The Exercise Nut’s Guide to the Apple Watch

I am a serious fitness enthusiast. Some might say “fanatic.” Despite having two kids under 4, I still exercise 5 days per week. Failure to workout leaves me twitchy–and crabby. Every week I get in some HIIT on the treadmill and rowing machine as well as a good mixture of weightlifting, and tough outdoor running. I also should mention that since April I have tracked virtually every calorie that has gone into my mouth.

Apple Watch is my always-on fitness tracker. The step and workout data that it detects get saved into HealthKit on my iPhone. Then MyFitnessPal pulls in that data to take into account my activity for my daily caloric intake. The more active I am the more I get to eat. I’m way more motivated to move by gaining calories for the day than I am by the Activity Rings that Apple uses to gamify exercise.

I believe the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch available. It has the best combination of utility and style on the market today. I love notifications on the wrist, the Digital Crown, and complications. But I am going to ignore all that stuff to focus on the Apple Watch as a serious fitness wearable.

Style Meets Comfort

I have a 42mm Apple Watch Sport with a white sport band and silver case. I also bought a black sport band. Initially I ordered it with the black sport band and space gray case, but I found them too dark together. I quite like the contrast between the black band and the silver case. To my surprise I also really like the white band. Yeah, it doesn’t look as impressive as a $5000 Swiss watch. But I have no use (or budget) for that.

How is any of this relevant for fitness? The Apple Watch simply looks better than any other running watch or wrist-worn activity tracker. The ability to easily switch out the bands makes it versatile enough for most dress up occasions. Also the sport bands are insanely comfortable. I can wear mine all day without wanting to take it off. When I wore my FitBit Surge full time I had to take it off for an hour every day to let my skin breathe. The combination of comfort and style means Apple Watch is an activity tracker I can wear all day. That sets it apart. It even sets apart from other Apple devices that aren’t very comfortable to use, cough, iPad Pro, cough.

The sport bands are made out of fluoroelastomer. That’s Apple-speak for “fancy plastic.” It’s a great choice of materials that doesn’t promote extra sweating. Also, the sport bands don’t become stinky with all the sweat contact. They are my favorite thing about the Apple Watch.

Watch Face

There are a number of decent watch faces, but I prefer the Utility face. I like it because it’s clean, simple, and highly customizable. Where Utility really shines is that you can use the largest complication slot on the bottom for the Activity app. Doing so displays the active calories burned, minutes of exercise, and number of stand goals met. I hate squinting at the tiny complications with the activity rings on the other faces, so this is a nice alternative. Also, I am just not that fond of the rings. They don’t tell me much (even full-screen in the Activity app) because virtually every day they wrap around a couple of times.

The Utility face with the long Activity “complication”

You can do something similar with the Modular face if you are willing to use up the one humongous complication in the center of the face. The problem with that is you are stuck looking at the odd layout of the Modular face. Side note: I’d prefer to use a digital watch face, but Modular is too painful for me to use.

Water Resistance

Apple downplays the water resistance of the Watch. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I wear mine in the shower all the time. I wear it whenever I go paddleboarding out on the lake because I am completely unconcerned about submerging it. I have worn it for some light swimming too. It has handled it all well, although when the screen is wet it doesn’t detect screen touches.

Stand up paddleboarding

Many times I have taken the Watch off my wrist and held it under a stream of water from the faucet while twirling the Digital Crown to clean it. That’s per Apple’s instructions for keeping the Digital Crown working smoothly. Zero problems. I wouldn’t take it scuba diving, but otherwise you will be just fine.

Heart Rate Monitor

The Apple Watch has the standard LED heart rate monitoring technology that most wrist-based wearables have. It works pretty well, provided your band fits correctly. I initially used the large-sized band and frequently got spurious readings. Later I discovered that the small-sized band has its holes offset so that they fall in between the holes of the large band. By switching to the small band I get a better fit with more accurate readings.

The LED-based heart rate monitor on the back of the Watch

Normally the Apple Watch only measures heart rate once every 10 minutes (and only then if you and your wrist aren’t moving.) During a workout it tries to measure it “continuously.” When I am not working out and I bring up the Heart Rate glance my last reading was often 5–10 minutes ago. Despite this limitation there are stories of the Apple Watch saving people’s lives by uncovering health problems. I would like to see the non-workout heart rate get measured a little more frequently or be user configurable.

Like other wrist-worn heart rate monitors it gives bogus readings if you bend your wrists much, say while doing push-ups. In fact doing push-ups sometimes results in the back of my hand inadvertently long pressing the Digital Crown and activating Siri. That would be fine if she would help motivate me to force out another 10 reps!

I have also found that the heart rate monitor is wildly inaccurate for jumping rope, it frequently gives me insanely high readings. In fact the high end of the heart rate spectrum generally seems less accurate. When I do sprints it gives readings that are about 10% higher than other heart rate monitors.

It is more accurate than a chest strap heart rate monitor for certain kinds of activities. Things that make chest straps slip like sit-ups, back extensions, or rowing. That said you can pair your Apple Watch with a chest-mounted heart rate monitor if you desire.

While using a Polar chest strap, the FitBit Surge, and the Apple Watch simultaneously on several occasions I have observed that the Apple Watch is usually the least accurate of the three. It is also the slowest to acquire an initial measurement. But in my opinion it’s still good enough and usually it was pretty close. In my experience all heart rate monitors give flaky readings sometimes.

My biggest issue with the Apple Watch and heart rate is in the software. Only the most basic information is shown for your heart rate after the workout. You are shown average BPM but no have sense of heart rate zones or any kind of visualization of your heart rate over time.

Apple’s inadequate workout report

Apple’s Health App is no help here either. I have found one third party app that gets me closer to what I want. Contrast this with what FitBit gives you:

Notice the heart rate zones and the graph of the heart rate over time

Workout Types

Apple Watch supports the following activities in the Workout app:

  • Elliptical
  • Indoor Cycle
  • Indoor Run
  • Indoor Walk
  • Other
  • Outdoor Cycl
  • Outdoor Run
  • Outdoor Walk
  • Rower
  • Stair Stepper

This is a good start. As with most wearables lifting weights gets relegated to Other. Weight workouts can vary tremendously by pace, variety of exercises, and heaviness of weights. So heart rate monitors are not very insightful in the data they provide about resistance training.

Otherwise these workout types are pretty good. I’ve found that hybrid workouts that involve weights, rowing, and treadmill are best lumped into a single Other workout. If I break them out into separate workouts inevitably I forget to change it when I switch activities.

GPS-less

I refuse to take my iPhone on a serious run outside. Having it bounce around in my pockets is intolerable. Also I’m unwilling to wear my iPhone in an arm band. I find arm bands uncomfortable and performance-inhibiting.

I live in Minnesota and run outside year round. This means that I’d be bringing my iPhone with me on sub-zero winter runs on icy trails. Oh yeah, and because the days are so bloody short I’d be running by the light of my headlamp. With my $800 pocket-sized computer. What could possibly go wrong?

A typical winter trail run in Minneapolis, MN

But as a serious-ish runner I need GPS for pacing, elevation change, split times, and interval runs. The Apple Watch offers none of that, without the iPhone coming along. Apple claims that if you take your iPhone with you for a few runs the Watch learns your stride length and thereafter you can rely on the Watch’s accelerometer without the phone to tell you your distance.

I’m here to tell you that’s mostly bunk. Yes, if you keep a very steady stride length like an automaton the Watch can give you within 0.1 mile of accuracy if you’re lucky. But if you run up hills, do intervals, run into a stiff wind, or vary your speed those distance estimates are useless.

But for people who are serious about fitness data, the Apple Watch is just not there yet. This group will likely need a second wearable device. — Tweet this

Further, just like with your heart rate during the course of a workout, Apple’s first party apps do not nicely summarize your run with a map, splits, and the like. That information is nowhere to be found. Contrast this with what I get from a run with my FitBit Surge (and it’s way cooler in a desktop browser):

Notice how you get both lap and mile splits

So what’s a data-crazed tech-nerd chasing a 20 minute 5K to do? Why, wear two smartwatches on runs of course! I look like a complete tool when I’m running the trails of Minneapolis with a FitBit Surge on my right wrist and the Apple Watch on my left. But it gives me everything I want. “Having” to wear two smartwatches to get all the data I want is the ultimate first world problem.

Dueling smartwatches

The Surge has GPS and tracks split times and pace. The Apple Watch logs my workout for the purpose of counting steps. It also adds to my daily calorie allowance in MyFitnessPal (if you earn more calories you definitely want that to show up.) It also allows me to always see my heart rate at a glance. I can’t do that without scrolling around on the Surge when running intervals with the lap run.

Until the Apple Watch has onboard GPS, it won’t be viable without the iPhone for serious runners. I’m defining a “serious runner” as someone who wants to improve their race time and trains accordingly.

I do take my iPhone in my pocket for Outdoor Walk “workouts.” That works great, the iPhone bouncing around doesn’t bother me and I listen to podcasts. I can use the Watch’s Now Playing glance to skip the ads and the phone stays in my pocket the whole time.

Outdoor Cycling

Regarding biking outdoors: the activity tracking is just fine. But I find that it’s quite dangerous and annoying to use the Apple Watch while biking. Raising your wrist to look at the time is irritating because you are steering with one arm and it doesn’t always wake the Watch. Having to raise your arm multiple times while biking flat out sucks.

If you need to touch the screen or dictate a message you are jeopardizing the safety of yourself and others. Those kinds of interactions require taking both hands off the handlebars and taking your eyes off the road. I tried to raise my left wrist to wake the screen, quickly regripped the handlebar, and then used my right hand to tap on the screen while biking, but that worked terribly. Even simply raising my wrist and using “Hey Siri” to set reminders is tricky because you need to check the dictated reminder text for accuracy.

Tuneage

If you like to listen to your favorite jams to get pumped up (or to distract yourself from your suffering) Apple Watch has got you covered. Playlists can be stored directly on the flash storage onboard the Watch. Transferring music playlists from the Music app on the iPhone to the Watch is done wirelessly over Bluetooth. It takes a while, and will likely require the Watch to be in its charger.

The Watch does have a tiny external speaker, but that won’t get it done for you. Instead you can pair the Watch directly to a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, like Jaybird X2’s which works quite well.

Two quick caveats: this only works with music rented or purchased through the Apple Music app. You won’t be playing your offline Spotify tunes directly from your Watch.

Also, it only works for music, forget about listening to podcasts unless you want to jump through iTunes hoops to make your podcasts look like really long songs. They would probably take up too much of the flash storage on the Watch anyway.

Cold Weather Performance

I’m eager to see how the Watch deals with sub-zero outdoor runs. In the past I would take my iPhone 5 on walks on very cold days so I could listen to podcasts. I would frequently get the message that my iPhone had overheated and needed to cool down before it could be used.

I doubt whether the iPhone was too cold, it was -15 Fahrenheit that day

I guess those Californians assume that if the weather is impairing the operation of your iPhone it must be due to extreme heat! Hopefully they haven’t made the same mistake with the Watch.

Apple seems to have made it very durable. I accidentally bang it on things all the time with no marks, chips, or scuffs. So I am optimistic that they have considered cold weather environments.

Conclusion

Don’t get the wrong idea, I really like my Apple Watch. I feel like I am missing a minor appendage when not wearing it. Comparing a general purpose first generation smartwatch to purely fitness-oriented wearables from FitBit or Garmin isn’t entirely fair. Certainly things like Apple Pay and the ability to dictate iMessages and emails from your wrist add huge value that dedicated activity wearables can’t touch.

But for people who are serious about fitness data, the Apple Watch is just not there yet. This group will likely need a second wearable. That’s true even for people who aren’t as averse to working out with their iPhone as I am. For the fitness-obsessed I would hold off a generation or two until Apple adds GPS and richer activity capabilities in the software. There are rumors that the next generation of Apple Watch hardware will drop in 2016, so at least wait until then. I am confident that Apple will do what it always does: steadily iterate and make significant improvements with each generation.

Many of the problems around workout data visualization, lap runs, and split times can be fixed with software updates. I for one am eagerly looking forward to using my Apple Watch as my sole wearable. Then I won’t look so moronic wearing a watch on each wrist out in public!


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