Do You Really Need A GPS Watch To Run? (Or Is a Phone Fine?)

A comparison between GPS vs Smartphone for running.

You just started running and you see all these other runners wearing a GPS watch to track their runs. You want to invest but you found out that good GPS watches cost a lot so you hold off your buying decision and asked yourself if you really need a GPS watch to run or is using your phone to track your runs fine?

In general, recreational runners do not need a GPS watch to run. You can use your smartphone to track your distance, pace, and time which is all you need for recreational running. However, if you want to use advanced data like heart rate, VO2max, and cadence for your training, you should invest in a GPS running watch. 

But that’s not all. Even if you’re a beginner, investing in a GPS watch could still be a better option if you have the money. Ahead, we will be comparing a GPS watch from a phone in terms of using them to track your runs. We will also look at the benefits of running with a GPS watch versus a phone. And, at the end of the article, I will give you some recommendations of the best GPS watches for running.

What Are GPS Running Watches

GPS running watches are a type of wearable that has a built-in GPS used to track more accurate distance during a run. Most of the higher-quality running watches come with a multi-GNSS feature, which basically means they are using more than one GNSS or Global Navigation Satellite System.

A GPS is one GNSS built by the United States, but there are other GNSS built by other countries. Some of the more common ones are the GLONASS which is built by Russia, and the Galileo built by the EU.

Having a multi-GNSS feature allows GPS watches to be more accurate. Simply put, if one GNSS loses its signal, the other GNSS built into them that hasn’t lost their signal can simply continue tracking the distance.

Aside from this, running watches also track other metrics including heart rate, VO2max, and other running dynamic metrics.

A popular example of a running watch that has these features is the Garmin Forerunner 745 (link to Amazon). It has a GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo as its GNSS, it tracks your vitals as well as your running metrics.

(Related post: Do GPS Running Watches Need Internet To Work?)

Comparing GPS Watches From a Phone

Now, it’s not enough to just talk about what a GPS running watch is. You came here to find out how it compares to a smartphone so I’m going to drill down their differences in terms of accuracy, battery life, and ease of use.


Of course, when we’re talking about the accuracy of a GPS watch versus a smartphone, most of it will depend on the technology built into the device. In other words, how high-end is your GPS watch or phone? Not all devices are made the same. Like all gadgets, some are better than others.

Most GPS watches have a multi-frequency receiver. Meaning, they could receive signals from multiple GNSS like GLONASS and Galileo.

On the other hand, not all smartphones have multi-frequency receivers. Needless to say, if you compare a GPS watch versus a smartphone without multi-frequency receivers, the GPS watch will win.

But let’s say you’re using a smartphone with a multi-frequency receiver like the Samsung Note 10+ and you remove all the other external factors like where you place them when you run. You will find that smartphones are just as accurate as GPS watches given the circumstances.

Battery Life

Since phones run various apps and have larger screen displays, they usually have shorter battery life than a GPS watch.

According to a test run by Toms Guide, the battery of an iPhone Pro Max lasted 12 hours and 16 mins on cellular data and 150 nits of screen brightness. Let’s just say running a running app in the background while using the location services lasts for about the same time (using GPS drains the battery faster), that still won’t compare to the 20+ hours of a GPS watch running full GPS mode.

Some GPS watches, particularly the ones used by ultrarunners, can even last multiple days running full GPS mode.

Ease Of Use

This is where running watches blow smartphones out of the water.

Using a GPS watch is very convenient. Simply strap it to your wrist and you never have to think about it again. You’re not gonna drop it, lose it, or worry that it might get wet. Plus, it’s very easy to just look at your wrist if you want to use some data.

On the other hand, using your phone as a run tracker is pretty annoying. First, you have to make sure you won’t drop them. Second, you have to take it out every now and then to check the time or distance. Not to mention your sweaty hands might make it harder to swipe through your phone. And third, you’re gonna have to find secure and waterproof storage to protect your expensive phone.

So, when it comes to ease of use, wearing a GPS watch is much better than carrying a phone when you run.

Are GPS Watches More Accurate Than A Phone When Used For Running?

I already answered part of this above where I stated that if you remove external factors (like where you place your phone), their accuracy is closely the same. But I want to elaborate further on why GPS watches are more accurate than a phone when you use them for running.

A series of tests were conducted by Training peak and their findings revealed that mobile phones were less accurate than GPS watches. However, it is worth pointing out that this inaccuracy may be due to the way the phone is carried while your run.

In an experiment conducted in June 2020, researchers found out that how you carry your phone affects the accuracy of the GNSS. Based on their findings, they concluded that holding the phone in your hand yields the most precise accuracy—which, interestingly, follows the same movement patterns if a GPS watch was attached to your wrist.

Furthermore, their findings showed the changes in the accuracy when you place your phone in different locations:

  • Phone in the coat pocket; 3x less accurate
  • Phone in the front pants pocket; 5x less accurate
  • Phone in the back pants pocket; 9x less accurate
  • Phone in swinging hand; 9x less accurate

What I’m trying to say is, if you use a phone with a dual-frequency receiver (multi-GNSS) and you attach a phone to your wrist the exact same way you do your GPS watch, the accuracy might actually be the same since the same set of frequency receivers are built into them. But, because the phone would have to be carried in the pocket or bag which affects the accuracy of data, the phone becomes less accurate than a GPS watch if you use it for running.

Another reason why we could say that GPS watches are more accurate than smartphones is that high-end GPS watches usually has better tech developments and complex algorithms that identify and disregards signals that come from an angle. This usually happens when you’re running in urban areas and the signal bounces off walls or buildings before your GPS receiver receives it.

What Factors Affect GPS Accuracy

In an open sky area, GPS devices (both phone and watch) are typically accurate within a 1-5m radius. However, certain instances can affect the accuracy of GPS devices:

  • Running in urban areas with lots of tall buildings
  • Trail running in forests
  • Passing through tunnels
  • Running indoors
  • Signals reflected off buildings and walls

Both GPS watches and smartphones are affected by these factors listed above. But more factors could affect smartphones and not GPS watches.

  • The way you carry your phone, (phone placed in bags and pockets are less accurate)
  • The path of the runs (running in shorter paths are less accurate than long paths)
  • Multi-GNSS feature (phones that use multi-frequency receivers are more accurate)

(Related post: Do GPS Watches Work In The Woods And How Accurate Are They?)

4 Reasons Why Running With A GPS Watch Is Better Than A Smartphone

#1 It’s More Accurate

We’ve discussed why GPS watches are more accurate than a smartphone in detail above. If you care about the accuracy of the data you’re receiving, consider investing in a high-quality GPS watch.

#2 It’s Very Convenient

If you have a GPS watch, you never have to worry about where to put your phone when you run. You’ll also have quick access to your metrics in case you want to check them out in the middle of your run. Whereas you’d have to take your phone out, unlock it with your sweaty hands, and put it back whenever you want to check your pace on a phone.

#3 It’s More Durable

A GPS watch is made of high-quality and durable materials from frame to glass. It’s made to withstand a tough environment including rain or impact. Your smartphone may be of high quality but if you drop it on a rock or it falls off from your pocket while you’re sprinting, it’s almost guaranteed to get scratches or broken glass.

#4 It Tracks Your Vitals and Running Metrics

If you take your training seriously, you’ll have to gather more data than just distance, pace, and time to analyze your runs. Examples of these data are heart rate, VO2max, cadence, and stride length.

Unfortunately, your phone can’t gather these data without connecting to a heart rate sensor (chest strap) and a foot pod which adds 2 separate devices from your “to buy list”. Whereas you can simply strap your GPS watch and it will track these data for you.

The Only Disadvantage With GPS Watches

Needless to say, the only disadvantage with GPS watches is the added cost. A good GPS watch ranges from $200-$700 depending on the brand, quality, and extra features.

But also note that phones costs around $1000. If you break them during a run, you’ll have to spend more than the price of a GPS watch.

Should You Get A GPS Watch?

You don’t need a GPS watch to run. You can use an app (I recommend Strava) to track your distance pace and time if you’re just running to get the health benefits associated with daily exercise. But if you have goals like running a marathon or improving your 5k time, having a GPS watch will really help you with your training.

(Related post: Do Elite Runners Use Running Watches?)

My Recommended GPS Watch

If it’s your first time buying a watch and you want the highest quality possible for a fraction of the cost of a Garmin, I highly recommend the Coros Pace 2. It’s very light, durable, and has an impressive battery life (20 hours for regular use and 30 hours in full GPS).

It’s also very accurate and has lots of added features that are useful for a runner. For example, it tracks fatigue, alerts you if you’re overtraining, and gives an estimated time of recovery. It also has a strength and training mode that gives you over 200 pre-loaded exercises for strength. As of the time of writing, it only costs $200 on Amazon (prices may change without notice).

If you have a little extra money to spend and you want to be able to listen to music right from your watch without having to bring your phone with you, I recommend the Garmin Forerunner 745. It’s accurate, durable, and has decent battery life (7 days in regular mode, 6 hours in full GPS with music, and 16 hours in full GPS with music). It also has added features like a free program and body battery.

Plus, this thing is built with lots of extra features like cashless payments and phoneless music. In addition, the Garmin ecosystem is one of the best ecosystems for analyzing your training data. As of the time of writing, it costs $400 on Amazon (prices may change without notice)

If you like Garmin but don’t have the budget for one, I created a list of the best Garmin alternatives that aren’t pricey in a separate article. Check it out.

Nicho Mauricio

Running wasn't always my favorite sport. I was a CrossFit athlete and I loved every bit of it. But since the pandemic began, I was forced to stay away from the gym and train at home instead. Things got boring. That's when I decided to trail run with my friends. I instantly got hooked. So I started training and researching all things running. As a beginner, I want to buy only the best running gear and do only the best practices. This blog is where I share what I've learned in my journey and my experiences as a runner.

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