I spent a week running with an Apple Watch to see how it functions as a running watch. In the first part of this two-part series, I looked at the Apple Watch’s features. In this second part, I’ll report my experience running with an Apple Watch during several different types of runs, indoors and outdoors, and compare performance.
Day 1 – Running Outside
For my first test of running with an Apple Watch, I chose a familiar route around my neighborhood. I decided to run both the Nike+ Running app and the Apple Watch Workout app to compare how they measured the mileage. I also channeled audio through the Apple Watch rather than the iPhone.
The first thing I noticed when I glanced down to check my pace was that the Nike+ Running app took about a full second to update. I assume this is because the app on the Apple Watch functions more like a remote for the Nike+ Running app on my iPhone, and the iPhone app only sends the data when you’re looking at the watch (rather than sending continuously and potentially burning through the battery). It took a while to get used to that.
The second thing I noticed was when I hit one mile with the Nike+ Running app, the Apple Watch Workout app was well behind. Because the route is very familiar, I can confirm the Nike+ app was accurate.
This lag was consistent throughout my run. At mile 2 on Nike+, the Workout app showed 1.72 miles, and at mile 3 on Nike+ the Workout app showed 2.67.
The other thing I noticed was that I wasn’t hearing the audio prompts from the Nike+ Running iPhone app, which let me know at each mile what my pace and elapsed time is. I assumed that I would still be able to hear them, even though my headphones were synced to the Apple Watch.
Day 2 – Running Outside
I ran a similar but slightly longer route outside, again running both the Apple Watch Workout app and Nike+ Running app. This time, however, I synced my headphones to my phone rather than the watch.
The biggest challenge I had on this run was that the Nike+ Running app crashed on the watch three times while it kept running on the iPhone. I couldn’t figure out a way to restart it on the watch without stopping the run on the iPhone and starting a brand new run. Shortly after this run, Nike pushed an app update with bug improvements. This was the only time I encountered this particular problem, and I’ve run more than a dozen times since, so I’m not too concerned with it.
I found the distances logged were much closer, with the final distance on the Nike+ Running app at 3.55 miles and the Workout app at 3.46 miles. It’s possible the difference would have been greater if the Nike+ app hadn’t crashed.
Day 3 – Treadmill Run
I ran 5 miles on a treadmill using just the Apple Watch Workout app. With the current version of the watchOS, third-party apps, like Nike+ Running, aren’t able to access the hardware of the Apple Watch, like the accelerometer or heart rate sensor, leaving the Workout app as the only one that can measure a treadmill workout.
I found the app overestimated my pace by about a minute per mile on average. At slower speeds the difference was greater, and it narrowed somewhat at faster speeds, but was typically :45 seconds to a minute faster than I was actually running.
By the end of the five mile treadmill run, the watch was a full quarter mile ahead. I wonder if the difference had to do with my cadence, which is probably a little higher than the average recreational runner, meaning I take shorter strides and more of them per minute.
Day 4 – Treadmill Run
I hit the treadmill again to see if I would have any different results from the day before, but they were nearly identical, with the Apple Watch Workout app overestimating my distance.
I suppose there really isn’t any need for accurate measurements from a running watch on a treadmill. I did like the ability to check my heart rate without having to grab the handles on the treadmill.
Day 5 – Outdoor Run
For my final outdoor test I again ran the Nike+ Running app and Apple Watch Workout app side-by-side for a 10K. I again found the Workout app usually underestimating my pace and therefore the distance. By the end of the 6.2 mile run the Workout app had logged 6 miles.
While this is by no means a scientific study and only represents one week worth of running, I think it’s safe to say that the Apple Watch Workout app is unreliable indoors and outdoors. Because the Nike+ Running app simply draws from the GPS data and app on the iPhone, it’s pretty accurate. The biggest annoyance is the delay between looking at the watch and seeing the current distance and pace data update.
My recommendation is that a casual runner, running with an Apple Watch will find that it provides far more conveniences than frustrations. A serious runner may decide that the tradeoffs are too great and end up sticking with a bona fide running watch.
The good news is that when watchOS 2.0 is released this fall, and third-party app developers are able to access the Apple Watch hardware directly, it may increase the accuracy of Nike+ Running or any of the other third-party running apps. I’ll have an update when that’s released.