I forgot how good the Apple Watch Ultra's GPS is until I tried track detection
When the Apple Watch Ultra arrived last year, multiband GPS was one of its standout features, meant to entice outdoor athletes who love poring over route maps. And while I love hyper-accurate maps as much as the next runner, I've been most impressed by how Apple uses GPS for its track detection feature.
Track detection uses a combination of Apple Maps data and GPS to automatically recognize when you're at a standard 400m IAAF running track. You are then prompted to enter which lane you're in. Later, in your workout summary, you'll get a route map with what Apple says is lane-level precision. (While I tested track detection with the Ultra, it works on any Apple Watch running watchOS 9.2 or later.)
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I wasn't all that wowed by the whole "lane-level precision" bit. If you're telling the watch which lane you're in, you'd expect it to be precise, especially if you start your workout at the track. The impressive part is getting that accuracy without any calibration. Other running watches require you to create a profile specific to each track you run in, usually by starting a track run activity, then running between one and four laps in a specific lane to calibrate the watch's GPS. Garmin's watches, for example, can store profiles for up to 10 tracks. And then you have to start a Track Run activity for the portion of your run that's on the track.
I ain't doing all that.
The Apple Watch can switch to track mode in the middle of a regular run once it recognizes you've arrived at a track. It can also tell when you've left (sort of). Since I've been meaning to go for a spin at the Astoria Park Running Track, I figured my Sunday long runs were the perfect opportunity to test this feature. While I was at it, I also decided to see how the Apple Watch Ultra stacked up against the new Garmin Forerunner 265S (which also has multiband GPS), Garmin Vivomove Trend, and the Runkeeper app on my iPhone 14 Pro Max over three long runs measuring eight, 10, and 12 miles.
For the first run, the 8-miler, I wore the Ultra on one wrist and the Vivomove Trend on the other. To my surprise, the Ultra buzzed as soon as I entered the track's gate. I was prompted to choose unit measurements (meters or miles), and I told the Ultra I was running in lane 2. I didn't get any track-specific data, however, as I forgot to set up lap alerts beforehand. Plus, it took roughly two to three minutes after leaving Astoria Park for the Watch to notify me that I'd left the track.
My results were similar for the 10-mile run, with the Ultra notifying me as soon as I arrived on the track. This time, I opted to run in lane 4 because I wanted to see about this "lane-level precision." When I compared my 8-mile and 10-mile runs afterward, the maps looked identical when zoomed out. But as you can see in these screenshots below, you can definitely see a difference when zoomed in. I didn't get any notification when I left the track -- or if I did, I completely missed it. In any case, it didn't seem to have any impact on the data itself.
On the 12-mile run, I ran in lane 6 and swapped out the Trend for the Forerunner 265S with multiband GPS enabled. And this time, I remembered to enable Lap alerts. There was a slight lag as to when those alerts arrived, though I've found that generally true for any Track Run activity on running watches. (Though, admittedly, it's been a while.) The other thing to know about Lap alerts is that they'll suppress your regular split alerts when you're at the track. Also, if you don't enable lap alerts, you won't find track-specific data in your workout summary. Again, the Ultra didn't tell me I'd left the track until I was outside Astoria Park.
As for the maps, The Ultra was more precise than the Runkeeper app on my phone, and I fully expected it to win out over the Trend on my 8-mile run. The latter is a lifestyle watch that relies on your phone's GPS, and as you can see from my screenshots in the gallery below, the Trend completely botched my jaunt into the track. This isn't really a fair comparison. It's just illustrative of the difference between tethered GPS and the most advanced built-in GPS possible.
The Forerunner 265S fared better but still wasn't quite as accurate, even with multiband enabled. But that's because I didn't calibrate the 265S since I was only making a pit stop at the track in the middle of a longer run. In the past, I've found Garmin's track accuracy to be pretty good, and it would've probably been a closer contest if I had stopped my outdoor run, switched to a track run, and then switched back to an outdoor run activity when I was done. But that'd be a huge hassle, especially since I'd need to calibrate the 265S to the track first, and I almost never do track-only runs. Most people, myself included, would probably rather record the whole thing as an outdoor run and live with slightly wonky maps.
That said, having tested several running watches over the years, I was reminded just how good the Ultra's GPS is. And I don't mean solely in terms of metrics or maps. I spent a lot of time after these three runs comparing data, and while the Ultra did best overall, the Forerunner 265S was a very close second. Rather, I kept thinking about how I've avoided running at tracks because calibrating is a pain and how the Ultra made this entire experience painless. Aside from toggling on lap alerts, I really didn't have to do anything. All I had to do was show up and leave whenever I felt like it.