With so many GPS watches available in the market, it can be overwhelming to go through all of the reviews to figure out which one is right for you. The first step is to narrow down to a brand. I’ve compared Suunto vs Garmin in a previous post, and this time I’m pitting Polar vs Garmin.
All the well-known brands manufacture several series of GPS watches with varying features and in a range of prices. All this means is that there is something for everyone.
A few of the major differences with Polar and Garmin:
- Garmin wants to be part of your ENTIRE life, with cycle tracking, daily events, etc
- Polar wants to enhance your training with heart rate variability, better HR tracking, etc
If you’re looking to purchase your first GPS watch for running, check out my post on GPS watch mistakes not to make, so you don’t end up getting more than what you need and spending more money than necessary.
This side-by-side comparison should help you better understand the different features and narrow down your choices.
Not interested in all the research and just want to know what I’d pick?
It has more than enough features to last you through that first 5K all the way through many marathons and is more cost effective than other options.
How to Choose the Best GPS Watch for Running
Both Garmin and Polar make great, high quality GPS watches. You can’t go wrong with either brand.
Picking the right watch for you is a matter of preference for features like the display, various tracking modes and activities, and the app used to sync the data from your watch. Each brand makes a variety of watches to suit different budgets and needs.
To help decide on the right watch for you, ask yourself the following:
- Do you just want a basic watch that will track your training and races?
- Do you want a multi-sport watch that will manage cross training?
- Or, do you want a do-it-all watch that keeps track of your every moment, 24/7?
- Are you running ultra marathons in the mountains or road marathons?
- How important is battery life?
Check current Garmin prices
Buying tip: They don’t usually have massive discounts, but you’ll find $50 off frequently or largely discounts at the holidays.
Tip: If you already have a watch and are just looking to upgrade, stick with the brand you have and know. Unless there’s a feature you really dislike, then there’s no reason to learn a new interface. Think of it like switching from an Apple to a PC.
First we’ll go through features and then provide comparable models for entry level and high end.
GPS Watch Feature Comparison
Even the most basic of GPS watches today include the same features such as heart rate monitor, pace, distance, calorie tracking, and lap function. Where the two brands differ is in the hardware, training tools, alerts, and additional data recording features. Some go above and beyond, for those looking to nerd out on statistics.
One cool feature of Polar watches are the five minute fitness tests. These simple assessments determine your current aerobic fitness level and provide an estimated VO2 max.
Display and Tracking
Both Garmin and Polar watches display customizable real-time data, such as pace, time, distance run, calories burned, and heart rate, plus more if you desire. Summary information like average pace, stride count, and elevation gain are all also available real-time by the push of a button.
The display on the Polar Vantage V is noticeably dimmer than that of Garmin watches. While still readable, it does require use of the backlight more often and is harder to read in bright light (as reported by some runners. I used mine in bright sun and did not have this issue).
The biggest difference between the two brands in this arena comes in display customization. The six screens on the Polar Vantage can be modified via the Polar app, but not to the same extent as Garmin models, which allow users to choose from a selection of widgets, including music and weather, depending on the model.
In terms of which watchmaker reigns in tracking, it’s a tie. Depending on the watch, both include a variety of sports modes and have superb GPS accuracy.
GPS Watch Battery Life
Aside from the Polar Vantage series, Garmin watches far exceed in battery life. In continuous training mode, the Vantage series lasts 30 and 40 hours, depending on the model, where its Garmin competitor can go for just 24 hours.
However, the Garmin Fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 can switch to UltraTrac mode, which sacrifices GPS accuracy in exchange for a longer battery life, up to 60 hours. UltraTrac mode is a battery saving feature that periodically shuts off GPS and uses the accelerometer to determine speed and distance.
Mapping and Navigation
For those running new routes or who have a tendency to get turned around during a run, the navigational features on Garmin watches will make sure you stay on course and return home safely.
If you don’t mind looking at a map on a tiny screen, the Garmin Fenix series includes color topographic mapping capabilities.
Heart Rate Monitoring
These days, most GPS watches come with either strap-based or wrist-based optical heart rate monitors. Optical monitors are known to provide inaccurate results due to recording random movements, however the Polar Vantage series has the only watches currently available on the market that use bio-impedance technology to override readings caused by movement.
- After a few months of testing the Polar, I have found it to be more accurate in cold weather and less issues with random spikes while running than the Garmin Fenix.
Both brands track wellness-related data like sleep metrics and heart rate throughout the day. The difference between the two brands is that all of the Polar watches include some variation of this feature, where Garmin has a few models that do not.
Since training using low heart rate training I’ve come to understand the relevance of using a heart rate monitor to complement my training. All of the Polar watches and the higher end watches in the Garmin lineup include wrist-based and or optical heart rate monitoring.
For some tricks on getting more accurate heart rate readings check out my GPS watch tips.
Data Management and Apps
Polar uses the Polar Flow App to analyze post-workout summaries, highlighting heart rate, cadence, speed, and altitude on a map. Unlike Garmin, however, Polar watches don’t automatically sync training stats to the app. You have to open the app and do it manually from your watch.
Perhaps the most innovative and useful app feature of Polar watches is the ability to create a personalized training plan. Once you set your race date and distance, the app will generate a training plan, populating a calendar with workouts. During your run, alarms will sound to indicate whether you are staying within your target heart rate.
Garmin uses a program called Connect that includes similar analytical features as Polar Flow, and users seem to love the additional capabilities like the ability to create workouts, build courses, and challenge friends to competitions.
If you’re switching between brands, then an app like Strava is probably the best place to keep all of your data safely in one place.
What is the best GPS watch for runners?
Depending on your budget and your feature preferences, both Garmin and Polar make quality running watches.
- If you want all the data and metrics, consider something like the Garmin Fenix or Polar Vantage V.
- If you just want basic running statistics, then go for the Garmin Forerunner 45 or the Polar M430 (see a breakdown below).
- And don’t forget to see how they both stack up against Suunto.
Try to check out the watches at your local running or outdoor store to tinker with the displays and see how they feel on your wrist. Are they something you could wear all day long to track all the data? Are they too heavy or is the face too big for your small wrists? Play around with the different apps beforehand to see which interface you like.
Below are some watch suggestions from each brand of varying prices.
Garmin Watch Comparison
Click any link below to see the watch and additional function details. After comparing the Garmin running watch options, we’ll show you the comparable Polar watch options.
Budget: Garmin Forerunner 45
This is now what’s considered an entry level running watch and it has EVERYTHING including smart watch features. You can go more basic with the Garmin 25, but it’s not well supported now. So with the 45 you’ll get wrist based HR, GPS features, Safety features and more. It’s a great value when I think I paid this price for my first Garmin that could only track how far I ran!
Midrange: Garmin Forerunner 645
For about $100 more, you can get the Forerunner 645, which will give you some bells and whistles like music, Garmin Pay, thermometer and altimeter. This watch will track running, swimming, and cycling and tell you your ground contact time balance, stride length, and more.
High End: Garmin Fenix
Garmin’s premier sport watch, the Fenix series does pretty much anything you want, but is often the sought after watch because it has an everyday look. Let’s be honest, white/rose gold look basically convinced me I need the Garmin Fenix 5s (the S version is made smaller for a woman’s wrist too)!
This watch is for the athlete who wants their watch to just know what they’re doing. It’s going to have every bell and whistle we’ve discussed previously, plus the components are upgraded. The Fenix can tell the difference if you’re running indoors vs outside vs on the road or trail. It knows if you’re in a pool or swimming in open water. It can even give you an accurate weather forecast via Bluetooth.
Right now you can get the Fenix 5s at a huge discount because they’re rolling out the new Fenix 6 series.
See my full review of the Garmin Fenix 5S.
All right now, we’ve done a Garmin watch comparison so you can see what makes the different prices, but how does it stack up against other brands? Below you’ll find Polar, but you can also see how Garmin compares to Suunto here.
Polar Watch Comparison
Ok we’re finishing up the Polar vs Garmin throw down! You’ll quickly see that Polar prices are lower and I think this is partially because they don’t have the same dominant market share, but they have been around a very long time and making strides consistently in what their watches provide.
Budget: Polar M430
The Polar M400 is the best selling running watch in Europe’s best selling running watch and this upgrade kept all of the same beloved features and added a few new ones. The M430 features a wrist-based heart rate monitor to stay on top of zone training.Other features include:
- Recovery status that
- Sleep tracking
- Smart notifications
The battery lasts just 8 hours in training mode, which is a big con. This simple watch is great for anyone on a budget who wants a basic watch to track their running workouts. At $199.95, the price is great for the included features.
Midrange: Polar Vantage M
For a midrange watch with nearly every feature you could possibly want. The Precision Prime wrist-based sensor is the only one on the market that combines both an optical sensor with bio-impedance technology, meant to overcome erratic readings caused by movement. This waterproof watch uses wrist-based heart rate tracking, calculates VO2 max post workout, and tracks recovery and sleep quality and the battery lasts up to 30 hours in continuous workout training mode
Even with all the features, this watch retails for $279.95, which is still budget-friendly compared to other brands.
High End: Polar Vantage V
For an upgrade of $200 more you can opt for the Polar Vantage V, which allows route imports, orthostatic tests, power meters and Strava Live segments.
For anyone like me who trains by HR, you’ll really love one key feature of this upgrade:
Polar Precision Prime™ sensor fusion technology. This innovation combines optical heart rate measurement with other sensor technologies in order to rule out involuntary movement that might disturb the heart rate signal and produce unreliable readings.
I have been testing this watch and agree that it definitely has all the features you need for training, plus it does offer notifications from your phone. It does not have all the smart watch features which tend to increase the price of the Garmin watches. So if you just need a watch for training, this is going to save you bucks and provide all the tools.
As noted the main downside to Polar is the customization of screens. I like to see data a certain way and would like more options to break out that information.
And yet the BIG UPSIDE to the Vantage is that I’ve found the HR data to be far more accurate! It also has Heart Rate Variability and a Power Meter built in to the watch, which is unheard of in a watch.
Other watches you want to know about? Let me know!
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