Tech and fitness go hand-in-hand these days, and for athletes that favor running over the weights and barbells, there are plenty of benefits to this digital training environment. Now more than ever, we’re able to fine-tune our paces and workouts through monitoring data, all for the sake of better health and wellness. No tool makes that tracking easier than a quality running watch.
BEST OVERALL RUNNING WATCHGarmin Forerunner 265 Read More
BEST UPGRADE RUNNING WATCHCoros Apex 2 Pro Read More
BEST BUDGET RUNNING WATCHWahoo ELEMNT Rival Read More
BEST APPLE WATCH FOR RUNNINGApple Watch Ultra Read More
BEST RUNNING WATCH FOR TRIATHLETESAmazfit T-Rex 2 Read More
These wearables aren’t just for keeping tabs on the time, however. With plenty of health-related features and GPS-monitoring services baked into each face, running watches have essentially become extensions of your tried and trusted smartphone. As is the case with normal timepieces, too, there’s an abundance of worthwhile wearables designed to give your workouts a tech-infused boost.
How We Tested
I’ve become a frequent wearer of these fitness-specific tools over time and have had the pleasure of putting a number of the below silhouettes through the trials and tribulations associated with running. To get synced up on which profile fits certain training needs, I toggled through a number of features, faces and modules across a variety of paces, distances and terrain. In addition to my cardio-focused training, I also wore these watches through my typical strength workouts, giving each its chance to track my performance across other disciplines that don’t feature a starting line or finish line. Extra features like app compatibility, user interface, band comfort and more were also investigated to help you make the most educated decision possible when deciding on a face for your personal fitness journey.
Garmin Forerunner 265
- Display Size: 32.5mm
- Weight: 47 g
- Water Rating: 5 ATM
- Battery Life: Up to 20 hours (GPS-Only GNSS Mode)
With key upgrades to the face boasting a brand-new AMOLED display, the Forerunner 265 easily checks all the marks I want in a running watch. I never have an issue reading my metrics, even when under direct sunlight, and the larger ‘Run’ button is simple and intuitive. This made getting into and out of a workout much more efficient, rather than trying to search through the interface for my desired activity, ensuring settings were correct and then starting my session.
The Forerunner 265 also earns top billing due to its small yet mighty bezel, as it provided enough landscape for clear readouts without weighing down my wrist during wear. Naturally, though, this is a running watch first with smartwatch features, so while you can receive notifications regarding incoming texts or calls, there’s no way to interact with these updates through the watch itself.
Coros Apex 2 Pro
- Display Size: 33.02mm
- Weight: 53 g
- Water Rating: 5 ATM
- Battery Life: 75 hours (Standard Full GPS Mode)
It’s quite difficult to find a running watch with as much juice as this impressive silhouette from Coros. The Apex 2 Pro can stay well-powered for up to 75 hours in Standard Full GPS Mode, which is great for keeping the profile on my wrist while harvesting key data both in and out-of training. I also enjoyed how intuitive the companion app was in relation to this watch’s usability, keeping all my measurables and settings in an organized manner without getting too convoluted.
There is one feature across the Apex 2 Pro that I consider a blessing and a curse, though, and that’s the scroll wheel toggle. While this button makes working through settings and data points a far simpler experience on the watch, it also activates the screen lock, which you need to unlock before getting into the belly of the watch’s capabilities. While it’s not a major concern, after experiencing other watch interfaces, I’ll admit that there was some irritation in trying to remember to unlock the screen before each use.
For a more in-depth look, read our full review of the Coros Apex 2 Pro.
Wahoo ELEMNT Rival
- Display Size: 30.4mm
- Weight: 53 g
- Water Rating: 5 ATM
- Battery Life: Up to 24 hours (GPS or HR Mode)
While Wahoo is more commonly known for its cycling-based equipment, this sleek and training-ready watch is definitely worth its weight as well. The Gorilla Glass lens is plenty resistant from scuffs and scrapes, which I admire for particularly intense training scenarios like trail running or mountain biking. Plus, the ELEMNT Rival can be an excellent pick for triathletes, too, thanks to its Touchless Transition feature that seamlessly switches through the different legs of the triathlon without the need for on-watch interaction.
Some athletes have noted, though, that to get the most accurate readouts possible, you need to wear the sensors continuously on the skin. While it might sound simple in practice, this constant contact could indicate a tighter fitment than other watches in this roundup that allow for a little space and maneuverability across the wrist. Still, though, this is a worthwhile, cost-effective option, especially for athletes accustomed to the Wahoo experience.
Apple Watch Ultra
- Display Size: 49mm
- Weight: 61.3 g
- Water Rating: 100m
- Battery Life: Up to 36 hours (Normal Use)
The Apple Watch is no longer a smartwatch that doubles as a fitness tracker. Unveiled last year, the Apple Watch Ultra is a phenomenal tool in monitoring your training output as you work through your routines. Key additions, like the “Precision Mode” that starts a workout at the push of a button, showcase how Apple has listened to athletes when building out this all-new running watch.
L5 GPS capabilities also add to the Apple Watch Ultra’s makeup, providing the most precise navigational statistics to date. While this is a bulkier fitness accessory, there’s no doubt that the beefier makeup houses plenty of technological advances. Plus, there’s tons of crossover potential in regards to your other daily tech essentials like your smartphone, Airtags and other devices.
Amazfit T-Rex 2
- Display Size: 35.31mm
- Weight: 66.5 g
- Water Rating: 10 ATM
- Battery Life: Up to 24 days (Typical Usage)
If you want the navigational features of some of the advanced running watches out there without the premium price, look no further than this adventure-ready option from Amazfit. The larger face is easy to read, and there’s plenty of sports tracking capabilities baked into the software. Eight of these activities, including running, walking, pool swimming and outdoor cycling, can also be tracked automatically through the watch’s ExerSense Algorithm.
With that said, however, this is one of the larger watches on this list in terms of weight, which could be a detriment to those wanting a slim build across their wrist. The weight is understandable, however, when you take into consideration that there’s plenty of battery life embedded in this sleek, impressive profile — up to 24 days of regular use.
Polar Grit X Pro
- Display Size: 30.48mm
- Weight: 79 g
- Water Rating: WR100
- Battery Life: Up to 40 hours (Training Mode)
For adventurous runners, trail running can be an excellent form of exercise. To keep you safe and ready for the terrain ahead, however, you need a watch that’s packed with navigational features as well as an overall build that can take on the muck, mud and intensity associated with the wild. This Girt X Pro profile from Polar has been a favorite of mine for these outdoor-focused sessions thanks to its impressive library of navigational features, including the TrackBack module that gives you a quick return route to get you back to the trailhead or parking lot with little hiccup or headache.
Unfortunately, though, I did notice that this watch can deplete its batteries quicker than others, especially when running all of the helpful and convenient navigation features. It’s best to develop a bi-nightly charging protocol, especially if you frequent the mountains and pathways in your normal training regimen.
Garmin Forerunner 965
- Display Size: 35.4mm
- Weight: 53 g
- Water Rating: 5 ATM
- Battery Life: Up to 31 hours (GPS-only Mode Without Music)
Like the above Forerunner 265, this impressive profile also received a new AMOLED display with its latest upgrade, and while I prefer its smaller brethren for running-specific disciplines, I think this Forerunner 965 is still excellent for athletes that take their fitness in multiple forms. The tracking capabilities are prime for varied workouts and there’s even support for golfing activities that allow you to follow your course layout through GPS. Plus, the larger titanium bezel is sleek enough for daily wear without giving your wardrobe that sporty style other watches give off.
Fans of the previous Forerunner 955 will see a glaring omission across this build, though — a lack of solar capabilities. Due to the AMOLED upgrade, there’s no room for solar-charging glass. While not an absolute dealbreaker (this watch still has a good bit of juice), I did miss this component on clear-skied days that would’ve otherwise served as both a fantastic training environment and quasi charging station.
Suunto 9 Peak Pro
- Display Size: 43mm
- Weight: 64 g
- Water Rating: 100m
- Battery Life: Up to 21 days (24/7 Tracking and Mobile Notifications)
As much as we may like to boast about our athletic prowess or training-focused dedication, the aesthetic is best kept to the gym bag more often than not. Thankfully, this stylish profile from Suunto is capable of hiding in plain sight thanks to its minimalist design, sleek interface and comfortable wearability. I also enjoy the variety of bezel colors offered, perfect for bringing a splash of personality to all your fits, active or not.
From a performance standpoint, the 9 Peak Pro is a worthwhile option for any dedicated runner thanks to its 95-plus sport modes, impressive battery life and efficient accuracy for data tracking and GPS navigation. You don’t get some conveniences like offline music with this silhouette, though, so if you’re looking for a timepiece that allows for controlling every aspect of your workout, you may want to look at other profiles.
Fitbit Sense 2
- Display Size: 40.13mm
- Weight: 22.68 g
- Water Rating: 50m
- Battery Life: 6+ days
If you’re looking for a stylish smartwatch to introduce you to the world of fitness metrics, I recommend the Fitbit Sense 2. A continuous electrodermal activity sensor tracks a ton of data throughout the day, including stress levels and heightened responses. This made taking a breather or knowing when your body became overworked much easier.
The Fitbit Sense 2 also sits pretty flush on the wrist, making workouts more comfortable as well. Yet while this is technically labeled as a smartwatch, I didn’t find myself using these features too often. The audio quality during calls can be spotty at times, so for my needs, I mostly used this as a fitness tracker. After all, that’s sort of Fitbit’s bread and butter.
- Display Size: 38mm
- Weight: 181.44 g
- Water Rating: 10 ATM
- Battery Life: N/A
While technology has essentially changed the running watch landscape for good, you’re still more than capable of tracking your times and splits with a well-to-do digital timepiece, too. I like the Nixon Heat for its durable bezel and thin composition, as well as the included chronograph and timer features that allow for simple tracking mid-workout. This watch also features multiple preset timers, which can make getting into a certain countdown much easier before hitting the streets or track.
Naturally, though, choosing this watch face does mean you’re limited to just time-focused stats in training, as there’s no sensors to help you keep tabs on your heart rate VO2 Max or other metrics. You’ll also feel this watch in training more so than other profiles, which I attribute to its hefty weight and stiffer band construction. Still, however, sometimes you just need a timer to facilitate progress, and the Heat is plenty capable for these more trimmed-down scenarios.
What Do Running Watches Do?
Outside of being damn fine timepieces, running watches are a digital monitor that allow you to unlock new training potential in every step. These devices utilize sensors to track your heart rate and other measurables, tracking data points to give you a better scope of your body’s output. Running watches can also feature GPS systems that help you navigate the winding roads and routes, wherever you roam. Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine how many features you need within your running watch, although heart rate monitoring and GPS services can be a good foundation for most.
Do You Need a Running Watch?
In short, no. While the metrics tracked through running watches can be great, especially for more advanced athletes looking to get the most out of their workouts, all this information does not necessarily make for a healthier physique. You’re still plenty capable of running and maintaining positive performances without the assistance of these accessories.
With that being said, I’ve trained with and without a running watch, and after understanding the data points, I don’t think I’d train without one again. I feel the metrics allow me to better understand my workout potential, giving in-depth analysis that can bolster any session. I look at running watches like any timepiece — once you become accustomed to wearing one, it’s hard to stop.
How to Choose a Running Watch
While there’s certainly no shortage of bells and whistles when it comes to running watches, there are a handful of factors that one should consider, regardless of how simple or luxe you decide to go with.
Most running watches will track time, pace, distance and heart rate. These are the most basic metrics to look for in any of these wearables, and can be great for any level of athlete. If you prefer to run new routes or fancy trail running as your go-to discipline, I highly recommend investing in a running watch featuring a GPS system as well for added safety and security on unknown roads.
If you want to peel back more layers of your training with metrics like VO2 Max, stride length and recovery rate, look for a running watch that features these data points, although they’re not entirely necessary for every budding enthusiast. The amount of tracking points will also affect price, so be sure to have a good idea of just what you want to accomplish before investing in a watch that’s overkill for your needs.
As with any digital device, having a quality battery life is important, especially when it comes to training. A running watch is nothing more than a stylish accessory if it can’t power itself to track your desired metrics. Most running watch batteries can last up to five days between charges, but some have massive tanks that can reach up to 50 or more. Some running watches also utilize solar power to help maintain levels when out and about.
Size and Fit
A running watch shouldn’t be a burden to your workouts, and that can easily occur if the device is ill-fitting or cumbersome on the wrist. Pay close attention to the size of the watch face and think about how you’d like to wear the watch. It’s also important to look at the band itself and make note of any fabrics or fibers. You’re likely to sweat around the device during training, so any material that will pool or harbor moisture should be avoided. Trust me, your skin will thank you later.
If you want to stylize your running watch with some metal bands for off-training scenarios, or just like adding a splash of color to your wardrobe, many running watches feature interchangeable bands that can better suit your intended style, as well.
Many running watches come with additional perks that go beyond training. Some can link to your digital wallet for seamless paying at your favorite coffee shops. Others can link to your music streaming service for easier toggling and control, rather than pulling out your phone to shuffle through your playlists. In all, these features aren’t completely vital to any training scenario, but they can be beneficial and make daily life much easier. Read through your running watch description and see what’s baked into the build, and see if any of these add-ons are worth your time.