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Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: The best budget running watch

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
180

Beginner runners and bargain hunters need look no further than this impressively full-featured watch

Pros 
Accurate GPS and heart-rate tracking
Garmin Coach compatibility
Supports ANT+ sensors
Cons 
No swim tracking
Lacks music playback and NFC
Doesn't support Bluetooth sensors
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The Garmin Forerunner 45 is by far the best budget running watch you can buy today, offering an appealing design and a raft of excellent features. Those include GPS tracking, a heart-rate monitor, and, perhaps most impressively, the ability to follow structured workouts or even entire training plans from your wrist.

With that in mind, you hardly need to go any further if you’re looking for help choosing your first GPS running watch. However, if you want to get into the nuts and bolts, to justify splashing out, read on. If you’re serious about improving your performance, it might just be the best £180 you’ve ever spent.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: What you need to know

The Forerunner 45 is the successor to the excellent Garmin Forerunner 35, which is still available as an even cheaper option in Garmin's range. Compared to the Forerunner 35, the main differences are the new round design and colour screen, plus several upgrades to the sports and activity tracking. The most significant of these is the addition of Garmin Coach, a feature that creates tailored training plans for you and lets you follow guided workouts from your wrist.

The Forerunner 45 also comes in two sizes, the 45 and the 45S, which have 42mm and 39mm cases, respectively. The two watches are otherwise identical, offering the same screen size, features and battery life for the same price.

Although it delivers emphatically in terms of sports features, the Forerunner 45 does lack the smarts that you can find on some wearables under £200 including music playback and contactless payments.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: Price and competition

The Forerunner 45 launched at £170, and has dropped now to £140. That's important because at that price it's unrivalled in the quality and range of features it offers.

You can pick up the Coros Pace for £180, for instance, which is a full-featured triathlon watch with 25 hours of GPS battery life. There’s also the £170 Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR, which might be getting a bit long in the tooth but has navigation features as well as multisport tracking.

And if you're not a keen runner, you'll find plenty of wearables in the £150-£200 range that outclass the Forerunner 45 in terms of smart features. The Ticwatch E2 (£146), for example, offers both music storage and NFC for contactless payments.

Finally, there's also the Forerunner 35 to consider. It's usually available for around £100 now its successor has been launched. The hardware and software upgrades on the 45 are impressive, but if you just want a cheap, reliable running watch the 35 still fits the bill admirably.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: Design and features

When it comes to design, the Forerunner 45 is a major improvement on the boxy 35. The new, round casing not only looks better but it's incredibly lightweight (36g for the 45, 32g for the 45S) and 2mm slimmer than the 35 (11.4mm vs 13.4mm), which makes a big difference to how it feels on the wrist.

The 45 also now has five buttons instead of four, which makes navigating menus and data screens while on the run much easier than before. Its display is also much improved, with the Forerunner 45 boasting a 26.3mm, 208 x 208 colour screen, compared to the 23.5mm, 128 x 128 monochrome panel on the 35. It won’t be mistaken for an Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa, but the Forerunner 45's screen is always easy to read, even in bright sunlight.

Along with Garmin's Elevate optical heart rate monitor, the Forerunner 45 contains an accelerometer, and you can link it to externals sensors like footpods, chest strap heart rate monitors and cycling speed/cadence meters via ANT+. You can't link running or cycling power meters to the watch, though, and it won’t connect to Bluetooth sensors.

The silicone strap on the watch comes in four colours, two for the 45 and two for the 45S. Should you regret your decision after buying your watch you can buy the other colour and swap the band, but this is a fiddly process that involves screws and is nothing like as easy as swapping bands on the Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa.

When it comes to features, almost all of the 45's star attractions are related to run tracking, which I'll come to in more detail below, but it does have one other new feature worth flagging, which is the ability to raise the alarm if you're involved in an incident while running or cycling. You can choose up to three contacts to alert via both text and email if the watch detects that you've fallen, or you can trigger an alert yourself by holding down the backlight button. It's a great feature that's worth setting up straight away. Hopefully, then you can forget about for good because you never have to use it.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: Running features and performance

Garmin has a pretty simple formula for updating the watches in its Forerunner line-up, which is to take the features from the more expensive watches in the previous generation and shift them down a notch or two. Thus the Forerunner 45 more or less has the feature set of the Forerunner 235, Garmin's popular mid-range watch which has recently been succeeded itself by the Forerunner 245.

That means top-notch run tracking and, crucially, the ability to create and follow structured workouts on your wrist, something that you don't get with any other budget sports watches. That's useful for any runner and more experienced athletes will also enjoy creating complex workouts based on distance, heart rate and pace, with the Forerunner 45 helping to keep them on track. However, where it really comes into its own is with the 45's compatibility with Garmin Coach.

This is a new feature in Garmin Connect that generates training plans for events ranging from a 5K to a half marathon, tailoring them to your fitness level, race date and overall goal. Crucially, it beams them over to the Forerunner 45 so it will remind you what workout you have to do that day, and guide you through the run by notifying you when to change your pace, finish your warm up, or hit whatever target you're aiming for.

It's a brilliant way for beginners, in particular, to get access to an effective training plan. It's simple to set up and use and the workouts are designed by coaches to give you the best chance of success in your event. Some of the workouts focus purely on time, others work on things like your running cadence. There are even workouts where you do drills to improve your running technique and these have practical video demonstration in the Garmin Connect app.

My only real criticism is that it doesn't have as much variety as I’d like in the training plans on offer so far, so more advanced runners and marathoners might not find a plan that’s right for them. I’d expect more plans to arrive in time, however.

Beyond Garmin Coach, the Forerunner 45 does everything you'd expect from a good running watch and does it exceptionally well. The screen can show up to three data fields at a time, and I found both distance and heart-rate tracking to be impressively accurate.

The latter was particularly good, rarely differing by more than a couple of beats per minute compared to a chest strap. In fact, it even proved more accurate than the £600 Garmin Fenix 5 Plus, which could be because the slight frame of the Forerunner 45S sits more snugly against my forearm. The 45 also uses your heart-rate data to estimate your VO2 max at the end of a workout, which is a great indicator of your general cardiovascular fitness.

Compared with more expensive running watches, then, the Forerunner 45 is only really missing advanced features that many runners would consider frills. It doesn't have breadcrumb navigation, training load analysis or a large screen that can display more stats, for example. It also won't show details on your running technique beyond cadence even if you have a footpod capable of recording such data.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: Activity and other sports tracking

When it comes to other sports tracking modes, I have only one major complaint; although it’s fully waterproof and safe to take with you into the water, you can't track swims with Forerunner 45. That's one new feature I was hoping to see compared to the Forerunner 35, and if you’re a keen swimmer you’ll need to opt for the Vivoactive 3 or a fitness-orientated smartwatch such as the Fitbit Versa.

There are some other sports modes on the 45, though, including cycling, general cardio and yoga, and you can select up to six to have on the watch at any one time. You can also create cycling and cardio workouts and send them to the 45, though Garmin Coach currently only works for running.

Garmin has expanded the everyday activity tracking on the 45 compared with its predecessor, too, adding Body Battery, which shows a simple score of between 1 and 100 to estimate how much energy you have. This number is based on a number of factors including your activity levels, sleep and all-day stress, the latter of which is measured using heart-rate variability.

All the standard metrics are also present including steps, floors climbed, active minutes and calories, and you can set your step target to adjust automatically in line with recent activity levels so you have a target that's challenging but not completely unrealistic.

Your sleep is also tracked automatically by the Forerunner 45, but not particularly well in my experience. I've found that all Garmin watches mark you down as in light sleep when you're awake but not moving much. So if you head to bed to read or watch TV, your sleep time will be inflated. And if you, like me, are up attending to a newborn regularly in the night, you'll find Garmin's optimistic view of your night's rest somewhat annoying the next morning.

The Forerunner 45 is will also record your heart rate continuously to provide an estimate of your resting heart rate. It's so light and slim that it's comfortable to wear 24/7, too. As for battery life, I found the Forerunner 45 lasts about four or five days between charges when training every day, and a week if you’re training every other day. Garmin rates it at 13 hours of GPS, which is more than enough for one activity unless you're an ultra-marathoner or Ironman triathlete, in which case you probably want a more advanced watch anyway.

Garmin Forerunner 45/45S review: Verdict

It lacks a little in the way of smart features – there’s no NFC or music playback – but with the Forerunner 45 Garmin has resoundingly delivered at the things it does better than anyone else, namely sports tracking.

Bar the omission of a swimming mode, the Forerunner 45 offers everything you could want in an entry-level sports watch, and in a package that looks and feels great on the wrist. In short, there's no better budget GPS watch available, especially for new runners, and many experienced runners will be satisfied by it, too.

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