Using the Apple Watch in Endurance Sports

There is no doubt that the Apple Watch works well for short workouts, but how about longer events? This past week I got to find out. I just completed my 3rd [Bike Across Kansas (BAK)], a week long 500 mile cycling event that goes from the Colorado border across the state of Kansas all the way to the Missouri border. For a week you cycle from town to town on your bicycle and then each night you either sleep in the local school gym or in the tent your brought along. Each day you bike between 50 and 100 miles, which means you spend a lot of hours on the bike.

Battery Life

I was very surprised how well the Apple Watch performed. Most days I spent between 4 and 6 hours on the bike and not once during the week did I need to charge my Apple Watch before it was time to call it a night. I brought along a battery backup and was prepared to charge my watch for small chunks of time while I was taking a break off the bike, but I never had to. The iPhone also did really well while on the bike. I was expecting a lot of battery drain from GPS usage tracking my mileage but I only averaged 30%-40% of my battery used or less for each 4-6 hour ride (I have an iPhone 6 Plus...bigger battery).

While on the Bike

Having the Apple Watch on while on the bike came in handy for several reasons during this past week.

  1. Quick Glances at Workout Stats: This was nice because I wanted to see how many calories I had expended and used this as a way to gauge when I needed to consume more. It's easy to forget to eat while on the bike. Once you get your heart rate up your appetite goes down so you really have to pay attention. Apple Watch made this easy.
  2. Timer: This saved me several times. I always set a timer to remind me to re-apply sunscreen so I don't get off the bike at the end of the day looking like a tomato. But more often than not I forget to re-start the timer after I re-apply. No problem. With the Apple Watch I can easily and safely set a new timer by just raising my wrist for a few seconds and asking Siri to set a timer.
  3. Maps: On the last day when I was riding into our destination city I had a pretty complicated route to get the school we were ending at. It was raining and I really didn't want to stop and pull my iPhone out in the rain and the route map just isn't usable while riding the bike. So I just asked Siri for direction to the High School while I was still riding my bike and my Apple Watch would tap my wrist when it was time to make a turn.

As an Alarm Clock

I don't wear my Apple Watch while I sleep, but during this event it was a bit different. I would typically charge my Apple Watch in the tent while reading before bed and then switch over to charging my iPhone off the battery backup either before going to sleep or later in the night when I woke up. At that point I would put on the Apple Watch because I sleep with earplugs in (it can get noisy camping with 850 other cyclists on school grounds). With earplugs in I was concerned I might not hear my alarm. Sure enough it woke me up, but not quite as well as I hoped. The very first time it ended up waking me up in my dream and it took me a while to realize the alarm was "real" and not part of the dream. That was really strange. You see the whole "waking up in your dream" in movies and on TV all the time but this was a first for me. The taptic engine on the Apple Watch really is quite subtle, but after that first morning the watch woke me up rather efficiently.

Workout Accuracy

I'm running Watch OS 1.01, which includes an update that is supposed to make heart rate and calorie tracking more accurate. I found that the calories burned being calculated were quite accurate. On days where we were climbing a lot of hills my average heart rate was much higher and the calories burned per hour was higher than the typically 500-600 calories per hour spend on a road bike. I also got to test out the Apple Watch without using the Workout app. I was pretty short on battery one day because the night before I was not able to fully charge my watch and iPhone so I opted to just let the watch track my activity rather than turning on the "Outside Bike" activity with the workout app. The difference is that if you don't activate the workout app the watch checks your heart rate much less frequently and assumes your activity is just a normal walk. In my case it was still very accurate. Since I tend to keep a pretty constant pace and heart rate, when the watch checked my heart rate (I think it's like once every 5 minutes or so) it really hasn't changed much. My calories burned for that ride was lower than if I had turned on the Workout App and selected "Outdoor Cycle", but it got me through a long workout with virtually no battery.

Summary

Despite all the hype about abysmal battery life, the Apple Watch performed extremely well in an endurance sport event and I didn't have to charge the device other than at night. There was one more nice surprise benefit to the Apple Watch. I had just finished a long ride and stopped into a MacDonald's for a salad and a cold drink. Since I was wearing my Apple Watch I didn't have have to remove my cycling gloves and fish through my jersey pockets for my wallet to pay. Nope, just a quick clip of the wrist and I was off with my food and drink...slick.

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