Serious Running with the Apple Watch Series 2

About a year and a half ago I bought an original Apple Watch. It was my intention to use that watch as a daily timepiece but also to replace my running watch. A serial NY marathon runner I run about 25–50 miles per week depending on time of the year and I enjoy tracking my runs.

After a week or two of research I posted Serious Running with the Apple Watch, and concluded for myself that the Apple Watch could not replace my running watch primarily due to its lack of GPS and annoying requirement that I carry my iPhone to achieve accuracy.

On September 16, 2016 I received my Apple Watch Series 2. This was the device I was truly waiting for as Apple smartly decided to include a GPS chip in the watch based on the feedback of many, including myself.

Timing was great, I thought, as Saturday September 17th was my planned 20 mile long training run and I would give the watch a good workout.

So I left the house Saturday morning with the watch on my wrist and the first thing that happened was it inexplicably powered off. I had to reboot it.

Next I pressed the Apple workout button and it started off as expected.

It was my intention to simultaneous run the Strava running app. This is my go to platform and I’ve been tracking my runs there for the past two years. Though I could switch to Apple’s platform for tracking my runs it was my preference to continue to keep my records on Strava.

It was then that I got hit with disappointment. The Strava app on the watch said “Phone not detected!” I couldn't believe it but the app apparently cannot use the watches GPS signal and still required my iPhone. Sadly, I went back in the house took off my new Apple Watch and put back on my trusty TomTom Cardio Runner for the long run.

Apple has announced a Nike branded Apple Watch to begin shipping next month and I got the sneaky feeling Apple may only allow Nike to access this data for now to sell a few watches. I imagined Strava will eventually get access but perhaps not before my planned NY Marathon November 5th.

I reached out to Strava Chief Product Officer Aaron Forth to fins out if I was missing something.

“We do not support watch series 2 yet,” was Forth’s curt reply.

I then supposed maybe if I installed the new Nike + Running Club app it would possibly pull data from the Apple workout app. I used to use a Nike running watch and already have a few years of runs on the Nike platform, from before my Strava days. Sure enough in the iPhone health settings I saw the NRC app could “read” workout data from Apple Health, Strava could not.

I configured the NRC settings to read, and on day two I set out to do a short slow 3 mile recovery run.

This time I wore the Apple watch on my left wrist and my TomTom on the right wrist to be able to compare.

The new Apple watch was a joy. There was no satellite linking delay just a a 3–2–1 audible and haptic countdown.

As I ran I saw the watch data was now beautifully accurate due to GPS and slightly better than the TomTom. I found the wrist heart rate started off ok but then became inaccurate. I probably wore the watch too loosely and when I pushed it up on my arm it became accurate again. I liked the bright yellow information screen, ending the run was easy, and I enjoyed the mile marker audible charms.

However, when I got home to review the run, no joy.

The simple Apple Health workout summary was available on the phone as seen here:

However, the NRC app did not pick up the data from Apple Health as I hoped it would. If it did I could at least export it to Strava even though Nike makes exporting very difficult and requires a third party app. So I reached out to the NRC support to see what they had to say about it.

Nike advised me that the watch app would be able to read the watch GPS without using the phone.

So on day three I went out for a 6 mile easy run in the rain using the Apple watch on the left wrist running the Nike app and my TomTom on the right wrist

Sure enough the Nike app was able to work without connecting to the phone. I found the GPS distance to be spot on, slightly longer than the TomTom. The heart-rate worked reasonably well though fell out of sync a few times during the run.

However I found the output disappointing.

Neither the Nike + app and website showed the route map nor detailed split times. The comparison for the same run is below. The apple watch HR stayed erroneously elevated throughout this run overestimating the average heart rate. But the lack of any granular details in the Nike interface and lack of route map make it insufficient for my needs:

Strava (L) versus Nike + (R) same 6 mile run. Nike + data obtained from Apple Watch Series 2

After this disappointment I went back and downloaded the Runkeeper and Runtastic apps. I place the watch app on both and tested it without Bluetooth. I immediately noted the Runtastic app would not work without communicating to the phone however the Runkeeper app was able to function without the phone and thus I deleted the Runtastic app.

The next day I went out for a 7 mile run with the Apple Watch on the left using the Runkeeper app and my TomTom watch on the right.

The RunKeeper app did well and for me was superior to the Nike app in that I could see multiple data points at once on the screen. The Niek app required swiping. However I was struck by the very poor accuracy of the Apple Watch heart rate data via this app. On this run the TomTom CardioRunner had a perfect heart rate display butthe Apple watch stayed clamped at an erroneous 170 BPM for >90% of the run just occasionally dipping into the accurate number. Also as you can see from the images the Runkeeper app could only access the distance ran, which was very accurate due to GPS, but could not access the GPS data directly.

Obviously the quality of the data and displays are considerably different with Strava/TomTom being much better

I was deeply disappointed in how inaccurate the Apple Watch HR was on this run. I find the silicone band has two holes I could use — one is slightly less than snug and the next is overly tight. I have been doing these runs on the slightly less than snug and the HR value seems very variable. You can see the TomTom was spot on the whole run and gave a 129 average.

Via Twitter I reached out to Runkeeper support and found out though they can run the app on the watch using the distance data they do not yet have access to the new watch’s GPS info.

It is worth mentioning these last two runs, about an hour in duration used 12–16% of the Apple watch battery. This would be enough to record any run less than 6 hours.

So unfortunately at this point in time I cannot recommend serious running with the Apple Watch Series 2. We will need to wait for third party apps to start accessing the GPS data directly from the watch and no longer require the iPhone. This delay is either a function of the third party companies themselves or Apple intentionally blocking access.

Also I still need to determine why the heart-rate data was so poor. It seems this varied among apps Runkeeper the worst, Nike better and the native Apple app most accurate.

However no running watch I ever had could track my swimming laps so well as this totally waterproof watch!

I will update this post as third parties being updating their apps and I remain hopeful I will achieve my goal of running the 2016 NY Marathon on November 5th using this watch alone.

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