I get tickled thinking about my first GPS watch: a Garmin so bulky I had to strap it to my bicep to keep it from slipping off. For a tiny-wristed high school runner, a little discomfort was a small price to pay for the thrill of knowing how fast I was running in (roughly) real time. I loved calling out my mile splits to my dad, who biked alongside me on longer runs, and comparing my paces from one week to the next.
Fast forward 15 years to today, and both my running and the GPS watch industry have come a long way. I now run professionally, specializing in the half and full marathon, and I can’t remember the last time I rolled in from a run with one sore, tan-lined bicep. The size is not the only thing that’s changed; there’re now a multitude of GPS options that cater to different sports, styles, preferences, and price points.
On the minimal end, you can find models that are hardly discernible from a basic sports watch, but track pace and distance, while glitzier models can track altitude, calories burned, floors climbed, heart rate variability, sleep states, blood oxygen saturation, and a whole lot more.
Although I’ve gone through several iterations since my original GPS behemoth, I was excited to give the Garmin Forerunner 945 (priced at $599.99) my first go for this review. After two weeks of running, walking, cross training, strength training, and resting—and spending nearly as much time poring over my data—here’s the impression it left.
There’s not much this watch can’t do • Battery life is great • Tons of useful features (maps • music • wallet • notifications) • Rivals a smartphone
Bulky for small wrists • Heart rate tracker isn’t super accurate • Can be overwhelming for new users • A splurge
The Garmin Forerunner 945 is an excellent choice for multisport athletes who take their sports seriously and love their metrics.
The setup is simple
For as much as the Forerunner 945 can do, the out-of-box setup is surprisingly easy. It comes partially charged, and getting started is a matter of downloading the Garmin Connect app, answering a few basic questions, and pairing it with the watch, all of which take less than 10 minutes.
The only part of the setup that’s not intuitive is customizing the data fields within a particular activity like running, which was my first priority. The pre-set displays were fine, but I wanted some metrics (such as distance, pace, and average pace) to be featured more prominently than others. YouTube did me right, as usual, and after just a few minutes of watching and tinkering, my running data fields were exactly how I like them.
There’s also the option of downloading entirely new watch faces and activity fields through a second app (Connect IQ Store), which the data junkies out there will surely love. Personally, though, I don’t want more apps than I absolutely need, and most of the customized options I looked at had too much going on for my taste anyways.
A strong battery life is perfect for runners
The Forerunner 945’s battery life is a big plus. According to Garmin, it lasts two weeks in smartwatch mode (without GPS or music), up to 36 hours with the GPS running, and up to 10 hours in GPS mode with music. While I can’t verify those numbers exactly, I can say that the watch kept a charge well and never drained on me unexpectedly. The fact that I can run over 300 miles with the GPS on before having to recharge is a luxury—especially on those extra forgetful days.
The fact that I can run over 300 miles with the GPS on before having to recharge is a luxury.
It’s sleek, but not designed for small wrists
By any measure, the Forerunner 945 is a good-looking watch—about as stylish a sports watch as they come, in my opinion. But it does take up a lot of real estate on my wrist. It’s not nearly as heavy as it looks, but it requires a very tight strap in order to stay put. For easy runs, the size isn’t an issue, but for hard workouts (like mile repeats or track intervals) it’s more cumbersome. It’s even less comfortable to sleep in, and I often found myself loosening it in the night, despite knowing that doing so would likely skew my sleep metrics.
Unsurprisingly, the watch was a much better fit on my (foot-taller-than-me) husband—a fact that he was more than happy to remind me of throughout the testing period. The size alone wouldn’t prevent me from using it, but it’s clear that this model was not designed with a petite female in mind.
But, the biggest benefit of a larger watch is a larger screen. The Forerunner 945 can (and does) cram a lot of information in its 1.2-inch-diameter full-color display screen. The generous display makes it easy to keep an eye on various metrics even while moving quickly, which is a big asset to speed seekers like me.
The heart rate monitor wasn’t accurate
Another drawback of having a small wrist but a bulky watch relates to heart rate tracking while exercising. Even though I kept the strap snug enough to leave marks on my wrist, my heart rate readings were simply inaccurate. I reportedly got up over 190 beats per minute on easy runs, which is not only improbable at a conversational pace for anyone, but which would also top any max heart rate I’ve ever demonstrated in a lab.
Fortunately, this problem is an easy (but not free) fix: buy a chest strap heart rate monitor, which connects to the watch and app, comes in different sizes, and is objectively more accurate than any wrist-based sensor. Pricing starts at $69.99 for this.
The good news is that my heart rate, as measured by the watch, seemed much more accurate when I was walking, puttering around the house, and lounging. It’s just the moderately intense activities and beyond—plus sleep, when the strap is too loose—that can’t be trusted.
Running tracking is great on land, but not reliable on a treadmill
By far, the feature I care most about in a GPS watch is how well it tracks my runs on land. In that category, the Forerunner 945 is a star. It picks up a GPS signal almost instantly, spits out real-time and average paces that seem spot on, updates me on elevation changes, and concludes every run with a handy little map of the just-completed route. Whether I’m on trail, road, hills, or flats, I have no complaints when it comes to the Forerunner 945’s land run tracking.
I can’t say the same for the tracking treadmill mode. To be fair, I don’t know what the purpose of wearing a GPS watch on a treadmill is, and I’d never done so until I saw that it was an option on this watch. But since I do a fair amount of treadmill running—especially in the winter months here in Boulder, Colorado—I figured I’d give it a shot. After a few attempts, I was already over it: the watch consistently tracked my mile pace between 10 seconds and 2 minutes slower than I was actually running (per the treadmill display and my own pace awareness), and is not an experience I’ll likely force in the future.
It’s a beast when it comes to extra features — you can track skiing and paddle boarding, and more
Exercise fiends, listen up: the Forerunner 945 offers tracking for a bevy of activities that includes the usuals—running, walking, hiking, strength training, biking, swimming, and cardio—along with more nuanced options like triathlon, trail running, open water swimming, kayaking, bouldering, and yoga. There are four different skiing modes (plus snowboarding), as well as standup paddle boarding (SUP) and breathwork modes. For the even more obscure activities that didn’t make the cut—parkour and ping-pong?—you can always choose “other” and log your activity while getting some basic feedback.
Those options are nice to have, and I messed around with several just for fun. But beyond running, my bread and butter, the three modes I toggled through most over the two-week testing period were: strength training, elliptical, and walking. Although I didn’t find the watch to be super accurate in terms of its rep counting, the strength training mode was handy for keeping track of my recovery between sets.
The elliptical mode was a nice option for my cross-training sessions that would have been more useful with a chest strap heart rate monitor. And the walking mode, while not exactly necessary, was a fun addition to our dog-walking routine. We now know exactly how far and undulating our various neighborhood loops are, as well as the average pace of our 12-pound chihuahua Tina. (If any pet activity trackers need a tester, hit her up!)
There are a lot of features, but these were my favorite
The Forerunner 945 has way too many features to cover individually. Here are some of the heavy-hitters:
Weather: As someone who spends a good chunk of my days outdoors, I appreciate how clear yet comprehensive the weather feature is. I got in the habit of checking the “feels like” temperature and wind speed and direction before runs, and always felt prepared for elements.
Music: Although I never listen to music when I run outside, I always listen to a playlist or a podcast while cranking out miles on our basement treadmill. Getting my music situation set up on the watch was admittedly brutal. But once I finally (and begrudgingly) downloaded yet another app—Garmin Express for Mac—I was able to transfer music from my personal library on my computer to my watch. Now that I’ve done it, I dig controlling music from my watch rather than my phone, and would likely swap out songs and playlists every couple of weeks.You can also stream from Spotify or Deezer or download playlists from their services if you’re a premium subscriber.
The battery life is great, the activity tracking is as smooth and accurate as I’ve encountered, and—after the initial setup and customization—the whole experience is smooth and pleasant.
Maps: The maps feature was perhaps my most pleasant surprise with this watch. Even though I don’t often stray from my go-to roads and trails, Boulder has endless options, which the clear and detailed map field would definitely help me explore. Hikers, ultrarunners, and individuals with questionable internal compasses (like me) will be all about it.
Wallet: If you’re the type to end a run at a café, or stop for a mid-ride latte, you’ll love being able to make purchases straight from your watch and leave your wallet at home. I personally wouldn’t get much use out of the wallet feature, but it would be nice to have for one-off occasions and emergencies.
Fitness and recovery estimates: At the risk of sounding cynical, I have yet to encounter a smartwatch that’s even close to accurate in its prediction of my VO₂ max, race time predictor, recovery timeline, or anything else that purports to know my current state of fitness. The Forerunner 945 is no exception. Whether the “body battery” or “5K estimate,” my best advice is for users is to take that type of metric with a grain of salt. They can be fun ways of tracking progress over time, but are far less useful for actually gauging fitness levels and race readiness.
Sleep tracking: Similarly, wrist-based sleep trackers are notoriously inaccurate—especially for small-wristed, restless sleepers like me. Looking at the previous night’s data is interesting, and could certainly be useful in a comparative sense once I have many more data points. But in truth, I probably would not sleep with the Forerunner 945 on unless I needed it for an alarm.
Notifications: I don’t do well when I’m plugged in all day every day, so I didn’t take advantage of the feature that would have notified me of texts and calls on my watch. But I can see how such notifications would be a necessity for parents, on-call individuals, and other people who need to be available at a moment’s notice.
Is the Garmin Forerunner 945 worth it?
Despite the apparent nit-picking above, the Garmin Forerunner 945 is a super popular watch for a reason. It caters to just about every type of active person (with $600 to drop) and measures nearly everything an athlete could reasonably want. The battery life is great, the activity tracking is as smooth and accurate as I’ve encountered, and—after the initial setup and customization—the whole experience is smooth and pleasant.
There are plenty of details I would have tweaked or eliminated, if it were up to me: all of the fitness projections, the three separate apps I had to download, and—the kicker—the sheer size of the watch (which also has ramifications on heart rate and sleep tracking). But when I think about it, my biggest complaint is like the critique version of a humble-brag: the Forerunner 945 can do so many things, most of them pretty well, that it can create an overwhelming experience for first-time users and those who are not especially tech savvy. The good news is that, once you’ve invested a good chunk time on the frontend to get your watch in a good place, you can do as much or as little ongoing fiddling as you want.
If I had to pin down the perfect Garmin Forerunner 945 wearer, here it is: You’re a medium-to large-wristed multisport athlete, whether a professional or a passionate plodder, who takes your activities seriously and loves geeking out over all possible metrics.