The Apple Watch has long been one of the best fitness smartwatches, and over the past couple of years the native sports tracking has been improved significantly through watchOS 9 and 10 software updates. This means the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Apple Watch Series 9 can be considered among the best sports watches.
Even if you’ve owned one of the watches for a long time you may not have taken advantage of all the features. One of these is the pacer mode for runners. I’ve tested every model of the Apple Watch extensively, and pacer mode is something you’ll only have call to use on rare occasions, though it’s invaluable when you do. Those occasions are races, when the virtual pacer on your wrist can help you hit your target times and set new PRs.
Pacer mode is easy to set up. You hit the three dots on the right of the Outdoor Run sports mode in the Workout app (see image above) and scroll down to the pacer setting. Hit the little pen in the corner there and you can choose the distance and time you are planning on running.
Once that’s set up, you start the run by hitting start workout and are given a data screen that shows your current and average pace, and a dial that indicates how you are doing with your target time at that point.
I used pacer mode for a test run aiming for a 10K in 50 minutes. Throughout the run it’s easy to see how much time you have to make up to hit your goal, or how much time you have in the bank. Using this feature you can pace your races with precision, and it’s especially useful for ensuring you don’t go out too hard at the start of a long race. If you’re two miles into a marathon and see that you’re already tracking 45 seconds ahead of your overall time goal, then hopefully you’ll register that you need to ease off and settle into your actual race pace.
Pacer modes like these are not new features for sports watches and I’ve used the same mode on Garmin watches for years. Garmin’s mode is a little more developed and gives an estimate of your finish time that updates throughout the race based on your pace up until that point, and the distance left to go.
Whatever watch you use, I find that having a simple data screen like this is ideal for races, when you’re often focused on one thing: hitting that goal time. Just be aware that the mode will still be relying on GPS, so if the distance on your watch starts to fall out of line with the mile or kilometer markers on your course, you’ll have to do quick mental math to work out how far or ahead of your target time you are.
Given that I’ve found the GPS on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 to be among the most accurate available this will probably only be a few seconds out from what the pacer mode is saying, but it’s worth being aware of—especially in built-up urban areas where tall buildings negatively affect GPS accuracy.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.