Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition

If you have a marathon in your sights, one of the best investments you can make is in a great GPS running watch – and here are our up-to-date recommendations for the best watch for marathon training!

In order to train effectively, you have to be able to track your runs.

A GPS running watch will tell you your running speed and distance while you run.  Then, later on, you can track and compare all your runs via your smartphone or computer, using a service like Strava.

Nowadays, running GPS watches often come with a bunch of additional features.  These include: estimating your VO2 max, measuring your heart rate, and also tracking your daily activity. 

Some GPS watches are suited for all kinds of workouts, including swimming.  

Others – like the Apple Watch – can even make and receive phone calls – if that’s what you’re looking for.

A GPS running watch is particularly important when you’re training for an event like a marathon.   You want to be able to log all your run distances, and track your pace, in order to quantify your progress.  

Then of course, come marathon day, you want to keep track of how you’re performing on the big event!

So when choosing the best watch for marathon training, there are a bunch of things to consider. Here’s a few:

best watch for marathon training

These days, I always wear my GPS watch when running  – it’s a simple way of recording every run I make, and means I’ve got a library of my training and progress I can check on at any time.

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 four or five hours.  So when I go and run ultras, I take the spruced-up version.

Can’t I Just Use My Phone Instead of a GPS Watch for Marathon Training?

Yes, of course!  All smartphones on the market have GPS capabilities.

However, the devil is in the detail.   

Smartphone GPS technology is not always optimised for outdoors exercise like a GPS running watch is. 

Manufacturers like Suunto and Garmin realise that their users primarily use their devices outdoors to track activity, so they prioritise metrics like pace and distance.   They also spend a lot of R&D in developing algorithms which work with the raw GPS data to ‘smooth’ it, so it resembles your actual run as closely as it can.

If you’ve ever recorded a workout with your phone that looks spikey and erratic, now you know why!   

For accuracy, and for ease of checking my progress, I always reach for my GPS running watch.

And when in marathon training or actually running your marathon, it’s very important to be able to accurately measure your runs!

Related article: How To Run With Your Phone: The Best Options For Carrying Your Phone While Running

What To Look For In A Marathon GPS Watch

Battery Life

Battery life is important when you’re selecting the best watch for marathon training.   The good news is that most GPS watches on the market these days are good for 8 – 10 hours on active GPS tracking mode.   Remember to check the specs (all watches I’ve recommended below have 6+ hrs of active GPS tracking mode battery life.  Ample for marathon training).   

Accuracy

Having an accurate read-out of your metrics is obviously important – there’s nothing worse than trying to check your pace during a run and seeing that your watch thinks you’re running faster than Usain Bolt!  So a reliable data read-out is important.   

All the watches I recommend below pass this test.

Actionable Metrics

In other words, these are things the watch tracks which gives you information about your performance.  A watch with a heart-rate monitor is useful, especially if you have been tracking your HR in training runs, or are training based on HR zones.

Altitude is also useful, as you can pace your efforts dependent on the difficulty of the gradients.

Finally, some navigational features can be useful (dependent on the nature of where you run, or your race).   

I once ran a self-navigated trail race where the race director sent my the trail route as a data file before the race began.

Good Software Platform

Modern technology gives us the ability to go back through the data of our running GPS watches and analyse every aspect of our run.   

Most watch manufacturers, such as Garmin and Suunto, have developed their own proprietary platforms.   

Moreover, apps like Strava are super-popular – and it’s easy to set up your device to export to an app like this.

Comfort and Durability

A good GPS watch should also be comfortable for wearing while running for hours on end, and durable enough to withstand the hours of knocking and sweating they’ll inevitably be exposed to.   All the watches I recommend below fall into these camps. 

Added bonuses like the ability to sync over wifi, play music, etc. all come down to personal preference and budget.

Best GPS Running Watches for Marathon Training

Here’s my run-down of some of the best GPS running watch options for marathon training. 

Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 1Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 2

Garmin Forerunner 235

The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great all-rounder watch for marathon training and general activity tracking.   Garmin are well-respected for their best-in-class GPS device performance and smart algorithms which accurately map your runs.  

The Forerunner 235 has a wrist-based heart rate monitor, a nice big screen, a GPS battery life of up to 11 hrs, and happily shares all kinds of metrics and analysis.   The aerobic-zone training feature is a good one – at a glance you can register how hard you’re pushing yourself.

coros apex

Coros APEX

The Coros APEX is my go-to running watch and activity tracker; I use it for hikes, marathon training, and ultramarathons too.

The killer feature of the APEX is it’s awesome battery life – it can go for up to 100hrs of GPS activity tracking on one charge in it’s UltraMAX mode. Usually a watch with this capability would be pushed firmly into the ultrarunning watch category, but Coros have created the APEX at a price point that positions it against other marathon GPS watches.

Well worth checking out; it includes an excellent on-board HR tracker, and is used by some of the biggest names in running.

Check out my in-depth review of the Coros APEX here.

Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 3Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 4

Apple Watch 5

There’s no denying it – these days, the Apple Watch can seriously compete as a GPS sports tracking watch.   Apple like to push the Nike Run Club app, but for tracking runs you can equally use Apple’s own platform or install your own – I use Strava with my Apple Watch and it syncs seamlessly.  With it’s built-in heart-rate sensor and smart activity monitoring features, the Apple Watch is a good bet if you want a device that tracks your overall wellbeing.  I use my Apple Watch as my everyday smartwatch – it’s useful for checking messages and task management. 

The main downside of the Apple Watch is that it requires an iPhone to sync to and really take advantage of all the features.

Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 5Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 6

Garmin Forerunner 25 (The Budget Option)

While the rest of the world keeps adding bells and whistles, the Forerunner 25 embraces digital minimalism.   This watch hasn’t been changed much in a few years – and that makes me super happy.  This watch tells the time, your distance, and pace.   That’s it.

(OK it also estimates steps and calories, but those are by-the-by).

You can still connect the watch to a computer and upload / analyse your runs.

If all you’re looking for is a reliable device for monitoring your pace and distance during training, this is the one for you.   It usually retails around $100, so if you’re on a budget this may be your best watch for marathon training.

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Suunto Spartan Sport

Suunto are well-regarded for their devices built for athletes, by athletes, and the Spartan Sport live up to this reputation.

With a GPS battery life of up to 12hrs, the watch is well-suited to distancing running, or other activities.  The Suunto Spartan Sport includes GPS navigation, a wrist-based heart-rate monitor, and on-screen route tracking.  With over 80 sports modes pre-installed, the watch is perfect for cross-training – or practically any activity you can think of!

Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 9Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition 10

Withings / Nokia Steel HR Hybrid 

The Withings / Nokia Steel HR Hybrid sportswatch offers something a bit different. It looks like a traditional watch – no rugged body or bright, digital display.   The Steel wouldn’t look out of place in meetings or formal events.

And at the same time, it has a built-in heart rate monitor, a battery that lasts over 7 hours in GPS mode, and all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from our sports smartwatches!

Which features are important to you when choosing a new GPS watch for marathon training?

Which model are you currently running in?

Anything to recommend to me?

Leave a comment below!

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

8 thoughts on “Best GPS Watches for Marathon Training: 2021 Edition”

    • I use the Apple Watch 4 for swimming and it’s great; you set the length of the pool you’re in and it counts the laps.

      The Forerunner 735XT and Suunto Spartan are also ready for swimming !

      Reply
  1. I use Fenix 6 and this above expectation watch more than what runner needs.
    Extremely happy with battery and metrics, I got it in offer otherwise it’s expensive one.

    Reply
  2. Hi Thomas. You should have a look at the Amazfit range. I just got one of their older versions – the ‘Pace’ and it is fantastic. Measures alongside expensive Garmins etc but I got this one for $107 (NZD) delivered from their official page in AliExpress. It does not have the training prgrammes you get from some of the other running watch brands – you can build your own interval sessions and there are some general distance running programmes… but a smart watch that is really accurate in the gps front and with a 35 hour ‘event’ endurance… amazing. You can run a 35hour race without needing to charge or swap it out for another watch… show me anything for anywhere near this price point that can do that… no I don’t sell these things, but worth looking into!

    Reply
    • Hey Robert, thanks for this- that model has an awesome price / battery life relation ! Thanks for sharing, gonna check them out further.

      Thanks,
      Thomas @ Marathon Handbook

      Reply

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