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Monday, April 8, 2024

Apple Now Makes the Best Running Watch

Every extant fitness tracker collects a massive amount of biometric data in an effort to help active people improve their athletic performance. These sensor-laden wearables track not only how many steps you take, but the rate at which your heart beats, the quality of your sleep, and even the amount you eat and drink. However, when it comes to planning workouts, I still haven’t found any smartwatch or app that gives advice as smart or as comprehensive as a live human coach.

After all, people and their bodies are unpredictable. Even the pricey, sports-centric platforms that mix hardware and software can only offer so much personalized guidance. Can a watch tell me if I’m courting a stress fracture because I’m stomping like a Clydesdale? What if I only have a half-hour free between meetings, but my program calls for a 60-minute run? What if I skipped my strength workout to go skateboarding—does that count? 

When watchOS 9 becomes available to the public later this year, it will signal the arrival of a whole host of new, fitness-focused features for the Apple Watch. Many, like the ability to measure running power, are aimed at elite athletes. However, even casual runners should benefit hugely from the ability to study their vertical oscillation, create custom workouts with their own distance and time intervals, or pace themselves against their own routes. These new additions to its already robust fitness features might make the Apple Watch the best sports watch ever. If only the rumored battery life improvements had materialized. 

Arm Swinging

Let’s start with the three newest features: the ability to measure vertical oscillation, stride length, and ground contact while running. These three measurements are key components to improving your economy during physical activity. Obviously, this won’t apply universally, but most people will run a lot farther and faster if they move forward with each step instead of bouncing up and down, take shorter strides, and minimize their ground contact.

The watch’s ability to track these aspects of running mechanics is not unique—the Garmin running pod has been able to measure vertical oscillation for years—but if you own an Apple Watch, you will no longer need to buy a separate device and download a separate app to get this data. Apple says it used machine intelligence to filter through data from the watch’s accelerometer and gyroscope to infer how much your body is moving up and down and when your feet are hitting and lifting off the ground. (Of course, I have to wait to test watchOS 9 to see if this is at all accurate.)

The ability to create custom workouts is also a huge improvement. Running watch software from Polar, Coros, and Garmin (among other manufacturers) can suggest productive workouts, but following those workouts tends to be extremely prescriptive. The recommendations often do not map well to my real-life outdoor running habits, and they can be impossible to fit into my busy schedule. Apple’s feature will let you create your own custom running workouts with your own pace, distance, time, or heart-rate zones. You will also be able to see new alerts for zone and cadence training.

Like most runners, I run a variety of routes, often completing them at different speeds and on different surfaces. Now I can plug in my long, slow runs on outdoor trails and make sure I’m keeping my heart rate low; I can take into account the slow warm-up and cool-down jogs to and from my local high school track where I do interval runs in the evenings or log my 30-minute rage sprints around my block in the rain. The Apple Watch’s update will let me pace myself against my most frequently run routes.

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Lastly, watchOS 9 finally has the ability to accurately log multisport workouts, and it will automatically switch when it detects a change in the type of physical activity—from running, to biking, to swimming. If you're a triathlete, you'll be able to move seamlessly between sports. 

Running Is King

Just as the major improvements made to last year's Apple Watch Series 7 were meant to make it a better watch for biking and other outdoor activities, most of the watchOS 9 improvements are geared specifically toward running.

Not all the features that Apple announced Monday will apply to everyone. For example, it’s interesting that you will now be able to see your running power on an Apple Watch. Running power is a relatively new concept that quantifies (in Watts) the amount of power a runner is outputting throughout a workout. It’s a more comprehensive way of measuring how hard you’re working and makes it possible to fine-tune your training runs and nutrition. Running power is something that could formerly only be measured with a compatible smartwatch with a heart rate monitor strapped to one’s chest or a running pod clipped to one’s shorts. However, even though it can now be measured more easily, it’s a metric that’s rather difficult to understand or apply in practice. It’s more the domain of professional coaches and serious long-distance runners.

More casual athletes—and really, anyone who’s interested in improving their running form—will see greater benefit from the vertical oscillation measurements the Apple Watch will now be able to capture. Vertical oscillation is the amount your torso moves up and down with each stride. A lower VO makes you more energy-efficient and is therefore more desirable. It’s easy to lower one’s VO very quickly with cross-training and simple drills.

Which Watch

Apple’s other health-related announcements included support for tracking the various stages of sleep; tracking medications throughout the day; and keeping tabs on your atrial fibrillation history, a feature that received FDA clearance shortly before Monday’s event. While pre-WWDC reports suggested that we might see battery life improvements to the watch—its short battery life counts very significantly against it—Apple announced nothing of the sort. It also announced that WatchOS 9 will not work on the by-now ancient Series 3.

While the Apple Watch is far and away the best smartwatch, I’ve historically only considered it an entry-level fitness tracker. It just didn’t offer nearly as many helpful, comprehensive metrics as the Garmins and Polars and Suuntos I’ve tested. I cursed myself each time I forgot to swap it out on the weekends, only to see it die within the first two hours of a camping trip.

However, if the rumor mill ends up being accurate and Apple releases a more rugged version this year alongside the Series 8, these fitness-focused features would make the Apple Watch a serious contender for the title of best running watch. That’s unbelievable. But while we’re at it, along with improved battery life, some splashy colors and a monochrome display would work well for me too.

Update, June 9 at 9 am EDT: This story was changed to cite the correct release dates of watchOS 9. The public developer beta will be available in July, and the final release for consumers will follow in the fall. 

Update, June 14 at 8 pm EDT: A previous version of this story stated that the watch could switch from different activities, including yoga and strength training. It can only switch between running, biking, and swimming.  

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