Better battery life, improved performance insights and smarter design, these are just some of the things we’ve come to demand each year as we sift through the latest offerings from the likes of Garmin, Polar and Suunto in search of the best running watch.
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.
If your budget is a big consideration, you should also check our list of the best budget running watches.
Note: we've ranked these 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.
Read the full Fitbit Ionic review
5. Samsung Gear Sport
Smart fitness watch with running skills
It's probably not the obvious first choice for a running watch but Samsung’s fitness-focused watch has some strong running credentials that make it worth a look. For a kick off, it boasts strikingly accurate GPS/GLONASS and an optical heart rate sensor.
The rotating bezel to control the user-interface can come in handy when you’re sweating, a big bugbear with many touchscreen-only watches. The 1.2-inch AMOLED display is as good as you’ll find in a fitness watch and can easily pass as a smart everyday digital timepiece.
Unlike the Gear S3 sister device, there’s no 4G LTE here, which has helped Samsung to create a lighter wearable more suited to running. It runs on Tizen, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it does include offline Spotify support so you can soundtrack your runs without the need to carry your phone.
For those who like to take their wearables for a dip, or running through torrential rain, it's waterproof to 50m too.
Read the full Samsung Gear Sport 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. Apple Watch 3
For casual runners who like a bit of style
The addition of built-in GPS letting you track runs minus your phone was a big step forward for the second-generation Apple Watch’s running credentials. Now that we’ve finally got LTE, so you can make calls without your phone, it’s getting painfully close to being a watch that lets you run unburdened by keys, cash and phone.
The Series 3 heart rate skills are vastly improved, no longer just counting beats per minute, but also recording your daily resting heart rate, heart rate variability, your workout ranges and your pulse while walking, all to give you a chart of whether it's improving or not.
There's also rapid GPS fix and excellent accuracy, on-board storage for up to 250 songs, wireless pairing with treadmills and Apple Pay here.
The Nike+ version adds custom watch faces and the ability to quick launch the Nike+ app from the home screen. And since this also tracks daily activity and multiple sports, the options are enough to keep you busy and entertained while training for longer than most.
Is it genuine competition for the expanding training capability of the Polars and Garmins on this list? The short answer is not quite yet but when it comes to casual running for fitness there’s plenty here to excite.
Read the full Apple Watch 3 review
8. 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
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- Now you've got your watch, now look at some of the other best running gadgets