by Emma Smith September 21, 2018

The million dollar question for tech-savvy runners in 2019 is, what is the best budget running watch or tracker? 

Running watches have exploded in popularity, and at a recent count, we estimated 30 available brands in the UK alone. Well we’re not going to list them all, that is just as confusing as Google searching "running watches". Instead, we are going to help unravel running watches by firstly defining what to look for in a running watch (there’s a big difference between a general fitness tracker and a running specific tracker), and what running watches actually tell you in terms of functionality.

Nike Running Watch

First question...

What's the difference between a fitness tracker and a running watch?

Good examples of fitness trackers (that are worn on the wrist like a watch) are Fitbit, Jawbone, Misfit, Pebble and even the Apple Watch. These fitness trackers will give you a general step count, track your sleep, and maybe even your heart rate. The technology has been around for at least 10 years and are now being placed in watches, necklace, bracelet or even just tucked into your bra for the ladies.

Fitness metrics are useful things and can help you get healthy, but won’t help your running particularly.

A basic essential in a running tracker that you may not get on a general fitness tracker is built-in GPS so that you can track your distance and pace. You could maybe do this via your smartphone using an app such as Strava or Runkeeper but it’s not as accurate as your GPS tracker receives location data from satellites, rather than phone towers and WiFi spots. The data isn’t instantly accessible on your wrist, you have to stop and get your phone out to see your pace or distance. You may not always want to have to carry your phone and there is so much more that is available to you to improve your running and analyse your metrics via a proper running watch / tracker.

 

 

So, what does it mean to be the best running watch?

Well that question entirely depends on what kind of runner you are, and what you want to get out of your watch or even out of running itself. So let's break this down a bit further. What kind of runner are you, and what does that mean in terms of what the 'best' watch would be for you?

  • Beginner: You're getting towards the end of Couch to 5K, or maybe you've completed it and you're looking at building up your distance or time on your feet. Right now you don't really need to worry about what pace you're doing or any of the fancier metrics. And you probably don't want to be spending a huge amount of money just in case it doesn't pan out. However you may totally catch the bug and become interested in these things in the future. So a basic watch that helps you track your progress is probably the best option. (Try the Forerunner 10)
  • Running for weight loss/general fitness:So again the fancier metrics aren't going to be that relevant to you here. If you're running for weight loss then you will just be interested in measuring how much energy you are expending. Your main interest here is going to be calorie burn, so for you 'best' watch may be the one that gives you the most accurate idea of the energy you expend. (Try the Fitbit Blaze)
  • Club Runner wanting to improve their race performance: This is where the serious metrics nerds fit in (sorry, I can say that, I'm one of them). You're going to want the serious kit, with all the metrics going and probably all of the criteria we list below are going to be important to you, so read on because you have come to the right place to help you make that choice! 

Best for me is the one that gives me the metrics I want and need to become a better runner. It needs to be affordable - there are probably watches out there that will order you a nutritious post run snack within your protein window and have a sensor that tells you when your hair looks weird after a punishing intervals session, but those are out of my price range, and there’s no point in paying for functionality you don’t want or need. So for us it needs to be within a certain price range that falls somewhere between ‘looks like it actually came in a Christmas cracker’ and ‘make my husband gasp a bit, but still ok it as a birthday present’.

Waterproof Running Watch

 

It needs to be durable, waterproof, have a decent battery life - which will at least last through a marathon (and even last through one that did not go according to plan and took a lot longer than intended ;) and the warm-up / cool down before and afterwards.

In fact it pretty much needs to last all day because it is likely that you will be wearing as a calorie counter / general fitness tracker as well. There can be nothing more frustrating to a runner than your watch running out of steam at mile 20. Because we all know if it didn't go on Strava it didn't happen. 

In summary we are looking for:

  1. Great battery life
  2. Affordability
  3. Good GPS
  4. Syncs easily (and to the most common apps)
  5. Durability
  6. Functionality
  7. Ease of use
  8. Metrics

The Running Watches

So, hopefully you have got a better idea of what we consider important, now onto the running watches: First here is a snapshot of the running watches we have reviewed.

  GPS Price (£) Battery life Heart Rate
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ Yes 199.99 5 days Yes
Garmin Forerunner 30 Yes 129.99 5 days/8 hours in GPS mode Yes
Garmin Forerunner 35 Yes 169.99 9 days/13 hours in GPS mode Yes
Garmin Forerunner 10 Yes 89.99 5 weeks/5 hours in GPS mode No
Fitbit Charge 2 No (connects via phone) 139.99 5 days Yes
TomTom Spark 3 Yes 119.99 25 days / 11 hours GPS mode No
Polar M200 Yes 129.50 6 days / 6 hours GPS mode Yes
Polar M430 Yes 174.50 20 days / 8 hours GPS mode Yes
Suunto Ambit3 Run Yes 235.00 14 days/10 hours in GPS mode Yes (with HR belt)
Milestone Pod No (connects via phone) 34.95 4 - 6 months No

 

Onto the detail.

Garmin Vivosmart HR+

Garmin Vivosmart HR+

At around the £100 mark this is a tracker that is surprisingly packed with features. It’s more fitbit style in look and feel than the a traditional looking running watch, but has all the GPS functionality, plus wrist based heart rate tracking and auto syncs to the ever excellent Garmin Connect. Despite being more in the tracker style rather than traditionally watch like, it does have a decent screen which shows heart rate, distance, pace etc, and you can link it to your phone to get messages and call notifications as well. The battery life is excellent, up to five days of activity tracking and eight hours of GPS running.

Garmin Forerunner 35

If you are interested in a Garmin, the Vivosmart HR+ is our preferred choice, but other low-ish cost options that look more like a traditional running watch include theGarmin Forerunner 30(and theGarmin Forerunner 35).These offer most of the same features as the Vivosmart HR+ and can be found at similar prices. Confusingly the 30 is the replacement of the 35 model, but the updated forerunner 30 offers cycling auto-detection. Both have wrist based heart rate monitoring, which I would say is the stand-out feature for these watches.

Garmin Forerunner 10

If price is your absolute deal breaker and you just want basic functionality then you can’t go far wrong with the gateway running watch that is theGarmin Forerunner 10.It’s extremely affordable and simply gives you distance covered, pace and calories. It doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor and it doesn’t give you any of the fancier metrics so you can analyse the forensic detail of your run. But it does sync with garmin connect, and is waterproof up to 50m. So a pretty nifty option for anyone starting out, or who isn’t a total metrics nerd (apparently there are runners out there who aren’t metrics nerds. We just don’t happen to actually know any).


Fitbit Charge 2

Fitbit are aiming at the beginner runner / fitness enthusiast. So are not loaded with features for runners, however the Charge 2 does offer GPS functionality (although this is via your connected smartphone’s GPS rather than the device itself, so you would have to have your phone on you as well). The fitbit automatically tracks runs as it recognises the difference in activities, and because it connects to your phone you can get all sorts of alerts and alarms.

It might be a good first running tracker, but I think if you wanted to really delve down into your pace and stats, etc you might want something with a bit more oomph.  


TomTom Spark 3

TomTom Spark 3

This is a great watch packed with functionality (it has a built in HR monitor and a new compass powered ‘Route Exploration Mode’ so that you don’t get lost on the trails) AND it’s the only really affordable tracker with built in music so that you don’t have to also carry your phone (which is great if it’s not important to you to get a mid run selfie to put on Strava). The spark has 24/7 activity tracking (including sleep) and multi-sport options. I personally wear a TomTom and love it, despite some major issues with the watch strap breaking THREE TIMES, and I don’t wear it to track my sleep because the watch lights up if you cover the face with  your hand, which is great when you’re out on a night run, but not so great if you accidentally cover it in your sleep and it shines right in your face and wakes you up or makes you dream you’re being interrogated.

However there is a really big sticking point: TomTom have pulled out of the wearables market. What does this mean to your average runner? That you can get an excellent bargain on a great watch, but on the downside TomTom won’t be supporting the technology forever. So it’s toss up between getting an great deal, and the risk that the current software upgrade may not last.  

Polar M200

Polar M200

 

ThePolar M200is another really good option, as it’s very low cost, but they’ve managed to pack in just about EVERYTHING you could want from a running watch in terms of functionality. It’s also an attractive design, nice enough to wear all the time and track your activity and it’s water resistant. The Polar Flow app is extremely user friendly and syncs with all the big apps, strava etc so that you can transition across easily if you are a former Garmin/TomTom aficionado.  

The watch comes in a range of colours and features include: great battery life (a week of all-day activity tracking including an hour’s run per day), built in GPS, wrist-based heart rate tracking, smartphone notifications and you can even get personalised training programs via the app.

Polar M430

 

The next step up from Polar is thePolar M430which is a little pricier, but still under £200 so not half bad considering the functionality. In addition to the features of the M200, it adds improved heart rate tracking, even more accurate GPS and sleep tracking. It also offers a Fitness Test to help you assess progress and recommends recovery times which is quite novel. And if you’re someone who may have a propensity for getting lost out on a run, or just likes the sense of adventure of running without a set route in mind (who ARE these people? I like to know exactly where I’m going  personally, even if it doesn’t always end up that way) they’ve added a ‘find-your-way-home’ feature, which may be appealing.

Suunto Ambit3 Run

Suunto Ambit 3 Running Watch

Speaking of runners with a sense of adventure, the best option for trail runners and off-road, wilderness explorer types might well be the Suunto Ambit3 Run. On the down-side it doesn’t have a built in heart-rate monitor, but it does have some other great features for off-road running. Such as the ‘Run a POI’ (Point of Interest - i.e. set your location as a POI and run from there) and ‘Run a Route’ features help you find a route from a huge repository, making this a fantastic watch for adventurous souls.  

Aside from the offroad stuff it has plenty of other features that would be useful for regular road running - for example you can set interval training sessions up, and it connects to your smartphone for push notifications.

So it all comes down to working out what your most important criteria is. If it’s purely price and you’re not bothered about fancy functionality, then you might want to try the Garmin Forerunner 10. But if you need a watch with all the bells and whistles then one of Polar watches might be a better option. Love a bit of off road adventure? Then try the Suunto. If you don’t actually want to wear a watch, and/or you’re a massive data nerd who loves to analyse all those metrics and have charts and stuff to play with? Then the Milestone Pod is the option for you.

Milestone Pod

The Milestone Pod - “the wearable you don’t have to wear”. The Milestone Pod is a very popular and nifty gadget (and at £35 (£29.99 on Kit Radar), ridiculously affordable for what it does) that clips on to your shoe.

The downside of this is obviously you’re not going to get your pace/mileage/time etc while you’re actually on your run, you can’t glance down and realise you’ve set off from the start way too fast or whatever. But for intuitive runners who don’t want to be distracted by all that stuff, but still like to have some serious metrics to analyse afterwards, this is perfect. And you can sync it to your phone or supported watch for instant data.

The free app is what really makes this stand out though in my opinion, you can get a frankly ridiculous amount of data to analyse, plus you can sign up for feedback about your running via emails.

The data has a high level of accuracy and other users (including our reviewers here at Kit Radar) say that it’s great to pair it up with Zwift on treadmill runs as well as using it outdoors. I would maybe want to use this alongside a running watch and get the advantages of both here!  

So alongside the standard metrics (pace, duration, mileage etc) you get some that your standard sports watch might be able to give you such as cadence, ground contact time, stride length etc. But you also get stuff you can only get because this little doodah is attached to your shoe - i.e. footstrike (mid, fore, heel); rate of impact; leg swing.

The app then bungs all this info together and assesses what it calls (in my opinion slightly annoyingly, because it’s not a word that is fun to try and say) “RUNFICIENCY”. This is a composite of all the other metrics and in the opinion of some reviewers a more useful tool to measure your running style, form etc than drilling down into individual metrics which may or may not mean anything to you or give you anything concrete to work on. I’m not sure this could ever measure up to having a real life coach assess your style, but it’s all useful information nonetheless.

Phew! That's it

Hopefully the above was interesting to you. Check out the Table at the start to answer the functionality versus price debate, buy yourself a tracker and enjoy your running!

Emma Smith

Emma is the queen of our social media and editor of the Kit Radar Magazine. Always in pain from running on the track, Emma's has a passion for positive mental health from sport.


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