Whether you’re crushing your first 5K or working to become the next great triathlete, your cardio-intensive training goal requires more than the proper nutrition plan, speed endurance, and pair of elite running shoes.
Achieving that goal on the highest level requires data. More specifically, a wearable that can record that data and make it all accessible on your wrist. What you need is a GPS running watch.
There’s nothing wrong with your standard fitness tracker, but GPS watches offer more state of the art features that make them more wrist-worn computer than glorified pedometer. GPS devices are designed to track your every move and position on the road, plus they also typically deliver in-depth fitness and health analysis to improve your conditioning. This includes HRM (hear rate monitoring), pace, rest times, speed, and much more.
And what about your smartphone? You might discover some innovative mobile fitness accessories and killer running apps to pair with your do-everything gadget. But are you seriously comfortable living with the big risk of dropping your baby, screen first on the curb? Didn’t think so. You’ll be able to run more confidently phone-free with a powerful watch that gives you many of the same features on your wrist.
So, you can see why GPS watches are the optimal running companions, especially for marathon trainees and serious athletes. But before committing to one, it’s best to familiarize yourself with some key features and technologies found in today’s GPS watches.
What You Want in a GPS Running Watch
- Aesthetics: For runners, a GPS watch is more about sustainability than style. Seek out something with a durable strap, sturdy casing, and dust/shock/waterproof protection.
- Accelerometers: These electromechanical devices track your physical stats from distance to speed and are most beneficial for gym junkies who love accumulating miles on the elliptical or treadmill.
- Battery Life: Many of the latest releases offer anywhere between 5-35 hours of power, while some upscale models go as high as 120 hours.
- Data Tracking: All the biometric and performance data your fitness tracker records is afforded to you on a GPS watch. You’ll also be monitoring more advanced metrics such as lactate threshold, HR max, and VO2 max.
- Extra Accessories: Foot pods, hear rate monitors, and cadence sensors are a few popular pieces compatible with some GPS watches.
- Horology: Duh, you want it to tell time.
- Heart Rate Monitoring: Keeping tabs on your heart will determine whether you’re going too hard, not going hard enough or need rest. It’s the best way of measuring exertion levels and intensity training.
- Mobile-Friendly Features: Some timepieces help you stay connected by pairing to your mobile device. That means access to text messages, emails, and social notifications directly on your GPS watch.
- Training Modes: Programmable workouts and training schedules are standard features found on most modern GPS watches. Reap the benefits of creating interval workouts or gain performance insights via virtual coaching.
Depending on your needs, you can either score an affordable GPS watch with enough practical features to improve your cardio game, or spend high on a top-tier device that’ll help to get you running like an Olympian in a matter of months. Wherever you fall, just know the market isn’t short on great options. we compiled a list of the 10 best GPS running watches to give you a head start on the competition.
Garmin Forerunner 935
Geared towards triathletes and ultrarunners, the Forerunner 935 is a tracking powerhouse that makes the most of Garmin’s industry-leading ecosystem by combining advanced metric performance with stellar GPS technology. You can transition between activities, from biking to running to swimming, while continuously monitoring your performance. What it does with this data is brilliant, crunching the stats to determine heart rate variability, rest times, and other cool physiological insights. Battery life is another strong feature; you can get 24 hours in run mode and up to 60 hours in low-power mode.
Key features: 24-hour battery life, Garmin Connect, heart rate sensor, multi-sport tracking features, smart notifications
Apple Watch Series 4
Essentially, Apple’s newest wearable is a GPS watch disguised as a premium smartwatch, which is great for mobile users who can’t detach themselves from their iPhones. The latest operating system, watchOS 5, welcomes a host of runner-friendly upgrades such as automatic run/fall detection, extended battery life (six hours in running mode), and pace alerts. But what you’ll really want the Series 4 for is its new heart health features, which lets you take electrocardiograms (ECGs) to determine any possible heart irregularities.
Key features: 18-hour battery life, Bluetooth 5.0, electrical heart sensor, iOS integration, music storage, third-party app support
The Coros Apex is an eye-catcher that blends attractive aesthetics with superb performance analysis. Looks-wise, it’s a fashionable timepiece that rivals the Apple Watch, boasting interchangeable straps and a sexy titanium alloy bezel with digital knob to easily navigate through data screens and menus. There’s an AI Trainer that structures workouts to suit your fitness level and training needs. The watch also lends itself to other ANT+ accessories, so you can pair it with a compatible heart rate monitor for precise readings. Longevity is the Apex’s greatest attribute, generating 35 hours on full GPS mode and up to 100 hours on UltraMax GPS mode.
Key features: 35-hour battery life, companion app with graphical analysis, multiple strap options, pre-loaded track routes, simple UI navigation
Suunto 9 Baro
Road warriors ready to trek cross country, on foot, will want this adept multisport watch strapped to their wrists. The Suunto 9 Baro carries a massive battery that lasts up to 120 hours in GPS mode, along with a barometric altimeter for altitude readings. Even cooler is the watch’s smart software, which optimizes battery use by sending reminders to switch modes or recharge before sprinting out the door. The FusedSpeed feature is just as clutch, estimating your wrist acceleration to produce near-perfect readings when the GPS starts to act up. You can expect some incredible post-workout stats and recovery insights too.
Key features: Intelligent battery features, mobile notifications, multi-sport modes, optical heart rate, up to 120 hours of continuous tracking
Garmin VivoActive 3 Music
If music is what turbocharges your cardio ambitions, then this version of Garmin’s popular GPS smartwatch is the one you want. On top of carrying over all the best features of its predecessor, it doubles as a music player that can pair to your favorite wireless fitness headphones to enjoy up to 500 downloadable songs for phone-free listening. Garmin partnered with wellness professionals, Firstbeat, to share amazing heart-rate analysis and determine stress levels. Access to Garmin Connect means meticulous data-crunching to observe daily health insights, which the app uses to detail run cadence, VO2 max, and even your fitness age.
Key features: 5-hour battery life in music mode, dynamic fitness metrics, fitness age estimation, internal storage, pre-loaded sports apps
Polar is synonymous with accurate heart rate monitoring, and the wristwear staple’s new Ignite watch provides nothing short of exceptional health results for just about any activity—but it is super effective at tracking your runs. This all-around fitness model tracks running power directly on your wrist—no accessories required—and assists runners with their distance and pace targets with Smart Coaching tools, all while delivering spot-on BPM (beats per minute) readings. More impressively, for runners who want to add cross-training to their regimen, Polar programmed over 100 sports profiles to accommodate almost every type of activity in existence. All this in a super-thin body with a price tag below $250.
Key features: Multi-day battery life, advanced recovery metrics, heart rate measurement, plenty of training features, smart coaching
Withings Steel HR Sport
Falling under $200, the Steel HR is a sub-luxury model that crams versatile features into a sleek, analog wristwatch design. All the basics are covered such as activity and sleep tracking. Then there’s the option to record up to 40 different activities via GPS connectivity. The Withings Health Mate app navigates your running experience and gauges your fitness levels by assessing VO2 max – the amount of oxygen used during exercises. You’re also able to map distance, elevation, and pace in real time. What about battery life? Let’s just say you can sport the watch for almost a month before recharging it.
Key features: 25-day battery life, deluxe design, heart rate monitoring, multi-sport tracking, smart notifications
Garmin Fenix 5X Plus
The original Fenix 5 was a multi-sport goliath that set the standard for GPS and outdoor smartwatches. Well, this fancy upgrade takes performance up another notch with music storage, Spotify support, wireless payments, and a beautiful sapphire display to examine health and training stats. Another exclusive feature well worth the extra coin is the Pulse Ox Acclimation sensor, which estimates blood oxygen levels at high altitudes. The wealth of lifestyle metrics presented on the Fenix 5X Plus is phenomenal, calculating everything from all-day heart rate to sleep patterns to stress levels. The Fenix 5X even supports an extra satellite tracking system, Galileo, which is said to improve location accuracy and timing. Battery life is up there as well, with 33 hours of GPS tracking.
Key features: 70-hour battery life with GPS off, music-streaming support, multi-sport features, pulse oximeter, three satellite tracking systems
Timex Ironman GPS
A classic never goes out of the style, and Timex’s minimalist running watch is living proof of that. The Ironman GPS isn’t the fanciest, nor the most hi-tech of the batch, but it’s a no-frills option that does what it’s supposed to: tell time and track activity. Several hassle-free features are programmed to warm up athletic novices for their first big run. Fast GPS connection produces accurate real-time results (pace, speed, and distance), while hydration and pace alerts assist with conditioning. Interval timers also help boost training. Battery life holds up for about a week’s work of outdoor running before recharging.
Key features: 12-hour battery life, dynamic performance alerts, multi-sport recording, water-resistant protection
The M430 is an intermediate watch that doesn’t skimp on fitness features. For one, it delivers some of the best indoor activity tracking, which is great for anyone training at the gym. The device is more reliable outdoors, with accurate GPS locking and heart rate monitoring that doesn’t skip a beat. There’s an abundance of training modes available that share great post-workout feedback to strengthen performance. But what has us sold is the M430’s low-power GPS modes that extend battery life to get the most use out of the watch, anywhere between 8 to 30 hours.
Key features: Customized running programs, multi-platform support, NFC, optical heart rate monitor, water-resistant protection