Both road runners and trail runners know how important it is to keep track of their athletic performance. Important metrics such as speed, distance, elevation gain, pace, and heart rate help them understand their progress while setting new goals. In addition to providing these basic data, a good running watch can include advanced features, such as navigation systems, a barometric altimeter, sync options, a solar battery, and other extras.
There are hundreds of models on the market, and it’s not easy to make a choice. First, you must think about your needs as a runner. Are you looking for a basic model for city running? Are you into trail running? Are you training for an ultramarathon?
If you still have some doubts, don’t worry. In this article, I am going to explain the main features that you should consider depending on your goals. In addition, I’ll review the best models of the year, so you can find the one that fits your needs.
THE BEST TRAIL RUNNING WATCHES
GARMIN FENIX 6X
“Excellent navigation system”
WATERPROOF: 100 m
BATTERY: 80 days (Battery Saver), 60 hours (with GPS)
WEIGHT: 3.28 oz
The Garmin Fenix 6X is the latest model in the popular Fenix series that never ceases to amaze with its features. In fact, it’s more than just a trail running watch. This multi-sport device can be used for dozens of activities, such as hiking, cardio workouts, running, cycling, swimming, triathlons, golf, etc. It indicates your GPS location, altitude, and heart rate with astonishing accuracy while featuring TOPO maps, which will help you navigate and follow your trail. If you like metrics, you will love this model, as it provides endless data and performance graphs.
Battery life is another major improvement over previous models. It lasts 21 days in Smartwatch mode, 80 days in Battery Saver mode, 60 hours in GPS mode, 15 hours in GPS + Music mode, 120 hours in Max Battery GPS mode, and 46 days in Expedition GPS mode. This makes it a great option for long-distance trail runners and ultrarunners. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most expensive models on the list. However, if you are looking for a highly-featured watch with a fantastic navigation system, this could be your model.
SUUNTO 9 BARO
WATERPROOF: 100 m
BATTERY: 14 days (time mode), up to 120 hours (GPS mode)
WEIGHT: 2.86 oz
The Suunto 9 Baro is a multi-sport GPS watch designed for training, competition, and extreme adventures. This model features more than 80 sports modes, and it combines GPS-based altitude with barometric altitude to provide more accurate altitude readings as well as ascent/descent values. The barometer sends storm alerts and weather forecasts. The wrist heart monitor helps you track your physical performance. This model uses the FusedTrack algorithm that combines GPS data with motion sensor data to improve tracking accuracy and extend battery life.
You have several predefined battery modes to choose from depending on the activity. One of the advantages of this model is that it sends low-battery alerts. For instance, if you are running out of battery power, the watch will automatically suggest that you switch to a battery saving mode so that you can finish your trail with enough power. This model isn’t particularly cheap, but it’s cheaper than the Garmin Fenix.
COROS APEX PRO
“For high-altitude trail running”
WATERPROOF: 100 m
BATTERY: 30 days (time mode), 100 hours (UltraMax GPS mode)
WEIGHT: 2.08 oz
The Coros Apex Pro is ideal for training in high-altitude mountains. Built with a titanium bezel and a touchscreen-enabled sapphire glass, this model offers great impact resistance and durability. In addition, it has an ultralight design that makes it perfect for trail running. The touchscreen is very helpful for navigation.
This model comes with a bunch of features for high-altitude training, such as 24/7 blood oxygen monitoring, altitude acclimatization assistance, and an alarm that indicates when your body is ready to continue the ascent. On the downside, the navigation system doesn’t include TOPO maps.
POLAR GRIT X
WATERPROOF: 100 m
BATTERY: 7 days (time mode), 40 hours (GPS mode)
WEIGHT: 2.25 oz
Designed to withstand extreme conditions, humidity, and impacts, the Polar Grit X is an ultralight GPS watch with great performance for its price (it’s slightly cheaper than previous models). Like other high-end models, it features a GPS, a navigation system, a long-lasting battery, a heart rate monitor, and a barometer, though it’s more compact.
Also, it comes with extra features, such as the FuelWise assistant that helps you maintain adequate energy and hydration levels, the Running Index that indicates your VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can absorb), and the Hill Splitter that detects when you’re running uphill and downhill to indicate your performance in those sections.
“Best value for the money”
WATERPROOF: 100 m
BATTERY: 14 days (SmartWatch mode), 40 hours (UltraTrack mode)
WEIGHT: 1.83 oz
The Garmin Instinct has become really popular among all types of athletes due to its great performance and affordable price. Among its main features, we can highlight: sturdy U.S Military Standard 810G construction, three-axis compass, barometric altimeter, GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo navigation systems, heart monitor, smart notifications and automatic data uploads when connected to your smartphone, TrackBack feature that navigates the same route back to the starting point, and 40 hours of battery life in UltraTrack saving mode.
The navigation system is more basic than that of the Fenix series, but it’s easy to use and efficient. Overall, it’s a great model at a very attractive price.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 945
“For serious trail runners”
WATERPROOF: 50 m
BATTERY: 14 days (smart mode), 36 hours (GPS without music)
WEIGHT: 1.76 oz
While many types of athletes can use the previous models, the Garmin Forerunner 945 is specifically designed for trail runners, triathletes, and ultrarunners. This watch allows you to store your favorite songs (up to 1000) or sync music from Spotify (when paired with your smartphone), so that you can listen to your music while running. The headphones (sold separately) are connected through Bluetooth.
Also, it includes safety features, such as Incident Detection that sends your real-time location to your emergency contacts, and other performance monitoring features such as VO2 Max indicator, altitude acclimation status, recovery time, aerobic training, anaerobic training, etc. The navigation system is great and includes full-color maps. The device also offers a few features that will make your life easier, like the Garmin Pay Contactless system. Many runners use it as a day-to-day watch.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 245 GPS
“For city runners”
WATERPROOF: 50 m
BATTERY: 7 days (smart mode), 24 hours (GPS mode)
WEIGHT: 1.35 oz
The Garmin Forerunner 245 is the mid-range model in the Forerunner series. It looks similar to the Forerunner 945. However, there are some significant differences. First, they have different weights and sizes. The Forerunner 245 is smaller and lighter. Unfortunately, this affects its battery life, which is shorter. Also, the Forerunner 245 doesn’t feature a barometric altimeter, a gyroscope, or a thermometer.
Both models can be synced with Spotify, so you can listen to your favorite music. Also, both have important safety features like Incident Detection. Overall, the Forerunner is an excellent choice for city running. If you’re planning to run in the mountains, you’ll appreciate the Forerunner 945’s barometric altimeter, which more accurately calculates elevation gain, as well as its long-lasting battery life for long hikes.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 45S
“For intermediate runners”
WATERPROOF: 50 m
BATTERY: 7 days (smart mode), 13 hours (GPS mode)
WEIGHT: 1.12 oz
The Garmin Forerunner 45S is the budget model in the Forerunner series. Unlike previous models, this model doesn’t include many advanced features. For starters, the Forerunner 45 uses GPS to indicate distance, pace, speed, and other important data, but it doesn’t feature a navigation system. Also, the battery has a somewhat shorter life, and it doesn’t come with an altimeter, thermometer, or gyroscope.
However, it does have some advantages. This model is more compact, lighter, and cheaper than the previous models. In addition, it has important features like Incident Detection, a heart rate monitor, smart notifications, and others. If you are looking for a basic, inexpensive watch for city running, this might be your model.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 735XT
WATERPROOF: 50 m
BATTERY: 11 days (smart mode), 14 hours (GPS mode), 24 hours (UltraTrac mode)
WEIGHT: 1.41 oz
The Garmin Forerunner 735XT strikes a balance between advanced features, an ultralight weight, and a reasonable price. This multisport watch is ideal for running, cycling, swimming, and other sports. It includes a built-in wrist heart rate monitor, but it’s compatible with a chest strap to provide advanced running dynamics, VO2 max, and other performance data.
It doesn’t have a barometric altimeter, so the altitude data won’t be as accurate as in other models. However, it features a helpful navigation system that will allow you to run and cycle new routes. As for connectivity features, it includes smart notifications, automatic uploads to Garmin Connect and Livetrack, which allows family and friends to know your real-time location.
FEATURES TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A TRAIL RUNNING WATCH
Running addicts will seize any chance to go for a run, even when the weather is not very good. This is why all models on the list are water-resistant. Some models are even waterproof down to 100 meters, as they are multi-sport watches suitable for swimming and other water sports.
Although everybody wants to take good care of their belongings, at some point you will drop your watch or hit it against a rock, branch, or hard surface. With that in mind, you’ll want to make sure that your model features solid construction and shock-resistant glass.
A sapphire crystal or “glass” is a synthetic glass that stands out for its excellent properties, such as great transparency and high hardness, which make it perfect for adventure sports. Keep in mind that models featuring sapphire glass tend to be significantly more expensive.
All models on the list include a built-in GPS to keep track of distances, speed, calories, etc. However, not all include navigation maps. When you’re trail running, you don’t want to have to stop and pull out a map, so a watch with navigation options can be really helpful.
Navigation systems can vary significantly from one model to another. Premium navigation systems include detailed full-color TOPO maps showing streets, rivers, contour lines, etc., while simple navigation systems show only basic lines. In any case, basic maps can help you locate your position and determine which way you should go.
Some models include a Trackback feature, which helps you find your way back from where you started. This function can be very useful if you get lost, as it will let you undo your path back to the point where you deviated.
Keep in mind that navigation systems are not 100% accurate, especially in thick forests and narrow canyons. If you are going to run in unknown areas, I recommend that you complement your GPS device with a map. You may never have to use it, but you should bring it along, just in case.
Barometric altimeters indicate the altitude at which you are running. All this information is stored in the watch’s tracking system, which will provide you with important elevation data, such as the route’s minimum and maximum altitudes.
Watches with a barometric altimeter are more accurate than those relying only on GPS to determine altitude. However, these systems are never 100% accurate, and it’s common to find significant measurement differences between devices.
Watches with a barometer can feel sudden changes in atmospheric pressure and will send you alerts about possible storms or other meteorological phenomena.
VERTICAL SPEED TRACKING
This feature indicates your speed, not just when you’re running on flat terrain but also when you’re running uphill and downhill. A watch must include a good altimeter to properly calculate these data.
HEART RATE MONITOR
Heart rate monitors can provide valuable information about your physical performance. You may not look at this data after every run, but you should take a look from time to time so that you can keep track of your progress.
Although some models include a chest strap, more watches are featuring a built-in wrist heart rate monitor.
Your watch’s screen should be large and easy to read. It shouldn’t be too reflective, to ensure good vision on sunny days. In addition, the watch should have a button to illuminate the screen in low-light conditions.
If you want to check detailed data, such as distance, speed, altitude gain, calories, etc., you’ll need to upload all the data collected by your watch to a tracking app. Most brands have their own app. For instance, Garmin has the Garmin Connect App, Suunto has the Sunnto Movescount App, etc.
These apps allow you to upload a bunch of data, update routes, download GPS routes in several formats, set goals, analyze your progress, and do many other things. Also, you can use navigation apps, like Wikiloc or AllTrails, to share your routes with other users as well as download other users’ trails on your watch.
Most models on the list include useful features for everyday life. Today, you can easily connect your watch to your smartphone so that you can receive and send messages, download music, order an Uber, make payments online, check the weather forecast, etc.
When you’re running outdoors, you don’t want to be carrying heavy gear. The watches we have reviewed in this article have different weights, so pay close attention. Watches with advanced features are like small computers, and generally, they are heavier than budget models. That’s the price you pay for solid construction, GPS, a navigation system, a barometer, a heart rate monitor, etc.
That said, manufacturers are striving to make lighter products year after year, and most new models are a very reasonable weight.
The strap is an important part of any watch, as it affects comfort and weight. Most running watches feature silicone straps, which are tough, comfortable, and lightweight. Some watches have fabric straps, which are typically made from nylon or polyester.
Metal straps are stylish, but certainly not suitable for adventure sports. Leather straps don’t work too well either because water and sweat exposure can damage them.
A good running watch should have a long-lasting battery, one that lasts until the end of your activity, even when you’ve activated the navigation features.
Most batteries can last for several weeks when GPS is disabled. When you activate GPS, the battery life drastically falls. Even so, the best models can last for up to 20 to 30 hours with navigation systems enabled.
For long routes, ultramarathons, multi-day expeditions, etc., even the longest-lasting battery may not be enough. Fortunately, some models feature solar chargers, so the battery can recharge when you’re on the go. This can significantly reduce battery consumption, so that you can complete your trail successfully.
Hi, I’m Miguel; Adventure traveler, scuba diver and hiking lover. I have been traveling the world for the last 10 years and I hope my experiences, photos and hiking routes inspire you to travel the world too.