running watches lead
CNN  — 

If you’re like us, you’ve spent part of this strange year getting into a better fitness routine, whether it’s with an exercise bike, a rowing machine or the new Apple Fitness+. As we set New Year’s resolutions, it’s a great time to commit to continuing to take your fitness seriously — and we’re here to tell you that there’s technology to make it even easier.

Investing in a running watch is totally worth it. It can take your workouts to the next level, as you track calories burned and miles covered and watch your time and distance goals be crushed as you run and track consistently. Plus, most watches have features beyond tracking solely runs; you can track strength and toning workouts as well.

We looked at watches that offered a GPS component so that you can accurately track your adventures outdoors. We tested models at different price points to get a sense of what’s the best option for new runners who are setting their pace and seasoned runners looking to smash personal records. Most watches pair to designated smartphone apps, which we also took into account when testing, but you can also connect the wearable to other fitness apps like Nike Run Club. We went hands on and hit the ground running (literally) with picks from Polar, Garmin and Fitbit.


Fitbit offers a range of activity tracker and smartwatch options. The watches we tested were extremely intuitive in setup and use, especially when starting and finishing a run. The Fitbit app gives you loads of information about your activity levels, and you can access even more stats with a Fitbit Premium subscription, which runs $9.99 per month. You can track stress levels and mindfulness, sleep, weight loss, water and food intake as well as your active minutes, workouts and calories burned. All the watches we tested offered touch-screen capability. If you’re looking for a wearable that’s easy to set up and use, has a built-in GPS to track runs, and will also provide smart watch features, we think Fitbit offers a great selection.

Basic: The Charge 4 ($118.95, originally $149.95;

Fitbit Charge 4

The Charge 4 from Fitbit isn’t a full-fledged smartwatch, but it’s a good start if you’re looking for an activity tracker. It’s thin in design, with a narrow screen that doesn’t take up much space on your wrist. It offers a built-in GPS, 24/7 heart rate monitor and full music control with Spotify. It was comfortable to wear, especially during runs, as it’s super lightweight. To top it off, the battery life is legit. Fitbit says it needs a charge every seven days, and we found this to be accurate.

Intermediate: Versa 3 ($198.95, originally $229.95;

Fitbit Versa 3

A step up from the Charge 4 and a move into a smartwatch design, the Versa 3 is an awesome midrange running watch. The always-on display makes it easy to access your stats directly on the watch (and you can choose from a range of watch faces for a custom experience). You can use the GPS monitoring for runs to check your pace and distance directly on the watch, and after a run you can check the Fitbit app for a map of your workout. It also features a 24/7 heart rate monitor and sleep tracking and is water-resistant up to 50 meters. The battery life is supposed to last six days, but with heavy use and the always-on display, we found we charged it every four days or so.

Advanced: Sense ($278.95, originally $329.95;

Fitbit Sense

The Sense is Fitbit’s advanced health smartwatch. Use the built-in GPS to track your runs and get stats directly on your watch screen. A lot of its features are similar to the Versa 3, but the Sense has an emphasis on total health, with additional features to manage and track stress. If you’re looking to improve your overall wellness, the Sense is a great choice. Pairing the stress monitoring with the workout tracking gives you a sense of both your physical and mental health. We found we charged the Sense every four or so days with heavy use.


Garmin’s running watches are specifically designed to be just that. So while they have smartwatch capabilities (like receiving notifications), they offer loads of fitness tracking features. We’d recommend a pick from Garmin if you’re serious about tracking your goals and paces. They’re less intuitive to set up, but the Garmin Connect app provides a lot of information. You won’t get touch-screen access with these watches and will toggle through using buttons on the side of the watch face. You can access basic information on your watch, but the app really comes in handy. You won’t need to purchase a membership or subscription to take full advantage of the app either, which is a win in our book. While they’re great for running, you can track other workouts as well.

Basic: Garmin Forerunner 35 ($99.99, originally $169.99;

Garmin Forerunner 35

If you’re shopping on a budget, the Forerunner 35 is a solid pick. The GPS tracker means you can hit the pavement phone-free. If you’re using an Android device you can access the music control, but for iPhone users, you’ll have to keep your phone nearby to control your playlist. The watch features an accelerometer and a heart rate monitor, which sync up to your Garmin Connect app. You can get phone notifications, but you won’t be able to respond. If you’re not using the built-in GPS, the battery will last you about a week, but if you’re using the built-in GPS, you’ll have to charge every night.

Intermediate: Garmin Forerunner 45S ($149.99, originally $199.99;

Garmin Forerunner 45S

This running watch allows both iPhone and Android users to control music on the run. The heart rate monitor is also a step up, providing notifications if your heart rate dips too low or spikes too high. It also offers Body Battery monitoring, which tracks your general energy levels throughout the day to give you a sense of the best time for you to work out and the best time to rest. You can track workouts beyond running with the Forerunner 45S, like cardio and elliptical training or cycling, and you can add yoga as a workout through the app. You’ll have to charge every night if you’re using the GPS mode, but if you’re using a connected smartphone GPS, you’ll want to charge every five or so days.

Advanced: Garmin Forerunner 245 Music ($299.99, originally $349.99;

Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

If you’re serious about your stats and training, the Forerunner 245 Music will help you set and achieve goals. The GPS tracking is built in, so you can run hands-free, and both Apple and Android users can access their music on the device while running. It also features a Pulse OX Blood Oxygen Saturation Monitor as well as an always-on heart rate monitor. If you’re using an Android smartphone, you can respond to texts on the watch as well. You can also access downloadable training plans to set yourself up for success. It measures statistics down to every detail, even measuring the bounce in your run.


For the ultimate experience, Polar’s sport watches offer tons of benefits for those getting started on a fitness journey or those who are looking to improve on already impressive athletic skills. These running watches felt luxe and provided a deep insight into our workouts, but they come in at competitive price points. We liked the high-end feel and deep integration the watches provided. The Polar Flow app took us some time to navigate; there are lots of pages and data to work through, so you’ll have to set aside some time to really dive in and check it out. Overall we were big fans of the high-quality design and reasonable price point paired with loads of training data to get you in your best shape yet. As a bonus, all these Polar models are waterproof.

Basic: Polar Unite ($149.95;

Polar Unite

This running watch offers wrist-based heart rate monitoring, a roughly three-day battery life and sleep monitoring. You’ll have to connect it to your smartphone to access the GPS tracking option. You’ll get access to smart calorie burning based on your height, weight, age and individual maximum heart rate. This watch has everything you’d need out of a running watch. It’s a great starter option at a low price for the amount of tracking you can do with it. The battery life will last you about two days. It’s a touch-screen watch face as well, allowing for quick access during workouts.

Intermediate: Polar Ignite (starting at $199.90;

Polar Ignite

The Polar Ignite has an integrated GPS to track your runs. If you use the training mode, which uses the integrated GPS and wrist-based heart rate monitoring, the battery will only last you a day. If you’re using it in watch mode you’ll get about five days’ use before it’s time to recharge. It features advanced heart rate monitoring technology, so you’ll get a better sense of your heart rate throughout your day and throughout your training sessions. The touch screen is easy to toggle through, and it’s easy to access your stats directly on the watch face during and after workouts.

Advanced: Polar Vantage M (starting at $248.49;

Polar Vantage M

The Polar Vantage M is the only model from Polar we tested that didn’t have touch-screen capability, which we would have liked to see since it’s the largest watch face of the three we tested. Your control comes from buttons on the side of the watch face, so you’ll want to make sure you learn them well. It has an integrated GPS for accurate tracking when you’re out on your run. The battery is the longest-lasting of the three, and it’ll last you up to 30 hours in training mode (compared to the 17 offered with the Polar Ignite), and around five days in watch mode. It’s designed to be a multisport watch so it’s great if you’re doing a lot of cross training.


Suunto offers colors and designs to suit your running style. Here, we’ve got three standout options from the brand. It offers its own smartphone app to pair your watch to and get the most out of your tracking.

Basic: Suunto 3 ($179;

Suunto 3

This watch features adaptive training guidance so you can learn the most from your post-workout data. It tracks your sleep and heart rate as well as general steps. You can also use the watch to track your rest and recovery days to keep you from burning out.

Intermediate: Suunto 7 ($381.13, originally $499;

Suunto 7

This watch delivers speed, distance, heart rate and much more, including a growing feature set through Suunto Apps. You can get notifications for incoming calls and texts as well as track your runs with the integrated GPS.

Advanced: Suunto 9 ($424, originally $599;

Suunto 9

With over 80 sports modes, a barometer and GPS monitoring, this sport watch will have you covered for all of your running and hiking adventures. It’s a touch-screen control and offers a solid battery life in GPS mode.

Other options

Apple Watch Series 6 ($349.99, originally $399;

Apple Watch Series 6

An overall smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 6 is a great purchase if you’re already operating with the Apple ecosystem. It pairs seamlessly with your iPhone and Activity app, so you can access your running stats on both your watch and your phone. It offers a built-in GPS so you can track your runs and pair with other running apps for further data. You won’t get detailed stats following your run in the Activity app, but you’ll get your basic times and distances.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 ($199.99, originally $269.99;

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 will track your pace and distance while you run. It also features a sleep tracker and heart rate monitor, and it has a built-in GPS, so you can accurately track your runs outdoors. It’ll auto-record your favorite and frequent workouts so you can just get started. It also offers smartwatch functions like call- and text-receiving capabilities.

Coros APEX Premium Multisport GPS Watch ($299.99;

Coros APEX Premium Multisport GPS Watch

The Coros APEX boasts a super long battery life, with Amazon stating it will last 24 days with regular use, 25 hours in GPS mode (longer than any of the watches we tested) and 80 hours in UltraMax GPS mode. You can build your own workouts using the customized training options. Navigation tracking will let you follow a preloaded route on your watch, and if you make a wrong turn, the wearable will let you know.