There’s something that’s been bothering me for years about the Apple Watch, specifically the way it’s used as a training tool for running.
It’s safe to say that Apple Watch is on an upward trajectory in regards to its tracking prowess over the years. After all, the first incarnation didn’t even have onboard GPS, so it was relatively useless as a fitness buddy for runners without the phone present.
With each iteration of the Watch since then, Apple has made slow and solid improvements, and the company has really stepped up things with the release of watchOS 9 at WWDC 2022, adding a bunch of new elements like structured interval training and customizable data screens to make you a true fitness companion.
However, while the Apple Watch has always had a heart rate monitor, there has never been anything that I consider the bare minimum to be considered the best running watch: heart rate training.
What does heart rate training mean? It’s where you try to keep your training in a specific zone throughout your entire workout – if you’re trying to get in shape, maintaining a certain heart rate can help you more than relying on keeping a pace, as terrain or muscle issues can mean you can’t be as fast as you’d like.
Train to your heart rate, however, and you can be sure you’re working as hard (or not, if you’re trying to keep things calm on an easy run) as you want. Go up a hill and slow down? Your heart rate won’t be, trust me.
So you can say it’s great that Apple finally has this feature on the Watch with this new software… but here’s this mystery: why now?
Given that Apple has had a wrist-based heart rate monitor for a long time, it could easily let users set their zones (or do it automatically based on their maximum heart rate, which they’ve been able to measure for years) and then provided alerts to let them know when they are moving out of a target range.
In short, Apple could have brought this feature with the first Apple Watch many years ago. So why not?
It’s highly likely that Apple didn’t do this because of a phenomenon known as cardiac drift. (opens in new tab)where other physiological factors (from poor hydration or nutrition to a lack of high-level fitness) mean that the same amount of effort will produce an ever-increasing heart rate over the course of a workout.
That means you’ll end up working harder to stay in the same zone during a longer run – which kind of defeats the purpose and can easily demotivate younger runners, whom the Apple Watch traditionally targets.
Then again, why are you doing this now, Apple? Sure, the brand has improved software algorithms with watchOS 9, which means it can more accurately identify your heart rate from your wrist, and that would possibly mean it could remove cardiac bypass… but that seems unlikely.
Maybe that’s because wrist-based heart rate monitoring has never been as accurate as wearing a chest strap to measure your heart rate – something Apple openly admits (opens in new tab) – and only with recent software updates can Apple feel confident in its ability to provide accurate heart rate data.
After all, heart rate training is a feature that rivals Polar and Garmin have offered for years and it’s one of the many key advantages their users enjoy over the Apple Watch, so it’s strange that Apple avoided it for so long.
If the decision to hold off on this feature comes down to accuracy, then that makes a little more sense – rivals like Garmin often promote the use of a chest-based heart rate monitor (and make their own), where Apple rarely points out that you’re able to plug one in and probably don’t want to denigrate your own hardware on the watch, pressing need to plug in accessories to get the best out of it.
power to the people
There’s one more mystery: Apple’s new running power metric. This is a surprise, following in the footsteps of other high-end fitness brands to get running power without the need for an additional in-shoe sensor or similar.
What the Watch is monitoring with power, using its ability to track your movement, is how much force you’re expelling with each step, giving a result in watts – a common measure of power on many platforms.
Running power monitoring is theoretically a better measure of output than heart rate. Remember, there’s no universal way to monitor energy – similarly, you’ll get different step counts with different fitness bands – but as long as Apple can be consistent in its running energy feedback, this should be a best way to check how you are performing in heart rate zones.
I’m looking forward to getting the final version of watchOS 9 on a new Apple Watch later this year and giving the new metrics a good chance – if they work well I can forgive them for not being there so far, but I still think Apple is holding back. these features on purpose for some reason.
The Apple Watch still has a long way to go to beat the best Garmin watches available on the market – but it could have been a little closer with these updates.