I consider myself an obsessive runner, and most of my family and friends would no doubt agree, given how much I talk about running. I’m also, broadly speaking, a fan of the Apple Watch, but those two things have been hard to reconcile in the past, since the run tracking from Garmin and other dedicated sports watch brands has been much better than on the Apple Watch.
Third-party Apple Watch fitness apps like WorkOutDoors offered a workaround, but to train for the Berlin Marathon I returned to the impressive Garmin Epix 2 to track my runs because battery life, accuracy, training analysis and depth of data recorded was simply better than the Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch Ultra landed just before the Berlin Marathon, however, accompanied by upgrades aplenty to the native running experience, which I detailed in my Apple Watch Ultra review. So I used both the Garmin Epix 2 and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 to track my marathon PB of 2hr 28min at Berlin, and then my rather slower run at the London Marathon a week later.
Here are five things that stood out about the watch after using it for both marathons.
1. The Apple Watch Ultra’s Overall GPS Accuracy Is Excellent…
Both the Apple Watch Ultra and Garmin Epix 2 use dual-band GPS that promises greater GPS accuracy in tricky conditions, such as among high buildings or tree cover. The Epix 2 has been the most accurate watch I’ve ever tested, but the Apple Watch Ultra matched it in Berlin. The Apple Watch Ultra was actually more accurate in London – the skyscrapers and tunnels around Canary Wharf sent both watches into a spin, but the Ultra coped better.
In Berlin the Epix 2 logged 42.57km in total, while the Apple Watch Ultra logged 42.54km, both probably very close to my actual distance covered when you take into account weaving past other runners as well as not being able to follow the official racing line, which takes you beyond the official 42.2km distance.
In London the Epix overshot considerably, logging 43.19km, while the Apple Watch Ultra logged 42.55km and was noticeably more in step with the kilometre markers on the course throughout.
2. …But The Apple Watch Ultra Does Throw Up Some Odd Pacing
While the distance tracked function on the Apple Watch Ultra is great, it does have an odd quirk where the split or lap pace recorded is always very slow to start with. So at the start of every kilometre in London it would show a much slower average pace for that split than I was running, before gradually evening out to the correct pace by the end of the split. That’s not ideal for pacing, and doesn’t happen when using WorkOutDoors rather than the native tracking app, which is odd.
3. The Optical Heart Rate Monitor Has Gotten Worse
Past versions of the Apple Watch have been among the better optical heart rate trackers I’ve tested, but the Ultra is not so impressive on this front, and during the Berlin Marathon it frequently gave no heart rate readings at all. In fairness, wrist-worn heart rate monitors will always struggle (“a very hostile measurement place” according to the expert we quizzed about heart rate monitors), but you can pair them with an external monitor and I used a chest strap with the watch at the London Marathon for accurate heart rate data.
4. The Battery Life Of The Apple Watch Ultra Is Two Days Including A Marathon
One of the big updates on the Apple Watch Ultra from the Series 8 is battery life. The Ultra is listed as lasting 36 hours, compared with 18 for the Series 8. In fact I have found that the Ultra lasts me 48 hours, even when that period included a marathon.
I wasn’t listening to music on the watch during the marathons and did run them a little quicker than the average person, but even so you can wear the watch to track your sleep the night before and then head to your marathon confident the Ultra is going to last the distance.
That said, the Ultra still falls well short of sports watches. Even the Garmin Epix 2, which has a bright always-on AMOLED display, lasts me four to five days including a marathon.
5. The Apple Watch Ultra Won’t Help You Recover From A Marathon
One thing that Apple has steered clear of with the Ultra is any kind of training and recovery analysis, which is done very well on Garmin watches, as well as those from other brands like Coros and Polar.
In the days after the marathon the Apple Watch Ultra still prompted me to fill my activity rings, whereas the Garmin Epix 2 showed my training readiness as low and advised me how many days I would need to recover from my efforts. It’s common-sense stuff after a marathon, but it throws light on the fact that the Apple Watch Ultra is purely a tracker, rather than a device you can use to guide your training.
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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.