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The best running watches 2021: GPS watches for every budget

The best running watch
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The best running watch will provide you with a wealth of information both during your run and afterwards, helping you track your progress and plan your training.

The problem is, running watches are plentiful and it’s hard to pick which is best for you. They come in a range of shapes and sizes but more importantly, price. That’s why in this list of the best running watches we’ve selected a variety from a range of prices to help you pick which one is best for your needs and budget.

High on your priority list should be highly accurate GPS, training tools to help you get the most from your training sessions, and top-notch partner apps to help you learn from your stats and stay motivated.

More traditional smartwatches like the Apple Watch 6 will suffice for the more casual runner but if you’re looking to train for a marathon or similar event then you’ll want to consider a dedicated running watch from the likes of Polar, Suunto or Garmin - companies whose watches focus solely on running and don’t have many other functions.

New running watches are being released all the time and we review a load of them here at TechRadar, so check back soon for updates to this list. For now, these are the ten best running watches in the world. 

The best running watches at a glance

  1. Garmin Forerunner 945
  2. Coros Pace 2
  3. Garmin Instinct Solar
  4. Garmin Fenix 6
  5. Coros Apex
  6. Polar Vantage V2
  7. Polar Grit X
  8. Fitbit Charge 4
  9. Apple Watch 6
  10. Garmin Vivoactive 4

Best running watch: Garmin Forerunner 945

(Image credit: Garmin)

1. Garmin Forerunner 945

The best 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 boasts everything a runner could want and then some, making it our pick for the best running watch of 2020. 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 runner.

Read the full Garmin Forerunner 945 review

Best running watch: Coros Pace 2

(Image credit: Coros)

2. Coros Pace 2

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 a superb watch that will serve road runners well.

Read the full Coros Pace 2 review

Garmin Instinct Solar

(Image credit: Garmin)

3. Garmin Instinct Solar

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's a great choice for multi-day events thanks to its photovoltaic glass lens, which keeps the battery topped up in daylight so you can go weeks between charges.

The regular Garmin Instinct is an excellent device, 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 the full Garmin Instinct Solar review

Best running watch: Garmin Fenix 6

(Image credit: Garmin)

4. Garmin Fenix 6

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 in 2021, which would cause its price to drop even further - stay tuned.

Read the full Garmin Fenix 6 review

Best running watch: Coros Apex

(Image credit: Coros)

5. Coros Apex

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 the full Coros Apex review

Best running watch: Polar Vantage V2

(Image credit: Polar)

6. Polar Vantage V2

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.

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 the full Polar Vantage V2 review

Best running watch: Polar Grit X

(Image credit: Polar)

7. Polar Grit X

A rugged running watch ideal for hitting the trails

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-road. If you're looking for a slightly more affordable alternative to the Garmin Fenix 6, this could be the running watch you're looking for. 

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.

Read the full Polar Grit X review

Best running watch: Fitbit Charge 4

(Image credit: Fitbit)

8. Fitbit Charge 4

A small, slim watch for new runners building up their mileage

Reasons to buy
+Affordably priced+On-board GPS+Good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Few physical buttons

The FitBit Charge 4 is a great choice for anyone who's just getting into running as part of a more active lifestyle, but doesn't need the advanced tracking metrics of a full multi-sports watch.

Launched in early 2020, the Charge 4 looks almost identical to the Charge 3, but has one key difference: on-board GPS, allowing you to track your runs without the need to carry your phone. It's not as accurate as Garmin's mapping, but is fine for casual runners who are working on building up their mileage. The Fitbit app will allow you to see all your workout stats clearly, day by day, and you'll receive a weekly roundup email to help you stay motivated.

With a Fitbit Premium account (an optional extra, but a useful one) you'll also have access to a range of strength and mobility workouts that you can try at home to supplement your running training.

Our only complaint is that, unlike most running watches in this roundup, the Fitbit Charge 4 is controlled mainly through taps and swipes of its small touchscreen. For everyday use as a smartwatch that works perfectly well, but a physical button is much easier to press when you're running and an icon on the screen is a moving target.

Read the full Fitbit Charge 4 review

Best running watch: Apple Watch 6

(Image credit: Apple)

9. Apple Watch 6

For casual runners who like to jog in style

Reasons to buy
+Always-on display+Sleep tracking+Third-party app support
Reasons to avoid
-Workout app lacks detail

The Apple Watch 6 is our number one pick for the best smartwatch of 2020, and while it certainly 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 5, but its new SpO2 tracking feature will be of interest to runners, providing not only guidance on potential breathing issues overnight, but also a metric for gauging your overall cardiovascular fitness. Not as useful as VO2 max, but helpful nonetheless.

We also appreciate the always-on display, which allows you to see your workout stats without fiddling with the touchscreen or Smart Crown mid-run.

The Apple Watch 6 will also allow you to reap the benefits of Apple Fitness Plus, which allows you to participate in instructor-led workouts on your Apple TV, iPhone or iPad, with 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 (including Strava, Endomondo, and Nike+ Run Club) mean the Apple Watch 6 is one of the most versatile smartwatches for runners.

Read the full Apple Watch 6 review

Garmin Vivoactive 4

Image Credit: Garmin  (Image credit: Garmin)

10. Garmin Vivoactive 4

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 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 the full Garmin Vivoactive 4 review

Watch our beginner's guide to fitness tech below