Review: Apple Watch for Runners

apple-watch-featured

There has been a ton of excitement for the Apple Watch. So much that I had to wait for two and a half weeks for my wife’s to arrive before I could test – they were sold out within minutes of being available for pre-order. So, with all the Sturm und Drang in the wearable industry, should Garmin and company be worried? Let’s find out.

I took the Apple Watch out for three runs. Each time, I wore another device to compare the results. I made it a point of taking my iPhone as well so I could have the most accurate tracking possible by giving the Apple Watch the GPS assistance.

My first run was an easy 2 miler and I also wore the Microsoft Band to get a GPS comparison. The results were as follows:

apple-watch-first-run

The Apple Watch results are on the left with the MS Band results on the right. There was a bit of a discrepancy with the time. I had some trouble getting the Apple watch started and then there is a countdown with the Workout App when you press Start. This would explain the time difference along with the pace difference – I was shuffling when trying to make sure I had the Apple watch recording. I also struggled a bit pausing it with similar results. I really should have learned to start testing things before hand, but it seems against my nature.

first-workoutLooking at the data overall though, they seemed to agree with the Heart Rate at least. The Microsoft Band had me at 164 with the Apple Watch coming in at 163. This too I have to verify in more runs because the Microsoft Band was not accurate on heart rate to start, but has vastly improved since I got a smaller size and applied updates.

After the first run, I got my first Achievement badge. This particular one was a Star. There is a full screen of achievements you can receive in the Activity app on the iPhone (note: the Activity App is hidden until you pair an Apple Watch, then it mysteriously is findable). As you collect achievements, the faded badges fill out. You can tap them to zoom in and see what you did to earn the award. It’s interesting and kind of fun. It definitely adds a little gamification to encourage activity.

Acheivements

For the rest of my workouts, I wore the Apple Watch and the Garmin 920XT with the HRM Run heart rate strap. Each watch was on an alternate wrist. For my first run, I ran for 60 minutes easy. Unfortunately, I was bitten by the battery life of the Apple Watch. I had charged it the night before and had over 30 percent when I started. But, it went into power saving mode after it recorded just shy of 4 miles. Sigh.

aborted-run-apple-watchFor my next run, I was set to do 30 minutes with Fartleks. I thought this would be a good test and a way to get some feedback on how the Heart Rate monitor functions. I also was running very different paces throughout and wanted to see how this would be reflected with the Apple Watch. The overall results are below. You can see where there starts to be some variances between the devices. The heart rate average looks really good. Overall, it is only two beats off of the Garmin with a heart rate strap. This is excellent. If there were going to be a large difference between devices, I feel this is the type of run that would do it because of the varied intensities in the workout. However, the pace was off by quite a bit. This was because the distance was off between the two devices. The Garmin had the distance at 4.22 miles versus 4.04 on the Apple Watch. This is troubling. I really would like to have as accurate of a distance as possible. I was running with my iPhone and had it at my waist inside of a FlipBelt – my preferred way to carry for shorter runs. It is possible that having the iPhone next to my waist caused me to partially block the GPS signal. This is unfortunate, because I absolutely don’t want to wear it on my arm.

fartleks-apple-watch

The other issue I have with the results are in the details. If you look at the data I captured from the Apple Watch, you learn only a few things – I ran over 30 minutes with an average pace of just over an 8 minute mile and an average heart rate of 173. Considering the type of workout, this is not helpful. Here are some of the stats that are captured by the Garmin 920XT and available on Garmin Connect:

garmin-screens

This is where things really fall apart when using the Apple Watch for runs. There is a lot of information about the workout. Here is a basic list of items that are missing.

  1. A map showing where I ran.
  2. How the laps broke down. This is especially important because it was a Fartlek workout and done in intervals.
  3. Elevation information.
  4. Cadence information – how many steps per minute did I average.
  5. Other running dynamics available on high-end modern Garmin watches including Vertical Oscillation, ground contact time, stride length.
  6. Graphs that detail the progress of the run. These show the effects pace and elevation against my heart rate.
  7. Other features that are available on high-end Garmin watches (some of these features are also on Polar and Suunto watches as well) include recovery time and VO2Max. Actually, the Microsoft Band also offers recovery time advise in both the Health App and online dashboard which also offers an estimated VO2Max.

 

Elliptical Workout Tracking

One thing that is a very welcome feature of the Apple Watch is the ability to track elliptical workouts. This is a feature that is not native to any Garmin watches I have tried. The best I have been able to do is set them as an indoor run and then change the type of workout. The Apple Watch on the other hand has Elliptical as a choosable workout type and does a nice job of giving you actual data on the workout. Sadly, it has no way to know what kind of resistance was set or the ramp, but it does at least track the basics with both a time and distance (getting distance is rarer than you would think) as shown below. Oddly, the distance is only shown in the Apple Health App shown on the right below, not the actual Activity App, which seems to be a strange oversight. Hopefully that will change in the future with firmware updates.

elliptical-activity

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about the Apple Watch. But sadly, not much of it has to do with tracking runs. It is a really well designed smart watch that is super comfortable and works seamlessly with an iPhone, but for anyone who is serious about training and tracking endurance sports workouts (run, bike, swim), it falls woefully short. weekly-activitySome of this may improve with updates to the built-in Apple apps, but they seem to be directed more at overall fitness. Third party apps seem to be unable to pick up the slack either because they are not accessing the built-in heart rate monitor. This limits them to only getting pace and distance from the phone since the Apple Watch does not have built-in GPS. If you want heart rate, you will need a bluetooth capable strap. And in that case, there is no benefit between the Apple Watch and a Pebble watch that can be purchased for less than $100.

On the other hand, if you are primarily focused on endurance sports tracking and just want basic notifications on your watch, Garmin, Polar and Suunto all have solutions that will do this. The Garmin VivoActive at $250 is an excellent starting point.

The Apple Watch is a nice watch with a ton of features, but the endurance athlete is not its focus. More the general consumer who wants to add a little activity to their lifestyle. It is very encouraging for wearers to fill up all the targets in the week with basic fitness and activity goals. But until there is a built-in GPS chip and more thorough application support, it is more for a dabbler than someone who is trying to train seriously for running or triathlete goals.

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Eric Hunley

RRCA Certified coach. Started to change lifestyle in 2012 when weight was up to 283 lbs. Eventually started running later that year and racing in 2013. Has run in dozens of races and has been featured in some podcasts. Full Bio on About Page.
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