After having scoured the internet for an updated review of the Apple Watch (specific to runners) and coming up empty-handed, I decided it was time for my own. My goal is to create the ultimate insight for any runner currently looking at buying an Apple Watch for their training, meaning this will be one of the most in-depth reviews I ever write, so strap on your seatbelt and grab some popcorn!
To give a little bit of background:
- I have owned the Apple Watch Sport Edition 42mm since its release in April 2015.
- As a long-time Apple fan, I know my way around their products and may have a slight bias. However, there are plenty of pros and cons to this watch for runners and I lay out a fair fight. Read on if you do not believe me.
- I have not owned any other running-specific watch, however, I have done plenty of research, Natalie has owned one, and know what is out there. Being around runners and fitness enthusiasts has allowed me to interact with some offered as well.
- All of this information is being reviewed based on WatchOS 2 software.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s get on with the review! If you have any questions or feel that I have missed any major points, be sure to leave a comment. I will get back to you specifically and update the blog post to reflect any changed information.
~ Overview ~
The review will be divided into the following sections:
- General Use and Aesthetics
- Running Use
- Daily Activity Tracking
- Move Ring
- Exercise Ring
- Stand Ring
- Activity Modes
- Outdoor Run
- Indoor Run
- Indoor Cycling
- Third-Party Fitness Apps
- Final Pros and Cons
- Battery Life
General Use and Aesthetics
As a watch, it does exactly what it needs to: tell the time. There are roughly fifteen different customizable watch faces on the device, ranging from completely formal to playfully creative. Although Apple did allow custom ‘complications’ (information bits that appear on the home screen such as current temperature or flight arrival time) from developers to be added in WatchOS 2, there still isn’t much customization of the provided watch faces. I use the modular design because it has the most data allowed on the watch face but if you are someone that simply wants the time to be displayed, you are in luck – there are plenty of options! That being said, if you are used to a typical watch that you can read at nearly any time without having to flick your wrist sometimes, the Apple Watch may take a few days to get used to when the accelerometer inside does not sense your first attempt at raising your wrist to glimpse at the current time.
Battery life is acceptable at best. I would have liked to have seen a multi-day battery in this watch, however you will find that it must always be charged on a nightly basis (especially if you take it running with you during the day). Although I have not ran with it longer than two hours, I will say that the battery during those runs usually drains from 100% to 65% with GPS/bluetooth connectivity to my iPhone 6S Plus. Theoretically with these numbers, you should be able to easily get a four to five hour run in before the watch’s battery is completely drained. Apple claims that they got over six hours of workout time but does not specify whether they were using GPS or just the heart rate sensor. The watch charges in 90 minutes to 80% and 150 minutes to 100% and from experience I can say that this comes in handy when you have forgotten to charge your watch and night and need some quick juice right before a workout. In general, if going on a run that will last around an hour, I do not leave with less than 40% charge for good measure.
Though Apple does not tout this to be an invincible watch, it is definitely tougher than I would have expected. If you want a really classy watch, go for something higher end like the stainless steel or gold version. However, if you are a runner (which I assume you are considering you are going through this review) you will want to buy the Sport Edition. I have been wearing mine on a daily basis since the day that I received it in the mail and have gotten no scratches around the aluminum or really any signs of wear there at all. On the screen, I have a Zagg InvisibleShield HD, which I put on as soon as I got the device as I knew that the screen could be scratched on this model. Although it was a pain to get on, it has served me well and has not needed a replacement yet. When placing your watch on the counter to take a shower or any other time that it must come off of your wrist, be careful that the optical sensor on the back does not slide or rest on anything rough. My sensor has gotten a few minor scuffs this way and the last thing I want is an inaccurate heart rate reader.
As far as water-proofing goes, Apple states that their watch is IPX7 water resistant but not water-proof. Because of this, I do not wear it in the shower or pool to swim with. However, even the heaviest of rains have not stopped me from wearing it on my runs. It seems to do perfectly fine and I really have not noticed any kind of performance hinderances when it gets wet. There have actually been quite a few tests showing the resilience of the Apple Watch underwater and while swimming but I cannot recommend this unless you do have the extra money to spend on a replacement. Some note that Apple may have tacked on that rating because of the fact that the screen really does not work well under water or when really sweaty…more on that later!
You would be hard-pressed to find a fitness watch with a design like this one. Apple prides itself in being at the forefront of the technology and design world when it comes to smooth edges and refined finishes. Whether you are speaking of the Garmin FR 920XT, Suunto Ambit3, or something as simple as the Fitbit Surge, the Apple Watch has them all beat by a mile when it comes to looks of the device. Sure, some of the higher-end competitors might have all day tracking and other features similar to the Apple Watch, but wear your clunky blue and black Garmin to a business meeting and it will stick out like a sore thumb underneath the cuff of your thousand dollar Armani suit.
The bands in particular run anywhere from $49 to a few thousand depending on how fancy you wish to get. I have been wearing the same lime green band that I ordered with my watch since April (every single day) and it really hasn’t shown much wear and tear. Being a student, I haven’t felt the need to invest in a more expensive leather band, although I have tried one on and it is extremely comfy. Although the $150 price tag might be a little bit high for some, if you are willing to potentially sacrifice the name brand and some quality, there are other options for leather watch bands that can accompany you to your next formal event for a fraction of the cost. Furthermore, it takes only a few seconds to swap out the bands so if you go to a meeting and then immediately need to slip into your short-shorts for a run, you can easily swap bands in a matter of a few moves. Needless to say, almost no fitness watch is as customizable and versatile aesthetically as the Apple Watch.
After having worn this watch for nearly every day the past eight months and counting, I can tell you that you forget it is even on your wrist…in a good way! The comfort of the band is phenomenal, even while sweating in it. I’ve tried on third-party bands and even caved and bought myself a cheap clasp and none of them compare to the quality of the Apple Sport Band that I currently own. I would not recommend running in a leather band or another type of fancy clasp, but the Sport Band should have all of your running needs covered.
The watch itself is fairly easy to navigate. Getting set up for your run is as simple as pressing in the digital crown on the upper right side of the watch and then tapping on the Activity app, the one matching the color of my band with a person running on the icon. There are a few different modes here but I will talk about each of them a little more in-depth later on in this review. Tapping one of those puts you right into a start menu and once that button is tapped you are off to the races! Well…almost – you need to have your phone for the most accurate results.
Daily Activity Tracking
Not only is the Apple Watch great at tracking your runs and monitoring your stats for the most intense portion of your day, it also continuously monitors your relative activity during the time outside of intense workouts as well. Being a very goal-driven person, I quickly found myself fighting to fill all of the rings on the device. Gaining achievements like most calories burned in a day, doubling your move goal, most steps in a day, and more are all examples of motivation that the activity app provides. Hopefully in the future Apple will add more awards and maybe even a way to compete against friends that also own an Apple Watch.
The move ring is really a metric for how many calories you have burned during the current day. Out of all three rings, this is the only one that can be changed (you can do this by force-touching on the watch screen in the activity app and choosing “Change Move Goal”). It also seems like it is the easiest one to fill, depending on how high yours is set. I have set mine to 600 calories because it really bugs me on rest days if I cannot possibly hit a higher goal but I usually have no problem hitting it as long as I exercise. It would be really nice to be able to set a custom move goal for certain days of the week automatically based on training schedule but I doubt we will be seeing that feature any time soon.
The exercise ring is a metric of how many minutes you have spent exercising during the day. Since this seems to be a very complicated metric for some to wrap their heads around, Apple defines this specifically as anything at or faster than the pace of a brisk walk. Sometimes just walking to class in the morning will make the exercise minutes rise on my watch and sometimes I can go all day and not get a single minute until I start the running activity tracker. It seems a little bit inconsistent but I think the general premise is that as long as you are doing some kind of exercise for 30 minutes that requires an activity on your watch to be active, you will fill this ring. I have even selected the “Other” activity option on the workout screen and did jumping jacks for a few minutes and it counted that as exercise as well.
As crazy as it might sound, this is actually the hardest ring to fill out of all three. Sitting in classes or at my desk doing course work and studying, I often get wrapped up in what is in front of me and forget to stand up. Although the Apple Watch does send you notifications to stand each hour (this can be turned off), sometimes they do not get my attention or they occasionally do not come at all. I often find myself standing up hour by hour late in the night just to hopefully fill this ring. Sometimes the watch will also not pick up the fact that you have been standing, which can lead to even more frustration when you find out that you cannot possibly hit your stand goal for the day. In essence though, it does get you out of your chair and walking around to do something so it does have a good purpose in the end.
In terms of versatility, the Apple Watch is not meant to be a triathlon watch or a swimming watch so those sport profiles do not exist in the workout app (for good reasons). However, compared to most watches, having the option of ten different workout choices stays fairly well within the average. Some watches are only meant for running and outdoor activities and in this case the Apple Watch has those beat.
As far as heart rate goes, the optical heart rate sensor has proven to be fairly accurate. While a lot of factors determine how well heart rate is picked up via an optical sensor including temperature outside (veins will be farther down inside your arm) to how well the band and watch are affixed to you. Generally, if you are training with heart rate zones specifically as a casual to mid-level runner, you should be fine relying on Apple’s heart rate sensor. However, if you are a high-level runner whose heart rate is extremely important to zone training and you need data points for heart rate throughout your run, you should utilize a chest strap as well. Chest straps can also be connected to the Apple Watch via bluetooth and display as the heart rate on the screen.
Being a runner, the outdoor run option in the workout app seems to be my most used mode. It can display three different metrics on the screen at a time in different locations. Having the numbers large and in different colors makes it easy to glance at and read at any time during your run and I do appreciate the layout that Apple gave all of their workout screens. It might be nice to have an option for another metric on the screen but honestly that might make it too crowded and until they have more metrics I do not think it is much of an issue. Apple gives you the option to select current pace or average pace to display on the workout screen, however, there is no option for a current mile split or any way to do easy lap times (that I have found so far). That said, as a distance runner, most of the featured metrics work really well for what I need.
After selecting the outdoor run option, you are greeted with a goal screen in which you can select from an active calorie goal, time goal, distance goal, or open workout. Each of these will have a percentage of completion displayed and you will be able to track how close you are to your goal during your workout. I have utilized almost all of these goal metric options before and they work really well for keeping track of how close you are to completing your workout. Next, the only step left is to tap the start button and after a three second countdown timer, you are off!
I will take this brief moment to talk about one of the biggest gripes I have with the watch. Keep in mind that this is a software issue and nothing that should hold you back from getting the watch if you are thinking about buying it! I sweat a lot on my runs, it is just how my body reacts to working out. When I get back to my starting point or wherever I want to stop my run, I prepare by force touching the screen of the Apple Watch and then hitting the end button. However, about 25% of the time, this takes more than one try because my hands and the watch face are sweaty. The watch does not recognize my finger is touching the screen because of all of the liquid and I spend valuable pace time attempting to stop my run. Although it might seem like a small problem, it does get annoying after you spend over half a minute trying to get it to work. And if you are in the middle of your workout and need to pause the session, get ready to experience a very similar predicament. I wish Apple would make some combination of button taps bring up the end/pause screen in the workout app (like triple-tapping the digital crown) so that the workout could be ended or paused with ease.
When you have finished a workout, you are greeted with a summary page that gives you average metrics and general data from your run. It is really nice to be able to see all of this right on the device as soon as the workout is completed. At the bottom of the summary page there are save and discard buttons so that you can retain your hard work. Do not worry, if you forget to hit the save button afterward, it will be auto-saved when you exit the workout app on your watch. During your runs, if you do not wish to be disturbed by notifications that cover up your metrics, be sure you turn on the do not disturb option by swiping up from the bottom of the Apple Watch and tapping the moon button.
Just a quick note: if you want accurate results, you will need to take your phone for GPS! At first, I thought this was going to be a hassle because I own such a large iPhone but it turns out that with my Belkin armband there really is not much of an issue. Just something to think about as a lot of running watches have GPS on-board.
The indoor run option in the workout app has been very interesting. To utilize this option, you will have to do a 20 or 30 minute run outdoors with your phone first so that Apple can utilize the GPS and get a sense of how long your stride is. For whatever reason, every time I am on the treadmill with the watch, it consistently has me about a quarter of a mile farther than the treadmill does. Natalie’s old watch (Polar M400) did not track indoors and her Apple Watch is also off indoors on the treadmill in the opposite direction (lower than the treadmill mileage). I have reset the watch before and tried multiple options for evening them out but I have just come to the conclusion that running outdoors is better. However, if you are only interested in your total time and heart rate, there are definitely some benefits to running on the treadmill with the Apple Watch. So what if you run an extra quarter mile that you did not plan on, it provides more benefit than you might think! I recommend keeping an eye on it for the first few times you utilize it indoors so that you know how much it generally is off by compared to the treadmill and adjust your distance accordingly.
Unfortunately, I do not have a bike to ride for any cross training, so any cycling must be done on a stationary bike at the gym. Of course, speed and distance are not recorded since the watch only has the capacity to record heart rate and total time while indoors on a bike. However, it is a nice metric for hitting a calorie goal on your cross training days. After calculating calorie burn on a few different sites from around the web, it seems that the general results from the watch seem to match up pretty well with what I should be burning under the same intensity outdoors.
The summary page on the indoor cycling workout is very similar to the others in that it instantly displays an average for the metrics that it gained during the workout (which is much less than the GPS-enabled outdoor running or what I suspect outdoor-cycling might be like). I will dream about owning a good road bike one day and being able to do my cross training there, but until that day you can find me on the pedals to nowhere!
Although I have not utilized the Apple Watch for much exercise-wise outside of running or my cycling for cross training days, the other activity function has come in handy. Choices for exercise that have not been listed above include: outdoor walk, indoor walk, elliptical, outdoor cycle, rower, and stair stepper. If you are not much of a cardio-junkie, you will probably want to steer away from this watch as it mostly focuses on heart rate data to calculate calories burned during exercise. That being said, I have utilized it multiple times when doing extra strength and conditioning including core workout routines and it does work. However, not knowing how much I typically burn or where my heart rate sits when doing planks, crunches, or jumping jacks, I cannot say much for the accuracy of the results.
One final note: the Apple Watch is not able to connect via bluetooth or analog to any exercise equipment, meaning that your heart rate will not be displayed on the machine unless you have a heart rate monitor that does do this. The technology certainly is not new nor does it work all of the time, however, it would have been nice to have this on the Apple Watch to display on the treadmill instead of raising my wrist all of the time to look at my current beats per minute.
Third-Party Fitness Apps
Installing applications on the Apple Watch is incredibly easy. Once you have an app on your phone that has a watch companion app, you can open up the Apple Watch app that comes on your phone and scroll down until you see the app you wish to install. After tapping on it, an option to “Show App on Apple Watch” should show up and turning this switch to the on position will provoke it to install. For whatever reason, the install process takes quite a while sometimes and has failed on me before in the past. Be patient with it, the app will get on your watch eventually! Your phone and watch do have to be paired and within range for this installation process to take place as well.
As of WatchOS 2, Apple has allowed developers to create apps that run natively on the watch, however, many apps have not been updated with that functionality as of yet. This makes for terrible loading times and slow responsiveness. Luckily, with the sales of the Apple Watch doing well right now, most of the apps should be updated fairly quickly to support this method of delivering content so loading times should improve soon!
Note that the reviews of the apps below were posted based on the same day that this review was posted and though they may have been updated by now, this review is covering their current status and functions at the time of publication.
For being one of my all-time favorite apps on the iPhone, Strava’s Apple Watch app is completely abysmal. The entire app is contained on two screens, one for starting the workout and one for bare-minimum metrics. A foot shows once the app is loaded (or a bike if you force touch and switch the sport) on which you are supposed to tap when ready to start your workout. The successive screen shows a total time, total distance, and pace metric layout. Unfortunately, unlike Apple’s interface on their workout app, all of the metrics are the same color and labeling is almost impossible to see. It seems there is a lot of unused space on the screen. One of the most disappointing issues is that it does not record heart rate data at this time, something that many users like myself would love to see added.
Stopping the workout works the same way, with a force touch, as it does in Apple’s workout app. After multiple attempts to get the app to work, I gave up on using the watch version. It would not utilize the phone’s GPS correctly, failed to load the app twice (stuck at the ellipsis point scrolling), and generally did not impress me with the lack of features. The app also did not seem to want to stay open when utilizing it for a workout – I continuously had to go back into the app on my watch screen. Hopefully Strava is reading this can provide some fixes for these issues, I absolutely love the iPhone app but cannot share the same enthusiasm for the watch app at this time.
Not every runner counts calories or monitors macronutrients, but they should have a general idea of what they are putting in their body as fuel and the quality of those foods. Since I attempt to stay within reasonable weight levels (especially when I wanted to drop a few pounds right after I began running in the spring), I utilize MyFitnessPal on a daily basis for tracking caloric intake.
The Apple Watch app is simply a watered-down version for displaying current stats and numbers throughout the day. On the first screen, much like Apple’s tradition of including circular progress on the watch, you will find a calorie meter that tells you how many calories you have consumed and how many you have left at any given point during the day. The second screen (or tab, if you like) shows all of the nutrients that you have consumed and have remaining for the day. As you will be able to tell from the picture below, the inconsistency in how the data is presented can be a little bit confusing for users and aesthetically looks a little weird. The final screen is a metric for steps. It seems that the MyFitnessPal app draws this data from Apple and then the Apple Watch app reads it back from the phone app. For whatever reason, below my step counter you will see a 0 mi indication that did not seem to change at all today while reviewing the app. There are no force touch capabilities and while I find it just as easy to open up the app on my phone to view calories and nutrients consumed, those who really want the ability to look at their values without getting their phone out of their pocket will probably find this app useful. In the future, it would be great to see a quick add for common foods from a scrolling list.
Other Fitness Apps
Although I have only briefed over two, there are a plethora of apps out there on the App Store for you to download and try for your own running experiences. MapMyRun, Nike+ Running, and countless other tracking or nutrition apps are floating around but I have not used any of them enough to really provide a good review. Possibly in another app-central runner’s review in the future.
Final Pros and Cons
- Looks: no other running watch that I am aware of looks this good. You can swap the band and wear it with anything from your favorite jogging sweats to a tuxedo. Apple really hits the mark on the design factor and I could not be happier with this aspect of the watch.
- Value: for a running watch with an optical heart rate sensor, $350-$400 is on the upper end of the spectrum. However, it is not hard to find other watches that do the same things. The value here is added on by the fact that it is an Apple product and everything else you can do with the watch that most running watches cannot do. At the end of the day, I do think the other features of the watch and apps (when added to the activity tracking capabilities) makes the Apple Watch well worth the price tag.
- Durability: the aluminum on the Sport Edition seems to be very study, the screen will scratch without a screen protector but I have one and mine has been fine, and the optical sensor can be scuffed if you are not careful. But overall, the Apple Watch has proven to be extremely durable as well as the Sport Band that I got with it.
- Motivation: the Apple Watch does an excellent job of motivating through the built-in activity rings and awards. Although other running watches are beginning to add these features, I do think Apple has executed it just about as well as one can.
- Apps: there are an immense number of iPhone apps on the App Store and quite a few of the most popular ones now have Apple Watch companion apps as well. No other running watch or watch in general has this expansive amount of third-party software. If you are not able to find a feature you would like to have on Apple’s own software, chances are you can just explore and find an app to do it for you!
- Battery life: not having the ability to monitor sleep patterns, the need to remember to charge daily, and the fact that this watch will only be able to track for around five hours may turn some to other fitness watches. However, it is not a huge con as I have managed to remember to charge it on most occasions.
- No GPS: many runners are looking for a watch that has a GPS on-board and the Apple Watch is missing that functionality. On the bright side, with the recent push for taking phones with you on runs for safety, this may not be a huge issue.
- Lacking data metrics: so many running watches give users the ability to see cadence, heart rate along their route, stride length, a map of the run, and more. Sure, you can download a couple of apps that might give you some of this data but it should really be built into the native software.
The Apple Watch is incredible. It has done amazing things for my health and fitness over the last few months. The sheer functionality of this watch outside of running (considering you have just read this entire article and it was only about a fraction of the features) are so numerous that I doubt anyone will come out with something comparable in the near future. If you are thinking about adding this to your Christmas wish list as a runner and the cons that I have listed above do not phase you, I would definitely recommend this watch. Who knows, you might even get the satisfaction of having people come up to you in the mall looking at your wrist and say “duuuuude, is that an Apple Watch!?” – why yes it is sir, yes indeed it is.