Should I buy a running watch?

Are running watches just an expensive toy? Or can they really enhance your running?

Whether you’re considering a couch to 5K training programme, or you’re a seasoned runner with multiple marathons already under your belt, you may be wondering whether you should buy a running watch.  

After all, for years people did just fine without this technology, making do with a piece of paper and a stopwatch. But in recent years, running watches (among other wearable devices) have become immensely popular. With millions being sold every year, surely there must be some benefit to having one? 

Running watches offer a plethora of features designed to make you a better runner. But does that mean that you need a running watch to get the most from your running? The answer depends on what your running goals are, as well as understanding more about what a running watch offers. 

Two men running in a parkCredit: Saga Exceptional

What is a running watch?

The lines between different types of wearable device have become increasingly blurred, as the functions of one option get adopted by the others. Whether you’re comparing a fitness tracker to a smartwatch, a smartwatch to a running watch, or a running watch to a fitness tracker, the reality is that many features are shared by all three types of device.

As a minimum, you should expect any to perform a few basic functions: 

  • Notifications from your smartphone, such as call and text message alerts 
  • Everyday health and fitness tracking such as step counts, heart-rate and sleep monitoring, and basic calorie-burn calculations 
  • Exercise tracking 

The emphasis a specific device places on each of these will vary – for example, a smartwatch such as the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 will let you make a call using the watch itself, while the best budget fitness trackers offer a more limited set of features, but for a much cheaper price. 

Running watches tend to be identified by a list of sports-specific features that you don’t always find on smartwatches and fitness trackers – though some smartwatches do have these features, as we explain in our piece Garmin watch vs Apple Watch.

Sure, those devices can track your runs, but a running watch will always have built-in GPS to make it as accurate as possible. Many will also measure things like cadence (how many strides you take per minute), stride length, pacing guides, and some will even offer training and recovery plans to help you get the most from your running. You may also find an altimeter, barometer and compass on a running watch. 

Benefits of a running watch

A GPS watch for running has much to offer. Features will vary between devices, but some of the main benefits are:

Data

Base fitness metric from the Coros Training HubCredit: Coros

A good running watch will provide you with an almost overwhelming amount of data to sift through, depending on your goals. Basic data will include your cadence, stride length and heart-rate during your run. But on some running watches, you may be able to access information such as how long your feet are in contact with the ground as you run, your running power (which tells you how hard you’re working) or your lactate threshold, which is the point when you can no longer maintain that level of intensity for a long period. 

But there’s more: some devices will monitor your heat and altitude acclimation, telling you how ready you are to run in hot weather or at high-altitude. They can also offer insights into how ready for intense exercise your body is, the effect of your latest training on your fitness, and predict your race time.  

Almost anything you want to measure, in relation to your running, can be measured by a running watch (just bear in mind that not all running watches will include every feature). 

If you love data, then running watches are ace for building a programme, as they really do analyse how you’re feeling. Think of a running watch as a coach  but you have to listen to it” 

Training Support

As well as measuring all that data, a running watch can help support you in your training goals. Some can offer suggestions on which workouts they think you should do, based on previous exercise that they have tracked. Garmin running watches, for example, also have a feature called Garmin Coach, which can help prepare you for 5K, 10K and half-marathon running.  

Coros, meanwhile, offers similar training plans, including beginner, intermediate and advanced programmes for a range of distances up to and including marathons and 100-mile ultra-runs. 

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned runner, sometimes a helping hand in managing your training schedule can be useful – letting someone else do the thinking for you, while ensuring it focuses on the right goals for you. 

GPS

We mentioned earlier that any running watch should have built-in GPS, and with good reason. GPS is used to accurately track where you’ve run, and the distance and speed at which you’ve run it. Without GPS, you’ll struggle to get sufficiently accurate data to be able to measure your progress.  

While many smartwatches and some fitness trackers also offer built-in GPS, many modern running watches such as the Coros Vertix 2 or Suunto 9 Peak, offer multi-frequency GNSS support. In other words, they use more than one kind of GPS satellite system to monitor your position, ensuring the most accurate tracking possible. 

Another benefit of a GPS watch is that you can track your route without taking your phone with you. Any fitness tracker that uses connected GPS relies on your phone to track your position. But when GPS is built into the watch, you can forget about your phone altogether. Which means one less expensive device to carry with you, as well as less weight. 

Battery

Battery life is a major consideration – you want a watch that won’t run out of juice halfway through your run. While battery life is improving on fitness trackers and smartwatches, some – such as the Apple watch Series 8 – will still only go a couple of days between charges, at best (Apple itself says the Series 8 and SE offer up to 18 hours, while the Apple Watch Ultra can go up to 36 hours between charges). 

Compare that with the best running watches and there really is no contest. A Garmin Enduro 2 can last up to 34 days in smartwatch mode, or 550 days in battery saver mode. While this is an extreme example, even a cheaper running watch like the Coros Pace 2 can go almost three weeks between charges.  

They can do other stuff, too

a woman sitting on a gym mat in her living room looking at her watch after a workoutCredit: Shutterstock/Prostock-studio

It makes sense that a running watch is focused on running, but manufacturers recognise that they need to offer more. People are less likely to buy an expensive watch if it’s only useful during the period when you’re out running. 

As such, most running watches offer plenty of smartwatch features. These include smartphone notifications, calendars, weather forecasts, music control (some let you download music onto the watch itself), as well as being able to track other types of exercise. While they may be categorised as running watches, they can be used for much more. 

Drawbacks of a running watch

While running watches are excellent devices, they do have some potential limitations…

Cost

What you’re prepared to spend depends on your budget, the features you need, and how serious you are about running. A cheaper running watch will generally have fewer features than more expensive alternatives. 

Happily, not all running watches are prohibitively expensive. A Coros Pace 2 has an RRP of £179.99, while a Garmin Forerunner 45 is even cheaper, at £129.99. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, something like a Garmin Epix Pro has an RRP of £929.99.   

Several of the best budget fitness trackers are available for under £100. Many offer basic run tracking, as well as monitoring other health and fitness metrics. An Apple Watch SE starts from £259 and offers more smartwatch features than even the most feature-packed running watches.  

Risk of focusing on the numbers

Having access to all that information can be empowering. But there’s also a risk that relying on the data means that you stop running based on how you feel. 

The numbers may also encourage you to run too quickly in an effort to set new records, rather than, for example, running at a slower pace during a recovery jog. Running too hard, too often may even increase the risk of an overtraining injury.   

And finally, for many people, running is meant to be something they do for fun. Too much focus on the numbers could mean that running stops being a pleasure. 

Running watches can be complicated

With all the features offered by some running watches, it does mean that they can be quite complicated. Some are controlled by touchscreen, some by buttons, and some by both. With all the different metrics being measured, and all the data available, it’s possible to get slightly overwhelmed by it all, without fully understanding what you’re looking at. 

There may be features that you don’t want or need that make finding the bits you do want to use more difficult. You may have more menus and sub-menus to navigate. And if you end up with a device that’s difficult to use, that can lead to frustration. 

Who are running watches most suitable for?

Photo of three wrists, each wearing a different Garmin running watchCredit: Garmin

Running watches can be used by anyone who wants to gain extra insights into their running. Experienced runners may get a lot from the deep insights offered by a running watch, and they can be even more useful for beginners too: 

As our Senior Coaching Editor Paul Larkins says: “Runners like myself have soaked it all in over the years, but newer runners can benefit from the data. The tricky bit is translating it and actually reacting to what it says.

“My Garmin Fenix 6 tells me mostly what I know by feel, but it’s a handy reminder some days as it’s probably true to say that if you’ve invested in a running watch then you’re going to be quite keen and therefore do too much early on.” 

In other words, the enthusiasm of a beginner may lead to doing too much too quickly. A running watch, used correctly, can help you to – quite literally – pace yourself.  

So, should you buy a running watch?

A running watch can’t be described as an essential. According to Larkins: “[If you want to know] how far and how fast you’re going, a stopwatch and GPS are all you need for that. The famous Casio did the job perfectly in the 1990s and still does for loads today.”  

But a running watch can offer added insights to support any runner, regardless of experience or fitness level. They can help track your progress, build a training plan and provide motivation to help keep you going. It can be very rewarding to see those improvements over a period of time. And if you want the most accurate GPS tracking, a running watch may also prove a wise choice. 

And because they can track other health and fitness metrics, as well as other types of exercise, you may find a running watch is the perfect companion to help you reach your health and fitness goals.  

Steven Shaw

Written by Steven Shaw he/him

Updated:

Steven Shaw has been a freelance writer for a variety of outlets, most notably TechRadar. His degree in Medieval History prepared him less adequately for his career than you might expect, but the years spent working in technology focused retail were much more helpful.

Outside of work, Steven is passionate about health and fitness, and particularly enjoys high-intensity interval training, weight training, and increasingly, spending time recovering. Steven loves reading, films and a wide variety of sports. A particular highlight was watching Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar batting together in an exhibition match.

He wishes he could travel more. He can also tell you a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Carolingians. Most of his non-work time is spent with his young children, who are the living embodiment of high-intensity training.