watchOS 9 preview: Finally unlocking the Apple Watch’s fitness-tracking potential

Watchos 9 Beta heart rate zone during trainingSource: Luke Filipowicz / iMore

The Apple Watch has always been an important product for Apple and has gone through a lot of changes over the years. Apple was almost the first to experience it as a piece of jewelry — a fancy flex that you could buy that would look great on your wrist, but also give you some fun features to extend the usefulness of your iPhone. Subsequent Apple Watch models began to focus on packing more and more functions into a small box. Then, after that, the Apple Watch became increasingly focused on health, offering life-saving features like fall detection, EKG readings, and more. So where does that leave the Apple Watch now? Interestingly, the Apple Watch is racing into the future by doubling down on a core feature: fitness.

WatchOS 9 is by far the biggest update to the Apple Watch’s fitness tracking features we’ve seen in years, and it finally puts the Apple Watch in the conversation of top fitness trackers. With the public beta now available to the masses, people who don’t mind taking risks with their devices can see what the fuss is about. If you’re an absolute fitness beast, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Before I get into watchOS 9, a quick reminder. watchOS 9 is still in beta, and this isn’t meant to be a review, but an overview of the new features and my personal experience with them. I’ll be giving my full review and thoughts on the latest Apple Watch software when it’s fully released to the public this fall.

Apple occasionally offers updates to iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS as closed developer previews or public betas. While beta versions contain new features, they also contain pre-release bugs that may prevent normal use of your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, or Mac, and are not intended for everyday use on your primary device. So we strongly recommend that you stay away from developer previews unless you need them for software development and use public betas with caution. If you depend on your devices, wait for the final release.

Custom workouts offer great flexibility for your workouts

Custom training in Watchos 9 Beta

Source: Luke Filipowicz / iMore

I’ve said before that watchOS 9 pushes the Apple Watch into the conversation of high-end fitness trackers, and I realize that may seem confusing to people. Surely the Apple Watch is already the ultimate fitness tracker, right? Well, if you talk to really die-hard fitness enthusiasts and athletes, you’ll find that the Apple Watch — yes, even the mighty Apple Watch Series 7 — has traditionally failed its cases on many occasions. The good news is that watchOS 9 is trying to fix this problem. Adding custom workouts is probably the best example of this.

Before watchOS 9, you and your best Apple Watch were at the mercy of the workouts that Apple included with its Apple Watch. Granted, there are many different types of workouts in the Workout app, and you could certainly change the goals of your workouts to be more focused on what you’re trying to achieve, but that never gave you any real flexibility in how you work Custom Workouts changes all that.

Custom training screenshot from Watchos

Source: iMore

You can create a custom workout for any type of workout in the Workout app. Within a custom workout, you can have multiple work intervals and recovery periods, meaning you can easily set sets. For example, say you want to run, but you’re doing interval training because you’re a bad runner like me; you can create a custom running workout that will allow you to set a two-minute work period and a 45-second recovery period. Or you can set it up so that you run 1km and then rest for half a kilometre. Additionally, you can set it to repeat if you wish. So if you want to run 5km, repeat it five times and boom, you have a customized outdoor running workout that you can use whenever you want. You can even put a warm-up and cool-down into a custom workout, meaning you don’t have to jump out of the workout you’re in to start a separate cool-down.

That is just one example. Each workout type can use custom workouts, and you can even have more than one for each workout, meaning you now have a lot more flexibility to do how you want, when you want.

Get in the zone — the heart rate zone

Heart Rate Zone 3 in Watchos 9 Workout Close Up

Source: Luke Filipowicz / iMore

People often talk about “getting in the zone” during training, but some people mean it literally. Heart rate zones have long been a tool used to help people train and illustrate improvements in their overall fitness. If you’re running a marathon, you can’t be in your maximum heart rate zone all the time; you’ll burn out before you finish the race. Instead, you probably want to be in the moderate heart rate zone most of the time, trying to maintain a comfortable pace for most of the race.

Many sports, like hockey (sorry, I’m Canadian), rely on short bursts of intense activity. When a hockey player skates off the bench to take a shift, they will likely be at or near their maximum target rate for the 45-90 seconds they are on the ice. So when they train, they have to train for those short bursts of energy, which means they have to know when they’re hitting those heart rate zones.

In watchOS 9, you can set any type of exercise to show your heart rate zones directly on Apple Watch. So if you’re out for a run, you’ll be able to check your watch and see what heart rate zone you’re in. It’s a pretty handy metric, and it’s even customizable.

Change heart rate zone screenshots on iPhone

Source: iMore

By default, your Apple Watch will use the data it already has to calculate your heart rate zones and mark them from one to five, with one being the lowest. This is great for anyone who doesn’t want to take the time to calculate their absolute perfect heart rate zone (as it varies from person to person). However, if you want more control, you can manually set them to any value you want.

So how do you see heart rate zones during training? Well, it’s part of something new that Apple calls Workout Views. When you go to customize a workout in watchOS 9, whether it’s a preset workout or a custom workout you’ve created, you can choose which workout views are available for you to see during a particular workout. So when you enable a training heart rate zone for your custom outdoor running workout (for example), you can swipe up or down during your workout to see the different views you’ve enabled.

Of course, you can enable multiple views, and here Apple has set up Elevation and Power Views, so you can track how you’ve climbed during your run and your running power. These are important metrics for serious runners — and watchOS 9 will help you track a lot more.

Sleep stages

Sleep stage data in the Health Ios app

Source: Luke Filipowicz / iMore

Two years after the Sleep app was introduced to the Apple Watch, it’s finally getting the update many have been asking for: the ability to track sleep stages. In the Health app, you can now see how long you’ve been in four different sleep stages: awake, REM, core, and deep.

Sleep stage data in the Health app

Source: iMore

You can see all the data in a graph for you and even highlight specific sleep stages for a closer look. While it’s not among the most in-depth sleep trackers out there, it’s the sleep tracking feature I was most excited to get on the Apple Watch. As you can see from the sample in the image above, I’m a heavy sleeper and often don’t get a ton each night. This kind of data will help me better understand my sleep patterns, and may even help me ensure that the sleep I get is more restful.

New watch faces and minor UI improvements

Close Up Modular Apple Watch Face in Watchos 9 Beta

Source: Luke Filipowicz / iMore

Of course, an Apple Watch wouldn’t be an Apple Watch without tons of Apple Watch faces. Apple has a habit of releasing new watch faces with each major software release, and watchOS 9 is no exception.

Honestly, when you get watchOS 9 (whether it’s the public beta now or the full release in the fall), I’d highly encourage you to check out all the new and redesigned watch faces because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. You might like the newly designed Astronomy watch, which shows the front and center of the Earth and even the tops ahead of time, much like the new iOS 16 lock screens do. Or you might be tickled by the lunar face, which shows the relationship between our normal calendar (Gregorian) and lunar calendar. Playtime is a whimsical and interactive art dial created in collaboration with Chicago-based illustrator and artist Joi Fulton; perfect for any time you’re feeling a little crazy. And, of course, the new Metropolitan watch is as elegant as can be. Plus, there’s even an update to some older Apple Watch faces, like the gradient background you can add to the popular Modular watch face. The bottom line is that more watch faces means more personality to throw out in watchOS 9.

Apple Watch Faces Press Photo

Source: Apple

On top of some new watch faces, watchOS 9 also has some small UI improvements that will make the Apple Watch experience a little smoother than it already feels. When you’re actively using the app, notifications will be smaller and reduced to just a small banner at the top of your screen. You can tap on it to zoom in and see the whole notification, but it’s great that the incoming message doesn’t just take over your screen. Plus, the Dock is much more intuitive because it promotes apps you’ve used recently over all the other apps in the Dock. This makes it much easier to switch between apps when you want to.

More to come

WatchOS 9 is committed to giving us that more. More fitness tracking, more sleep tracking, more watch faces, more customization, and more of everything that makes the Apple Watch so wonderful to wear on your wrist.

Of course, this is just the first glimpse into the wonderful world of watchOS 9 beta. I’ll be diving into even more improvements in watchOS 9, like changes to the Medicines app, in the near future, so be sure to check back in about a week for even more insights into the goodies and features in Apple’s latest watch software!

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