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Get ready to geek out over all the fun tech you can use for road and trail running.
While Garmin and COROS have steadily released new running watches and software updates, Apple has been quietly working on a whammy of a follow-up to the standard Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch Ultra, which will be available starting Friday for $799, was designed with endurance athletes and adventurers in mind, and boasts a slew of features that will have new runners and data nerds alike psyched to log miles.
I got to test the Apple Watch Ultra before its release and, from a hardware standpoint, there’s a few notable differences from the Apple Watch you might be accustomed to: For one, it’s the largest Watch yet, with a 49-millimeter titanium design (that’s almost as big as the Garmin Enduro and COROS Vertix 2). It felt a little bulky at first, but I barely noticed the difference after a day. There’s also a new, customizable Action Button on the side that you can program for easier access to certain features (I programmed mine to take me right into a workout).
Internally, the battery is 76 percent larger than the one in the new Apple Watch Series 8, and I found Apple’s claim that it could deliver 36 hours of use on a single change to be dead on. A new Low Power Mode provides enough juice for a full Ironman, and an even lower power setting is coming that will allow up to 60 hours on a single charge.
There’s a ton more to talk about with the Apple Watch Ultra, but what I was most excited by were the new and improved running features. Here’s what I learned while testing it out over the past few days.
1. A new and improved GPS system
I ran the 2018 Berlin and New York City Marathons wearing an Apple Watch, and the GPS told me I only ran 22 and 24 miles—despite completing the official 26.2 miles in both of them. That turned me off running with the Apple Watch for a bit, but it’s unlikely to be a repeat issue with the Ultra, which now uses two different frequencies (L1 and L5) instead of one to stay in sync with global positioning satellites. When I wore it with my COROS Pace 2, I found both watches to be accurate within less than a tenth of a mile to each other.
Apple’s new algorithms work with the on-board sensors and Apple Maps data (including road, bike, and trail routes) to ensure your GPS stays on track—even at the crowded start of a city race, like the notoriously GPS-adverse Chicago Marathon. Plus, the Ultra uses the accelerometer in the Watch to learn your specific stride length so it can accurately calibrate GPS even when you’re under a bridge or in a tunnel. Not only does that make it more accurate in real time, but I didn’t see a single part of my route indicating that I was in the middle of the river I ran next to or even slightly off the road when I looked at my post-run recap in the Fitness+ app.
2. More detailed workout metrics
Runners love nerding out on stats beyond pace and distance. Any Watch since the Series 6 enables you to dig into metrics like vertical oscillation, stride length, ground contact time, power, cadence, and elevation. With the release of the Watch ios9, runners can also customize workout views on their screen to prioritize the metrics they care most about seeing in the moment (for example: I switched out my “rolling pace” for my “segment pace” on my long run so I could see my current split next to my average pace).
On the Ultra, you can also add a sixth metric to the first two screens so you don’t have to scroll through multiple views to find your desired data. FYI: The Digital Crown (or dial) on the side of the Ultra is 30 percent larger than the one on the Series 8, with coarser groves for easier use on the run (even if you’re wearing gloves). Changing up these data screens can be especially useful for someone working on improving their cadence or power, or anyone who doesn’t want to use up mental energy switching between displays.
3. Custom workout programming and training tools
One of my biggest grips with previous Apple Watch iterations was that I couldn’t program my workouts into the device. Now, the Ultra comes preloaded with a number of Custom Workouts (like 8 x 400-meter repeats or 3 x 1-mile hill repeats), and you can easily create your own workouts right on the Watch (I programmed a time-based interval workout, 8 x 1 minute on/1 minute off plus a warmup and cooldown, in less than two minutes using the on-board QWERTY keyboard).
With Race Routes, you can compete against your past performance; run any route (not an actual race course) a second time and Apple uses stored data to display a workout view comparing your current performance with your last run and will alert you if you’re off course. The Pacer feature allows you to choose a distance and desired pace, and then tells you if you’re ahead of or behind (and by how much) your goal. Later this year, the Ultra will be able to automatically detect when you arrive at any 400-meter track in the U.S. and will ask to confirm what lap you’re in so it can accurately track your pace and distance.
4. New trail running-friendly features
If you’re someone who likes to run off the beaten path, you’ll love the new Compass Waypoints. By tapping the Waypoint button in the Compass app, you can easily mark your location on the go (something that’s especially helpful at, say, a fork in the trail) and save those details for future reference. When you view saved Waypoints, the Watch will indicate what direction you need to go and just how far you are from one.
Losing your way in the backcountry is inevitable, and the new Backtrack feature uses GPS data to chart a path of where you’ve been—and remains available even if you’re totally off the grid. It’s an easy way to retrace your steps back to a previous location or even your starting point. (These features can also be used in any Series 6 or later models.)
For safety purposes, the Ultra also has a built-in 86-decibel siren that can be heard up to 600 feet away. And, using data from accelerometer and gyroscope, the Watch can detect if you’ve fallen and ask if you want to call emergency services. If you’re motionless for about a minute, the Watch will place an emergency call automatically and send a message with your location to your emergency contacts. It’s an extra layer of security for anyone who runs alone, whether you’re in the wilderness or not.