Best Running Watch, including Garmin, Polar, & Suunto

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This article is a concise guide to the best running watches available today at differing prices and functionality. As well as recommendations for the best watch, I also have a few that are worth considering in spite of their flaws, and some to avoid. For most runners my top choice is the Garmin 310XT, which is great value for money and has all the features you're likely to need. If that's too big and you want something more watch like, then the Garmin 610 is great, and it's often available refurbished at a great price. Also, consider using a Smartphone; if you already have one they are a cheap option and can have outstanding GPS Accuracy. For a lighthearted look at running watches, check out If Running Watches were Sports Cars?

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GPS Accuracy Testing
New firmware for the Fenix 2 are being tested, which may change the ratings of that watch.

1 Upcoming Reviews

I have a Garmin 920XT and Polar M400 on pre-order. If the 920XT has good GPS accuracy, then it might be one of the best running watches.

2 Summary of Features

Here's a table of these features for each of the watches I recommend (all have GPS). For details of the meaning of each column see the reviews referenced in the table.

Review

Rating for

casual runners

Rating for

marathon runners

Rating for

ultrarunners

Recommendation Reason

With Heart Rate Monitor

Without Heart Rate Monitor

GPS Accuracy Weight (oz) Size (CM3)

Waterproofing

Pace from FootPod Heart Rate Monitor Cadence Data Upload Battery Life (hr) Altimeter Navigation Training Effect Heart Rate Variability GPS Pre-cache
Garmin 620 Review 5 4 2 Small and feature packed $399.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $359.95)
$399.99 USD at Amazon.com

But you need the HRM for many of the features.)

6.5 1.5 20 Good (50m) No Yes Internal/Footpod/HRM (+Alert) Yes 10 No No Yes Record only Yes
Garmin 310XT Review 4 5 5 The best value for money. $168.28 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $139.00)
$179.44 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $113.99)
5.9 2.5 63 Good (50m) Yes Yes Footpod Yes 20 No Map of current route No No No
Garmin 610 Review 4 5 2 Smaller than the 310XT/910XT recommendations. $219.00 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $149.97)
$256.85 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $139.99)
6.4 2.5 41 Fair (IPX7) Yes Yes Footpod (+Alert) Yes 8 No Back to start Yes Record only No
Garmin 910XT Review 4 5 5 A better but more expensive version of the 310XT. $449.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $259.99)
$399.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $229.97)
6.8 2.5 49 Good (50m) Yes Yes Footpod Yes 20 Yes Map of current route Yes Record only No
Suunto Ambit2 R Review 4 4 4 A good watch at a reasonable price. $246.58 USD at Amazon.com $. at Amazon.com 5.8 2.5 30 Good (50m) No Yes Internal/Footpod Limited 8 No Back to start map Yes Record only Yes
Polar V800 Review 4 4 4 Great accuracy, but pricy $447.97 USD at Amazon.com $419.64 USD at Amazon.com 7.6 2.8 31 Good (30m) No Yes Footpod Limited 13 Yes Back to start Yes Display Predictive, not cached
Motorola Motoactv Review 3 2 1 If you can live with the flaws, it's brilliant.

(Discontinued, so only buy if it's under $150).

Not available as a package $200.00 USD (used) at Amazon.com 1.2 20 Poor (IPX7 with seals in place) No Yes Footpod (+Alert) Limited 6 No Full color maps No No No
TomTom Cardio Runner Review 3 3 2 Heart Rate monitoring without the chest strap $269.99 USD at Amazon.com Separate HR strap not needed 5.0 2.2 30 Good (50m) No Yes (optical) Internal/Footpod Yes 8 No No No No Yes
Polar RC3 GPS Review 2 2 2 Better Heart Rate Monitoring than Garmin. $222.99 USD at Amazon.com $153.43 USD at Amazon.com 5.1 2 29 Poor (IPX7 with seals in place) No Yes Footpod Yes (but painful) 13 No No No No No
Soleus 1.0 Review 1 1 1 Remarkably cheap, but limited. Not supported $69.99 USD at Amazon.com 2 28 Good (30m) No No No No 8 No No No No No
Garmin Fenix 2 Review 1 1 3 The most features, but appalling GPS Accuracy. $443.98 USD at Amazon.com $393.97 USD at Amazon.com 3.2 3.2 32 Good (50m) No Yes Internal/Footpod/HRM Yes 15 Yes Map of current route Yes No Yes
Garmin 10 Review 0 0 0 Small and cheap, but appalling GPS Accuracy

and there are better watches for not much more.

Not supported Garmin 10
MSRP $129.99 at Amazon.com
4.1 1.3 33 Good (50m) No No No Yes 5 No No No No No
There are several features to consider when looking for a runners watch.
  • GPS. GPS provides an easy measure of how far you've run, which is critical for your training. While it is possible to map out a run afterwards, this tends to be tedious and is typically less accurate than GPS. However, GPS is not accurate enough to display your current pace. The Garmin 910XT, 310XT and 610 can display current pace from the Foodpod while using GPS for distance.
  • GPS Accuracy. I've Analyzed the Accuracy of GPS watches, and I've found that there are wide differences in accuracy. The Garmin 620 and Garmin 10 are especially poor. Interestingly, adding a Footpod to the 310XT improves their accuracy noticeably. I've not tested all the watches yet, but more devices will be added as time allows. (My testing methodology requires me to run 100s of miles with each watch.)
  • Weight. None of these devices weigh enough to have a noticeable impact on running performance, but the weight can be noticeable.
  • Size. The size of these devices varies widely, and the larger devices can feel a little bulky, especially if you have a smaller wrist. I've provided the size as the volume in cubic centimeters to give a single number to compare.
  • Waterproofing. Even if you don't swim, having good waterproofing is important to prevent your watch being destroyed by the rain or sweat.
  • Current pace from a Footpod. A Footpod can be used to provide pace and distance. Displaying pace from the Footpod provides a far more accurate indication of current pace than GPS, which is important for any training program that requires running at a specific pace. Unlike GPS, Footpods need to be calibrated to provide accurate pace/distance, but this is relatively easy. For most runners, once the Footpod is calibrated it will display the right pace across a wide range of paces.
  • Heart Rate Monitor. Heart Rate is important information when training, though it is important to understand the limitations of heart rate based training. Having a Heart Rate Monitor that will record your heart rate is particularly valuable for evaluating your training.
  • Cadence. A display of Cadence is a critical training tool and newer watches are able to use an internal accelerometer to provide Cadence without any accessories. Other watches may need a Foodpod or the newer Garmin watches can use the running dynamics heart rate strap. A Cadence alert will help you stay in the right cadence range, and is a useful feature.
  • Data Upload. The ability to record your workout and store it in a training log such as Dailymile or SportTracks is vital. All of the recommended watches here have that ability. I'd strongly advise even a new runner to store their data so that they can look back over the months and years to understand their progress. A watch that can upload to a PC makes recording your workouts much easier.
  • Battery Life. How much battery life you need depends on how long you run for. It's best to have a watch that will last quite a bit longer than your longest run.
  • Altimeter. An altimeter will measure the atmospheric pressure and give you altitude. This is more accurate than GPS, but will require calibration to adjust for weather related pressure changes.
  • Navigation. The primary purpose of GPS in these devices is to measure distance, but some of them can also provide navigation. This navigation varies from a simple compass needle showing the direction to return to the start to a display of the route you've just run or a preloaded course. The Motoactv and Fenix 2 can display preloaded maps showing roads and names.
  • Training Effect. This is a measure of how hard a training run is as a numeric value of 1.0 to 5.0, based on an analysis of Heart Rate Variability.
  • Heart Rate Variability. There is a growing interest in the possibility of using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to evaluate training stress. While only one device will display HRV, there are several that will record HRV for later analysis.
  • GPS Pre-cache. Some newer watches will download the predicted positions of the GPS satellites for faster initial acquisition. This pre-cache works remarkably well, and the data is usually downloaded automatically when the watch is connected to the internet. However, the data is only valid for a few days, so after that time the device will fall back to the usual approach of scanning for satellites.

3 Using a Smartphone

Main article: Running With A Smartphone

Most smartphones have a GPS built in and support various applications that allow them to function as sports watches. These phones can have remarkable levels of GPS Accuracy as well as many other advantages.

4 Watches for Ultrarunning

Choosing a watch for an ultramarathon requires some tradeoffs and there's no simple answer. The main factor is battery life, and some runners will want navigation.

  • The Garmin 310XT, Garmin 910XT, and Garmin Fenix 2 will show an outline of your run and allow you to load a course outline to follow.
  • The longest battery life that's available with good GPS is 20 hours with the Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT. If you need longer than 20 hours, which is common in 100 mile races, you end up with some compromises.
  • You can turn off GPS and use a Footpod, which boost the battery life of the Garmin 310XT and Garmin 910XT to several days. Obviously you lose navigation and while the accuracy of a Footpod can be better than GPS, the Footpod does not do so well if you're taking Walking Breaks or running on twisty single track.
  • Some watches can extend the battery life by only taking a GPS fix once per minute. This can be acceptable on a straight course like the Keys 100 or Badwater, but it can be appalling on twisty trails.
    • The Suunto Ambit2 R gives 25 hours in extended mode and the more expensive Ambit2 gives 50 hours. There is some map capability, but it's not as good as the 310/910.
    • The Polar V800 gives 50 hours in extended mode, but has no map display.
    • The Garmin Fenix 2 will give 50 hours in extended mode, but it has serious GPS Accuracy problems even in normal mode.
  • You can extend the battery life a little by avoiding using the backlight or changing the display. Showing the map on the 310/910 seems to drain the battery quite fast. I've had 37+ hours out of the Suunto Ambit2 R.
  • Another option, depending on the race, is to have two watches and swap part way through.
  • Some runners will recharge their watch during a race, but that seems to be more hassle than it's worth.
I don't normally run with quite this much gear, but my testing involves running with multiple devices concurrently. For this run, I have; iPhone 5s (left arm), Garmin 310XT (left wrist), Garmin Fenix2 (left hand), Garmin 620 and Basis Activity Tracker (right wrist), Pebble SmartWatch (right hand), my favorite music player, the ClipZip (belt), Garmin Running Dynamics Heart Rate strap (chest), the wonderful Koss Portapro headphones, Garmin footpod and temperature pod (on shoes, not shown). I'm gathering GPS Accuracy data on the Fenix2 and iPhone 5s, with the 310XT to act as a sanity check, the 620 giving a Cadence alert and the Basis because I always wear it.