I don’t subscribe to the idea that what gear you have or what you wear determines whether you’re a “real” runner. (Or, that there’s such a thing as a “real” runner—if you run, you’re a runner.) But I will admit that I always thought of the Apple Watch as a lifestyle watch; fun for everyday use if you can afford it, but not something I’d trust to support my training or deliver accurate metrics.
Up until last year, runners complained about the original Apple Watch’s weak GPS, lack of running-specific features, and clunky start/stop system.
But the Apple Watch Ultra, which launched last fall, changes things. Designed as a more functional, more rugged upgrade to the original Watch, the Ultra boasts dual-frequency GPS, plus a host of other features that make it more runner-friendly (some of these are now available on the original Watch, too, though it doesn’t have the GPS capabilities of the Ultra).
It’s clear that Apple wants the Ultra to be a contender amongst the likes of Garmin and Coros, and after taking it out on 14 runs over the course of three weeks, I can tell you that, for the most part, it is.
The best running features of the Apple Watch Ultra
Reliable GPS, even in urban environments
What makes the Ultra’s GPS such a step up is its dual-frequency, meaning instead of just using L1 frequency, it also uses L5 frequency for greater accuracy, as well as integrating with Apple Maps data. Dual-frequency is becoming more common in sports watches, but most older or lower-end models don’t have it.
While I didn't run on any measured routes to be able to check the accuracy, every split the Ultra gave me felt in line with my effort, and I never noticed any wonky paces, which I can’t always say with my Garmin. The Ultra got a GPS signal almost immediately after stepping out the door in my Manhattan neighborhood full of tall buildings and scaffolding (while my Garmin, which only has single-frequency, sometimes takes up to 10 minutes).
Advanced track features
The Ultra has automatic track detection, using your location data to detect when you’re at an outdoor track and asking you which lane you’re running in for peak accuracy. You can program a workout for automatic lap counting, or manually lap by pressing the Action button.
All the basic running stats
If your running watch provides a stat you rely on, odds are the Ultra has it, too. The watch measures everything from ground contact time to vertical oscillation to stride length—without needing any extra equipment. It also tracks your “power,” which estimates the intensity of your run in watts based on speed and incline.
Multisport workouts and pacer feature
Just like most any running watch, you can program a workout in advance of your run. (That includes multisport workouts for triathletes—the Ultra is water-resistant down to 40 meters.) You can also set a target pace, and the Watch will display a small graph throughout your run for an at-a-glance view of how behind or ahead of that pace you are. Or, you can race against a previous run on the same route.
What majorly sets the Ultra—or even the original Apple Watch—apart from other sports watches: It can do nearly everything your iPhone can do so you can go on worry-free phoneless runs with all your music and podcasts and texts at your fingertips (that is, if you pay for the Watch to be cellular-enabled, which is typically $10 per month on top of your existing phone plan).
The Ultra’s titanium case is supposedly built to withstand all sorts of outdoor adventures. So far, it’s held up, but I thankfully haven’t had any falls or difficult conditions to test it.
Longer battery life
Ultramarathoners used to sports watches that can last for days on end won’t be impressed by the Ultra’s 36 hours of battery life. But, it’s a vast improvement over the original Watch’s 18 hours, and I found it was more than enough for me (though I’m not someone who wears a watch to sleep), and probably plenty for anyone willing to let it charge for a few hours every day or so.
I used the Ultra’s Alpine Loop, which was comfortable, but the fabric was usually quite sweaty by the end of my runs (unlike the silicone band I’m used to), so I had to take it off for several hours to let it dry. The good news: Regular Apple Watch bands are compatible with the Ultra (though not recommended for use during sports), so you can switch out your sweaty band for the more fashionable band of your choice when you’re done working out.
The downsides of using an Apple Watch Ultra to run
Slightly clunky pause/resume
The Ultra has come a long way from the original Watch: You can start your run with the press of one button, rather than waiting for the “3, 2, 1” countdown. But, if you want to pause or restart your workout, you still have to press two buttons on either side of the watch simultaneously, which I found a bit less intuitive than just pressing one button. The display doesn’t change much when the workout is paused versus when it's ongoing, so I occasionally would think I was pausing when it was already paused, or think I was resuming when I was already mid-workout. I also found myself accidentally starting workouts while wearing the watch in daily life.
Any sports watch with a long battery life is likely going to be pretty large. But the combination of the Ultra’s hefty size and square shape makes it sometimes sit uncomfortably on my wrist bone (probably not an issue for runners with larger wrists).
Hard to process at-a-glance stats
The fact that the Ultra displays six different metrics on the watch face at once is a blessing and a curse. Sure, it’s helpful to see real-time updates on so many metrics, but I found that as I glanced down to do a quick check on time, or current pace, or mileage, my eyes had to search for a while before I landed on what I was looking for, as the numbers seem smaller and less delineated than on my Garmin. I imagine this is something I’d adjust to over time.
Is the Apple Watch Ultra worth it for running?
At $799, the Ultra’s price tag is steeper than most sports watches. And for serious running watch nerds, it may be missing a few features that you love.
But for average runners who typically wear an Apple Watch for daily life and a different sports watch for training, switching to one watch that can do both could be majorly appealing—both for the sake of convenience, and to have all your health stats, like resting heart rate and sleep, in one place. The same goes for runners who typically wear a sports watch 24/7 and want something a bit more stylish (no offense, sports watches) and with more everyday functionalities.
It turns out, Apple Watches can be for “real” runners.
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