Best GPS Running Watch

The BIG GPS Watch Test

What we have all been waiting for – Allen from The Life of A Runner tests all of the top GPS watches to find the most accurate and the most usable. Which one will come out on top??

A question I get asked more often than not is “Which one is the best?” Whether they are asking about shoes, socks, GU flavors, or watches, it’s a hard question to answer because it is so subjective from person to person. However, watches are an exception. But you still have to consider, “What does better mean? More accurate? More versatile? Easier to use? A better online community?” I decided to end this debate once and for all. I gathered up 5 Garmin GPS watches, the Timex GPS, the Nike GPS, and the Nike+ Sportband and hit the road.  My comprehensive list of watches:

  • Garmin Forerunner 305
  • Garmin Forerunner 405
  • Garmin Forerunner 210
  • Garmin Forerunner 310XT
  • Garmin Forerunner 610
  • Timex Ironman GPS
  • Nike+ Sportwatch GPS
  • Nike+ Sportband

To answer the “Which one is the most accurate/versatile” questions, I had to make a couple decisions on how to test the watches. The final decision was to do three different runs wearing all 8 watches at the same time. The runs would be in the following order:

  • Track Workout
  • Trail Run
  • Road Run

I figured if I average the discrepancies in actual distance over the course of 3 very different runs, I could easily figure out which watch is the most accurate, plus I could see which watch consistently outperformed the others in each run to figure out which one is the most versatile.


Run #1: Track (6x800m Sprints)

To get a good sense of how the watches performed on a course that every serious runner should be on at least once a week, I decided to do 6 ½ mile repeats with ¼ mile recovery jog between each rep. The total mileage ended up at 4.50 miles, which is far enough to get a fair test out of the watches.

GPS Watch Accuracy Test Track

Surprising results arose from the first test. Garmin only made one appearance in the top half, which is surprising in itself, but for the best performing watch from Garmin to be their oldest watch? As you can see, there was a small mix between over the actual distance and under. The reason GPS watches are not as accurate as they should be on tracks is because of the constant turning. The watches get a satellite signal approximately every 4-6 seconds, so when you round a curve, the watch thinks you ran in a straight line, which obviously throws the distance off.

Another surprising result from the first test was the Nike+ Sportband. It was only about 100 meters after 4.5 miles, so that means if you have it calibrated to your footsteps correctly, it can perform up there with the expensive GPS watches. So, if you are in the market for a GPS watch to do track workouts in, your best bet would be to stay away from Garmin and pick up the brand new Nike+ Sportwatch GPS.

Run #2: Trail (3×2.2 mile loop)

The second test not everybody needs to consider. Trail running is way different than road running and I would say only about 10% of avid runners utilize trails in their workout schedules. So if you tend to stay off the trails, skip down to the next test, but for you trail junkies, do I have a surprise for you.

Trail running and GPS watches have never been great friends. Tree cover, U-turns, rapid elevation change, and winding paths all throw off the accuracy. With this knowledge, I decided to go all out and hit the most technical trail I know, which is actually a mountain bike course. This 2.2 mile loop is about 75% tree covered and has a U-turn about every 60 meters. I knew this was going to strain the GPS watches to the max, which makes this the perfect test for off-road.

GPS Watch Accuracy Test Trail

So the tables really turned for Garmin after the trail test, taking up 5 out of the top 6 spots, only to have the Sportband come in at a surprising 3rd place yet again! As you can plainly tell though, the stand out winner in this test was the 310XT, with about 250 meters off over a 6.6 mile course. The new 610 was closest to it, but still was over double the distance off. The King from test one surprising falls back down to number 7 with almost a mile short of the actual course! Looks like the new players to the GPS game have a little catching up to do if they want to compete for the trail runner demographic. With this test, the only watch to have over the distance was the Sportband, but that makes sense because you take more steps when you trail run because your stride is shorter because of all the twists and turns. Since the Sportband approximates distance based on the number of footsteps, it would only make sense that it displays a further distance than actual.

GPS Watch Accuracy Test Trail

As I discussed in the previous test, the GPS watches catch that signal from the satellites about every 4 seconds and connects the points linearly to each other. So when you are under tree cover and it tries to catch a signal, it can’t so it has to wait until it can pinpoint your location again to figure out how far you’ve gone. As you can see on the right, it is very easy for tree cover to block the true run path from being tracked.

Run #3: Road run (9.45 mile loop)

The final test is the key test to every road runner. They want to know how the watches stack up for a normal run around the neighborhood. For this test I took the watches down to a lake that has no tree cover, long slow turns, and out in the open with nothing to possibly interfere. I had to get in a longer run for this test because this was going to be the run where the watches will be most accurate. There is nothing to throw them off except their own ability to find the satellites.

GPS Watch Accuracy Test Road

For the first time in all three tests, not only do we have a watch that hit the distance dead on, but we had TWO! The 310XT and the 610 both were exactly on the distance, which is very impressive. Even the worst GPS watch, the Timex GPS, was only about 250 meters off over the course of 9.45 miles. The Sportband obviously was not calibrated correctly for normal road running, since it was almost a mile off. These are the results I expected from the start. I expected Garmin to dominate the field and the two newer brands to fall in shortly behind. So it seems for your everyday runner, the Garmin watches are the way to go for wherever your runs may take you.

Test Analysis – THE RESULTS ARE IN!

You can get a speculative idea by skimming through all my results, but it isn’t until I break them down that you get the real picture. The runs ended up totaling 20.55 miles. Here is the breakdown:

Best Accurate GPS Watch

So as you can tell, the trail really changes up the results. In answer to our question from earlier, the left column is going to answer “Which one is most versatile,” while the right column is going to answer “Which one is most accurate.” After crunching some numbers, the Garmin 305 seems to be the best value GPS watch available on the market right now, followed closely by the 610 and even closer by the 310XT. Unfortunately, the hype about the Nike+ Sportwatch GPS and the Timex Ironman GPS is all to no avail because they really cannot keep up with the Garmin competition.

Read the full Garmin 610 Review here

Ease of Use

Obviously asking “which watch is the easiest to use” is a very subjective question. It depends on how technically savvy you are and just how quick of a learner you are as well. So in order to answer this question, I’m going to rate these watches from simplest to get to training mode to most difficult.  In this case, training mode is the setting on the watch that will start time and keep track of your distance.

1. Nike+ Sportband

Consisting of only two buttons, it’s hard to not get into training mode. It is as simple as pressing and holding the giant button right in front, walking when it says walk, then pressing it again to start the time. Now remember, the Sportband is not GPS, it goes based on a chip you put in your shoe to count your steps. This watch does not do laps or have a backlight.

Nike Sportband2. Garmin Forerunner 305

Probably the simplest GPS watch in terms of getting to the training mode. This is a watch that you can turn on and off, so as soon as you turn it on, it automatically goes right into training mode. It finds the satellites automatically and quickly, and all you have to do is press the start button to get your run going. Despite being the simplest to get into training mode, the 305 has the most buttons of all the watches. It has on/off, mode, lap/reset, start/stop, up, down, and enter. This interface is very straight forward, “mode” brings you into the main menu, up and down are your scrolling buttons, and “enter” is your select button to change any settings you desire.

Garmin Forerunner 3053. Garmin Forerunner 310XT

Laid out pretty much exactly like the 305, the 310XT is extremely simple to use. Just like the 305, you turn the watch on and it automatically goes into training mode after finding the satellites. Just press start on the front face of the watch and off you go! The reason this one doesn’t split the second place spot on the easiness list is because it does entail a bunch more features like multiple sport modes and virtual partner. One added feature that is neat about this watch is that is vibrates on lap splits, which is a first for Garmin. Laps can be set to auto or manual.

Garmin Forerunner 3104. Nike+ Sportwatch GPS

The Sportwatch consists of three buttons on the left side: up, down, and mode. To get into training mode, just press mode, scroll to the “run” setting, press mode to search for satellites, then mode one more time to start the timer. While in training mode, the scroll up button changes the display on the top part of the screen, and the scroll down button changes the display on the bottom part. Options to cycle through are pace, distance, calories, time, time of day, heart rate, etc… To do a lap, just tap the screen with your finger. If you want to autolap, you can set that up manually pre-run, but once that is set, it cannot do manual laps.

Nike Sportwatch GPS5. Garmin Forerunner 210

The simplest of the Forerunners, the 210 is as simple as pressing the bottom left “mode” button, letting it search for satellites, then pressing the top right “start” button. The top right button also stops time, the bottom right button is for laps, and the top left button is for the backlight.  To reset the watch for another run, press and hold the bottom right button. To review a run, press and hold the “mode” button and it will bring you to a navigable menu where you will find a “History” mode.

Garmin Forerunner 2106. Garmin Forerunner 610

The newest watch from the Garmin family is very user friendly. To wake up the watch and get to training mode, just slide your finger from the right side of the watch over to the left side, opposite of what you do to wake up an iPhone. The watch will search for satellites, and then all you have to do is press the top right button and run! Different from the other models, the 610 is a touch screen watch, so you navigate through the menus by touching, much like you would an iPhone. To change a display setting in training mode, touch and hold the display, then scroll through and pick from a long list of options of what you want to view. You can set autolap to go whenever you like, and you can manual lap as well with the bottom right button. As with all Garmin watches, the top right button starts and stops, the bottom right splits and resets.

Garmin Forerunner 6107. Garmin Forerunner 405

I feel like this watch gets a bad reputation. It’s unconventional navigation style really threw people for a loop. What’s different about this watch is that it uses a touch bezel to navigate menus. A touch and hold process is used to navigate to different modes in the watch, and a rotating motion, like an old iPod nano, is used to scroll though the options. To naviate to training mode, press any button to wake the watch up. Touch and hold the right side of the bezel, and the watch will start looking for satellites. Once they are found, simply press the start button and you are good to run. Settings can be changed by touching and holding the bottom of the bezel and navigating through the settings mode and change the number of display windows, what is displayed, and even change from statute to metric. Once again, laps can be auto or manual.

Garmin Forerunner 4058. Timex Ironman GPS

You have to go through a couple of steps to get into training mode for this watch. While I do title it the most difficult to use, it really is fairly simple. To get into training mode, turn the watch on with the top right button, press “mode” which is the bottom left button, until it says performance on the screen, wait for it to find satellites (note, this is by far the slowest watch to find satellites), press start and run! To change settings, the mode button will bring you to the settings menu and you can go from there. This was actually the only watch I  have ever had any problem with. When I tried to stop the timer by pressing the stop button, the chrono would stop, but the event timer would keep going until you reset the watch for a new workout. This watch definitely has the harshest learning curve.

Timex IronMan Global Trainer GPS

Final Rankings

So take all this as you will, there is a good amount of information to take in. None of the watches are super complex and as with everything, no matter which one you get, you will learn the ins and outs with practice. If I had to choose one watch for myself after reading this article I would probably choose the Forerunner 305. It’s the easiest GPS watch to use, it performs amazing on the track and road, and only has a retail of $199. Looks like Garmin got it right back in 2006 when they released perhaps the best GPS watch out there. Overall rankings:

  1. Garmin Forerunner 305
  2. Garmin Forerunner 310XT
  3. Garmin Forerunner 610
  4. Nike+ Sportwatch GPS
  5. Garmin Forerunner 405
  6. Garmin Forerunner 210
  7. Timex Ironman GPS
  8. Nike+ Sportband

There you have it! All you could ever need to know about these outstanding watches! What are you waiting for! Get out there, grab a Garmin 305, and hit the road! And most importantly, enjoy living The Life of a Runner


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