Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Runner’s Review: Apple Watch Series 5 & Stryd

Article by Michael Ellenberger

It’s fall. The leaves are turning. The long-sleeve tops are coming out of storage. And, like clockwork (some pun intended), new Apple products are announced. 2019 gives us the Apple Watch Series 5 - the first with an “always-on display.” You know - like a watch. In some ways, it’s a minor upgrade: Apple’s wrist-flick detection had gotten so good that the display was almost always on when you needed it, anyway. But - especially for us runners - the always-on capabilities mean you can glance at the Watch without the flick, when you’re in traffic, crossing a street, or just sitting at your desk. 
This year is the 5th consecutive year, more or less, I’ve tried the Apple Watch. As with previous years, there are things I don’t like, and at this point are hardwired into my appreciation for it: it’s hard to use a touchscreen when it’s cold. Or wet. Or sweaty. So, pretty much all the time, for a runner. You can use auto pause, or you can click both of the only two buttons, to stop the timer. There’s no dedicated start-stop key. And there’s definitely no lap button - some apps let you touch the display, or force touch the display, but forget about getting that to work consistently when you’re running fast on a track. 
This isn’t a spec-driven review, and if it was, you might be disappointed. The Series 5, with the exception of the display, and an internal compass, and an ear-saving listening mode, is largely a Series 4. In Apple parlance, we might call it a Series 4S. The always-on display is a muted one, compared to the screen you see when you get a notification, or flick to check the time, but it’s extremely useful in day-to-day use. Like the Series 4, the S5 is quick to open onboard apps, field notifications, and queue up navigation. If you have a Series 4, and you’ve perfected the wrist flip - especially if you have a separate running watch - the Series 5 is far from a necessary upgrade. I call out those who use a Garmin or Polar device specifically because, for those who don’t, and log miles with the Apple Watch, the always-on display is a very welcome addition and one that makes me feel safer in urban running (when taking your eyes off the sidewalk to wait for the display to load can feel... long!). 
Outdoors, GPS accuracy was good. One of the best (and in some ways, dangerous) things about the Apple Watch is that, unlike on a Garmin, there is no “wait for satellites” dialogue. As soon you want to start a run, it’ll start tracking you, without giving confirmation that it has locked. The explanation I’ve been given is that the watches uses the internal accelerometer and the most recent GPS data from your phone to give you an accurate reading. In practice, it does seem to work fine. My runs were spot on what I had them measured at with a Forerunner 245. 
The HRM for me is actually quite spotty; Apple has class-leading wrist-based OHR tracking, or so the experts say, and there were stills runs where I would come back, having work it snugly on my wrist (I always go down a pin on the sport band) and got a message that there was insufficient readings. Yikes. Some of it is trial-and-error, in getting the correct level of wrist-tightness for consistent readings, but it sure be frustrating to finish a hard effort without data. 
Treadmill recording was similarly disappointing (though entirely remedied by Stryd). Even after logging 5 outdoor runs, each of the requisite 20 minute length Apple tells you it takes to calibrate, my 6 mile treadmill effort was recording as 4.75 or 5.0 miles. Every time. Now, there are pace and cadence differences - recently I’ve been doing easy runs outdoors, but workouts on the treadmill, so my foot strike is different. But having that much of a difference - more than 20% - leaves those recorded treadmill efforts in my “Workouts” app basically useless as running logs are concerned. 
The Apple Watch is, for the fifth year running, a watch of compromise. It’s a smart watch first and a running watch second. Not third, or fourth, or (remember the GPS-less first generation?) last. I feel confident saying that now, with an always-on display you can see without endangering yourself. But even so - there are two buttons. It’s fragile - the running-focused models (the Nike edition models) come with an Ion-X display more prone to scratching, in my experience, than your typical Garmin. The higher-end models tout a sapphire crystal but are considerably more expensive. 

This year I paired my Apple Watch immediately with the new Stryd (with wind detection) footpod. For those not familiar, I did an in-depth review of older model[in 2018 here. 2019’s Stryd is to 2018’s as the Series 5 is to the 4: it’s not necessarily a big upgrade for previous-generation users, but it’s absolutely an upgrade for those buying in for the first time. And paired with an Apple Watch, it takes the Watch from a second-tier product to a serious option for competitive runners
The Stryd pulls metrics from a single footpod, fitted into the laces of your trainers. It’s easy to move from shoe to shoe (useful for us running shoe geeks, who tend to mix it up) and has a battery life of approximately 20 hours.
Here’s the skinny: the Stryd pulls down the “usual” fotopod metrics (distance, cadence, pace), but it’s true power is in, well, power. They call the footpod a “power meter,” in fact, and much of the UI in the corresponding Stryd app (a very good app, by the way, and one that is consistency receiving updates) is centered around tracking your power over time. 

I don’t want to delve so much into the technical side of this output - for one, because I’m not qualified to do so, but also because I intend this to be more of a hardware-based review - but know that power is (or can be) an exceedingly useful training tool, and Stryd gets it right nearly every time. The 2019 iteration of the footpod now incorporates wind speed and direction in its calculations  - something those of us in Chicago can appreciate - to deliver even more accurate metrics. Before, if you were running straight uphill, Stryd would know it, and give you credit for it - but into a 30 mile per hour headwind? Not in the Stryd of old. Now you’ll see that considered in Stryd’s output. 

But the real takeaway here is not that the new Series 5 is improved, or that the new Stryd is useful. It’s that, when combined, you get a complete and accurate running tracker setup that works nearly perfectly, indoors and out. The Stryd app works, but not with always-on (Apple hasn’t opened this to third parties yet). So outdoors, you can leave your footpod recording in the background, and pull that data later, while you enjoy the always-on provided in the Workouts app. Indoors, just load up the Stryd app and get a far more accurate reading than Apple can give you (indoors, lack of an always-on in Stryd is less concerning since taking your eyes off the treadmill is not such a safety risk). 

But, and there’s always a but - at what cost? The new Stryd costs $219. To me, this is money well spent; the Stryd is durable (I’ve dropped it, probably more than twice), it’s accurate, and it’s useful in all cases of scenarios. The Apple Watch starts at $399 without cellular data and goes up from there. Way up. The model I had purchased - a stainless steel model, with cellular by default - starts at $700 before tax. So we’re looking at a minimum of $600 and potentially more than $1000 setup to match what a $350 Garmin can do. All Apple Watch models have the option to activate cellular, if so equipped - look for the red ring on the crown. But, as with all things, it costs - $10/month which lands me north of $17 after city taxes). 

Is it worth it? The Apple Watch is so cool. It’s ubiquitous, but with the plethora of bands (Apple finally lets you choose your color out of the box, instead of black or white) and sizes and colors, you really can find one to fit your tastes. There’s a Hermès edition. There’s a Nike edition. There’s an Edition… edition, and it’s made of titanium or ceramic and it can cost $1200. You’ll get fewer weird looks at the office in an Apple Watch than a Garmin but, then again, no one seems to look twice, anyway. 

Only you can really decide if you want to take the svelte new Series 5 for a spin. I think I’m going back to Garmin. Not because I don’t like Apple Watch - I’ve owned, at some point, all 5 generations (and several models therein) - but because that value proposition, for some reason, isn’t sitting right with me. Maybe I’ll pick up a lower-end model at Christmas or Black Friday, or maybe I’ll wait, with eternal optimism, for Series 6. 

Tester Profile
Michael is his 20’s and is a 1:07 half marathoner. He runs 50-60 miles per week, generally in lightweight trainers or racing flats at around 6:00-6:30 minutes/mile.

The Apple Watch was a personal purchase, the Stryd was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are entirely the author's.


Greg S said...

I’m hooked on the new stryd. After my Garmin gps and pace was off by almost half a mile in last race, I started relying on stryd. It is almost spot on and doing track repeats, it was dead on calibrated out of the box once I turn off Garmin auto calibrate.

Still learning power zones but the spot on pacing is perfect for a person like me who runs by pace as my hr can be all over the place.

Michael said...

@Greg S - so you use Stryd in place of GPS tracks, even on Garmin? You can still get a map output, right?

Look up Evan Schwartz on YouTube or Instagram - he’s a sub elite guy who trains almost exclusively by power zones. No consideration of pace at all.

Greg S said...

Yup...set it to always for distance/pace in sensor settings and it will pull pace and distance from the foot pod on my Fenix 5plus watch but still record the gos track for visuals and also to load into the stryd app. Plus you can add the stryd zones ciq screen for the power levels, colors, power zones, etc....

If that makes you scared, they have a pace beta ciq field that pulls from the foot pod directly and you essentially unpair the foot pod and use the gps watch for pace, but can add another screen for the stryd pace (it pulls directly from pod but won’t record that pace anywhere,. Did that for my marathon and the instant pacing was clutch, but gps distance was bad in the trees. Did. 3:05 for my 2nd race since starting to run 11 months ago.

Brian said...

Stryd as a device is amazing. It is incredibly accurate. Even without getting into the whole power thing, if you have the means and desire the most accurate way to measure your pace in real time and have accurate distance over time, Stryd is it. However, the app is hot trash. One of the most frustrating things is that it only displays distance to a tenth of a mile. Some everything from say 3.01 to 3.09 is displayed as 3.0, I can't think of any other app or device which does this. No support for HRM either. When I go to auto calculate my power, I'm told to run and train like normal and after about two weeks I'll have a value. I end up getting a critical power value after 3 runs which is way off of my known 5K pace. If you don't want to use a watch with it, the best app I found so far is the premium version of iSmoothrun. It has tons of options for screen and workout setup. You can export to Garmin Connect, which will import to Stryd. The only downside of doing this is that you loose some stats like leg spring stiffness, which iSmoothrun tracks and has, it just gets lost in the transfer.

TLDR, Stryd is amazing. The app needs a lot of work. iSmoothrun works though.

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