Gear Reviews

Apple Watch Series 3 for the serious runner

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I was in need of a new GPS watch, and it so worked out that Apple was releasing a new version of the Apple Watch, the Series 3.  As a runner first, whatever watch I get (and this review is centered around running first) will support my running career first and foremost.  If I can’t-do workouts with the right data on my watch, or long runs, or feel confident the information I receive is correct, then all the other bells and whistles are not worth it for me.  So, when writing this review that is what I am focusing on, is the Apple Watch Series 3 a good watch for a runner like myself?  Interestingly enough the answer may surprise you (apparently that means it is).

I received the Apple Watch on release day and setup was quite the breeze.  Having never used an Apple Watch (AW) or smartwatch before I loved how easy Apple was able to take all the data from my years of using my iPhone and get it onto the watch.  Since the series three allows for cellular data, it was very simple to set up that portion of the watch, link it to my data plan (AT&T waives many of the initial fees so I can just get going immediately) and have everything ready to go.  The longest part was the downloading of all the apps I have on my phone that also work on the watch.  After playing around with what apps to keep and not (not sure I need my Chipotle app on my watch, but I might regret this decision if I end up hungry on the run) I ran through some of the settings and got into the important stuff for me.  I quickly downloaded the Strava app and looked into the Workouts app.  I was immediately disappointed that the Strava app lacked all customization and after reading online I am not the only one.  It currently allows for three fields, time, current time and distance.  Nope, sorry for a runner those are not even the three most relevant fields, let alone, not enough fields.  Outside of a workout and even then not so much I rarely care about what my pace is for the current second during my run, average pace yes, please.  So immediately the Strava App would not support my running, however workouts app did allow for five fields to be available and had many choices.  I ended up on Total Time, Heart Rate, Distance, Avg Pace, Current Pace(although like I said how about making the last lap an option).  With everything figured out I charged my watch up and was ready for my first run, a 22-24 mile long run(Go big or go home Apple Watch).

I heard all the negatives of the Apple Watch, like how your battery life won’t last your long runs or how the GPS will be so far off it would frustrate you to no end, or how because of the screen you can’t read it in the bright sun.  So my first run I took off at the crack of dawn for 24 miles with a watch on both wrist(Garmin on the right, AW on the left) on a run that would see my progress down to faster than marathon pace.  I was going to give the AW and the 3+ hours I’d be out running all it could handle.  I left so early it was still dark out and immediately I loved how when you turn the watch towards your face it illuminates in the dark and is clear (Garmin obviously has a light you just have to hit a button).  I was doing a point to point run, and my wife was going to meet me at the end point and she was delighted to be able to pull me up on “find my friends” and see where I was (thank you cellular data without phone!) and also text me to update me (which I ignored because I was running but nice to have).  Ten miles into my run I was happy to see that both watches had similar distances (off by .05) as I started to do some loops around a lake.  As I knew the distance was 1.4 miles around, I was happy to see AW get that every time around as did, of course, the Garmin.  I headed to my final destination, a local track for some faster stuff at the end.  At this point, the watches seemed to disagree, and after 6 miles running on the track they ended up .6 miles off.  It would be easy to say the AW was the culprit but the splits the Garmin had me running were way outside what I felt capable for myself and off from the split a friend had for the 5k timer I ran so who knows.  I finished my 24 miles and spent some time hanging around afterward noticed that even with cellular data running the whole time, and heart rate data that 3.5 hours from when I started my battery life was still at 45% when finished.  Honestly, that’s pretty solid all things considered in my opinion and a far cry from what everyone told me.

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apple watch for runners

After that run, I began to try my AW out on many different terrains and runs for the rest of the week, and stopped wearing two watches because man, was that not fun(also I got called a dork a bunch on my first run).  I took it on the run through the trails on Sunday and got a very similar distance to my friend who was wearing a newer Garmin Watch (however she started it late, so I’ll never know!).  I took it out for a morning run with a friend that I ran twice a week and got the same exact distance I got every week when I used my Garmin.  I even took it through some of my lunch runs and a workout.  A solid week throwing everything I could at it and the AW continued to shine and handle most everything I needed to perform my running, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about some bad things that might matter to you.

First off the lackluster Strava app aside, which I don’t necessarily hold the watch responsible for since I enjoy the workout app, the synchronization between Garmin Connect, Strava and Health App (which is where everything is store on the iPhone) is lacking currently.  Strava being the main place most of us runners store our data it’s important that one way or another our runs get into Strava so we can get the Kudos’s from our friends(really it’s my main training log these days).  Currently to do that I needed to download a $1.99 app called RunGap which shares my data from Health to Strava but it shouldn’t be needed.  From what I read the new WatchOS should allow this to occur automatically in the future when app developers make updates but until that does happen it’s not my favorite.  Secondly, the only way to take splits is to double tap the screen which sounds beautiful and easy except during my workout many times it did not take the first couple tries.  It’s nice that it does vibrate your wrist when you hit a segment so I get some feedback but it was not responsive enough for me doing a workout and wanting a split.  Some segments took 7 seconds of double tapping, maybe my hands were too sweaty(How about letting me split a segment clicking the side buttons?)?  Also along these lines, I don’t know what other runners do, but on my Garmin, I have a second screen I use for workouts because I want different information for intervals then I do for runs.  It would be nice if I could slide to the right and create a different interface for when I do workouts (also add the Last Lap and Current Lap field please).  Pausing is also not my favorite, hitting the two side buttons to pause when one button could work seems silly.  Although it’s better than having to slide the screen to the left and hitting pause(nope).

So, onto the good, I love the heart rate data.  For once I can trust heart rate data as run after run I watch it progress normally as I’d expect.  No more seeing 200 heart rates on 8-minute mile easy days or giant spikes for no reason on runs.  For my 24 miler, I saw a constant increase the entire time and that makes me feel confident in the data.  The display whether sunny or dark out I love it, it’s crystal clear and displays my information in an easy to read format.  The GPS data has been excellent, the slight vibration for a split is nice/subtle and not an annoying beep I turned off on my Garmin.  It has helped to meet all the expectations I would want from a GPS watch.

And lastly, the bells and whistles which factor into this for me, as I said if the watch can perform its primary function the rest only helps me as a runner.  Having the ability to receive/send texts and make phones calls without my phone (which I never bring on a run, and therefore why my Instagram suffers #PhotosFromTheRun) is amazing.  The phone quality from the watch is excellent as I’ve tested it out calling my wife.  Do I need to send texts while I am out on a 20-mile long run? Nope.  But if something happens to me and I need something or assistance having that safety net can’t be ignored.  Heck through applepay you can technically make purchases from my watch if I need a mid-run fuel.  I didn’t get to test it but with WatchOS 4.1 the ability to stream on LTE is coming and I can’t express how nice it will be to be able to stream music or other things on my runs to Bluetooth speakers without needing a phone.  Many days I’d love to just get out on the run and listen to something and relax, but I don’t want to bring my phone, so this will be a game changer for me, although I do recognize it will probably destroy my battery life of the watch.  I’d imagine a runner might not want to run cellular data while streaming music to their Bluetooth headset for a marathon if they want the watch to make it.  Lastly, while this isn’t something I crave having notifications on my wrist has been a nice addition to my GPS watch.

I got the watch because I do enjoy apple products but also because I knew if I hated it I could just return it and get a GPS watch.  I went in knowing this watch HAD to perform as a GPS watch otherwise none of this other stuff mattered and once it proved it can meet my needs(with some minor hiccups, honestly I think a new Strava app will fix most of them) all these other nice to haves put this watch over the top for me.  I have a watch that can meet all my running and now day to day needs all for around the same price some of the top end GPS watches cost.  If you are up for a new GPS watch and don’t hate Apple just because I’d highly recommend you give it a try and see what you think.  You might be surprised at how it performs and if you don’t like it take advantage of Apple’s return policy.  However, I think most serious runners might be surprised that this watch can work for our needs.

If you have any questions hit Nick up, and he’ll be happy to give you any impressions or feedback you want.

22 Comments

  1. This is easily the best review of the Apple Watch I have read. Very insightful. I too sold my Fenix 5 and went back to an Apple Watch for all my fitness needs. The series 3 has been great so far. I’ve been using the native app then RunGap to export to Strava. How have you found the pace stats given live on the Watch?

  2. This is exactly the kind of review of the Apple Watch I have been waiting for. First and foremost, it will serve as my run info/data-recording instrument. Useful info relative to a wide variety of run types and durations as well as issues that need resolved/improved. After patiently waiting to 3rd generation, finally feel confidant to give the AW a go for myself and leave my iPhone at home.

  3. This review was very helpful — I have been researching the Apple Watch 3 for running since it came out. Quite convincing but I’m still a bit concerned about battery life on long runs because I’d like to listen to music.

    1. I suppose it depends what you mean by a long run. I regularly run for 2hrs plus and never have any issues with battery life. This is with the hr cellular and music playing. Tech radar done a great review taking this watch out for a 4-5 hour run and no issues. You can always put power save mode on

  4. Thanks for this! Have been running with a Polar M400 for sooo long and tired of chest straps and iPods and the mission that’s attached to attaching all the devices to go out for a run. Have been contemplating the Apple Watch S3 since its releaese and have looked at every possible alternative…Garmin FR 235, Garmin FR 935, Suunto Spartan, TomTom Runner etc… and they all leave me rather cold. There’s just nothing to get excited about. Furthermore, music is an essential part of my running, and if (like me) you’re music library is almost entirely populated with Apple Music content, you are faced with a difficult conundrum when trying to sync content to a non-Apple or offline device. So, none of the top recommendations (Garmin and Suunto) would solve this problem. Every now and again I would have to spend hours downloading albums, adding them to my iCloud library (that populates and syncs to 4 devices) and then manage the playlists to work on my old iPod Shuffle (which Apple has dropped all support for and have discontinued). The most sensible choice would then be an Apple Watch S3 which solves the music problem. BUT…is it a worthwhile option for someone like me who runs about 50km a week? Based on your review…it would seem so! Thanks Nic.

  5. Even after several months, this is still a vert useful review. However, there is a little confusion with a few points:
    – You say you checked out “the Strava app and the Workouts app,” but later have “workouts app” in lowercase… so it’s really hard to understand which Workouts app. I’m wondering if you meant the app provided with the Apple Watch or something else.
    – Wasn’t clear if the Strava app was at all useful.

    Any insight you can provide would be great. Thanks for the well-researched review.

    1. Howard sorry for any confusion. The Workouts app provided by Apple is the one I used and still do. The Strava app still does not do what I would like and unless I am missing something still doesn’t offer me any customization.

      The Strava app might be useful for other people but the fields it displays are Time, Avg Pace, distance and heart rate and if you double click the screen you can switch to split(from avg Pace) but I’d rather have those 5 fields always displayed as the Workouts App does.

      Still 5 months later I use it everyday for running and life but still wish it had a better solution instead of double tapping the watch face for lap splits.

        1. In RunGap you go to accounts/settings and then Strava is in there and you link it to your Strava account. Then after a run populates in your Activities feed in RunGap you hit the “…” and then Share it to Strava and it will upload it.

          Hope that helps!

  6. This is a very helpful review! Thank you!! I have been trying to commit to the AW3 for all of my runs for about a month, but just can’t seem to find the right combination. My goal: Use a reliable app that will easily upload to strava. That is all. I thought I found the perfect solution running just through the strava app. I loved it, until I realized that the gps is not the most accurate. Over a 6 mile run I’d be .20 miles ahead of my run partners and therefore showing much faster paces than my run partners. Can’t have that on strava! So, I’ve tried just using the Apple Watch workout app but can’t seem to get it to upload to strava. Today I tried the Nike+ App and was able to upload to strava through Run Gap. I may need to experiment a little more, but Nike+ wasn’t showing me lap pace or avg pace, just current pace and that is not useful. I primarily run with lap pace. Any suggestions for the best app to use while running that will be accurate and easily upload to strava? I sure wish strava app was accurate because it worked perfectly for me showing lap pace or avg pace with just a quick tap of the screen. Thanks for your help!!

  7. Lori, thanks for the kind words. I use the plain apple workouts app and upload with RunGap and I seem to have no issues. My runs distances are usually almost identical to friends I run with who use Garmin watches.

    I had a similar issue with the Strava app not fitting my cup of tea which was upsetting because i figured Strava with their large community would design an app to fit all our needs but so far I don’t use that app for runs until it gets an update.

    I can’t speak to Nike+ as I don’t have that version of the watch but your frustration over current pace I have too. I don’t care what I am running the exact second I look but my avg pace on the current lap is something I’ve hoped would get added.

    In the end so far Workouts fit my needs the best. I love the layout of the screen when running and allowing me 5 fields got me the closest solution to an enjoyable experience that fits my running needs. But I hope that Strava can improve their experience. I know I have seen the forums over at Strava full of suggestions for improvements of the app so the best hope is to post and hope they address our needs!

    I hope my response was helpful!

  8. Thanks for the great review! I’m running into battery life issues on my longer runs… If I’m running music, WiFi, LTE, BT and Strava all concurrently, I seem to get a little over three hours of battery life out of the AW3 (using AirPods). How do you get more? Do you turn off LTE, WiFi? Does the powersave mode disable anything you need? Thanks!

    1. Tom, so my review was done before music streaming over LTE was available so my battery life performed a little better. I do run most runs with sleep on as I don’t want to be bothered usually on a run. So I think that helps because it’s not always pulling data. I don’t use the Strava app but I’m sure the workouts app is the same drain. The longest run i have done to date is 2.5 hours but I do remember apple saying battery life would only be 5 hours or so with gps on and probably less with streaming.

      So can’t say I’m getting better battery life, I just have a few things slightly different for my runs. I hope this response was helpful.

  9. Nick, so great article but I need some more details regarding the Apple Watch and a great app to use. I currently have a very old Garmin Forerunner watch that allows me to see a target time and pace count (Live Coach Tracking). Basically I run a set distance and want to meet or beat my goal. Currently my Garmin will tell me to speed up or slow down at a set interval as I reach the target distance. I am not against paying a one time purchase for an app to do this but don’t want to pay a subscription. I want to get real-time feedback while running. Is there anything close to this on the Apple Watch?

    1. Robert, my understanding (please don’t quote me as I don’t have that version) is that the Nike Apple Watch and Nike Apple Watch App have this type of feedback built into it in some way. I remember reading that app will tell you to speed up and slow down based on other runs and gives you more feedback. I’d look into the Nike Apple Watch stuff a little more if I were you because that might be the version that would support you. I am not completely sure because with the Garmin watches that was not a feature I ever used so it wasn’t something I looked for with this watch and why I skipped the Nike Apple Watch personally.

  10. Thank you for this review. I have one question; I tend to Jeff when training so will run a mile walk 1 minute I can set this up on my Garmin and repeat as dependent upon the distance I want to cover. Am I able to set up something similar on the AW3 & which app would I need to download?

    1. Claire, I think (don’t quote me as I don’t have that version) but what I remember from reading the Nike Apple Watch allows for some of that customization. They have a lot of personalized workouts etc built in. With this version of the watch, I have not found anything built into it that allows you to set timers to go off for run/walk type segments. They may be there, but for me personally it was something I never used with Garmin watches.

  11. After recently getting back into running after a four year break I was amazed at how technologically out of date my Garmin watch is. I’ve been considering the AW and your review helped me decide. Thanks!

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