Your guide to buying a running watch

Anna Hecht, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon April 23, 2018

Story highlights

  • Running watches with varying functionality for every budget
  • We broke down watches by brand for basic, intermediate and advanced options

For runners, there's something about lacing up your shoes and strapping on your watch that makes you feel alive. With the right gear, you instantly feel prepared and equipped to put in major miles and tackle your fitness goals.

Perhaps the most complicated fitness gadget to get right is a running watch. Most runners will tell you it's a worthy investment. The only thing is, it can sometimes be difficult to choose which watch suits you best, especially when there are so many options.

To help, we've compiled a list of running watch brands, from the most basic models to the most advanced. That way, you can compare different options and find the one that suits your needs and budget.

1. GARMIN

BASIC: The Garmin Forerunner 25 ($99.99; garmin.com) As a point of clarification, the term "basic" as it's used here doesn't have anything to do with quality — especially when it comes to the Forerunner 25. Instead, when we say basic, we're talking about the number of features. When there are fewer functions, the price is typically lower. This particular model tracks distance, pace, steps, heart rate and calories. It connects instantly with Garmin Connect Mobile so that you can share your progress via social media.

INTERMEDIATE: The Garmin Forerunner 735XT ($299.99, originally $349.99; garmin.com) If you're looking to track more than just running, this is the watch for you. The 735XT has multisport features and wrist-based heart rate measurements. With it, you can run, swim and cycle. It also tells you contact time balance, stride length, vertical ratio and more. It syncs your progress using Garmin Connect for live tracking and smart notifications.

ADVANCED: The Garmin Forerunner 935 ($449.99, originally $499.99; garmin.com) While spending $500 on a fitness watch might seem like a large price to pay, it's worth the investment for many athletes. For one, the Forerunner 935 has a sophisticated design (and weighs just 49 grams) so it fits comfortably on your wrist. And since it's a watch designed for both runners and triathletes, one would have a lot of trouble outgrowing this device. With so many functions, including a barometer, altimeter and an electronic compass, you can set off on real adventure and get an accurate idea of hills climbed, steps and much more.

2. TOMTOM

In 2011, TomTom partnered with Nike to create a fitness watch. Since then, it's expanded its line to include the Runner, Spark, Touch and Adventurer. Pictured from left to right, these are our top choices, from basic to intermediate to advanced.

BASIC: TomTom Runner GPS Watch ($74.98; amazon.com) This TomTom GPS watch has an extra large screen and one-button control for efficient use while training. It measures time, distance, pace, calories burned and gives you live stats as you run. There isn't a built-in heart rate monitor, but you can pair it with an external one to monitor workout intensity,

INTERMEDIATE: TomTom Spark 3 GPS Fitness ($187.21; amazon.com) TomTom calls this watch "music and cardio on your wrist." That's because this tracker plays over 500 songs. When measuring progress, there's a built-in heart rate monitor, GPS tracking and a route exploration feature for checking out new running paths.

ADVANCED: The TomTom Adventurer GPS Multisport Watch ($349.99; tomtom.com) This advanaced multisport watch not only looks super cool with an easy-to-read display, but it also has a ton of functions. These include a GPS, compass, altimeter, heart rate monitor, integrated music player and more. In addition, it has multiple advanced training modes, such as interval training workouts and the ability to track hiking, biking, swimming, skiing and more.

3. Polar

Polar has quality watches that aren't overly pricey. Here are three top-notch items from the brand to fit your training style and budget.

BASIC: Polar FT7 ($99.95; walmart.com) Simple and effective, the Polar FT7 fits comfortably with a large backlit screen. This most basic tracker doesn't have built-in heart rate monitoring, but it comes with an H1 coded transmitter to send ECG accurate heart rate signals to your device.

INTERMEDIATE: Polar M200 GPS Running Watch ($124.99, originally $149.46; amazon.com) A bestseller on Amazon, this running watch is straightforward, easy to use and made for those with serious fitness goals. With an integrated GPS, heart rate monitor and sleep tracking, this watch is for those who are watching their habits around the clock. If you're looking to start a running plan, this watch comes with a running program made for your needs. Using Bluetooth, you can study your progress using the Polar Flow app.

ADVANCED: Polar M430 GPS Running Watch ($199; walmart.com) A stylish take on the Polar watches you know and love, the M430 comes equipped with GPS tracking, optical heart rate technology and a personalized running program to support your goals. Additionally, it tracks your steps, calories and sleep — all of which can be reviewed using the Polar Flow App.

More Options:

Garmin Forerunner 35 ($199.99; garmin.com)

For those looking to buy a watch with a heart rate monitor (but who only want the basics), Garmin has developed an impressive (and affordable) entry-level GPS watch with a heart-rate tracker. One CNET product review explained the Forerunner 35 as Garmin's "cheapest running watch" to offer GPS technology. Though this watch has a simplified interface, the Forerunner 35 works like a pro. It tracks pace, distance and speed. And it measures steps, distance, calories and sleep while also controlling your music when connected to an iPhone or Android.

Fitbit Blaze Fitness Tracker ($198.95; amazon.com)

This Fitbit tracker isn't just a running watch. It also tracks other activities, such as cross-training, cycling and weight training. The reason to invest in this watch, according to Consumer Reports, is that it's easy to use and accurately tracks steps. Even though it doesn't have GPS tracking, this Fitbit has a heart rate monitor, altimeter, long battery life, sleeping sensor and notifies you of texts and calls. It also syncs with your mobile device.

The Forerunner 235 ($329.99; garmin.com)

CNET recently rounded up its Best Wearable Tech of 2017. This model was deemed "the best watch for casual and serious runners." So what does that mean? Basically, this watch was made for anyone looking to get after his or her running goals in a tech-savvy fashion. Packed full of features, including an optical heart-rate sensor, a sleep monitor and a highly functioning GPS, this tracker also is waterproof, so you can wear it while swimming or showering. And it has a recovery adviser that tells you when your body should be ready for its next intense workout. Way cool.

The Garmin Fenix 5 ($559; amazon.com)

Earlier this year, Garmin announced the latest iteration of its advanced sporting watches: the Fenix 5 Series. The multisport watch designed for "fitness, adventure and style," according to Garmin, features wrist heart rate technology, GPS tracking and GLONNASS satellite reception. An Amazon No. 1 bestselling altimeter watch, the Fenix 5 can do much more than your bare bones tracker. In addition to tracking running, biking and other gym activities, your Fenix 5 will send notifications to your phone and allows you to connect with other athletes via the Garmin Connect online fitness community. Not only that, but the battery lasts two weeks when used as a smart watch, up to 24 hours when using GPS and up to 60 hours in battery saver mode.

Note: The prices above reflect the listed retailers' prices on the date this article was published.