A beginner’s guide to running watches - the best basic running watches on the market

When it comes to finding the best running watch for your training need, the choices can seem overwhelming. How much tech is too much tech, and which brand is the best to buy?

Modern running watches can get expensive quickly, but there’s some lower end, more basic watches that are simple to use and keep track of the essentials.

Related: GPS and running watches - how it works  

What to look for in a running watch

There’s an important difference between a watch that will help track your running performance and a general fitness tracker. A fitness tracker will normally track your steps, the hours you’ve slept and sometimes your heart rate, but none of these are really going to help you progress running-wise.

When it comes to running watches, most will have GPS, which allows you to accurately track your runs’ distance and speed. Although you can also use running apps such as Strava or Nike Plus Run Club to track your runs, watches are often more accurate, as they receive location data from satellites, rather than phone towers and WiFi spots.

Most running watches will also have heart rate monitors built in, or have the option to connect a wearable heart rate monitor, to allow you to use this in your training.

Prices vary greatly and often, the more gadgets on the watch, the higher the price point. Here’s our beginners’ guide to the latest running watches on the market, and what they deliver:

The best value running watch: Garmin Forerunner 35, £169.99, garmin.com 

With the Garmin Forerunner 35, you get a huge range of features at an entry level price. In fact, in terms of what you get for your money, it’s hard to beat the Forerunner 35. Its GPS reception is good, it connects quickly and has all-day activity tracking of both steps and sleep.

The functionality is good – it’s easy to navigate round the watch and the uploads to the Garmin Connect app are pretty seamless. You can also get smart notifications to your wrist, allowing you to check your emails as you run, if that’s something you’re into. The watch is slim and lightweight enough to be comfortable wearing every day and at night if you’re using it to monitor your sleep stats. Battery-wise, the watch can last for 13-hours while recording your run.

The best running watch for more serious runners: Garmin Forerunner 235, £249.99, garmin.com 

The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a nice step-up watch. It looks great – with a colour display and a stylish round screen and it vibrates reminding you to keep moving throughout the day. Like the Forerunner 35, you can pick up social media notifications mid-run if you like, but the 235 offers music controls and audio announcements.

When it comes to the all-important running features, the Forerunner 235 is packed with techy-features such as a pace predictor, a V02 max estimate, a recovery advisor and pace alerts. Whether you’re trying to connect in the middle of nowhere or inner city, the satellite lock is pretty fast. You can also create your own goal-orientated workouts, to keep the motivation up as the miles increase.

The best running watch for easy-reading: Polar M400, £114.40, amazon.co.uk 

Another all-day activity tracker, the Polar M400 has been around for a while so you can now pick it up pretty cheaply on Amazon and it has a great number of features for its price tag. The clear display is easy to read on the move and you can tweak the displayed metrics on each screen using the Polar Flow training log.

If you wear the watch all the time you’ll get 24-hour activity tracking and smart phone notifications. We also found the GPS locks onto satellites quickly and tracks your run accurately. The battery lasts 8 hours in run mode.

The best running watch for audio lovers: Tom Tom Runner 3, £149.99, amazon.co.uk 

If you’re a leave-my-phone-at-home-get-lost-in-a-podcast kind of runner, this is the watch for you. With the ability to store up to 500 songs on the watch itself, you have the option to connect Bluetooth headphones to the watch and leave your phone at home. 

It’s joystick-style buttons are easy to use, even with sweaty fingers and the watch 24-hour activity and sleep monitor allow you to keep track of your day. It works well on a bike, in the gym and can be used in the pool as a swimming tracker. The only downside is the price point goes up if you want a heart rate monitor and music player, and listening to music does tend to drain the battery in a hurry, but still a good all-rounder.

The best smart running watch for all-day tracking: Polar M200, £129.50, polar.com 

A brainy smartwatch with a low price point, the Polar M200 is an all-day activity tracker, with an in-built heart-rate sensor, accurate GPS and basic phone notifications. The battery lasts for six hours in GPS mode which isn’t the longest, but we like how it downloads the workouts like intervals and monitors your effort during the training session.

The watch itself looks stylish and is available with a number of different colour changeable wristbands.

The best fitness tracker to run with: Fitbit Charge 2, £139.99, fitbit.com 

Fitbits often aren’t ideal to run with, as without in-built GPS, you’re relying on your phone’s data. That said, if you’re a beginner and like the sleek design of the Fitbit, the Charge 2 is the best to use for your runs.

Whilst not your conventional running watch, the Charge 2 gets the job done, showing you your average pace, distance and heart rate. Its smart sleep tracking is clever – it senses when you’ve gone to bed and the vibrating alarm lets you get up early without waking your partner. It alerts you when you’ve been standing still for too long, and the guided breathing sessions when it senses you need to calm down are helpful. The battery life is pretty impressive (5 days) and all in all, this is a good fitness tracker with a number of features runners would find handy.