Hands-on: track detection on the Apple Watch Ultra

When the Apple Watch Ultra arrived last year, multiband GPS was one of the standout features, meant to entice outdoor enthusiasts who like to dig over trail maps. And while I love hyper-accurate maps as much as the next runner, I’m most impressed with the way 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 on a standard 400m IAAF running track. You will then be prompted to enter which lane you are in. Later, in your training summary, you’ll get a roadmap of what Apple says is lane-level precision. (While I tested track detection with the Ultra, it works on any Apple Watch with watchOS 9.2 or later.)

I wasn’t too impressed with the whole lane-level precision bit. If you tell the watch what lane you’re in, you’d expect it to be accurate, especially if you start your training on the lane. The impressive part gets that accuracy without every calibration. Other running watches require you to create a specific profile each track you run in, usually by starting a running activity and then running between one and four laps in a specific track to calibrate the watch’s GPS. For example, Garmin’s watches can save profiles for up to 10 tracks. And then you have to start a Track Run activity for the part of your run that is on the track.

I don’t do any of that.

I tested track detection by jumping to Astoria Park Running Track on three of my long runs.
Photo by Victoria Song/The Verge

You will be prompted to select a lane after confirming you have arrived at a track.
Photo by Victoria Song/The Verge

The Apple Watch can switch to tracking mode in the middle of a normal run once it recognizes that you have arrived on a trail. It can also tell when you left (sort of). Since I was planning to go for a run at the Astoria Park Running Track, I thought 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 compares to 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 measure eight, ten and twelve 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 gate of the track. I was asked to choose units of measure (meters or miles), and I told the Ultra I was running in lane 2. However, I didn’t get track specific data because I forgot to set lap warnings beforehand. In addition, it took about two to three minutes after I left Astoria Park for the Watch to notify me that I had left the track.

My results were similar for the 10-mile run, with the Ultra notifying me as soon as I got to the track. This time I chose to run in lane 4 because I wanted to learn more about this ‘track level precision’. Then when I compared my 8-mile and 10-mile runs, the maps looked identical when zoomed out. But as you can see in these screenshots below, you can definitely see a difference when you zoom in. I didn’t get notified when I left the job – or if I did, I completely missed it. At least it didn’t seem to affect the data itself.

I ran a lap in lane 2 on my long 8 mile run.
Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

For my 10 mile run, I chose lane 4.
Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

During the 12-mile run, I ran in lane 6 and swapped the Trend for the Forerunner 265S with multiband GPS enabled. And this time I remembered to enable Lap alerts. There was a slight delay in those alerts arriving, although I’ve found that generally applies to any Track Run activity on running watches. (Although, admittedly, it’s been a while.) The other thing to know about lap alerts is that they override your normal intermediate alerts when you’re out on the track. Also if you do not If you turn on lap alerts, you won’t find track-specific data in your training summary. Again, the Ultra didn’t tell me I had left the track until I was outside Astoria Park.

As for the maps, the Ultra was more accurate than the Runkeeper app on my phone, and I fully expected it to win 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 ruined my foray into the track. This isn’t really a fair comparison. It is merely illustrative of the difference between linked GPS and the most advanced built-in GPS possible.

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My route included Astoria Park Racecourse on an 8-mile run with the Apple Watch Ultra
Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

The Forerunner 265S did better, but still wasn’t quite as accurate, even with multiband enabled. But that’s because I didn’t calibrate the 265S, only pitting on the track on a longer run. In the past, I’ve found Garmin’s track accuracy to be pretty good, and it probably would have been a better race if I’d stopped running outdoors, switched to running on the track, and then switched back to running outside when I was done. But that would be a huge hassle, especially since I have to calibrate the 265S on the track first and I hardly ever run alone on the track. Most people, including myself, would probably prefer to include the whole thing as an outdoor run and live with slightly shaky cards.

That said, after testing several running watches over the years, I was reminded just how good the Ultra’s GPS is. And I don’t just mean in terms of stats or maps. I spent a lot of time comparing data after these three runs, and while the Ultra did the best overall, the Forerunner 265S was a very close second. Instead, I kept thinking about how I avoided running on tracks because calibration is a pain and how the Ultra made this whole experience painless. Other than turning on lap alerts, I really didn’t have to do anything. I just had to show up and leave when I felt like it.

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