running watches and applied it all to this one do-it-all device, producing what we’d suggest is the most complete running watch we’ve seen to date.
This is a tool for serious runners and triathletes.
In addition to the reliable GPS you’d expect, there’s a huge range of advanced running metrics including cadence, ground contact time, vertical oscillation, VO2 max, recovery time guidance and more.
The emphasis here is on using your run data to adapt your training, make alterations to your form like shortening your stride, and keep an eye on your overall training load in the build-up to your next big challenge.
You also get up to 50 hours of UltraTrac GPS training on a full charge, smart notifications from a connected phone, plus the option to customize your watch’s features by adding to it from the many apps on Garmin’s IQ Connect software.
Read the full Garmin Forerunner 935 review
10. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
Range-topping multisport Fenix gets an impressive upgrade
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. It's packed full of new features, including built-in music, contactless payments and fully routable color topo maps.
One of the major downsides of this device is that it's lacking in a long-lasting battery. We'd have liked to see both more battery and power and running dynamics baked in.
But in our eyes, this is still the running watch to beat. But then again what did you expect for that super high price tag? With that in mind, you need to be really serious about performance and really into your swims, bikes, runs and hikes to even consider such a premium option - if you’re just running around your city this would be a waste of your money and this watch’s skills.
Read the full Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Review
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Image Credit: Polar