Push yourself to reach new heights with the best running watches, which are bursting with technology that’s designed to help you run further, faster and for longer. You can keep track of all of your essential fitness statistics with these watches too, from your heart rate to your stress levels, and even use them to send messages and make calls; this is what classifies them as a smartwatch when it comes to the differences between fitness trackers and smartwatches.
If you’re looking for a premium piece of technology to help you excel on your fitness journey, then a running watch is the investment you’ll want to make, rather than one of the best fitness trackers, which purely track data such as your step count. Having key metrics at your fingertips can help you to study your exercise performance in detail and therefore help to shave time off your next run.
A good running watch not only lets you know how far, or how fast, you've been running, but it gives you a whole range of insights that you can use — along with your awareness of your body — to guide your training and monitor your fitness progress. Kieran Alger, ultramarathon and marathon runner and fitness editor.
Picking the running watch to suit you will depend on the capabilities you need. If you want to be able to use your watch to record swimming as well as running, then check the water resistance of any of potential purchases, and if you love to listen to music or podcasts as you run, then look for watches with onboard music controls, so that you can leave the house without being weighed down by your phone.
When combined with a calorie deficit, using a running watch as you work out can also help to promote weight loss. According to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the use of smartwatches can help to reduce a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI), a fact that is likely owed in part to the motivational boost of seeing your progress on your wrist, and the number of coaching apps that you can access with your new purchase. Below you’ll find reviews of top-rated running watches suitable for all levels of user, regardless of whether you’re learning how to start running or whether you’re limbering up for your next marathon.
Best running watches
The Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar represents the best that Garmin can put in a fitness watch, with detailed insights on how to improve your workouts across different terrain types and intricate features, such as preloaded ski maps for thousands of slopes around the world.
The crowning jewel of this watch, the solar panel on the watch face, is a new addition to Garmin's line up designed to help those struggling to get through a multi-day ultra-marathon eke out a few moments more battery life. This isn't just a gimmick though - underneath the intriguing new features is a powerful watch with extensive exercise tracking.
We love how many workouts you can track on the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar, from running and kayaking to parachuting and bouldering. It’s got a rugged and large frame – it’s not that pretty – but you know it will survive if you fall down a rocky waterfall.
- Read the full Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar review. (opens in new tab)
The Apple Watch 6 is a solid choice for a smartwatch, balancing great fitness features with a ton of nifty notifications. Famous for its smart design, the Apple Watch 6 comes with a large display, good fitness tracking options, and an SPO2 sensor or pulse oximeter.
The oximeter feature lets you know how much oxygen is in your blood; this can be helpful during sleep tracking or when you’re at high altitudes, as well as alerting you to potential health issues like sleep apnea and other respiratory conditions like Covid-19. This watch can also help you track a good range of activities, including swimming, making it a strong all-rounder when it comes to accompanying you on your workouts.
If you want an extension of your iPhone on your wrist, the main reason you should buy the Apple Watch 6 is for the notifications. It performs the role of ‘mini iPhone’ really well and offers rich and engaging interactions that mean you don’t have to keep looking at your phone. Our only complaint, as with the other Apple Watches in this lineup, is that the battery life is too short. It's also worth noting that the Apple Watch 6 is being discontinued, meaning you can find amazing deals on this model frequently, and save yourself a few dollars.
- Read the full Apple Watch 6 review. (opens in new tab)
You can do it all while wearing the Garmin Forerunner 945, from scaling a mountain to working out in the gym and if you enjoy poring over your progress when it comes to running watches, then you can spend plenty of time afterward doing that too. This ultra-capable watch is a more affordable, yet still feature-packed alternative to the Fenix 6X range, and can give you seriously useful updates on your fitness progress so that you keep pushing yourself to do better.
If you love getting real-time updates on your fitness metrics, then the Garmin Forerunner 945 also qualifies as an excellent choice for you thanks to its large screen, which can cram in a ton of information to keep you informed as you go. The tracking doesn’t stop when the workout does either, with this watch boasting in-depth sleep statistics too, with suggestions on how to do a little better next time.
This watch not only accompanies you on your workout but can coach you through it, with guided activities to push you even when you don't feel motivated. It might not have the full breadth of notifications like Apple watches, but if you’re more fixated on your workout stats, then this is most certainly the watch for you.
- Our full review of the Garmin Forerunner 945 is currently underway.
This affordable smartwatch blurs the line between fitness tracking and style, with a design that you won’t mind gracing your wrist even in more fashionable settings than your daily run. It’s got plenty going for it, from astounding battery life to impressively accurate health and fitness metrics, all for a totally reasonable price.
There are certain quirks to the Amazfit GTR 3 that might throw off loyalists to the Apple Watch, such as setting up and tweaking your watch via the Zepp app, but there’s plenty of opportunity for customization wherever needed. The user interface is intuitive and detailed, with all the statistics an everyday user would probably ask for from a running watch.
If you find yourself frustrated with the back and forth of charging up your current running watch then the Amazfit GTR 3 might just be the answer to your problems, with an incredible 21 days of typical usage or 10 days of heavy use. It’s also slim, stylish and unassuming, with a classic round clock face.
- Read the full Amazfit GTR review (opens in new tab)
The Apple Watch 3 is considered the most affordable of the Apple offerings and it looks pretty similar to the Series 6 (but there are more sensors in the newer model).
It comes with a good range of band designs and has access to Fitness+, hundreds of instructor-led home workouts including HIIT sessions, yoga and spinning on your iPhone, iPad and Apple TV (but this requires an extra subscription).
As with all Apple Watches the battery life is disappointing, especially if you track your sleep and it lacks the always-on display, so you have to flick your wrist to see the time – but some people might find this less distracting.
- Read the full Apple Watch 3 review. (opens in new tab)
The Vivoactive 4S is a well suited running watch for anyone who doesn't want to spend a fortune on getting up to date statistics on their workouts, and doesn’t need a watch that’s too serious when it comes to insights on how to beat their personal best. It has a reasonable battery life of up to seven days, though this figure is likely to be a little less if you’re using the playlist setting of this watch.
The other practical features of the Vivoactive 4S is the fact that you can use Garmin Pay to pick up groceries when you’re out and about, meaning that you can go phone free on your runs and properly detach from your screen. You can track a wide variety of exercises with this watch too, and a function where you can be coached through workouts as you’re accompanied by animations, which is a nice touch.
This watch won’t blow your budget, and has a ton of nice features to help you along as you workout, as well as a user-friendly interface that won’t bother you as you exercise. If you don’t need in-depth statistics to really amp up your workouts, then this watch is a particularly good choice.
- Our full review of the Garmin VivoActive 4S is currently underway.
The Apple Watch SE has a larger screen than previous models, and plenty of features to keep a user happy. Though it may sound obvious, it has great compatibility with an iPhone especially when it comes to feeding through notifications, and often benefits from worthwhile deals, making it an affordable choice.
You can customize the Apple Watch SE’s interface to suit your needs; if you’re using the watch for working out, then you can see your heart rate, but if you just want the time, you can personalise it with an array of backgrounds. You can track your sleep on the Apple Watch SE, which is an interesting insight, and track lots of different activities super easily.
As with any Apple Watch, the design is familiar yet stylish, and uses a system of rings to keep users motivated to move around during the day. This is a well-loved feature among users, especially those who have more sedentary lifestyles since working from home. The battery life of the Apple Watch SE won’t blow you away, but if you don’t mind plugging your watch into charge at night alongside your phone, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
- Read our full Apple Watch SE review (opens in new tab)
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great value, feature-packed running watch with excellent training insights. It monitors steps, calories burned, distance traveled and intensity minutes, and has a wrist heart rate monitor and sleep tracking. However, bear in mind it can’t measure altitude or track stairs.
The Garmin Forerunner 235 also has smart notifications, audio prompts and GPS, which we found is fairly accurate. We love the pace alerts, which are ideal for runners to keep up to date with their progress. It’s also very motivating and can help improve performance. You can customize the way you receive this info with either audio or vibrating alerts.
There are four sports modes on the Garmin Forerunner 235: run, run indoor, cycle and other. We appreciated the recovery advisor feature that predicts recovery time, as well as a heart-based assessment of the overall training impact. You can view all these features on the Garmin Connect app, which syncs all your runs. You can also share your workouts with friends via Strava.
Design-wise, it’s a fairly rugged-looking watch with a nice big display, but it weighs less than earlier Garmin watches coming in at just 42g. It has a crisp, clear screen – no touchscreen sadly – but the side buttons are super simple to use.
One of the most impressive things about the Garmin Forerunner 235 is the battery life – about 11 hours in full activity mode (using GPS with heart rate), but it doesn’t have multi-sport tracking so this watch is best suited to runners.
- Our full review of the Garmin Forerunner 235 is currently underway.
How we test running watches
Finding the right running watch isn’t an easy task, with these complex bits of fitness kit now packing more innovative features than ever before. So, we made it our mission to simplify the process for you.
To do this, we got our hands on some of the best running watches on the market and set about testing them. As you’d expect, we made sure each one had all the metrics you need to track your runs; from pace and cadence to continuous heart rate tracking and an in-built GPS. We also checked any other features on offer, with many modern running watches (like the Garmin 6X Pro Solar) offering multi-sport tracking and health monitoring alongside the usual sport-specific running feedback.
After assessing everything each watch had to offer, as well as practical aspects such as their comfort and design, each one was awarded a score out of five stars.
What to look for in the best running watches
If you’ve read through all our reviews, you’re probably raring to go and buy your running watch now, but before you part with your hard-earned money, there are a few other things to consider.
Kieran Alger from The Run Testers (opens in new tab) says it’s worth choosing a watch that allows you to track how fast your heart is beating. "Things like heart rate monitoring can help runners at every level to train at the right intensity; some watches will also offer pacing targets, and they'll help you understand how well you've recovered from each run, so you know how hard or easy to go in your next session," he explained. "Even the cheaper watches are now packed with coaching and guidance features that you can use for motivation, effort management and just to understand your body's responses better."
You may well have a list of ‘must-have’ features, but you’ll also probably have a budget in mind. Realistically, you may need to compromise one or the other – the highest spec’d watch is not going to be suitable if you’re looking to spend the bare minimum. However, it is amazing what you can get for your money now. Alger suggests makes like Garmin or Apple for those looking for a high-end running watch: "If you want all the bells and whistles, a long battery life — and you've got the budget — the Garmin Enduro or Fenix range are the best of the more rugged options. For running smartwatch fans, the Apple Watch is king, and you can buy an older generation to save money."
If you’re looking to find a quality running watch on a budget, Kieran recommends a Garmin with a lower price tag and fewer features. "At the more affordable end, the Garmin Forerunner 55 is a great entry-level watch," he said. "It does the basics well without overloading you with data. Next level up, the Coros Pace 2 is a fantastic all-rounder that'll have more than enough for most runners at a very competitive price.”
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
This article was updated on Apr. 18, 2022, by Live Science contributor Rosee Woodland.