Best Running Watch, including Garmin, Polar, & Suunto

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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.

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. (Note, I have a Garmin 920XT on pre-order and I'm about to start testing the Polar V800.)

1 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 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 Altimeter Navigation Training Effect Heart Rate Variability GPS Pre-cache
Highly Recommended
Garmin 310XT The best value for money. $179.26 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $129.96)
$179.44 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $119.00)
5.9 (6.6 with Footpod) 2.5 63 Good (50m) Yes Yes Footpod Yes Good (20hr) No Map of current route No No No
Garmin 610 Smaller than the 310XT/910XT recommendations. $269.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $156.99)
$282.29 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $149.95)
6.4 2.5 41 Fair (IPX7) Yes Yes Footpod (+Alert) Yes Fair (8hr) No Back to start Yes Record only No
Garmin 910XT A better but more expensive version of the 310XT. $449.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $279.99)
$399.99 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $229.99)
6.8 with Footpod 2.5 49 Good (50m) Yes Yes Footpod Yes Good (20hr) Yes Map of current route Yes Record only No
Suunto Ambit2 R A good watch at a reasonable price, with only one flaw. $254.49 USD at Amazon.com $249.00 USD at Amazon.com 5.8 2.5 30 Good (50m) No Yes Internal Limited Fair (8 Hr, more in extended mode) No Back to start map Yes Record only Yes
Worth Considering
Motorola Motoactv If you can live with the flaws, it's brilliant.
(Discontinued, so only buy if it's under $150).
Not available as a package $249.99 USD at Amazon.com 1.2 20 Poor (IPX7 with seals in place) No Yes Footpod (+Alert) Limited Poor (3-6hr) No Full color maps No No No
Polar RC3 GPS Better Heart Rate Monitoring than Garmin. $254.98 USD at Amazon.com $154.94 USD at Amazon.com 5.1 2.0 29 Poor (IPX7 with seals in place) No Yes Footpod Yes (but painful) Fair (13hr) No No No No No
Soleus 1.0 Remarkably cheap, but limited. Not supported $69.99 USD at Amazon.com 2.0 28 Good (30m) No No No No Fair (8hr) No No No No No
TomTom Cardio Runner 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) Yes Yes Fair (8hr) No No No No Yes
Buyer Beware
Garmin Fenix 2 The most features, but appalling GPS Accuracy. $449.99 USD at Amazon.com $399.99 USD at Amazon.com 3.8 3.2 32 Good (50m) No Yes Internal/Footpod/HRM (+Alert) Yes Good (15Hr, more in extended mode) Yes Map of current route Yes No Yes
Garmin 620 Nice features, but appalling GPS Accuracy. $449.99 USD at Amazon.com $399.99 USD at Amazon.com
(But you need the HRM for many of the features.)
3.9 1.5 20 Good (50m) Yes Internal/Footpod/HRM (+Alert) Yes Fair (10hr) No No Yes Record only Yes
Garmin 10 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 Poor (5hr) 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.

2 Not Recommended

These watches have flaws or a price point that makes them unattractive.

2.1 Garmin 405/405CX/410

The Garmin 4xx series watches use a touch sensitive bezel which does not work well with gloves or when wet. The Garmin 410 has an 'improved bezel', but there are still problems. I also see more people struggling at the start of marathons with the 4xx watches than all the other devices combined.

2.2 Nike+ Sportwatch

There is a lot to like about the Nike+ Sportwatch, but it has one weakness that I believe is unacceptable. The software for the Nike+ does not allow you to use the data from your runs in anything other than the Nike web site. A training log is important, and while beginners may not need one, buying a watch that prevents you from accessing your data in the future is too limiting. The Motoactv is a far more capable watch than the Nike+, though it too has some flaws.

2.3 Garmin 305/205

The 305/205 are the earlier generations of Garmin GPS watches, and are getting hard to find. With the price drops of other devices these Garmin watches no longer offer reasonable value for money, though they offer great GPS accuracy if you can find one.

2.4 Adidas Fit Smart

This is a rather strange hybrid device, that I don't recommend as a running watch. It looks like an activity monitor and functions a little like a sports watch, but in reality is neither. The Adidas has the same optical heart rate monitoring used in the TomTom, but this rapidly drains the battery giving only five hours of use, so it not an activity monitor that is worn all the time. It has to pair with a smartphone to provide GPS, makes it more of an advanced smartwatch, adding heart rate monitoring to the display functions (see below).

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.