A Serious Athlete -- Using the Apple Watch
First and foremost this post is mostly going to be going through my opinions on the Apple Watch purely as a fitness and training device because I just feel compelled to share my findings with the world, particularly in comparison to my Suunto Ambit 3 (which is a very reputable training device for those that don't know).
If this seems like it could be an interesting read to you, then sit back and get ready for the ride. Its going to be a doozy.
Where to begin? First, I'll start with a bit of background as to what I do. When I say 'serious athlete' I'm not saying I'm a professional sports trainer or pro level athlete, though I am a highly active 23 year old individual and competitor in certain sports. I rock climb--mainly bouldering and sport climbing competitively, practice martial arts competitively, and train for both of these on a regular basis on my own time (sometimes with the assistance of a trainer).
In my quest to become a greater athlete, I started my search for the assistance of a wearable device. I wanted something that could 1) handle my lifestyle, 2) give an accurate estimate [bit of an oxymoron, I know] on my caloric burn, 3) and measure my heart rate, heart rate zones, and recovery. My quest began with Garmin. I purchased a Garmin Vivofit as my first set of baby steps into the wearable market early last year, before the Apple Watch was a thought. I work at an outdoor gear shop part of the time as well, so many of these outdoor brands market products like this that I can get good deals on.
The Vivofit was a great device while I had it. It had a year+ battery life, a completely waterproof design, an estimate on my calories burned, as well as walking distance and step count. Simple. Elegant. It did its job well--and nothing more. But thats just the thing. I craved more from this device in my time with it (and trust me here, I put it through its paces). Day after day of training exercises, martial arts classes, and late night bouldering sessions made me appreciate having a device to help keep track of my daily fitness levels. Many days I was in the ball park of burning 2900-3200 calories or more. A bit more than what I had anticipated. Neat, right?
The more I began to research personal fitness and taking my ability to the next level, the more I began to realize that I was beginning to crave more from the device. While it had a heart rate function available, I never opted for the Garmin version. I read into some of the wireless technologies (namely ANT+) and decided I wanted to find something along the lines of Bluetooth 4.0 LE. It is just a better wireless radio for small, wearable items.
Then, one day at the gear shop, our Suunto Rep came by for a clinic. I told him what I wanted out of a wearable and he tells me that the Ambit 3 would be the device for me, hands down. He offered me one at a VIP price. Hold the phone. Around this time I had seen and read about the announcement of the Apple Watch. Being an Apple fan, I knew I was destined to buy one of these devices, but I needed instant gratification. So I pulled the trigger on the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport HR version.
I was impressed. The Ambit 3 did everything the Vivofit did, but more. Much more. Fully customizable workouts, Bluetooth 4.0 LE HR belt, recovery time, activity tracking, compass, GPS, wrist navigation, sleep tracking, and the ability to send notifications from my iPhone over to my wrist. The battery on this thing was dang good for what it was--a week or two weeks on a single charge depending on my usage of GPS.
I set up my Ambit 3 with specific workouts: Kenpo training, hang board training (for climbing hand strength), trail running with GPS enabled, open water swimming, bouldering--both indoor and outdoor, calisthenics training, yoga. It had options to set up a multisport mode so, for example, while I was on an outdoor climbing trip I could switch between trekking and climbing without the blink of an eye-- all the while keeping track of my heart rate and distance hiked.
Diving a little deeper, I particularly liked this device when I was doing my indoor training. An average 'workout' for me consists of running roughly a mile or mile and a half in what I call a 'super mile'. So I run a 1 minute lap around my track (6 laps equates to a mile by the way), stop and do a set of push-ups, two sets of crunches, and every other lap a set of pull ups. Then I repeat until I have run a mile, or mile and a half, or two miles--just depending on the intensity of the workout I want that day. Following that I would move to free weights (high reps, low weight) and do either upper or lower body, just depending on the day. Wearing the HR strap allowed me to view my heart rate zones from my wrist--mostly to ensure I didn't let it drop below a certain percentage while training. Occasionally I used this feature to ensure that I didn't let my heart rate get too high, but this was not often the case.
Following my training, the Ambit 3 would give me a recovery time estimate--ranging anywhere from 2 hours to 25 hours just depending on the activity I had done for that particular day. I found this to be useful, but not as useful as you might think. I've been training long enough to tell what my body needs in terms of rest, and often times I felt as though the numbers they shot me on recovery time were kind of high.
There are a number of other features that were useful on the Ambit 3, such as the ability to route plan with your GPS or tag coordinates and navigate your way back to them later -- something that the Apple Watch doesn't have stand alone (let alone a GPS antenna). But the vast majority of the time I was using my Ambit 3 for training functions and NOT navigation functions.
As for my gripes?
The Suunto watch is absolutely HUGE. It looks like what you'd expect a GPS watch to be. It has a slight antenna bulge and sticks out from my wrist nearly an inch. It dwarfs my 38mm Apple Watch. I felt like I was constantly banging it [Ambit 3] on stuff, but it always emerged unscathed, due to the fact that this thing is rugged.
Most of my gripes though aren't about the watch itself, but the ecosystem that Suunto has built around it. Their iPhone app called Movescount is garbage. While it allows for phone pairing functionality and the ability for your notifications, I constantly had to re-pair because they disconnect randomly. Sometimes after 5 hours, sometimes after 20 minutes (even with my phone in my pocket the whole time). There was no organization to the notifications it sent through, which got annoying too. It was either all or nothing just popping up on your wrist.
As far as the functionality of the app is concerned, basically all it allowed me to do was tweak the settings of the watch a little easier than going through the menus on the Ambit 3 itself. I couldn't view detailed health or workout info from Movescount unless I pulled out a laptop. You could view a summary of your workout from the watch, but nothing to the extent of the Apple Health App. And thats another thing, Movescount didn't pair with any HealthKit functionality. Bummer. The website itself showed a tremendous breakdown of data--and don't get me wrong, it was very useful, but often overwhelming unless you had some sort of a degree in Sports Medicine. Heart Rate Data, Vo2, EPOC, PTE. It was all there....but I could really only could view graphical information from my laptop. But the app was buggy. It would crash and/or straight up just fail to pair to the watch for no reason. Sometimes it would freeze. It felt like all the code in the app was just sort of duct-taped together, if you will.
Then, the HR belt quit working. After about 4 months it went on the fritz. I read up and changed the battery on it, but to no avail. It constantly began to show erratic heart rate data and lose connection without warning (cataclysmic to some of my workouts, to say the least). Without the $80 HR strap, you lose about half of the functionality of the watch. Not to mention the thing started to smell AWFUL, even after numerous washes. This loss of connection really pissed me off more than anything. I'd be about to start a workout, trying desperately to get the thing to pair before finally throwing the strap to the ground and not recording my workout for the day.
Suunto said I'd need to mail the strap in for them to 'evaluate' before they would consider replacing it. The process could take a couple of months, they said. I didn't want to go without it at the time, so I kept training with it. Sometimes it would work, but most of the time not. It got me wondering though, how reliable were the results from this thing at this point when it decided to work?
Then, the Apple Watch released. I preordered one as soon as I could and received a 38mm SG Sport on day 1. The Suunto took a back seat. I was intrigued by how small the device was--especially compared to the gargantuan Ambit 3. I felt like I could actually work out more efficiently without banging this thing all around (and this still holds true). I was also intrigued by the wrist mounted HR sensor, constantly measuring my pulse throughout the day to give me a better glimpse on both my fitness and recovery (more on this later).
So I worked out with it. It has a few preset options, most of which you are all probably familiar with since this is an Apple Forum, but I found my go to option to be 'other'. Measuring HR and pairing accelerometer data together to give me both ACTIVE and RESTING calories, versus just 'calories' on my Suunto. I liked the differentiation here--its subtle, but it gave me better understanding of how my body burned those calories compared to when I was, for example, drinking water or catching my breath between bouldering problems.
I also liked how the watch set you goals to help keep you a little more motivated on the days where you need it. The Suunto on the other hand just displayed a raw numerical representation of your calories for the day....but the Apple Watch just feels more personal. The achievements are kind of a trivial thing, but it kind of makes me feel like they're just turning my life into a video game.
But the best part about using the Apple Watch for my training wasn't the activity app on my phone, but rather the Health App. This is HUGE. Especially when I paired it up with the iOS 9 beta. Graphical, detailed information on virtually every single health metric, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Body weight, HR, blood pressure, active and resting calories, steps taken (meh), BMI. Suunto didn't hold a candle to this. While the Ambit 3 is a great workout watch, it only tells you half the story---about when you're working out. But Apple Watch paired with the Health app provided so much more data than I dreamed of, about not just workouts, but overall health.
So now, this brings me back to the recovery aspect of the workouts and activity. I was a little bummed about the lack of recovery time on the Apple Watch--until I realized something. I could sleep with this thing on, and it will measure my pulse every ten minutes. So I did. And started analyzing my heart rate trends during my sleep (as well as my motion activity) to see how rested I truly was the next day.
For me, I know my true resting heart rate (while laying down, in bed) is around 35-37 bpm, based off of medium term data. I could take this knowledge that I now possessed, and compare it to the days where I completed a hard workout. If I'd really worn myself out, my resting heart rate could be measured anywhere from 42-47. Interesting. The Apple Watch had a built in recovery feature after all. I could compare these trends not only while I was sleeping, but to while I was active as well and see those days where my heart is working just a touch harder than it should, letting me know that I should probably take it easy (or easier, ha) that day.
And the best part is? NO STUPID BELT TO WEAR! The idea of strapping my HR belt got tiring day after day. And after comparing the HR data from my Apple Watch to my Sunnto (when it was actually working), the HR trends are incredibly close together. Accurate? Yep. Precise? Yep. Gone was that extra step of pairing a second bluetooth device. Gone was the extra step about yet ANOTHER battery to keep charged. The Apple Watch did this all from a simple wrist sensor.
While the Apple Watch, at least in the first generation, doesn't have a built in GPS or a crazy good battery life, these aren't huge deal breakers for me--not in what I was needing out of my fitness wearable. I don't mind charging it daily. I didn't go on trail runs that generally required me to take some sort of navigation. Plus, lets be honest, if someone is going outside and SOLELY relying on a GPS, they probably shouldn't be venturing out alone anyway.
As for a time where I may be reaching for my Suunto again? Really, the only time I could find myself reaching for my Ambit 3 again is if I'm going to be spending an extended amount of time outside, say, on a week or two week long backpacking trip. But, as far as training is concerned?
I love my Apple Watch.
If you have read this far, then I applaud you. Please leave any questions or comments on my review/rant/story below and I'll be happy to write back.