The Best Fitness Watches for Runners

The Best Fitness Watches for Runners

This post is part of Find Your Fit Tech, Lifehacker’s fitness wearables buying guide. I’m asking the tough questions about whether wearables can really improve your health, how to find the right one for you, and how to make the most of the data wearables can offer.

Runners were some of the first people to embrace smartwatches. I remember back when a “running watch” was a brick-like GPS device strapped to your wrist, and it was a game-changer when those bricks started tracking heart rate as well.

These days, every smartwatch can track your heart rate, not to mention your location and potentially a half-dozen other things. So what makes a running watch special? Tons of extra fitness-centric features—and some critical small details, like physical buttons. Read on for my picks.

What to look for in a running watch

It’s easy to get lost in spec sheets and marketing claims, but at the end of the day what matters in a watch is whether it can do what you want a watch to do. Think of it like hiring an employee: you don’t want the person who can do the most things, you want the person who can do the job that you need done.

So here are some things to think about when crafting the “job description” for your running watch. Some might be critical to you; some might be irrelevant.

Does it have physical buttons?

For most everyday functions, it may not matter if you’re clicking a physical button or booping an icon on a screen. But when you’re running laps at the track, your shaky, sweaty fingers are going to have a hard time with a touchscreen. For that reason, runners often prefer a watch with real buttons. All of our picks below have physical buttons.

How good is the GPS?

All running smartwatches track your location with GPS—that’s the main reason they exist. (To be pedantic about it, GPS is just one type of global navigation satellite system, or GNSS, which is what we really mean when we talk about location tracking.)

But some location systems are more accurate than others. The most accurate smartwatches use multiple bands of GPS, plus other location systems like GLONASS and Galileo. Pay attention to which systems a watch uses, and whether there are settings to know about. For example, some watches need you to choose which system you’d like to use. There may also be a battery-saving mode that sacrifices accuracy to keep your watch alive longer.

All of our picks below use multiple satellite systems (with one obvious exception, as you’ll see). It’s worth noting that GNSS keeps getting better over the years, so the newest models will have the most accurate tracking.

What is the battery life?

Many running watches are meant to be worn all day (including while you sleep), with a battery life that will last you several days between charges. A longer standby battery life can give you more time between charges.

But if you do very long runs—you’re training for a marathon, perhaps—you’ll also want to know how long you can run. Playing music and tracking your location use more power than just wearing a watch in standby, so check how many hours of active use the watch provides. We’ll note battery life for our picks below.

Does it help you navigate, or just track where you’ve been?

Some running watches contain a full navigation system, with pre-loaded maps and turn-by-turn directions. Others just lay a trail of digital breadcrumbs behind you, so that when you get home you can see where you went. We’ll note which watches include maps.

Does it tell you what to do, or just track what you’ve done?

Fancier running watches can track your fatigue and readiness, suggest workouts for you, and even guide you along a customized training plan. Meanwhile, the more basic watches will trust that you’re planning your own training; their job is just to be a tool to track what you’ve done.

Do you want a running watch, or a general purpose smartwatch?

Before we get into the specs of the best running watches, an important question to ask yourself is whether you want a running-specific watch with general features, or a general watch that you can bring on a run.

The models we highlight below are for running first, everyday life second. Check out our guide on trackers for general health and fitness (LINK TK) if you want something that’s more of a “smartwatch I can run with.”

Our picks for the best running watches

With those features in mind, we have picks for a variety of budgets and needs.

The one everyone has: Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

I’m not kidding: Strava’s end-of-2023 report found that the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music is the most-used running watch among its U.S. members. (Worldwide, the top watch was the 245’s older sibling, the 235.) Yes, that’s a watch that was first released in 2019. Yes, there are newer and better versions. But this is the one that hits the sweet spot for a whole lot of runners.

Why the Forerunner 245 Music?

  • Battery life: 7 days in smartwatch mode, 6 hours of running with GPS and music
  • Provides suggested workouts and Garmin Coach training plans.
  • Has a variety of training and recovery metrics, including VO2max, Body Battery, training load, recovery time, and intensity minutes.
  • Location tracking: includes GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo.
  • Can play music directly from the watch (if you don’t need this feature, just get the regular 245—it’s cheaper).
  • The Garmin Forerunner 245 Music currently retails for $US299.99 (the original list price was $US349.99)

Other options in this family:

  • The Forerunner 245 (no music) is cheaper, at $US199.99.
  • The newest model is the Forerunner 265, which has double the battery life, double the music storage, extra metrics for training readiness, and more accurate location tracking with multi-band GPS plus SatIQ. It’s $US449.99, which is $US150 more than the 245 Music.

The best budget pick: Garmin Forerunner 55 ($US189.99)

If the 245 Music sounds like overkill, perhaps you’d like the no-nonsense Forerunner 55. It has all the essential features of a modern running watch, without too many extras. If I were just getting into running and wanted to keep things simple, this would be my first buy. (Then, if I found myself missing certain features my friends had, I’d consider an upgrade.)

The battery life for the Forerunner 55 is two weeks in smartwatch mode, or 20 hours of running time with GPS tracking.

Other options in this family:

  • The Forerunner 45 is the previous model, and it’s still wildly popular. Battery life isn’t quite as good, and it’s missing some of the newer training and recovery features. It’s still a solid watch, though. Here’s a Forerunner 45 for $US139.99.

The best-kept secret: Coros Pace 3 ($US229)

Garmin has long been the unquestionable leader in the running watch biz, but I’m seeing more and more runners move to Coros watches. They may not be as common, but their owners love them, citing their lighter weight and longer battery life than comparable Garmin models.

How much better? Well, the Coros Pace 3 can do 38 hours of GPS-enabled running, versus 20 hours for the Forerunner 265. And it lasts 18 days in smartwatch mode if you wear it 24/7, versus 13 days for the Forerunner 265. There are tradeoffs for this battery life, of course, like a smaller, less-bright screen—but you also save 200 smackers.

Other options in this family:

  • The Coros Pace 2 is just a bit cheaper, currently $US179. The screen is slightly smaller, battery life slightly less, and the GNSS “only” uses four systems, with single-band GPS, rather than five and dual-band on the Pace 3.
  • The Coros Apex 2 is fancier and retails for $US349. It has a longer battery life and has full landscape and topographic maps. If you do a lot of trail running, you might consider this one.

The fancy watch for fancy runners: Garmin Fenix 7 Pro Solar Sapphire ($US899.99)

If you’ve got a generous budget for a running watch and you want the best one out there, it’s hard to go wrong with the Fenix line. This one comes in a few versions, so we’re going to highlight the features of this one:

  • Pro gives it a few features that the other Fenix models don’t have, including a flashlight and a better heart rate sensor.
  • Solar means it can increase its battery levels just from all the sunlight that’s hitting the watch as you jog around. (You do still need to charge it, but less often than its non-solar counterpart—every 22 days versus every 18.)
  • Sapphire means that the lens is made of sapphire mineral, which is extremely scratch-resistant. (The non-sapphire solar watches are made with Gorilla glass, which is also very strong, but this is an upgrade.)
  • And finally, 7 means that it’s the medium size (47 mm) in the seventh generation of this watch. The 7S is smaller at 42 mm, and the 7X is x-tra large at 52 mm.
  • The Garmin Fenix 7 Pro Sapphire Solar retails for $US899.99.

Fenix watches, generally, have all of Garmin’s best bells and whistles, with an incredible battery life. In smartwatch mode you’re looking at a couple of weeks, not days (three weeks with solar charging isn’t unusual), and the watch will last 10 hours of active use with GPS and music going the whole time.

Other options in this family:

  • Mix and match the various features above to find a watch that meets your needs. Here’s a Fenix 7S Solar (not Pro, not Sapphire) for $US579.99. Battery life is 11 to 14 days depending on how much sun it gets.
  • The older Fenix models are still well-loved by runners. The Fenix 6 line doesn’t have the newer version’s touchscreen or flashlight, but the core features are similar. You can save a substantial amount of money by going for an older model: here’s a refurbished Fenix 6 Pro for $US329.99.

The barebones option that elite runners use: Timex Ironman

Yes, this is a dumbwatch. No, I’m not including it as a joke. A lot of runners—including, and I might say, especially the pros—find the fancy features of smartwatches to be more of a distraction than a help.

The Timex Ironman is a watch with physical buttons, a stopwatch, and a backlight that you can turn on when needed, and it retails for $US60. It can remember your split times for a whole workout, and your average and best splits for past workouts.

Other options in this family:

  • The Ironman comes in several versions with slight variations. This one has a smaller case, 34 mm (as opposed to 43 mm above) but only enough memory for 30 lap times, rather than 100.
  • The Armitron Dragonfly is another popular dumbwatch (and is the one that I, personally, have). At $US18, it doesn’t have as many features, but it’s small and unobtrusive, and it can tell you how many minutes you’ve been running.

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