Why the Apple Watch is missing a beat

Our fitness expert reveals why Apple's smartwatch failed to win his heart
Why the Apple Watch misses a beat

As I sit here in my quiet office, the Apple Watch tells me my current heart rate is 53 beats per minute. I'm happy with that. It puts me on the healthier side of the things when it comes to men my age.

The fact that I can get this piece of information simply by raising my wrist and tapping twice is itself something that makes my ticker pump just a little bit faster. As a runner I'm kind of obsessed by heart rate and this kind of instant-access fills my run-geek heart with joy.

Essential reading: Apple Watch Workout app guide

In the five years since I started being interested in BPMs, resting rates and aerobic zones, the technology has moved on. While trusty chest straps are still very much present, we've seen tech offer new ways to track our hearts. Perhaps the most popular right now is optical heart rate monitoring on the wrist but there are also headphones that clock our pulse and even ridiculous headbands that take check our HR while making us look like Zoolander.

Companies like Polar and Garmin have been telling us heart rate monitoring is important for a long time but it's only in recent years that this concept has started to go mainstream. And when Apple gets on board you know that's a fact.

When it launched the Apple Watch's heart rate skills were, if not centre stage, then in a decent supporting role. A built-in optical heart rate (OHR) sensor was a big deal. Apple prides itself on making sure the technology in its products is robust, good enough, reliable. Nothing, so the myth goes, is launched before it's ready.

Essential reading: Best running watches

So when it came out with a device sporting OHR, those of us who were still yet to be convinced by heart rate on the wrist, could be forgiven for wondering if Apple would be the company to get it spot on. Paired with the native Activity and Workout apps and third party apps like Nike+, Endomondo and Strava, there seemed to be the promise of a great fitness product.

Having used the Apple Watch Sport for a month now, I'm disappointed to say that's not quite the case. Not only is there a big question mark over the optical heart rate sensor's accuracy, but there's a very limited range of heart rate features full stop. Here's where I think the Apple Watch is missing a beat when it comes to heart rate.

No HR your favourite workout apps

Perhaps the biggest problem, and one Apple is going to fix when the WatchOS 2 update lands in the Autumn, is that third party apps can't currently make use of the heart rate sensor. This limits what the sensor can be used for to what you get from Apple's own Workout app. For obvious reasons, that doesn't have anywhere near the features you'll find in the more established offerings of Strava, Nike+ and company.

Essential reading: Best fitness apps

So you're forced to make a choice between tracking heart rate and using your preferred third party app. For those of us who are fiercely loyal to a particular fitness app and obsessive about keeping our data in one place, it's a big deal breaker but once fixed it'll transform the Apple Watch as fitness gadget entirely.

No zone training in the workout app

Another missed trick is the lack of heart rate zone training in Apple's Workout app. Where Garmin, Adidas and Polar have been offering this feature for a long time there's no sign of it on the Apple Watch. Which begs the question why bother tracking your heart rate at all. One of the main reasons for monitoring your heart rate at all is so that you can get real time feedback on whether you're burning fat or building aerobic capacity.

You can't beat a chest strap...yet

Hands up here, my tests haven't been entirely scientific but I've run with the Apple Watch on a dozen occasions while also wearing a Polar M400 and a chest strap. The comparisons don't come out well for the Apple Watch. The Watch heart rate readings were often wildly off. For example in the middle of a long slow Sunday run, the M400 was reading around 140BPM, while the Apple Watch told me I was hitting over 170BPM.

From experience I know what 170BPM feels like compared to 140BPM and I'm more inclined to believe the Polar. To be fair to Apple, I've tested plenty of other wrist-based heart rate devices that suffer similar fluctuations. In my view, you can't beat a chest strap for accuracy.

Heart rate is just a number

As a marathon and ultra runner, I'm used to obsessing about the difference between the heart rate zones, what these mean for my body, and the efficiency of my training. But most people don't. For those who are new to fitness and the idea of heart rate tracking, the Apple Watch fails to offer any context about the information you see during and after your workout. It'll tell you what your current heart rate is at any point during your spin class but at no point during or after, does it offer guidance on what this means. You're average HR might well have been 167BPM compared to last week's 155BPM but so what?

In-depth: Heart rate training zone guide

This lack of insight extends beyond the workout itself. Once you've finished kicking your own ass, there are only a few places you can review how your heart rate has performed. Before you save your workout, the Watch will tell you your Average Heart Rate. But that's that on the watch. There's no breakdown of time spent or distance cover in different zones.

Even on the iPhone what you get by way of review data is sparse. In order to check out the performance for a given workout you need to launch the Activity app, navigate to the day, scroll to the bottom and select your workout. On the workout screen itself you're only given the same average heart rate stat you got when you ended your workout on the watch. There's no chart of heart rate over the course of your workout and there's no info on minimum and maximum heart rate.

But we're almost there

One thing the Apple Watch does do that most other devices don't, is make it easier to chart your resting heart rate. The watch automatically logs your HR at regular intervals without you having to do anything but you can also force it to clock your pulse whenever you want.

While other devices let you check your pulse whenever you like none that I've found let you record this one vital stat and plot the changes over time. You basically have to note it down on a piece of paper.

Being able to see how your resting heart rate is developing over a period of time is excellent for monitoring fitness progression. Unfortunately, while the Apple Watch does clock and store the stat, there's currently no single chart just showing your resting heart rate logs but this would be an easy tweak that we'd love to see.

Have heart, it will improve

Apple itself admits the Watch in its current guise isn't aimed at the serious athletes, that it's a tool targeted at people who just want to move a little more, and not Mo Farrah wannabes trying to hit their personal bests. But through the eyes of this runner it does seem to be a missed opportunity. It's a bit of a tease, not least because it won't take much to unleash its true potential. Just like the iPhone and the iPad the Watch will improve once the developers get to work. All Apple needs to do is open it's heart (rate sensor) to the world.


  • capt says:

    I agree with your article on so many levels. I have a sport model and am training for intervals, weight training and running and I can tell the sensor sometimes fails. That said, clearly you should use a H7 attached to it which is why Apple put that capability in there.  

    I do think your article might give people the wrong idea when in two months it will be a non issue and HR training zones, third party comparison tools will be opened up to the world. 

    I think the best usage for the watch HR sensor is for a resting heart rate average chart as you can have 1000's of data points to see if you are improving. Like you said though, the potential is huge. 

  • Paul-b says:

    Agree with everything except hr data accuracy - I find my chest strap and garmin 310x records data with more irrational spikes and dips than the Watch. I find myself wearing the Watch for texting and calls while I'm running with the iPhone safely stowed away - and the proper fitness watch logging data for Strava. Hopefully watchos2 will fix things, a proper Strava app could be great. 

  • vig says:

    Thanks for a well witten article.

    I would like to raise a question.

    To my astonishement I found out that the Apple watch app. does not include  a function of notifications whenever a target heart rate is exceeded.

    I personally feel that is the most important reason to wear it during workout.

    The other is lack of an allert when heart rate is dropping below a reasonable level during rest. 

    Any suggestions on that ?


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