Apple Watch Sport: Is It Good For Runners?

The Apple Watch has launched with a flurry of hype and quite limited stock. But does it live up to its “Sport” billing? I took it for a run to find out.
Image: Apple
Apple didn’t invent the smartwatch concept, but it’s certainly managed to shift it much more prominently into the public consciousness than preceding efforts from companies such as Samsung, LG, Motorola or Pebble. You can like that, or not — that’s up to you.
As detailed in the most recent episode of Vertical Hold, I opted not to buy an Apple Watch.

Apple, however, provided me with one for review; more specifically the Apple Watch Sport, which is, in effect, the entry level model. That’s a style call; the technology in the Apple Watch Sport is identical to that in the Apple Watch and even the insanely priced Apple Watch Edition. The extra cash simply buys you different bands and attachment types, or in the case of the Apple Watch Edition Watches — remind me to shoot somebody at Apple’s marketing department for that mangled bit of English — different construction materials.
There’s no shortage of Apple Watch reviews you can read right now, and, predictably, I’m in the middle of putting together a couple myself. In the meantime, however, having been handed the “Sport” version of the Watch, it made sense to me to do something sporting with it.
At the moment I’ve only got one particularly sporty obsession, namely running. I’m very slowly succeeding-or-maybe-failing at Couch To 5K, as I detailed last week over at Lifehacker, so running it would be.
I should also mention a note of inspiration here, as Anthony Caruana wrote a piece a couple of months back on this exact topic over at Run And Lift that’s well worth your while reading if this topic interests you.
My standard gadget fit-out for a run comprises a Jawbone UP24, a Pebble Smartwatch and a pair of Plantronics Backbeat Fit headphones for musical accompaniment, with whatever I’m testing in a smartphone sense in an arm band holster to provide both music and allow me to take calls if I’m running during business hours. As a freelancer, that happens more than you might think.
I could have swapped the Pebble out for the Apple Watch Sport, but chose to run with both of them. Not so much to put them head to head, because there are some pretty significant differences between a $150 smartwatch and a $579 model, but because while Apple’s done a decent job in drumming up developer support for the Apple Watch ecosystem, I couldn’t find a running app that would include Couch To 5K timing. As such, the Pebble, via the Running Coach app, provided the necessary interval timing for my run.
Imagine, if you will, me returning from my run, sweaty and somewhat satisfied. Sorry, I didn’t video record my jogging efforts, partly to avoid ridicule, and partly because the last thing you need to see is my sweaty red face panting at you. Trust me on that one. I’ve seen me in a mirror after a run, and it’s not a pretty sight.
But what of the Apple Watch Sport?
There are some notable upsides. The band on the Apple Watch Sport is a little fiddly to attach unless you lay it flat down on a surface, but once it’s on it’s solidly in place, and it’s quite comfortable too, even through a sheen of sweat. That’s important while running, because even small annoyances can be magnified while you’re striving to keep on jogging.
The old school Apple iPod Nano was once beloved of runners because it was a lightweight way to take your music with you while you ran. The Apple Watch replicates this nicely, with a variable amount of storage space for music storage if you don’t want to take your phone with you, although you will need Bluetooth headphones to make this work. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack on the Apple Watch Sport at all. I was running with an iPhone 6 in any case, but it’s a decent feature for those who don’t want lots of gadgets while they exercise.

As a sports watch, the Apple Watch makes a great music player. As someone who runs to music, I appreciate this.

One aspect that surprised me was the Apple Watch Sport’s inbuilt heart rate monitor. I’ve tried a few smart watches with inbuilt heart rate monitors while running, and they’ve all come up woefully short unless I was happy to stop dead still to take a measurement. At that point, naturally, my heart rate drops because I’m no longer exercising, making the whole exercise moot. At first, I thought the Apple Watch had fallen into this trap, as initial heart rate reading took a little while. If you activate the Apple Watch’s inbuilt “Workout” app, it’s meant to increase the rapidity with which it takes heart rate measurements, but that initial take did occupy a few minutes of running. Once it had that first reading, however, it did quite well as an ad-hoc reader. More serious runners would probably still want a proper heart rate strap if that’s important to you, but for the more casual fitness type, it’s interesting data to have.
A quick word on the Workout App, while I think of it. It’s built with a number of different activities to undertake, but works on either calories, time or distance. Quite how it measures distance given there’s no inbuilt GPS (if you’re not running paired to an iPhone) somewhat eludes me, but it’d be nice to have a steps goal as well if that’s what you’re used to working towards. I suspect those same steps are how it guesstimates distance in a non-iPhone situation.
Apple’s Activity App is colourful and fun, with achievements for all sorts of specific goals. Being Apple, it’s heavy on the visual design metaphors, but it’s just another fitness app in a sea of many options in the smartphone space.
In the smart watch space, however, things are a little different. Apple’s done a heavy sell on the apps side of the Apple Watch, and that might just pay big dividends down the track, because while Android Wear has been around for a while now, the available app selection isn’t all that spectacular. Pebble’s apps are a little more widespread, but it has some obvious hardware limitations to deal with. Still, at launch, fitness apps aren’t thick on the ground, and I couldn’t find a C25K compatible timer app at all. Somebody could build one with, I suspect, relatively little effort, but at launch I’d be stuck with my dual-watch approach for at least a little while.
In the future, wearing two smartwatches on the same arm will be fashionable. Shut up. It WILL.
In the future, wearing two smartwatches on the same arm will be fashionable. Shut up. It WILL.

In terms of actual step and data tracking, I compared the Apple Watch readings with those from the Jawbone UP24 on my other wrist. Both measured in at around 4,000 steps for the exercise period, which at least means that the Apple Watch Sport is measuring at the same kind of rate as other fitness tracking products. As I’ve noted before, step tracking isn’t a precise science, so I’m not going to say that I did indeed take 4,000 or so steps, but it’s the data in aggregate that can give you more of that “quantified self” type of picture anyway.
There are some notable shortcomings to the Apple Watch Sport if you’re a more serious running type. Outside its own heart rate monitor, there’s no way to pair it with a more detailed heart rate monitor. There’s no absolute inbuilt GPS, so you’d have to run with an iPhone 5, 6 or 6 Plus to make that happen. It’s also not fully waterproof if you’re more of the Iron Man type, which is to say that you probably shouldn’t go swimming with it.
I noted at the outset that a lot of Apple Watch models are fashion plays, and within that space if you’re after a basic fitness tracker then the Apple Watch Sport is perfectly functional. The thing is, even with the cheaper Apple Watch Sport, that’s all it really is. For the genuine fitness fanatics there’s not really enough here to justify the $499/$579 price point, and you’d be better served with a more fitness centric product such as the Garmin Fenix 2.
Oh yeah, and Apple? I sweated all over your fancy new Watch. Sorry about that.

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