The Best Garmin GPS Running Watches

·8 min read
Photo credit: Staff
Photo credit: Staff

While there are plenty of companies making great GPS running watches—including Apple, Polar, and Coros—Garmin remains the dominant brand in the category. It’s basically the Kleenex of GPS running watches. The company has been making wrist-based run trackers since 2003, when it launched the Forerunner 101, a giant pill-shaped watch that did little more than track your distance, time, and pace. In the two decades since, it’s built out an entire lineup with models for every kind of runner.

Beyond Running

Modern GPS watches, even the most affordable models, do far more than that old 101. In most cases, you get run tracking, but most watches also come with some sort of smartwatch functionality—think showing your notifications without you having to pull your phone out of your pocket. But, as the price of the watch goes up, you tend to get more advanced features, some of which you may never even use.

Fitness Features

Watches at the top end of the spectrum, like the Fenix 6 Series, are packed with altimeters, barometers, and gyroscopes to help you navigate trails and off-the-grid destinations. If, however, you find yourself primarily on dawn patrol around your neighborhood loop, you may want to save some cash and pick a model that gives you more roadie-specific metrics and personalized workouts.

How We Tested

Our staff of experienced test editors has used each of these watches for several months. We evaluate the devices based on features, accuracy, battery life, connectivity, and what they’re like to use on our daily runs. Award-winning watches satisfied our data-tracking needs and delighted us with intuitive user experiences and additional apps and features.

Here are the best Garmin watches and why you might want to choose one model over the others. Looking for something not made by Garmin? Check out our roundup of the best GPS running watches.

Garmin Forerunner 245

Quick Take: An update to a tried-and-true GPS watch, the 245 has enough new features to make you consider upgrading from the classic Garmin 235.

Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, WiFi | Battery Life: 7 days in smartwatch mode; 6 hours in GPS with music.

If you’ve been a devoted fan of the Garmin Forerunner 230/235 models for years, this is an upgrade that will surely entice if you’re also a music or podcast lover. As long as you have Bluetooth headphones, the 245 lets you leave one piece of technology at home when you run—your phone—and lets you sync your favorite music from services like Spotify as you run. (If you don’t use Spotify, you’ll be able to manually add music and podcasts via Garmin Express.) Other advancements include performance monitoring and adaptive training plans, new safety features, and other upgraded health features—like menstrual cycle tracking and sleep monitoring. The few downfalls include a lack of battery life when you’re using GPS along with music streaming (only six hours, according to Garmin) and the multiple screens to dial through when scrolling through your playlists and advancing/rewinding a song or podcast.

Garmin Fenix 6

Quick Take: Detailed maps and exceptional battery life.

Connectivity: Bluetooth Smart, ANT+, Wi-Fi | Battery Life: Up to 72 hours

The Fenix has always been a rugged, indestructible timepiece for the backcountry that we’ve used for trail running and, well, everyday running as well. The biggest reason is because of the watch’s never-ending battery—it’ll last 14 hours with GPS and music, or you can adjust settings to stretch it to 72 hours of run tracking. Our test team has found that we have to charge the watch only about once a week with regular use. It also has one of the biggest screens you’ll find on a running watch, one that’s capable of showing you up to seven different metrics on a single display (opt for the Fenix 6X for the biggest version). A cool feature of the 6 is PacePro, which replaces your old printed pace bands for race day. As a digital tool, the watch factors hills into each split, so you can better manage your energy on a rolling course—and you can customize the strategy; our testers like shooting for a negative split and running the uphill sections a little harder. But the feature that I use the most is the watch’s navigation. It includes a map complete with street names. Zooming and panning is doable, if clunky, but it helps keep me from getting lost when navigating unfamiliar cities. I also use it to plot out courses in advance, and the watch gives us turn-by-turn directions on the run so I get where I’m going without any unnecessary detours.

Garmin Forerunner 45

Quick Take: A “beginners” watch in name only.

Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, USB | Battery Life: 13 hours

When I first started running more than 30 years ago, I’d log every run in a paper journal, measuring distance with a car and keeping track of duration by looking at my parents’ microwave clock before and after the run. I graduated to a fancy Timex Ironman that could remember 50 splits. The Forerunner 45 is light years ahead of that, even though it’s touted as a “basic” or “beginners” watch. The 45 is slightly smaller than the other Forerunner models but still packs a respectable battery life, a wrist-based heart rate monitor, and smartwatch functionality. But, to save money, you’re giving up advanced sensors like pulse oximeter and barometer, plus advanced training analytics like virtual partner, live segments, and running dynamics—stride length, for example. Then again, I can’t tell you the last time I used any of those features on the Fenix, so maybe this is as much watch as any of us truly needs.

Garmin Fenix 6X Pro

Quick Take: A gigantic watch that catches eyes and lasts forever.

Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, WiFi | Battery Life: 13 hours

The Fenix 6 series comes in three main flavors—S is the smallest model, while the X version has the largest battery. This massive, heavy watch has become my go-to model because the screen is easy to read on the run and I rarely have to charge the battery more than once a week. Opt for the solar-charging version and you can stretch that battery out to 66 hours in normal use or 148 hours in extended run tracking.

Garmin Forerunner 945

Quick Take: Every training tool a runner or triathlete could want.

Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, ANT+, Wi-Fi | Battery life: Up to 36 hours (10 hours with music)

The Garmin Forerunner 945 is the most feature-packed Forerunner yet. It tracks your every step on the run and your heartbeat as you sleep to give you a complete profile of your life as an athlete. And the newest model supports music playback—it stores up to 1,000 songs, whether they’re your own MP3s or synced from a music service like Spotify. The color maps, previously exclusive to the Fenix watch series, are another handy feature. Displayed on the watch, they help you find your way around new cities without getting lost. You can even generate round-trip courses on the fly, no computer required.

Garmin Venu Sq

Quick Take: Style not commonly found on a sports watch that can still keep up with your daily jog.

Connectivity: Bluetooth | Battery Life: 14 hours in GPS mode; 6 days in watch mode

Most cheap sports watches look like, well, cheap sports watches. Or at least, they used to. But we’re seeing more stylish and versatile options—no doubt spurred by the crossover success of the Apple Watch—including affordable models like the Venu Sq. As a running watch, it ticks a lot of boxes. You get accurate GPS tracking, along with most of the same basic run-tracking features you find in the Forerunner 45—cadence, optical HR, customizable data pages, VO2 max estimates, and the ability to mark laps automatically or manually. But it’s a step above the 45 and even comes with a Pulse Ox sensor, which measures your blood oxygen levels. It doesn’t have an interval-training option, however, nor will the basic version store music; that will cost you an extra $50.

Garmin Enduro

Quick Take: Buy this if every percentage of battery life is vital.

Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+ | Battery Life: 70 hours; up to 200 hours in extended run mode

Simply put, buy this watch only if you’re into multi-day adventures and don’t have any opportunity to recharge your watch along the way. The Enduro is basically a Fenix with some functionality stripped away to extend battery life. RW video producer Pat Heine wore it on his FKT of Pennsylvania’s Mid State Trail, charging it just once (for three hours) during the 327-mile run. That’s mighty impressive given the watch was recording Pat’s GPS position every second—extended settings reduce the frequency of those samplings to save battery life. To make that run time so impressive, Garmin did away with things like mapping, music, and Wi-Fi sync, which may be a deal breaker for some of us.

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