Apple Watch beefs up its workout mode but it's still no match for Garmin

No matter how feature-rich the Apple Watch is becoming, Apple needs to work on the hardware before it can take on Garmin

Apple WatchOS 9 update
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple is hot on the heels of Garmin with its latest WatchOS 9 update. The new update adds tons of new workout features such as heart rate zones, triathlon sport mode and even the capability to race against your past times on a given route.

Should Garmin be worried? Will Apple ever overtake the performance wearable giant?

The answer to the first question is no (not yet anyway). As for the second... it might. But it'll take more than just adding the new sports modes and features other running watches have had for ages.

The new WatchOS 9 update (opens in new tab) was announced at WWDC 2022, among other Apple-related news, many of which I couldn't care less about (lock screen update – how exciting!). What caught my attention was the robust workout updates to the Apple Watch.

Apple is clearly after the performance athlete crowd with the addition of the new modes and features, which is not a bad thing. I always say the more, the merrier, and if Apple wants to play ball with Garmin/Polar/Coros etc., that's great as it will encourage innovation.

Apple WatchOS 9: What's new (in terms of workout features)?

The WatchOS 9 revamped the Apple Watch's data screens and added more information; by turning the Digital Crown, you can access new views of metrics like Activity Rings, Heart Rate Zones, Power and Elevation.

A belated addition but a welcome one nevertheless is the introduction of heart rate zones. This feature has been available on running watches and even fitness trackers for ages but it's nice to see that Apple finally decided to include this on Apple Watches too.

You can create custom workouts on the watch which is admittedly better for training; the next step is possible to add something like the Garmin Coach that recommends workouts based on performance.

Apple WatchOs 9 update

Let's race against... yourself

(Image credit: Apple)

One of the more interesting new features – at least in my opinion – is what I call the Ghost Time Trial Mode which lets you race against your last or best result when using the Outdoor Run or Cycle modes. In this case, Apple took inspiration from Mario Kart – thinking outside the box at its best!

New performance features include the addition of Stride Length, Ground Contact Time and Vertical Oscillation metrics plus native running power on the wrist without external sensors. This is something not even the new Garmin Forerunner 255 and 955 can do!

[Although other wearables such as the Coros Pace 2 and Polar Pacer Pro can do this already.]

And yes, the WatchOS 9 also added a triathlon sport mode and swimming metrics plus a more detailed workout summary in the Apple Health App.

Apple WatchOS 9 update: 3 reasons why it's not enough to take on Garmin

Quite a lot of new features, right? These make the Apple Watch a formidable competitor to even the most hardcore triathlon watches, at least on paper. However, there are three crucial areas where the Apple Watch fails to deliver the experience it's supposed to take on Garmin in earnest.

First stop: battery life. Most performance wearables have a battery life of 2-3 weeks in smartwatch mode and around 20-30 hours when the GPS is on. The Apple Watch 7? 36 hours, maximum.

Apart from the inconvenience of having to charge the watch almost daily, the short battery life also means that it's less likely you'll wear it for sleeping which also means the watch won't be able to track recovery. And recovery is crucial for training, yet it's an area where the Apple Watch can't help you at all.

Apple Watch with watchOS 9

Touchy subject

(Image credit: Apple)

New stop: touchscreen. Not sure if you noticed, but even Garmin watches with a touchscreen, such as the fantastic Garmin Fenix 7X, turn this feature off during workouts. That's because the touchscreen is fiddly to work with when you swing your arm, in the water or on the saddle, trying to dodge traffic.

Not to mention during winter when your hands are all wrapped up in gloves. Sure, you can turn the crown in the gloves, but having physical buttons would provide a smoother user experience during workouts.

Finally, Apple must allow its watches to be smartphone operating system agnostic. I can use a Garmin watch with my Android, iPhone, or Huawei phone; the Apple Watch only works with iPhones, seriously limiting the potential userbase.

Will Apple ever overcome these obstacles? Maybe. But the delay will also give more time for Garmin to add AMOLED screens to all of its watches and make them more appealing to the Apple Watch crowd.

Only time will tell how this battle pans out, but I hope whatever the end result might be, it'll be to the benefit of us athletes.

Matt Kollat
Fitness Editor

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar (opens in new tab) and Fit&Well (opens in new tab), and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym Reviews (opens in new tab).