The best Apple Watch running apps tested

From pace and distance to heart-rate tracking, we take these apps out on the road

With GPS now standard on the Apple Watch line-up, there's more reason than ever to consider using Apple Watch apps for tracking runs and workouts.

And now with LTE connectivity offering the ability to stream music from the wrist and the continuation of the partnership with Nike, picking up an Apple Watch seems like a no-brainer – something that can be worn all day and taken out on the roads and trails.

Bookmark this: Essential Apple Watch apps

The Apple Watch has improved massively for runners – and even the newly announced watchOS 5 operating system introduced a host of new features specifically aimed at those who live to run.

That doesn't disguise the fact that even casual runners are probably already tracking runs using a service – and unwilling to swap services. But the beauty of the Apple Watch is the versatility offered by apps and the selection is improving.

We've tested a range of Apple Watch running apps by going out and getting sweaty, to ensure you're getting the best out of your smartwatch. Here's what's worth a download, and what to run a mile from.

Nike+ Run Club

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

Like pretty much everything Nike does, this app looks the business. With its distinctive volt yellow, snappy design and motivational features, there's more than enough of that 'Just Do It' vibe. The recently updated iPhone app has come in for a lot of criticism, but it's still one of the better apps tailored to the Apple Watch.

And with the arrival of watchOS 5 and a new Apple Watch Series 4 Nike+ edition, the app is gaining Audio Guided Runs, which are a series of guided workouts from Nike coaches and athletes. There's also a fresh Activity History feature, which displays the details of your last five runs. Series 3 owners can also take advantage of the new barometric sensor to keep tabs on elevation.

It's quick to load, easy to navigate and runs are simple to start. You can add a Nike+ Run Club complication to your Apple Watch face that launches straight into the app where you get to choose from Quick start, 'Match Your Last Run' or a choice of distance, duration and speed runs, although the latter requires your phone.

The Match Your Last Run feature will definitely appeal to the go further, run harder mentality that you get a lot from Nike, but we found we rarely used it. In reality, just beating what you did last time, be it distance or pace, isn't really a smart way to become a better runner. Motivational? Maybe. Targeted? Not so much.

Once you're actually running, things go a little downhill. The in-run screen displays current pace, which sadly is often inaccurate and slow to respond, meaning you never quite know how fast you're going. You also get heart rate, duration and distance and you can rotate the watch crown to flick between pace and distance stats during a run. Sadly, there's no average pace and you can't make BPM the lead stat, which makes it less effective as a heart rate training tool.

There's an indoor mode for tracking treadmill runs, too, but you have to remember to flick between indoor and outdoor settings manually, which is a little frustrating. In our tests, we also found the distance to be a long way off what the treadmill told us we'd run, though that isn't too uncommon with wrist-based platforms.

There are other nice touches, like complications support and the ability to set a reminder for 'When are we running' next, but this is limited to time slots from the current day. It doesn't recognise if you've already run and it would be nice to be able to set a reminder a little further into the future.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home screen: Yes

Free | Download

Strava Running

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

Strava has a standalone app that lets you ditch the smartphone and see your real-time data straight from the Watch screen.

It's still a pretty minimal experience, but data is laid out to make it easy to digest during a run. Distance, duration, splits and heart rate all covered here but customisation for these data fields are very limited.

Initially, we experienced some accuracy problems in the distance and pacing departments when pitted against a GPS sports watch. And while this was too much of a mixed bag to recommend, it's got much better and we're banking on Strava on making further improvements to make it a much more reliable running app companion in the future too.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch app from home screen: Yes

Free | Download

Endomondo

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

Another of the popular smartphone apps tailored for the Apple Watch, Endomondo (owned by Under Armour) also offers indoor and outdoor run tracking, accessible with the tap of a complication from the Apple Watch home screen. This app isn't quite as flashy as Nike+ Run Club, and there are none of the 'come on, let's run!' motivational features.

Read this: The best Apple Watch apps

Once you're running, the first of three main in-run screens displays duration, distance, current pace and HR. One swipe left provides more detailed pace stats, and a second swipe displays your current BPM and break down of how long you've spent in each of the five heart rate zones. If you care about heart rate zone training, then the option to display your heart rate front and centre puts this ahead of the Nike+ Run Club app.

While there's a pleasant simplicity here, just like the Nike+ app, Endomondo's Apple Watch incarnation has gaps – the biggie being that it doesn't use the GPS, so you still need to take your phone.

There's also no run history. In fact, once you've hit 'Done' after viewing your post-run stats, they're gone for good; there are no session specific features like interval running or pace and distance targets to follow; no maps, no cadence, no elevation, no integrated music controls. What you get here is GPS and heart rate tracking stripped back to the basics – but it's still one of the stronger apps for the Apple Watch.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home screen: Yes

Free | Download

Apple Workout

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

Much maligned when it initially launched, Workout has improved as the Watch has become more focused towards fitness. And in watchOS 5 things got even more powerful – so much so it's now a powerful workout tool.

You can start a host of workouts from the Workout app, and there's modes for Indoor and Outdoor run. And you get plenty of data displayed on the watch itself, as well – which can be edited in the Apple Watch companion app. You can use your iPhone to choose to display distance, current pace, heart rate, duration, average pace, active calories or total calories. You can dictate the order in which they're displayed, and also select between a single and multiple metric view.

Read this: GymKit will make the Apple Watch a better workout companion

watchOS 5 also adds some modes that will be the envy of traditional running watch manufacturers. Automatic exercise detection, cadence tracking and things like rolling pace, which offers analysis of your speed in the last km/mile, in addition to average pace.

You're given one screen showcasing your stats, while a swipe to the left makes it easy to switch your tunes up and a quick right swipe can pause or end proceedings. However, if you lock the screen to avoid your sleeve accidentally pausing or ending your run, which happens a lot, you can't then rotate between stats.

The post run stats screen is fairly comprehensive with distance, time, active calories, overall calories, average pace, average heart rate, but, as with Nike, Endomondo and Strava, once you've hit 'Done', that's it. There's no workout history and you need to fire up your phone to review your run data.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch app from home screen: Yes

Runkeeper

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

Unlike some options on this list, Runkeeper was early on the standalone app train. And just like Nike+ and Endomondo, it will also guesstimate your distance if you're hitting the treadmill.

When it comes to the watch app, though, there's not much to play with in terms of personalisation. Before you set out you can set a target pace and a maximum heart rate but that's all.

One thing we loved about Runkeeper was the ability to create and follow set workouts. There are three pre-set options that include 20 Minute Easy Workout, 2.25 Mile or 2 Miles with Rest, or you can build custom workouts in the phone app and they'll sync automatically to the list in the Apple Watch app.


This immediately turns Runkeeper into a more serious training tool, opening up all kinds of options for speed and interval sessions. Setting up a workout takes just a few minutes and the only real criticism we have is that the distance increments are too big (the smallest you can set is 0.25km, making it impossible to add 200m recovery sections into any speed work), and you can't set intervals based on a distance and a time target. It's either or.

In run mode, the screen is split into three areas with the top segment fixed to show duration and GPS signal strength. You can tap the middle segment to switch between distance and current pace, while tapping the bottom segment flicks between showing current and average pace, current pace and heart rate. You can also swipe left to see splits.

As with most Apple Watch running apps, there's no run history shown in the app – you need to fire up the phone to delve deeper into your data. And yes, that's as frustrating here as it is with Nike+ Run Club, Endomondo or any of the others.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home screen: Yes

Free | Download

JogRunSprint

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

While we can't vouch for the JogRunSprint training approach, there's something brilliantly simple and massively motivating about this interval-focused app. The premise is simple: jog for 30 seconds, run for 20 seconds and then sprint for 10 seconds. Rest and repeat. Presumably until you're sick.

You can use the iPhone app to choose the number of intervals in each set and the total number of sets you want to do in each session and then you're good to go. Pacing for each effort is all down to your judgement and you can see the time ticking down on a nice big timer on the Apple Watch face. The watch logs the distance covered during each interval and fires this into the iPhone app, although to access your data from past runs you'll need to cough up a whopping 99p.

The really clever thing though is how this app doesn't really judge you in the same way others do. If you jog, run, sprint and complete your sets, you've done the job. It's challenging but achievable, which is exactly what all runs should be.

We'd love to see heart rate data captured and mapped against the intervals and perhaps for the app to set us some pace targets to keep us on our toes.

A great way to work on your recovery, it also brings a bit of fun to potentially boring track runs and short distances.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home screen: Yes

Free | Download

SIT (Simple Interval Timer)

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

This isn't the best looking app you'll ever download, nor is it a bonanza of run-coaching features. What it is, however, is a fantastically uncomplicated tool that has everything you need to set up interval sessions in a flash, direct from your Apple Watch. That's right, SIT gives you the kind of control most of the apps on this list would benefit from.

All you have to do is choose the number of sets, the duration of your efforts and then the time you want to rest. Hit Go and you're presented with a screen that shows which set you're on out of the total number, a countdown of how long is left to go in this set or this rest period and your current heart rate.

There are many improvements we'd make to this app: for example, there's no audio or vibration alert to tell you when you're moving between work and rest. We'd also love to see a variety of interval types, such as distance and even heart rate-based efforts, but this isn't a bad start.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from homescreen: No

Free | Download

Runtastic Pro

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

The key thing to note here is that the free version of Runastic's app is littered with so many adverts and upgrade messages for the Pro version and Premium features that it rapidly becomes unbearable. Unless you're willing to part with $4.99 to get Runtastic Pro, we'd recommend side-stepping this app altogether.

Essential guide: How to use Runtastic Pro to become a better runner

Unfortunately, even if you do shell out for the Pro version you're still not free from the heavy-handed marketeers who can't resist flashing their premium wares at you and trying to entice you to spend another £49.99 a year on added features.

Another issue here is the glitches. It was often unresponsive, with plenty of second taps needed and lag between screens and it crashed on us a number of times. On other occasions hitting 'Start' on the watch started the phone app but froze the watch screen. All in all, not a great user experience.

The Start screen itself is a simple affair, with three options. Choose your activity and then tell Runtastic if you want to enable Live Tracking so family members can follow your progress in real time, and whether you want voice updates on or off. Hitting Start fires up the phone app and you're good to go.

In running mode, you get one screen with duration, distance, current pace, heart rate and heart rate zone. The order is fixed and there's no option to customise the view. It's a shame that the vast array of data points you get on the phone app aren't reflected on the watch.

The fact that you can swipe left for music controls that skip between tracks and pause your iTunes music is a plus, although we'd like it to control Spotify and other streaming services, too.

Once you've hard pressed to end your workout you get the option to add an emoticon that sums up how you felt, along with what kind of terrain you ran on, although it's not immediately clear what the difference between Trail and Wilderness is. The activity summary is about as detailed as any you get on the Apple Watch. It includes quite a list: distance, duration, calories, average pace, average speed, max speed, elevation gain, elevation loss, max elevation, average heart rate, max heart rate and dehydration.

However, just like all the other apps on this list, once you've hit Close, all that data disappointingly disappears into the phone app and there's no run history at all on the watch.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home screen: Yes

$4.99 | Download

RunGo

The best Apple Watch running apps tested

A free Apple Watch app that lets you build your own offline routes or select from 70,000 pre-installed ones, RunGo's specialty is its ability to cater for the visually impaired through voice assistance.

It can also give you the basics from the wrist, such as pace, distance, splits and elevation, while premium features include live tracking for friends and family to follow along, plus interval training.

Read more: RunGo's Apple Watch running app for the visually impaired

While owners of the Series 2 and above can take advantage of workouts without the phone, RunGo has also jumped on to ARKit and developed a feature that allows to people to view routes and directions with the help of AR. Expect this solid Apple Watch contender to branch out to Apple's purported smartglasses when the time comes, but for now it's limited to phones.

Works without phone: Yes

Complications to launch from home: Yes

Free | Download


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2 comments

  • RobertHattan·

    Great article but a feature I use a lot on an old Garmin Forerunner watch that I need in an app is a live running coach. Setting a distance and time desired I am able to get warnings about speeding up or slowing down at set intervals. Does that exist with any of these apps?

  • Ermitchell·

    I think you left out one of the best, iSmoothRun.