Making Workouts Work on Apple Watch

I’m a fan of my Apple Watch. Its fitness capabilities have moved me from a 0–2 workouts per week guy to a 3–5 workouts per week guy.

I have no interest in writing about whether or not this device is worth it. Instead, I wanted to share three tips that have enhanced my experience using the stock Workout app.

Before: Customize the Workout Interface

When I’m working out, I’m generally interested in knowing the duration of my workout, how many calories I’ve burned, and my heart rate (more on that last one later). After experimenting with the Workout app, I’ve figured out how to get just that.

The Workout app has three values: the time (top), the goal (middle), and some supplemental value (bottom). For reasons I cannot fathom, each of these values can be adjusted, but in different ways.

  • The time (top): by tapping on this value, you can switch between the current time, the duration of the workout, and, if it’s an outdoor workout, your pace. I usually leave this as a duration.
  • The goal (middle): this has to be set at the start of the workout, either in the app or via Siri. A few things on this:
    • Pick a goal. for the longest time I set my goal to be Open, but you’re actually better off picking a goal (even an arbitrary one; it keeps going after you meet your goal) because it populates the middle value with that metric. I’m interested in calories or distance, so I generally say something like “Hey Siri, start a 100 calorie outdoor walk”.
    • Make it show numbers: Go to “Workout” in the iOS Watch app and toggle “Show Goal Metric” to ON. That way it’ll show you a running tally of your metric of choice.
  • The supplemental value (bottom): you choose this by swiping left and right on this value. Why is the top tapped and the bottom swiped? Who knows. I usually keep this as heart rate.

Customizing it in this way gives you a nice amount of flexibility, and once you figure out your preferred layout it stays that way.

Same workout, different view.
Same workout, different view.

During: Use a Bluetooth HR Monitor for “Other” Workouts

The Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor works well for repetitive, smooth motions, like running and cycling. It works pretty poorly for shorter, interval-based workouts. However, if you pair your watch with a bluetooth heart rate monitor like a Wahoo TICKR, you get exactly the same Workout interface with much more frequent and reliable readings.

Using the excellent HeartWatch app, here’s a comparison of the frequency of readings between the Watch and the TICKR for an elliptical workout and a strength training workout.

Same workout, different HR monitor.
Same workout, different HR monitor.

The watch ends up doing pretty well over a longer, continuous workout. It fails pretty miserably when I lift weights or do body strength exercises. What’s nice is that whether or not I use the external HR monitor does little to change my routine. The only difference is I first go to Watch Settings > Bluetooth to pair it first; everything else is the same. Of course, I’d rather the Watch could do it all – spending an $50 on an extra piece of fitness tech is frustrating – but the benefits have finally made “Other” workouts useful.

After: Don’t Bother Tapping “Save”

When you finish a workout in the Workout app, you get a screen that asks you to Save or Discard the workout:

Since WatchOS 2, the default behavior of the Workout app is to save your workout. So, once I tap END after a workout is complete, I just put my wrist down or exit the app with the Digital Crown. Within a few minutes, the Workout is saved. In fact, if I return to the Workout app, I get this dialog:

Next up

I hope the new version of the Watch improves on the UI and hardware issues mentioned in this post. Until then, these tips have improved my experience immensely. Hope they help you too.