Finding the Best GPS Running Watch: Which Garmin is Right for You

So you’ve decided that it’s time to up your running game and get a GPS running watch. But with so many options out there, it can be a bit overwhelming. Garmin offers some fantastic choices – but which model is right for you?

I feel you. I was there myself, not too long ago.

When I first got back into running, I was using a Fitbit Charge 3. I had to piggyback off my phone to get a GPS signal. It was ok, but it definitely wasn’t ideal.

After a couple of months, I decided to upgrade. I poured over all the options and weighed their pros and cons. Ultimately, I settled on the Garmin Forerunner 245. Given my needs, it was a great choice.

My new Garmin Fenix 7S Pro Solar watch.

I was happy with that for a few years, until I wasn’t. Then, after many more months of painstaking deliberation, I settled on the Garmin Fenix 7S Pro. I love it.

But everyone is going to be different, and what’s right for me might not be right for you. Garmin has a range of watches from entry level to luxury. So let me run through some of what Garmin has to offer, highlight a few key differences between the watches, and help you make the best choice.

TLDR – The Short Version

If you just need a basic running watch with a GPS tracker, go with the Instinct or the Forerunner 55.

The Instinct is rugged a no-frills option that gets the job done. The Forerunner 55 is newer, and looks a little more like a ‘smart watch’ and less like an ‘outdoors watch.’

But either of them are a great choice for a basic running watch to get started.

If you want some advanced running metrics, basic navigation, and some other additional features, consider a Garmin 2XX. These mid-tier watches are great options, and depending on your needs you may want the new version or an older one.

The older Garmin Forerunner 245 is missing some of the newer features, but it’s still quite capable – and almost the size price as the 55. The Forerunner 255 and 265 are more feature rich, and the main difference between them is the display.

Read more about the differences between these three watches here.

If you want the latest and greatest watch – including the best maps options, live Strava segments, and more – consider a Garmin Forerunner 9XX.

Again, the older Forerunner 945 includes most of the features of the newer watches at a fraction of the price. The 955 and 965 are the latest versions, and they come with the latest features and hardware. The main difference between them is the display.

Read more about the differences between these three watches here.

If you want all the latest features and you want a watch with a premium build, check out the Garmin Fenix line. There are many different versions of the Garmin Fenix 7 Pro, but most of it amounts to sizes and cosmetic differences.

The Fenix line includes three size options – whereas the Forerunner 965 only has one option. So you’ve got a lot more flexibility in terms of picking a watch that suits your style.

Check out this run-down on what the different models have to offer.

The Advantages of a Garmin GPS Running Watch

Before we get into the differences between the various watches, let’s start with a more basic question – why do you need a Garmin Forerunner or Fenix in the first place?

There are lots of ways to track your workouts.

With any smartphone, you can use an app to track a run – like Strava or MapMyRun. Back in the day, this is how I got started with Endomondo (which is now defunct and closed).

This has a few inherent problems, though. First, you have to carry your phone. Second, it can’t track your heart rate. Third, it’s really awkward to interact with the tracker while you’re actually running. This might work when you’re first starting out, but as you progress you’ll quickly grow out of this.

Another option is to use a basic fitness tracker. The first fitness tracker I had was a Fitbit Charge 3. It was really designed to track steps, but it had the ability to track a run as well. But it wasn’t ideal either. It didn’t have its own built in GPS, the touchscreen didn’t work well while I was running, and the screen was impossible to read on a sunny day.

And then there are smart watches. If you already have an Apple watch, why can’t you just use that to track your runs? You can, but these are designed to be smartwatches first and fitness trackers second. Runners that use Apple watches often complain about inaccurate GPS and heart rate data, and you still have the problem of controls.

Garmin running watches are designed from the ground up with running in mind. So that’s what they do best. They track your runs (as well as bike rides and swims, if you’re a triathlete). Everything else is secondary.

So the key advantages to a Garmin Forerunner are that a) you’ll get accurate GPS data, b) you’ll get fairly reliable heart rate data, c) the screen will be easy to read outside, d) you get physical buttons to easily interact with the watch while you’re running, and e) you can build complex workouts and track all of your data in Garmin Connect.

This is true of the most basic Forerunner – the 55 – as well as the top of the line 955/965. If all you need is a basic running watch, any of them will do.

That being said, there are some key differences that distinguish each watch. So run down the line up and see what makes each one unique.

Garmin Forerunner 55 – An Entry Level GPS Running Watch

The Garmin Forerunner 55 is the entry level Forerunner. It was released in 2021, and it offered some upgrades and improvements over the older 45 / 45S.

It retails for $199.99, and for that you’ll get a decent, feature rich GPS running watch.

You can track your runs, and you can build workouts in Garmin Connect. It has access to the “Track Run” activity, which accurately maps your run around an oval track.

It uses the optical heart rate monitor to track your heart rate during workouts, to measure your heart rate variability, and to calculate your Garmin Body Battery throughout the day. Read more about Garmin Body Battery here, if you’re unfamiliar with this nifty feature. You can also connect to an ANT+ heart rate monitor, like the HRM-Dual, for more accurate heart rate data.

But it is missing some premium features. It does not have navigation, nor does it have access to premium running metrics like Performance Condition. There’s no music option, either.

This is the perfect choice for someone who’s just starting out and just needs a basic GPS watch to track their runs and workouts. But if you want music, do a lot of trail running, dabble in triathlons, or want advanced metrics, you’ll want to consider one of the higher end Forerunners.

Garmin Forerunner 255/265 – The Mid-Tier Choice

The Garmin Forerunner 255 and Garmin Forerunner 265 are next up on the list. There are a couple versions – with large and small, music and non-music options. The newest version retails for $449.99, while the older 255 can be had for around $350. The even older Garmin 245 is just over $200.

They’re all more expensive than the 55. So what do you get for the extra money?

They include all of the same features as the 55. They have similar hardware, although the screen is slightly larger and has a slightly higher resolution. The 265 has a much nicer AMOLED screen. But there are a few other key features that set it apart.

First and foremost, the Forerunner 255/265 has a music option. If you want to sync music to your watch, you’ll need to upgrade. Second, they have access to basic navigation features. These are really useful if you go trail running or if you often run in unfamiliar places. And finally, they have access to some more advanced running metrics as well as the ability to sync to a running pod.

If any of those features appeal to you, then a Forerunner 2XX might be the right choice. I’m still rocking a Forerunner 245, and the feature I couldn’t live without is navigation. Read this comparison for an overview of the differences between the 245, 255, and 265.

Garmin Forerunner 745 – The Old Mid-Tier Watch for Triathletes

It used to be that if you took a step up from the Garmin 2XX, you’d land at the Garmin Forerunner 745. It had all of the features of the 245, along with access to multi-sport activities for triathletes. It retailed for $499.99, but you can find it on Amazon for less than $400 these days.

At this point, the Garmin Forerunner 745 is more or less deprecated. It is an upgrade over the old 245, but multisport activities were incorporated into the mid-tier GPS running watches starting with the 255. You can get a 255 for less than a 745 …

You may even be able to get a 945 for less.

There are some minor physical differences that might still justify calling the 745 a “better” watch … But really there’s very little reason to opt for a 745 over one of the newer (and potentially cheaper) multi-sport options.

Garmin Forerunner 965 – The Top End Model

Picture of the Garmin 945 maps and navigation

Finally, we come to the Garmin Forerunner 965. It’s the top end model in the Forerunner line, and it comes with the highest price tag. It retails for $599.99.

There are also a couple of older models available for less – notably the Garmin Forerunner 955 ($499 or less) and the Garmin Forerunner 945 LTE ($425 to $450).

They are the top of the line Forerunners, and they are feature rich running watches. They include everything on the other models, plus a few extra little bonuses.

One significant upgrade is the maps. While the Forerunner 2XX models have access to basic navigation, it’s just wireframes and breadcrumbs. You don’t get any actual map data – just a line on a blank background and a compass. The 965 (and 955/945) introduces fully featured maps, so you can navigate streets and explore a city with nothing but the watch on your wrist.

Another nifty, if niche, feature is live Strava segments. Basically, it lets you load specific Strava segments onto your watch. While you’re running, your watch will let you know when the segment is beginning, navigate through it, and measure your time against a goal. If you’re into competing over Strava segments, this is potentially really useful.

The 9XX models also bring golfing features to the Forerunner line. You can track your play along a golf course, see how the holes are laid out, and know how far you are from the green. If you’re not a golfer, you probably won’t care about this. But if you are a golfer, it’s a huge value add.

Another huge difference – although its only available on the older 945 – is the LTE connectivity. The other Forerunners can send messages (for Live Tracking or to call for help), but they can only do so if you have your phone with you. Now you can stay connected and run phone free. People can even watch your progress live and send you messages, which is pretty cool.

See some more highlights, and understand the differences between the versions with this comparison of the Garmin Forerunner 945, 955, and 965.

If you want the biggest and best Forerunner out there – you need to splurge on the 965. There are some awesome features on this that will make it worth it, assuming you use them. But, again, if you don’t have any use for them… you might as well stick with the cheaper models.

Stepping Up to the Garmin Fenix 7 Pro

The next step above the Forerunner 9XX is the Garmin Fenix 7 Pro. It’s just about everything you could want in a GPS running watch.

When it comes to features, the watches are pretty similar. The Fenix did include some new features that weren’t originally available on the Forerunner. But these new features were all ported back to the Forerunner in an update.

The key differences are in the build of the watch, which is more solid; along with the battery, which has much longer life.

A minor but really nifty feature is that it has a flashlight built in. I love it.

A less nifty feature is the solar charging capabilities. It sounds cool, but it’s mostly a gimmick.

For a more thorough comparison, check out this guide to understanding the differences between the Garmin Fenix 7 Pro Solar and the Garmin Forerunner 965. Here’s another guide explaining the difference between all of the Fenix 7’s available on the market.

Direct Comparisons Between Garmin Models

So that’s a quick run down of the options that are currently available for Garmin Forerunners. You might see some other older models out there, but unless you’re getting a great deal on a used watch, you probably want to avoid something older like the 35, the 235, or the 735.

If you’re torn between a few choices, here are some direct comparisons to help you choose:

All of these watches are great, and you can’t go wrong with any of them if you’re looking for a basic GPS running watch.

But there are some features that clearly set them apart. With a price range of $199.99 to $999.99, there’s a pretty significant price differential. So make sure you consider the various features, and find the right watch for you.

Garmin Forerunner 55
Garmin Forerunner 255
Garmin Forerunner 965
Garmin Forerunner 55 GPS Running Smartwatch, Black
Garmin Forerunner® 255, GPS Running Smartwatch, Advanced Insights, Long-Lasting Battery, Tidal Blue
Garmin Forerunner® 965 Running Smartwatch, Colorful AMOLED Display, Training Metrics and Recovery Insights, Black and Powder Gray, 010-02809-00
$183.79
$289.00
$569.00
Size(s)
42mm
41.7mm (S) / 46.1mm
47.2mm
GPS Tracking
Optical Heart Rate
Custom Workouts
Music
No
Optional
Yes
Navigation
No
Basic
Advanced
HRV Status
Triathlon / Multisport
Strava Live Segments
Golf
Hill and Endurance Scores
Garmin Forerunner 55
Garmin Forerunner 55 GPS Running Smartwatch, Black
$183.79
Size(s)
42mm
GPS Tracking
Optical Heart Rate
Custom Workouts
Music
No
Navigation
No
HRV Status
Triathlon / Multisport
Strava Live Segments
Golf
Hill and Endurance Scores
Garmin Forerunner 255
Garmin Forerunner® 255, GPS Running Smartwatch, Advanced Insights, Long-Lasting Battery, Tidal Blue
$289.00
Size(s)
41.7mm (S) / 46.1mm
GPS Tracking
Optical Heart Rate
Custom Workouts
Music
Optional
Navigation
Basic
HRV Status
Triathlon / Multisport
Strava Live Segments
Golf
Hill and Endurance Scores
Garmin Forerunner 965
Garmin Forerunner® 965 Running Smartwatch, Colorful AMOLED Display, Training Metrics and Recovery Insights, Black and Powder Gray, 010-02809-00
$569.00
Size(s)
47.2mm
GPS Tracking
Optical Heart Rate
Custom Workouts
Music
Yes
Navigation
Advanced
HRV Status
Triathlon / Multisport
Strava Live Segments
Golf
Hill and Endurance Scores

I rocked my Forerunner 245 for a long time, and I was happy with it. I plan on keeping my Fenix 7S Pro for a long time, too. The one thing I wish I had was LTE connectivity – and that’s probably the only thing that would prompt me to upgrade to a new watch anytime soon.

Once you decide on a watch, be sure to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear which one you chose and why.

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