How the Apple Watch can become a better running partner

Believe it or not, the Apple Watch isn’t even three years old yet. The wearable that arguably kickstarted the smartwatch market reaches that milestone in April 2018. However, in a relatively short space of time it has grown to become the dominant smartwatch on our wrists. It was actually the fourth biggest selling gadget in 2017.

In the past three years Apple has amped up the fitness features of the Watch and with the Apple Watch Series 3, it created the best running watch the company made, yet.

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I can now run without a phone, without cash and without a travel card and yet I can still buy water, listen to music, jump on public transport, hail an Uber or, should things go drastically wrong, call an emergency contact – all from the watch on my wrist. Those who have embraced the smart lock can even leave their house keys at home.

But that’s not all. There’s extended battery life so that the Watch can now survive five hours of GPS-tracking, more than enough time for the average runner to complete a marathon. We’ve got more accurate optical heart rate tracking and improved, instant-fix GPS. It’s now waterproof too.

It’s an impressive list of skills and, Garmin Forerunner 645 aside, there aren’t many running watches that can get near the smartwatch capabilities the Apple Watch brings to the party.

But that’s where we hit a problem. Most of the features I’ve listed here have little, or nothing, to do with running performance. They’re all about making it more convenient to run, but they don’t help you become a better runner. And that’s a big frustration for the people I’m calling “serious” runners because, despite adding new run skills with each hardware edition and watchOS software update, the Apple Watch still lacks the features many ‘serious’ runners need.

I want more. When the Apple Watch Series 4 lands, probably landing in September 2018, I’d like to see it emerge as a serious running contender for serious runners too.

So what would it need? I had a chat with a fellow serious runner, Runner’s World digital editor Ben Hobson, to come up with a wish list of features we’d like to see from Apple’s next-generation smartwatch.

More Apple juice

Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. We both agreed that we want the Watch to last longer on the run. “Battery life still needs to be better if they want to compete with any of the traditional running watches,” says Hobson. “The five-hour battery life that Apple based on the average marathon time for Chicago was fine but the way people run these days, they can be out all day.” I’d tend to agree. Ultras are the new marathons, and more and more people need devices that last longer.

Siri needs to get a sweat on

How the Apple Watch can become a better running partner

Innovators such as LifeBEAM Vi, with its voice activated AI run coach, have started to demonstrate the potential of voice for running wearables. Reliable voice activation could be a game changer for the first running watch maker that gets it right.

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Apple seems like it should have the lead on this but sadly Siri isn’t there yet. Starting, pausing and ending a run using voice is relatively easy (if not always 100% reliable) but that’s where the voice control stops. We want to see more advanced voice features such as current pace readouts and voice controlled splits so we no longer have to raise a wrist to mark the end of an 800m sprint interval, we can just gasp “Stop!”

“We’ve seen voice commands built into things like the Oakley Radar Pace glasses, where you can say things like “Ok Radar, what’s my pace?” and get a read out, and that seems like a logical step for Apple to take,” says Hobson. “But maybe even go further, for example, if you built in route functionality and were able to pre-load routes, it’d be great to be able to use voice commands to ask the Watch to tell you how far you had left to run.”

Plug us into the metrics

Not all runners have an insatiable appetite for metrics but Polar, Garmin, Suunto and Co offer up far more insights to chew on than the Apple Watch and it definitely makes the Watch less appealing.

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Despite having the same set of sensors as some leading Garmin watches, the Apple Watch doesn’t provide any of the form-specific stats such as vertical oscillation, ground contact time or even cadence and some of these are rapidly becoming hygiene factors in a “serious” running watch.

“If they’re really going to take it on they need more metrics,” says Hobson. “Cadence is one metric that people are definitely now very aware of. Apple has a device with incredibly good sensors capable of differentiating between different types of movement and so there’s no reason why it couldn’t be on there and be accurate.”

Make us a metronome

Tracking your cadence on a run is one thing; knowing how to improve it is another. One thing that changed my running back in 2014, right before I ran my fastest ever marathon, was being shown what running at 180 BPM – the optimum target cadence – feels like. I was put on a treadmill and asked to run to the beat of a metronome set to this rate. It immediately improved my form. The Apple Watch could very easily use its vibrating and/or audio feedback to create an in-run drill that helps you work on cadence as you run, mimicking what I did on a treadmill.

Reliable in-run pacing accuracy

How the Apple Watch can become a better running partner

While running the Apple Watch’s Current Pace stats have a tendency to fluctuate far more than Garmin or Polar. I know this because I’ve run with various combinations of devices many times. And this is something that needs work if I’m ever going to be convinced to strap on an Apple Watch when it comes to race day. It’s something Hobson agrees on.

“I’ve run with a Garmin and Apple Watch for comparison and I think Garmins can still be more consistent on pace while you’re running; glancing down at your wrist, there seems to be less fluctuation.

“I have noticed you can go from 8.30 min/mile to a 7:30 min mile pace in the space of 50 metres on the Apple Watch, when you know you haven’t done increased your pace that much. Taking this as gospel during a race could make a huge difference, compelling you to potentially speed up or slow down.”

The fact is when you’re in race mode, you need to know your watch is giving you accurate information otherwise it’s just a distraction at best and at worst it can lead you to make changes to your pace that can push you over the edge, or leave you behind your target.

A sweat-proof screen

This is a personal bugbear of mine, probably because I’m what experts would call a “heavy sweater”. And I’m not talking about chunky knit here. When I run I shed buckets, some of which inevitably ends up all over the screen of my watch. The Apple Watch is waterproof so this doesn’t matter for its longevity but what it does do is make it impossible to control the touchscreen.

And often I’ve got nowhere to dry it, so with Siri’s limitations this basically means I can’t control the watch. We have seen screens that work despite sweat droplets before, even as far back as the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active phone, so it is, in theory, possible.

Give us a rest

How the Apple Watch can become a better running partner

Closing Apple’s activity rings can get addictive and I’m a big fan of this feature in principle. The design is great, and there are some very clever nudges that motivate you to complete the rings each day. But if you’re a runner training for a race, there are flaw that are hard to ignore and the biggest of those is the lack of recognition that all smart training schedules should incorporate rest. This isn’t the case for Apple’s ‘smart coaching’ Move targets.

For those who aren’t familiar you can set a daily Move target which is based on a number of active calories burned, so this ring weeds out the calories you burn just by being alive and focuses on those you earn by being active. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a blunt instrument.

“All the smart coach does is set a calorie count for the day and if you don’t beat it it tells you to beat it the next day. If you do beat it it just tells you to up it.” says Hobson. “There’s no suggestion that you need to rest ever, it’s just a constant failing or a constant push for more. I’d like to see it be much smarter”

“If you’re training and you’ve set your Move target as 800 and on Sunday you double it and hit 1600 because you’ve done your long Sunday training run, surely there should be a parameter that says ‘You’ve smashed your Move target today, good effort, how about a rest day tomorrow?'”

We’d like to be able to indicate when we’re having rest days and perhaps have rest day ring targets that applaud the fact you’ve recovered correctly rather than the constant push to continue the same level of activity day in day out.

Feed us more data to run-geek out on

Perhaps the biggest flaw carried from the first edition of the Apple Watch right through to the Series 3 is the lack of data available for review on the watch and on your phone. You can get a relatively comprehensive breakdown of stats for a single run via the Activity app on your iPhone, or see how much distance you’ve covered in a given month by delving into the Health app, but there’s nothing that charts your progress over time for any really useful metrics. Or indeed that allows for any kind of comparison. For most runners this an instant deal breaker and until this is addressed it’s hard to see the Apple Watch ever being a serious Garmin or Polar alternative.

Should I train today?

How the Apple Watch can become a better running partner

With watchOS 4 Apple gave us a new metric, Heart Rate Variability (HRV), aka the time interval between heartbeats, the duration between the two peaks in a cardiogram. While there are serious questions over whether the information that an optical, wrist-based sensor can ever truly be accurate enough to be used for reliable HRV-based training recommendations, this could potentially power a feature that guides us on the kind of training session we should do today, or if we should rest.

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A low HRV can be a sign that your body is under stress, either from a previous run or other things such as the onset of illness. Studies have shown that using HRV to make decisions about when to train hard and when to go easy can have positive effects on performance.

Apple is tracking HRV, but as it stands you have to dig into your Health app data to find it. I’d love to see an alert when your HRV drops low, just as a useful nudge to tell you that you might want to consider taking it easy and move your planned speed session to another day.

The final word

I understand that Apple doesn’t make running watches; it makes smartwatches that do running. As such we’re never going to see everything on our wishlist come to fruition. But as one of those “serious” runners my final challenge to Apple is this: grant us some of the simple features that’ll revolutionise the potential of the Watch as a running partner, and maybe, just maybe we’ll consider leaving our proper running watch at home.

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