With specs like heart rate tracking and personalized training plans, running watches are more high-tech than ever. Here are eight that can help you reach your full potential.

By Gabrielle Hondorp
April 03, 2020
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Garmin; Target

Whether you're new to running or a seasoned veteran, investing in a good running watch can make a serious difference in your training. 

While GPS watches have been around for a number of years, more recent versions have updates that make running more enjoyable and effective. New music capabilities, for example, allow runners to download and listen to music right from their watch without having to carry a phone. Besides GPS and music functions, most running watches now have heart rate monitors, personalized workouts, activity tracking, and other in-depth training information that can help you better understand your body and performance. Disclaimer: While these insights are helpful, it's always best to listen to your body first and use training data as supplemental information. If you think you're becoming too focused on the numbers, having access to data like this could ultimately be detrimental, not helpful. 

Some running watches double as fitness trackers, meaning they have multi-sport capabilities. While this usually includes common activities like cycling, yoga, or HIIT workouts, some options can be worn in the water to track swim laps, while others auto-recognize activities for added convenience. (Related: The Best Fitness Tracker for Your Personality

When it comes to choosing a running watch, if you're a casual runner GPS and heart rate monitor functions might suffice. These two features alone will be able to tell you your pace, distance, heart rate zone, and splits—and when uploaded to your smartphone or another device, show your running route. As you go up in price, watches offer more features. The next tier of watches will have in-depth training information and multi-sport tracking—these are great for triathletes or more serious runners who want detailed information on their training. (Related: The Best Running Tips of All Time)

Then comes premium watches, which have all of the above features and more. These higher-priced running watches can download detailed maps (and even golf courses) through the GPS functions. They also include advanced training information—such as hydration trackers and performance metrics—and some serious battery life. 

The decision can be overwhelming, but luckily, there are a slew of running watch options in various price ranges to choose from. Whether you want an inexpensive pick for beginners, a high-tech option for more experienced or long-distance runners, or a smartwatch with multi-sport features, you'll have no trouble finding the right fit for your needs here. Below are the best running watches on the market, with options for every budget and type of runner. 

Best Running Watch for Beginners: Garmin Forerunner 45

Garmin

The Garmin Forerunner 45 is a great watch if you are new to running or simply trying to stay in budget. It has a heart rate monitor (a welcome advancement from the previous version of this watch), and an impressive 7-day battery life stuffed into a sleek and lightweight package that you can comfortably wear every day. And while this is considered an affordable running watch, it still has Garmin’s top-of-the-line GPS tracking. By connecting it to your smartphone, you will also be able to see phone notifications and access the corresponding Garmin Connect App, which includes Garmin’s free coaching system to help you reach your goals. 

Best with Music: Garmin Vivoactive Music 3

Garmin

As far as bang for your buck goes, this watch tops the list. Another quality pick from Garmin, it has all of the capabilities of the Forerunner 45, above, but also allows you to download up to 500 songs directly onto the watch and has a built-in safety feature—all for just $50 more. (Related: 170+ Epic Workout Songs to Spice Up Your Playlist)

The safety device is particularly innovative; as long as your watch is paired with your smartphone, you can hold down the side button until you feel the watch vibrate three times. At this point, it will send a message and your current location to your preloaded emergency contacts. While safety features like this one are often overlooked, it’s particularly useful for those who enjoy running alone outdoors—you can never be too careful. (Related: What Women Are Doing to Feel Safe While They Run)

Best Inexpensive Option: Fitbit Charge 3

Target

While this is technically a fitness tracker, it has many of the same features as a running watch and is great budget-friendly option. Fitbit models still focus on certain training aspects, like steps, heart rate, and activity tracking, and it comes in a much smaller package—ideal for those who aren’t into the bulky running watch look. Plus, it boasts a 7-day battery life and can track pace and distance so long as it’s connected to your smartphone. 

Buy It: Fitbit Charge 3, $170, Target.com

Best High-End Running Watch: Garmin Fenix 6S Pro

Garmin

Garmin’s Fenix series is the best of the best. If you’re willing to pay more for a top-quality option, this essentially pairs a high-end smartwatch with a GPS watch. It has a 9-day battery life and gives you in-depth training information not only for running, but for other types of sports and physical activity as well. It also has an impressive built-in GPS map system that allows you to follow a predetermined route with turn-by-turn directions, or follow a round-trip route that maps it out for you based on your starting point and desired distance.

Some may consider it a bit too rugged for their taste, but the durable construction and high-tech features more than make-up for it. One reviewer said: “This watch has pretty much changed my approach and enthusiasm toward fitness. I highly recommend it. I was concerned about the size but don't regret going for the biggest version at all. The extra battery life and readability are worth it.”

Buy It: Garmin Fenix 6, $700, Garmin.com

Best Smartwatch for Running: Apple Watch 5 Nike Series

Best Buy

Not everyone likes the idea of wearing a running watch at all times, so going with a smartwatch that has the ability to track your runs is a great alternative. For instance, the Apple Watch 5 Nike Series gives you the best of both worlds. It has all the same capabilities of the famed Apple Watch, but with the addition of a Nike sports band and some running-specific features that make it unique.

These include audio-guided runs through the Nike Club App to keep you on track and motivated, even when running alone, and an impressively accurate GPS. One reviewer, who previously owned the regular Apple Watch 3, said: “Buying the Nike edition was key, the band keeps airflow to my skin and this watch is lightweight and super fast—I also really enjoy all the different customizable faces for the Nike edition too.” (Related: The Best Workout Apps to Download Right Now)

Best GPS Running Watch: Garmin Forerunner 945

Garmin

This is a great GPS running watch with multi-sport capabilities for triathletes or serious runners who supplement with cross-training. It has reliable, auto-recognizable tracking for cycling and swimming along with running, and it provides useful training insights like performance condition, training status, VO2 max, and training effect. It can even help you track your recovery and make sure you’re giving your body what it needs. Arguably the best feature—besides its 2-week battery life—is the stretchy band that conforms to your wrist and allows for ease of movement, instead of the stiff rubber bands that often come with running watches. One reviewer called this an "incredible device" and said it allows them to “track everything imaginable.”

Best Digital: Timex Ironman Watch

Target

Sometimes a high-tech GPS watch is out of the budget, and sometimes you just need to unplug. Whatever the reason, this is a reliable digital watch that’ll track your splits and last for years—I’ve personally owned this watch since high school, and it’s still going strong. While it won’t be able to track your mileage, it’s a great way to unplug and run not just for the numbers, but simply because you love it.

It’s lightweight enough to wear every day and waterproof, so you can even wear it for pool workouts. The best part, though? It’ll set you back just $40. (Related: Interval Running Workouts That Will Make You Even Faster)

Buy It: Timex Ironman, $40, target.com

Best for Long Distances: Suunto 9 Baro

EMS

The best option for distance runners, this running watch has a truly impressive battery life that can last up to 120 hours on ultra mode. And since GPS tracking can take a toll on the battery, this savvy watch uses a combination of GPS and motion sensor data to improve tracking accuracy without placing a serious drain on the battery. What’s more, it alerts you if it’s starting to run low and suggests switching to its power-saving mode. The watch has also been tested to make sure that it’s durable for your toughest—and longest—adventures. (Related: The Best Long-Distance Running Shoes)

Buy It: Suunto 9 Baro, $599, ems.com

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