One of the things I love about running is the minimal amount of kit you need to do it. I’ve seen myself go for hundreds of runs over the years with nothing more than my shorts, shirt, socks and running shoes.
However, the one extra piece of gear I’ll almost always bring with me is my GPS watch.
When in training, whether for a 10k or for a multi-day stage race, I try and have some structure to my runs – so running at a specific pace is paramount. That’s why I love a simple GPS watch – I want to know basic data like my pace, distance run and time all in a glance.
These days, the GPS watch market is filled with devices for all kinds of applications, and with all kinds of fancy bells and whistles. Many people simply use a GPS app on their phone – for me, there are benefits to both GPS watches and smartphones, but for a training run I prefer the simplicity of a rugged, lightweight watch strapped to my wrist. A smartphone’s GPS technology is a little more rudimentary than that of a GPS watch, so for accuracy I always prefer to use a watch.
Different GPS watches are suited to different situations – for example, I’ve got a simple Garmin which is great for regular training runs, but it’s battery only lasts around 3.5hrs. So when I go and run ultras, I take the spruced-up version.
So here is an overview of some of the best GPS watches for runners on the market right now. I’ve broken down what I look for in a watch, and what I like about each of these:
The Garmin Forerunner 15 ($75)
The Best Simple Training Watch
This watch has been my go-to running watch for over five years now. To me, it’s uncomplicated-ness is its charm – the Forerunner 15’s simple screen shows you time, distance and pace on one screen – the holy trinity. It also calculates calories burned and can be used with an optional heart rate monitor chest strap. It’s battery life is not bad, but I’ve found mines dying after 3-4hours on GPS mode, so I don’t rely on it for anything further than a half marathon.
The watch body is a bit bulkier than modern fitness trackers, but I don’t mind that. It’s stripped-down functionality is exactly what I want in my day-to-day runs.
GPS Battery while running – 3-4 hours (my experience)
TomTom Spark 3 – $117
Functionality and Music on a Budget
TomTom’s brand hasn’t always been associated with running tech, but in recent years they’ve rolled out solid GPS devices that continue to be well received. Their go-to entry-level runner’s watch is the Spark 3. It’s pleasing aesethetic and design is a bit more stylish than most of the watches in this price range, and it’s functionality goes beyond running. The watch is designed as an all-in-one fitness tracker and exercise device, so records your daily movements and can be used for swimming too.
For around an extra $20, you can get the Cardio+Music model, which comes with an in-built heart rate monitor and a set of Bluetooth headphones, allowing you to preload tracks onto your watch and listen to them during your run.
GPS Battery while running – 4-5 hours
Garmin Forerunner 235 – $330
The All-Round Running Watch
If you’re looking for a high-performance running watch, I can recommend the Garmin Forerunner 235. It comes with a built-in heart-rate monitor, a long battery life and a bunch of extra bells and whistles. It automatically connects to wi-fi to upload your workouts to the cloud, and has optional functions like checking your e-mail and messages. I’m a fan of the Forerunner 235’s large, easy-to-read and bright display. If you want a great running-focussed all-rounder with the latest tech, this is it.
GPS Battery while running – 11 hours
Apple Watch (from $235)
The Killer App Watch
The Apple Watch, as you are surely well aware, is much more than a sports tracker. It pairs with your iPhone and can be used for taking calls and messaging, playing games and just about anything else you can think of.
But it’s multi-functionality shouldn’t make you rule it out as a running watch. If you are considering one, I’d go straight for the Nike model. It’s built for sports – with a built-in heart rate monitor, GPS and waterproofing, it’s a great all-rounder. Plus the Apple Watch’s automatic health tracking systems can be insightful, monitoring your sleep patterns, how long you are sedentary for throughout the day, etc.
For runners, the biggest disadvantages of this watch are that you need an iPhone 6 or above to pair it with, and are stuck with the proprietary software – such as Nike’s run tracking software, which is great – but many say it’s not as versatile as, say, the Garmin equivalent.
GPS Battery while running – up to 5 hours, according to Apple’s website. Other tests have said this is possible if you set out with the watch fully charged and don’t stop-start too much.
Polar M400 GPS Smart Sports Watch – $121
The Versatile Sports Option
Looking for a budget running GPS that is also useful for your other sports? Check out the Polar M400 – it’s waterproof so can be used in tri sports. As well as measuring your pace and distance using GPS, it also monitors your running cadence, which is a handy metric to analyse. It also has the activity tracking features which you find on the likes of fitbits – sleep quality, steps, etc.
GPS Battery while running – up to 8hrs, according to Polar
Let me know which GPS running devices you use below!