What To Look For In A GPS Running Watch
Posted: Sep. 28th, 2016

Updated August 22nd, 2018


Nothing can be as intimidating as buying a GPS running watch. These days there are so many options in features and brands, that researching those features and why they’re important are enough to make your head spin.

Do I need those features? Will they make me a better runner? How much should I spend? I already have a GPS running watch, should I upgrade to a new version? These are all great questions and we hope to answer them for you right here.

At Big Peach Running Co. we only carry Garmin GPS watches. Why just one brand? Garmin has been the leader in GPS running watches, probably because they were one of the first to make running specific watches that had GPS technology, but we also think it has to do with their reliability and customer service.

Not everyone needs a GPS running watch.  For decades, a simple watch with a timer/chronograph was sufficient for logging your times if you wanted to keep track of your runs. If you run the same route frequently, a timer is all you need to determine if you’re improving your run times. Most of us, want to know a bit more than time and we like to run different courses or parts of town, so having a way of tracking distance and time conveniently on your wrist is worth the investment.

What features do you need? Most runners starting out will only need 4 features – Time, Distance, Current Pace & Average Pace. So if you’re looking at purchasing a GPS watch, that may be all the features you need right now, but what about the future. If you feel like you’re going to really jump in and take running seriously, then you should consider additional features. We recommend not purchasing a watch with features you need today, instead buy the watch that you’ll need in the future. If you start off with a basic watch and spend $150 today, but next year you’re interested in training with Heart Rate, meaning a new watch for an additional $250. You’ve now spent $400 in the course of a year. It probably would’ve been better to get the $250 watch in the first place. Although it’s hard to predict what you’ll need or want a year from now, consider the additional features and determine if it makes sense to purchase a model with more features than you need right now.

The Entry Level GPS Running Watch and Beginner Runner

GPS Running Watch
For that runner that’s just getting started, the Garmin Forerunner 35 is a great option starting at $169.99. The benefits of this model are the abundance of features at this price point. It’s easy to use and navigating through the menu doesn’t require you to read the manual from cover to cover to get started. This model’s features include Distance, Pace, and Calories, alerts, menu customization and now includes heart rate from the wrist.  These days, all GPS watches include the ability to pair with our phone and receive “Smart Notifications” through Bluetooth connectivity. The Garmin Forerunner 35 also serves a regular watch and Activity Tracker that counts your steps throughout the day.

Training with Heart Rate Zones

The Everyday & Established Runner

This is the runner that runs on a regular basis, is consistent with their training (typically following a training plan) and puts races on the calendar. This individual will be looking for more features to help improve their running and achieve better results due to their training. There are several options available to these individuals and both start at $250, so which is best?

GPS Running WatchThe Vivoactive 3 doesn’t really fall in line with the rest of the Forerunner line but don’t let that be a reason to overlook this great option. The Vivoactive 3 typically falls in line with the Garmin “Activity Trackers” but it is packed with features (including wrist-based heart rate monitor) that outperform some of the higher priced models. Compared to the Forerunner 235, it’s a new version that is slimmer and its design doesn’t scream running watch. It can be worn with business attire or out for a run. It also features the newly introduced Garmin Pay so you can leave your wallet at home and pay through the watch. As an activity watch, it is packed with more activity profiles including cycling, weight training, elliptical, stand up paddleboard, swim & rowing just to name a few (including indoor and outdoor profiles). A feature that often gets overlooked is the built-in barometric altimeter that can be only be found on watches costing twice as much. If you like running with music, there’s the Vivoactive Music 3 Music (available for special order) for $279.99. Music can be loaded onto the watch and paired with Bluetooth headphones for a truly wireless experience.


GPS Running WatchOne of the most highly sought out features, wrist-based heart rate monitor is available on the Garmin Forerunner 235. The optical sensors on the back of the watch measure heart rate without the need for a chest strap, that many, both men and women find uncomfortable. The optical sensors also measure heart rate throughout the day, providing, even more, data including high & low heart rate as well as resting heart rate. The convenience of eliminating the chest strap and going with the wrist-based heart rate brings the price of the Garmin forerunner 235 to $249.99. Recently the price on this model has dropped to $249.99 versus $329.99 when it was first released. While priced similarly to the Vivoactive 3, we would recommend the Vivoactive 3 since it’s a newer model with a lot more additional features.

The Advanced Runner

GPS Running WatchThe Garmin Forerunner 645 at $399.99 adds features for the runner looking to significantly improve their performance by focusing on running efficiently. This model adds Advanced Running Dynamics, which measures Vertical Oscillation, Ground Contact Time, Balance, Stride Length and Vertical Ratio. To be able to get the additional data, you have to use the higher end heart rate chest strap (also available bundled with the watch).  Additional features include Stress Score, Performance Condition, Lactate Threshold, VO2Max and race predictor. If you’re not sure what any of these terms mean, then this is too much data for you. To really take advantage of all this data and use it for training purposes, you really need an experienced running coach that can take that data to design a training program for you. The FR 645 also features Garmin Pay allowing you to leave your wallet at home and pay through your watch. There is also the Forerunner 645 Music for $449.99.

The Multi-Sport Athlete

If you’re doing triathlons or considering getting into triathlons, you should consider the Garmin Forerunner 935($499.99).  The Forerunner 935 is the latest release and offers everything a triathlete needs. Offering wrist-based heart rate but the Forerunner 935 has a longer battery life than previous versions, 24 hours in regular GPS mode and 50 hours in Ultratrac mode. So if you need longer battery life, the Forerunner 935 is the clear winner.
GPS Running Watch

While there are still additional models that get into the $600+ range like the Fenix 5, the models covered here will be sufficient for 99% of all runners.

While it’s great to have data to see how much we have improved in our running, don’t become obsessed with the data. We’ve found that some of our best runs have been when we’ve forgotten our GPS running watch and enjoyed running in it’s purest form, being able to take in the sights and sounds through the neighborhood, with no worries about our speed, pace or distance. Running is supposed to be fun after all!