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What To Look For In A GPS Running Watch

Updated August 24, 2022

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 options and why they’re important can 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 carry Garmin GPS watches which are available at all locations. 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 $200 today, but next year you’re interested in training with Garmin’s training plans, running dynamics, and VO2 Max, that means a new watch for $300. You’ve now spent $500 in the course of a year. It probably would’ve been better to get the $300 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 55 is a great option starting at $199.99. The benefits of this model are the abundance of features at this price point and adding quite a bit more over the previous version, Forerunner 45. It’s easy to use and navigate through the menu and 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 includes heart rate from the wrist.  These days, all GPS watches include the ability to pair with our phones and receive “Smart Notifications” through Bluetooth connectivity. In addition to having access to the online Garmin Coach for adaptive training plans, it now comes with Pacepro Technology offering GPS-based pace guidance for a selected course or distance. If you do track workouts, there’s a new Track Run setting to accurately measure lap distances. Race Predictor is also available using your history of runs and training to predict finish times for a variety of distances. Race Predictor was only available in watches costing $500 just a few years ago. This model is feature-packed with so much more and is probably the best value for $199.99. The Garmin Forerunner 55 also serves as a regular watch and Activity Tracker that counts your steps throughout the day.

GPS Running Watch
The Venu Sq is the latest entry from Garmin at this price point and directly competes with the FR55 as it has the same basic functionality but with a few different features.  The Venu Sq is also available in the music version ($249.99) allowing you to upload music to the watch so you can pair it with Bluetooth headphones. The Venu Sq is a full-featured smartwatch that is packed with apps to help monitor your health including a Pulse OX sensor to measure your blood oxygen saturation, a stress tracker, hydration tracker, respiration tracker, sleep monitor, and others. This is all in addition to being a GPS watch with fitness tracking, plus the ability to preload workouts and connects to Garmin Coach for free training plans. What more could you want at a price of $249.99? It’s also available in multiple colors and the music option to stream music from the Venu Sq instead of your phone or another music device. There is also a Venu 2S version ($399.99) that includes even more features including animated on-screen workouts on a brighter and more colorful screen.

Training with Heart Rate Zones

The Every day & 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 starting at $300, so which is best?

GPS Running WatchOne of the most highly sought features, a wrist-based heart rate monitor is available on the Garmin Forerunner 245. The optical sensors on the back of the watch measure heart rate without the need for a chest strap, which 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 245 to $299.99. For an additional $50 you can upgrade to the FR245 Music which allows you to load your favorite music to your watch and pair it with Bluetooth headphones for a completely wireless experience. It also includes a built-in tracking/safety feature that sends your real-time location to emergency contacts when paired with a compatible smartphone. The FR 245 also provides a training status to let you know if you’re over or under training. You can also download free training plans from Garmin Coach and even create your own custom workouts.

Another option is the Garmin Forerunner 255 at $349.99. A step up from the FR 245, it provides a longer battery life and a morning report which includes an overview of your sleep, recovery, and training outlook. For those looking to dip their toes into multi-sports like triathlons, it has those profiles to easily switch between those sports. With the addition of a Running Dynamics Pod or HRM-Pro heart rate strap, you’ll get additional data that measures different running metrics to analyze your running form. Several cross-training workouts are also preloaded to maximize your potential including HIIT, strength, cardio, and yoga workouts.

The Advanced Runner

The Garmin Forerunner 745 at $499.99 adds features for the runner and triathlete looking to significantly improve their performance. It has access to multiple global navigation satellites for more accurate mapping, especially in challenging environments.   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 Multi-Sport Athlete

GPS Running Watch
If you’re doing triathlons or considering getting into triathlons, you should consider the Garmin Forerunner 955($599.99).  The Forerunner 955 is the latest release and offers everything a triathlete needs. Offering wrist-based heart rate but the Forerunner 955 now offers 42 hours in regular GPS mode and 20 days in smartwatch mode. The battery is now solar powered so no matter your adventure, the FR 955 is likely to outlast you.  It also has full-colored, onboard maps to guide you on your runs. It now offers incident detection (when paired with a phone) providing alerts to your emergency contacts.

While there are still additional models that get into the $800+ range like the Fenix 7, 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 its purest form, being able to take in the sights and sounds through the neighborhood, with no worries about our speed, and pace, or distance. Running is supposed to be fun after all!