If you are a dedicated runner, there is no shortage of GPS running watches to choose from. They track everything from calorie burn to VO2 max. The feature packed devices are on the expensive side, while others are more affordable.
Essential reading: Compare sports watches with our interactive tool
Built-in GPS is important as it provides for more accurate location and distance information. It also renders you free from your phone. Such devices cost a bit more but are a real step up from most ordinary fitness trackers. These watches have built-in heart rate monitors and some will assist you with your swimming and cycling needs, too.
Below you’ll find our pick of the top GPS running watches. We’ve also included quick descriptions of some of the many features they offer.
Garmin Forerunner 245 | Garmin Fenix 6 | Garmin Forerunner 945 | Polar Vantage V&M | Apple Watch Series 5 | Amazfit Stratos | Fitbit Ionic Adidas edition | Garmin Vivoactive 4 | Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Best for runners
The Garmin Forerunner 245 is a great option if you are looking for a value for money GPS running watch. In addition to keeping tabs on your runs, the device provides you with some more advanced features. This includes VO2 Max and current training status to indicate if you’re under-training or overdoing it, recovery time and more.
Forerunner 245 features Garmin’s Elevate wrist heart rate technology. This will help you to heart-rate zone train, and like most Garmin devices, it will keep tabs on the all-important resting heart rate.
The timepiece can also be used for 24/7 activity tracking and will count steps, calories and distance throughout the day. The move bar with vibration alerts motivates you to get up from the sofa when you’ve been chilling for too long.
You’ll also find some smartwatch features such as smart notifications and audio prompts, as well as customization options and excellent battery life.
All in all, this is a well rounded device for the price that will easily meet the needs of most runners. You can also opt for Forerunner 245, the exact same watch but with local storage for up to 500 songs.
The Fenix range is perfect for those who are into multi sports and want to be able to track absolutely everything. The Fenix 6, Fenix 6S and Fenix 6X variants come with an optical heart rate sensor, GPS and GLONASS, a bunch of multi-sport activity modes, daily activity tracking, and smartphone notifications. Another interesting feature is the wrist-based Pulse Oximeter.
There’s also the option of a more pricey, special Solar variant, a first for Garmin. This features a transparent solar charging lens that sits on top of the watch face which helps to extend battery life.
The regular iteration has a diameter of 47mm. The 6S variant is designed with the female sports enthusiast in mind. It sports a smaller footprint for smaller wrists – 42mm diameter. The Fenix 6X has a 51mm diameter to accommodate those with large wrists.
You can use the watches for cycling, open water swimming, cross country skiing, climbing, indoor run/bike/swim, hiking and much more. In addition to heart rate tracking from the wrist, they provide many advanced running metrics.
With this edition, Garmin has also introduced something it called Dynamic PacePro. This is “grade-adjusted pace guidance throughout your activity”. Put simply, it adjusts a runners pace based on terrain – the steeper the grade, the larger the adjustment.
For those that like to leave their phone behind when training, the Fenix 6 comes with built-in storage for music. You can also make payments on the go thanks to an NFC chip.
This GPS multisport watch is for athletes who want in-depth data as they train and compete. It features a Pulse Ox sensor and new performance monitoring tools some of which you won’t find on the Fenix 5 Plus.
Training status now has adjustments for heat and altitude acclimation status. There is training load focus which separates your training load into different categories based on the intensity and structure of each activity recorded and other new Firstbeat features.
The watch also sports Garmin’s new Body Battery function. Its aim is to help people make better training, rest and sleep decisions. The feature uses a combination of stress, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep and activity data to give you an indication of your body’s energy levels.
Just like the Fenix 5 Plus, the watch comes with full-color, onboard maps that guide you on your run so you never get lost. There is on-board storage for music that stores up to 1,000 songs, as well as NFC for Garmin Payments on the go.
All things considered, Garmin’s latest wearable is a nice marriage of style and functionality. It offers a slightly lower price and smaller form-factor than the Fenix 5 Plus series, while not compromising on features.
Featuring an improved heart rate monitor, advanced performance metrics and smart coaching, the PolarVantage V is geared towards the serious fitness enthusiast. M is a slightly stripped back version that also comes with a much lower price-tag. The company says the watches are the most advanced in its history.
Vantage V & M come with improved heart rate accuracy thanks to Polar Precision Prime. While wrist based fitness trackers deliver good stats for resting heart rate and low intensity activity, they struggle to match the accuracy of chest straps at high intensity activity. With this new technology Polar hopes to narrow the gap.
The more high spec V benefits from a metric called Running Power. Vantage M doesn’t have this because it lacks a barometric altimeter. This is a single digit for runners that accounts for terrain, form, and fatigue and tells them how hard to move.
There are a number of other advanced training features including Training Load and Recovery Pro. These will allow you to reach the ideal amount of training and avoid injury. A recent firmware refresh also slaps on Nightly Recharge and Sleep Plus Stages for overnight recovery measurement.
The Apple Watch Series 5 may not be the best running watch, but it is the best all-rounder. The biggest news with Series 5 is the addition of a display that is always on. This allows you to glance at any time at your watch and see what’s going on. Series 5 also slaps on a compass and current elevation feature to help users better navigate their day.
The Cupertino outfit has opted to leave out the sleep tracking functionality for yet another year. It would be kind of pointless introducing it considering most people will still opt to recharge their device during the night. Here’s to 2020 and Series 6.
In terms of fitness, the GPS-enabled device features the latest generation accelerometer, gyroscope and heart rate. In addition to dishing out accurate fitness tracking stats, this allows the watch to identify and send out alerts if you fall or trip.
The previous generation introduced a number of heart rate sensing functions such as high and low heart rates. Just like Series 4, Series 5 also intermittently analyses heart rhythms and sends alerts for atrial fibrillation. There is also an FDA-approved ECG sensor that lets you know if your heart rhythm is normal or there are issues.
For runners on a budget
Amazfit Stratos comes with built-in GPS, advanced performance metrics and support for over a dozen different sports. This includes swimming, cycling, running, tennis, soccer, mountaineering, trail running, triathlon and skiing. Best of all, it does all this at a budget price. And it does it well.
The advanced performance analytics include Vo2Max, Training Effect, Recovery Time, Training Load and more. The company has teamed up with Firstbeat to bring these to the watch and with Zepp Labs for real-time sports analytics. You can also use the timepiece as a 24/7 fitness device.
The looks are not too shabby either. The watch is round and comes with a 316L stainless steel finish combined with other water-resistant materials such as carbon fiber to provide the lightest weight possible. Battery life is a perfectly respectable 5 days. All in all, this is a great value for money device.
Huami has launched Stratos 3 in recent months. It comes with a better display, more build-options, smart battery modes, and more. The company says GPS accuracy has been improved with the integration of the Sony GNSS chip. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the watch to be made available for purchase in the US.
For 24/7 activity tracking
With its blocky, retro design, Ionic is not exactly a looker. But it does pack some decent specs under the hood. You’ll find 8 different sensors inside. This includes an altimeter, 3-axis accelerometer, digital compass, GPS, optical heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor, vibration motor and a new relative SpO2 sensor for measuring blood oxygen levels.
When it comes to features, this is a smartwatch that puts fitness first. It offers everything you would expect from a Fitbit device, along with capturing real-time stats on 20 different types of activities including swimming. There is on-board storage for music too, smartphone notifications and Fitbit pay.
For use as an every-day watch
Vivoactive 4 is Garmin’s take on an all-purpose smartwatch. The predecessor came only in one size but there is now a 45mm stainless steel and a 40mm model for small wrists (4S) to choose from. There’s also a more pricey Venu option which comes with a fancy AMOLED display.
Features include all the fitness tracking essentials including built-in GPS. There’s NFC for on-the-go payments and music storage so you can leave your phone behind. This generation also slaps on a Pulse Ox sensor for tracking your blood oxygen automatically during the night, and on-demand during the day.
Other than that, the watch features the Body Battery function, abnormal heart rate alerts thanks to the upgraded heart rate sensor (which also tracks heart rate under water), as well as Yoga workouts, Pilates workouts and on-screen workout animations. Battery life is about a week, depending on the model chosen. That’s not bad considering the thing has an always-on display.
Launched last summer, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 comes just 6 months after the original. It arrives with a fresh new look, design and size options, ECG sensors, an LTE variant and more.
There are full eight photodiodes on the rear side now, to improve on the heart rate monitoring capability. The better precision is coupled with alerts when their heart beat goes above or below normal levels.
Swimming has been added to the list of exercises automatically tracked. This brings the total up to seven (walking, running, cycling, rowing, eliptical training, “other workout”). For other types of workouts you will need to choose the manual option.
The rest is pretty standard stuff and includes the usual 24/7 activity and stress tracking. You also get breathing exercises to help you chill. Like the previous generation, there’s NFC for mobile payments, as well as GPS for tracking workouts without a phone.
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