Apple Watch for Runners, Three Months In

Once upon a time, the night before the Apple Watch was introduced, I speculated on what the device might bring for runners.  Nearly a year later (and three months into watch ownership), I thought it might be fun to re-review the device and how it fits into my life.

As I see it, there’s three “jobs to be done” the Apple Watch aims to fulfill for a runner. They are:

  • Music and podcast playback and controls
  • “Hardcore” running statistical tracking — exact mileages, times, and pace
  • General fitness tracking— calories, minutes of exercise, and motivation

Music

Controlling music or podcasts with the Apple Watch is a nightmare. 

The first issue is in deciding *how* you’re going to play your music: from your phone, or from your watch. This decision is surprisingly fraught with peril.

Playback option A: playing music from your phone

In this case, music is “stored” on your iPhone, and the watch is merely an interface to control it.

Pros:

  • You have access to all your music (instead of just 250 songs), whether it’s in Apple Music, Spotify, or Pandora.
  • You can play podcasts.
  • You can control your music from the phone’s lock screen.
  • You can use non-wireless headphones, if need be.
  • If you choose to use wireless headphones, the sound is louder and far less likely to skip.

Cons:

  • You have to carry a giant phone with you! I have a 6 Plus, so I’ve resorted to putting my phone in a quart-sized Ziploc bag and carrying that while running. Best case scenario is that you have a 5S (or smaller) that’s reasonable to use in an armband.

Playback option B: Playing music from the watch directly

In this scenario, the music is both stored and controlled on the watch.

Pros:

  • The watch + wireless headphones combination is ultra-light. It’s very cool to run with just two super-lightweight objects on your body. It’s clearly the future.

Cons:

  • You can only store 250 songs on the watch, and no podcasts. Also no Spotify or Pandora.
  • It’s an onerous 3–4 hour process to wirelessly sync the music to your watch. I hope you chose those 250 songs wisely!
  • You must use wireless headphones, most of which are at the “music players before the iPod” stage of design and build quality. I got the Jaybird BlueBuds as per the Wirecutter a few months ago, and they are not great. Charging is a huge pain, they require endless experimentation with earbud sizes to stay in your ear, and, despite sweat-proof guarantees, are deteriorating after 8 weeks.
  • Setting up the watch to play wirelessly is a hard-to-discover, multi-button-press process.
  • Bluetooth sound quality and volume from the watch is not good. The loudest setting is not loud enough, and skipping/cutting out/random pauses are quite common. (This is not a problem using the same headphones with the phone.) 

During a Workout

For this section, I thought I’d describe what it's like to change your music to the next track. It’s an action I want to carry out very often, usually multiple times per run, and is representative of the difficulty of other common actions, like increasing the volume or switching playlists (if you brought your phone — the watch-only mode only allows one playlist). 

This section assumes Apple’s “workout” app is running simultaneously with your music playback. To go the next track:

Option A, using Glances:

  1. Raise wrist (theatrically) or press home button on side.
  2. See that watch is displaying workout app, even if you recently changed music (it reverts to the workout app very quickly).
  3. Press home button to go to app screen.
  4. Press home button to center app screen on clockface.
  5. Press home button to go into “clock mode.”
  6. Swipe up from bottom of clock face to show Glances.
  7. Swipe up again, because your finger is sweaty, and step 6 failed (I usually fail 1–3 times).
  8. (Possibly optional) Swipe left or right to “Now Playing” Glance (this will also fail multiple times).
  9. Tap “next track” button (fail 1–5 times, for some reason this one is very hard).

Option B, using the Music App:

  1. Raise wrist (theatrically) or press home button.
  2. See that watch is displaying workout app, even if you recently changed music (it reverts to the workout app very quickly).
  3. Press home button to go to app screen.
  4. Tap on tiny “Music” App icon, or futilely try to turn crown to zoom (fail 1-2 times).
  5. Wait for Music App to load (3–5 seconds).
  6. Tap “Now Playing” (fail 1–3 times).
  7. Tap “next track” button (fail 1–5 times).

I’m not exaggerating for effect. This is the rigamarole I go though to change a track while running. And if I’m over ~15 minutes into a run, the sweat on my finger makes it impossible to not fail repeatedly. Also the bouncy movement of a run makes the small targets very hard to hit.

Controlling music on the watch during a workout is so frustrating that I often resort to tapping my phone’s lock screen through its protective Ziploc bag in order to change tracks.

Potential Improvements

Some of these are assuredly coming in future software/hardware updates. Others I will simply pray for.

  • More than 250 songs/1 playlist stored on the watch.
  • Podcasts and audiobooks stored on the watch.
  • More powerful, high-volume, no-skip Bluetooth playback.
  • The interface issues could be mitigated with tighter hardware-music integration. The watch has hardware buttons — the old iPod nano solved this problem! The side button, currently reserved for the “friend list”, could control music in workout mode. One tap: pause. Two taps: next track. Digital crown: volume. Sweaty fingers would no longer be a cancer for the whole system.
  • Apple (or Beats, or someone) makes “Apple-quality” Bluetooth headphones. From what I’ve heard, the current Beats offering is about level with my Jaybirds. The build quality and hassle could take a huge leap forward.

“Hardcore” Running Tracking

This section will be short, because the Apple Watch is completely inadequate. Two reasons:

  1. Inaccuracy. Even carrying the phone along, the “GPS” distance estimates vary wildly both from a GPS watch (Garmin) and from other runs along the same route. I’ve seen swings of 5–7%, which may not sound like much, but is far too much for serious training use. Without the phone, it’s incredibly easy to trick the “stride calibration” into thinking you ran far shorter or longer than you did.
  2. Lack of mapping. Even carrying a full-fledged GPS-enabled phone, the “Activity” app that displays workouts doesn’t show the route you took. Why not? Probably because the GPS isn’t on at all times (to save battery), so the maps wouldn’t be accurate. But mapping and elevation-tracking are table stakes for a serious running watch.

Hopefully these will be rectified in software soon. I have a giant-batteried 6 Plus, I’d love the option to turn on “full-blast GPS mode” to get highly accurate readings and maps.

General Fitness Tracking

Finally, time to stop the negativity. The Apple Watch is the best general fitness device ever made, and should only get better. Why? In a word: motivation. The designers and engineers have built a product that perfectly balances carrots and sticks to tap into my desire to be healthier and fears about sedentary life.

The fitness tracking’s success rests on three factors: accuracy, convenience, and feedback. 

Accuracy

While I gave the watch a hard time about its exactitude in tracking runs, there’s no question it nails heart rate and calories far better than any device that you don’t have to strap around your chest. Unlike the exercise machines at the gym, its calorie readings are believable (no, spin bike, I’m quite confident I didn’t burn 1200 calories in 45 minutes). Sure, there are times when the heart rate monitor lags in getting a reading, or when it takes up to 15 minutes for calories to be "committed" to the workout total, all-in-all, I trust it.

Convenience

The watch is useful enough to wear all the time, which makes a huge difference in daily fitness tracking. Because it's always on, the daily calorie/exercise/standing numbers are believable. The difference between on-all-the-time and on-just-when-I-remember is huge. Don’t I deserve credit for that post-lunch stroll? How about for jumping around at a concert? The watch captures everything, which imbues the goals and achievements with real importance.

Feedback

I initially thought the “achievement badges” for exercise goals were completely silly. It's time to repent—I’m now completely addicted to trying to achieve a perfect month of calorie-burning. Rationally, I know these virtual badges are stupid, but because they represent actual, true-to-life fitness achievements, I want them anyway. I think Apple Watch is breeding a new generation of fitness addicts.

What’s more interesting is the next step: what happens when the watch adds oxygen or glucose monitoring? What about the motion-tracking apps coming with watchOS 2? How long till it can track hydration, sleep, nutrition, and the like? What about social gaming using the health data (who ran faster today, or ate better)?

The five- or ten-year-out version of the Apple Watch will be the greatest mass-market health device ever made. Now I'm off to the gym.