Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (2024)

Which is better for runners, a Garmin or an Apple Watch? It’s a question plenty of runners wrestle with. As the Apple Watch’s running credentials improve and Garmin’s smartwatch skills evolve, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut as it once was.

So, in this guide, we’ll walk you through the best Garmin and Apple running watches, dive into the devices and compare the main features, so you can make a smart choice about which is the best running watch for you.

Here’s your complete lowdown on Apple vs Garmin for runners.

Apple Watch: Smartwatch first, running watch second

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (1)

The Apple Watch in all its guises is still the best smartwatch you can buy. Its main focus is as a tool for everyday life, but it boasts increasingly capable running credentials.

Apple Watches have a clean design, with premium materials, pin-sharp displays, generally accurate heart rate and reliable GPS. They also offer the widest range of native and third party apps, with tools for just about everything you encounter in daily life in the iOS App Store.

The native workout app includes modes for running and indoor running, along with tailored tracking for everything from HIIT to yoga. But while the fitness tracking has improved with each iOS upgrade, it’s still not as specific, detailed or as integrated as you’ll find on Garmin watches.

Apple’s running mode now boasts features like automatic running track detection for when you hit the 400s, easy interval sessions builder tools, pace matching for previous routes and increased running metrics like vertical oscillation and ground contact time.

Other tools like navigation still sit outside of the running app and to match Garmin’s capabilities for route planning and turn-by-turn navigation, you often have to add third party apps – such as Komoot for route planning – into the mix. The journey between the running tools and wider health insights is not quite as seamless as Garmin and there’s no native coaching and training platform like you’ll find on Garmin Connect.

On the flipside, there’s enough in the native running app to cater for most runners and the simplicity of Apple’s running tools will definitely appeal to runners who want less complication.

Garmin: Running watch first, smartwatch second

Barring the excellent Coros Pace 3, Garmin makes the best running watches. It offers a huge range of devices (more on those below), many of which now feature smartwatch tools like contactless payments, offline music and smartphone notifications. There’s also a limited selection of third party ‘apps’ and tools via the Garmin Connect IQ store. But nothing to rival the iOS App Store.

Garmin’s watches prioritise tracking your daily exertions, spanning running, fitness and health. You get in-depth analysis of every run with training insights like training effect, workout load, VO2 max estimates, recovery time recommendations, and performance condition. You can even dip into real time stamina as you run.

Beyond the run, the recovery tracking, heart rate variability readouts, sleep, breathing and stress tracking offer a smarter way to manage your training (and life strains and stresses).

The whole experience is more integrated and seamless, centred around the run. For example, maps and navigation tools are integrated into running mode so you can flick easily from your lap splits to your route guidance. It’s much more geared towards being your fitness coach rather than your daily life toolkit.

Garmin vs Apple: The watches in a nutshell

Apple Running Watches

The Apple Watch line-up breaks down into three main devices: the rugged, big battery, adventure-ready Apple Watch Ultra 2 (£799), the regular Series 9 (£399) and the more compact entry-level Apple Watch SE2 (£219).

The larger Apple Watch Ultra 2 is Apple’s premium watch. A tougher watch built robust for adventures and a heavy focus on running, you could say this is Apple’s rival to the Epix Pro and Fenix.

The the Series 9 is a more compact and subtle – an everyday Apple Watch. Aside from the dual frequency GPS and battery life, it packs the same suite of sensors but has a smaller display that’s less bright than the Ultra 2 but still up there with the best Garmin screens. Battery life is up to 18 hours, rising to 36 hours in low power mode. Price wise, this one goes up against the Forerunner 965.

The Apple Watch SE is the cheapest in the line up and pack a more compact display, so it’s a good option for smaller wrists. A bit like the Forerunner 265 and 55, it’s probably one to consider if you’re just starting out.

It lacks the bells and whistles like ECG, temperature and SPO2 sensors that you’ll find on the Ultra 2 and the Series 9, plus there’s no dual frequency GPS. But battery life is the same as the Series 9 and in terms of the running app, you’ll get the same experience as the pricier models.

Garmin running watches

Garmin has a huge range. At one end you have fitness watches like the Venu Sq2 that offer the run-tracking basics with more smartwatch style and fashion sense. At the other end you have the big, rugged adventure-ready watches like the Fenix 7, Epix and Enduro. These offer big battery life, robust durability and advanced navigation tools.

Somewhere in the middle, the Forerunner models are your run-specific watches with a lighter, more compact design. Battery life, screen quality and feature sets generally improve and become more comprehensive as you rise up the Forerunner range.

Garmin vs Apple: A closer look

Design

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (2)

Aside from fitness-focussed watches like the Venu SQ2, Apple and Garmin have very distinct designs. Apple has its smartwatch staple square-ish screen and slick cases with the digital crown. Garmin has a round, sportier style that we tend to associate with sport watches. Generally speaking, Apple is more everyday stylish, while Garmin has a more outdoors aesthetic.

When it comes to screens, Apple leads the way with bright, pin-sharp displays, but Garmin has closed that gap somewhat, adding AMOLED to many of its recent launches, including the Epix Pro 2, the Forerunner 965 and 265.

Apple’s watch sizes run from 40mm to 49mm. The smallest Garmin is the 42mm Forerunner 55, while the largest are the Enduro 2 and Fenix 7X at 51mm.

For controls, Apple Watches rely on the touchscreen and crown combo with a bit of voice and some gesture thrown in. That includes a clever new gesture control that lets you tap two fingers together to do things like take splits and turn off alarms.

Garmin uses a combination of touchscreen and button controls. While the Apple touchscreen tends to be more responsive and snappier, Garmin’s buttons make it easier to control when you’re really sweaty, cold or moving at pace.

Both Apple and Garmin watches offer interchangeable straps with broad sections of silicone and nylon straps. Apple’s strap game is a little more evolved with collaborations and designs that’ll appeal more to the style conscious.

Battery life

When it comes to staying power, Garmin watches go longer.

Most Garmin running watches will give you at least a week of general use with an hour’s daily GPS runtime. Some, like the Enduro 2 and Fenix 7, will go a month without needing to go back on the plug. All but the Forerunner 55 and the 265 pack enough single-run juice to cover a 24-hour 100 mile ultra.

By contrast, even the longer-lasting Apple Watch Ultra 2 needs charging every 2-3 days with regular use and training. And while the Ultra 2 offers enough juice to conquer a 100km ultra, it’s not quite of the battery chops for multi-day adventures.

The Apple Watch Series 9 battery life still falls somewhat short. It’ll now easily eat a marathon and if you’re happy to charge daily, it’s fine for most runners. For anything longer, you’d be wise to go Ultra or look at Garmin.

Some Garmin models also now offer solar ‘charging’ with solar panels built into the display that slows the battery drain and extends your run time.

Features

The running experience on the Apple Watch has evolved. It’s simple and pretty powerful. It’s also bolstered by the huge range of third party tools. One way or another, you can replicate most things offered by Garmin, though you might have to pay.

The apps and tools also don’t always speak to each other the way Garmin’s do. There’s no partner app that collates your data the way Garmin Connect does. And unless you go for the Ultra 2, the battery life is lacking. But that’s the trade off you’re making for having a tool that offers much, much more beyond the run.

Running analytics

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A few years back, the Apple Watch’s running analytics lacked breadth and depth, but recent updates added a host of real-time metrics that better rival the Garmin experience.

You can now customise your run screens with everything from pace and distance, to running power and form metrics like cadence, vertical oscillation, stride length and ground contact time.

You get all of this and more on Garmin with the added ability to customise all the data further by lap and averages.

Training feedback

You can use third party apps to improve the training feedback on the Apple Watch but if you’re comparing the native tools, Garmin wins here.

Garmin running watches offer a broader range of immediate post-workout feedback with detailed breakdowns for training effect, including time spent in aerobic vs anaerobic zones, training load and recovery time recommendations.

They also serve up daily training readiness scores and offer benchmarking for your endurance and hill running capabilities, along with VO2 Max estimates and race time predictions. All your post-run data is also used to inform daily training recommendations and adaptive training plans via Garmin Coach

The Apple Watch running ‘app’ doesn’t offer any of this natively in the running app. Though you can get VO2 Max in the Health app and things like adaptive coaching plans via third party apps such as Coopah or Runna, though often for an additional fee.

Health and fitness tracking

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (4)

Left: Apple Watch Ultra 2. Right: Garmin Enduro 2

Apple and Garmin track a wide range of metrics beyond the run. On Garmin, you get sleep, breathing, stress, cycle tracking as well as things like Body Battery that estimates how much juice you’ve used during the day. You can also track heart rate variability to monitor how your body responds to the strains of running and daily life and get a handy morning snapshot of your sleep and recovery overnight.

The Apple Watch also tracks sleep and heart health with the ability to take ECG readings via the digital crown. There’s also menstrual cycle tracking, breathing and blood oxygen.

One standout feature that’s really popular on the Apple Watch is the Apple rings: three rings you’re challenged to close daily by moving, exercising and standing up enough. It’s wildly addictive and though Garmin offers stand and move alerts, it’s not as compelling.

Maps & navigation

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (5)

Left: Apple Watch Ultra 2. Right: Garmin Enduro 2.

Unless you opt for third party apps like Komoot or All Trails, the maps and navigation tools are more comprehensive on Garmin watches from the Forerunner 965 upwards.

There are tools to create routes on the watch, you can scroll offline maps and turn by turn guidance within the run mode and the watch will tell you things like how much elevation is up head, help you return to start, create round trip courses and let you add points of interest.

The Apple Watch lets you do some of this via Apple Maps or using the compass but you have to jump out of the workout app and into other apps which is all a bit more fiddly.

Basically, if you’re planning to use maps and navigation a lot, Garmin offers the better experience that’s more tailored to running.

Smart features

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Garmin is unlikely to ever match Apple’s smartwatch skills. For a start, the app ecosystem is simply broader, deeper, richer and more evolved. The Apple Watch is infinitely customisable, you can make calls, you’ve got the Siri voice assistant that Garmin can’t rival, not to mention Apple Music and Apple Pay. You can even unlock your front door with the right smart lock. There’s honestly not much you can’t do with an Apple Watch.

Garmin’s smarts are much more limited. There’s some watch customisation with faces and widgets. You also get contactless payments, offline music playback, weather alerts and notifications but it’s a long way off the power of the Apple Watch and that Apple ecosystem.

Apple Watches are smarter.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners?

Just like choosing the best running shoes, this 100% comes down to how you run and your personal priorities. But here’s a simplified way to look at it.

If you’re a dedicated PB chaser, running multiple times a week who likes to plot new routes, run long, eke out the marginals and really tune into the training insights, Garmin is probably your best option.

If you’re running for fitness – or running is a smaller part of your daily life – and you want a smartwatch to track your miles, plus serve up some insights to help you stay motivated, while also supporting you with life beyond the run, the Apple Watch is the way to go.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is better for runners? (2024)
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