Running on empty: the Apple Watch’s half-baked HIIT feature

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Running woman

When Apple unveiled watchOS 4 at its developer event in June, I was excited to see major upgrades to the Watch’s workouts app. In particular, the inclusion of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) appealed to me as a runner. HIIT alternates short, intense bursts of anaerobic exercise (“I’m going to die”) with periods of recovery (“Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.”). No, it’s not fun, but it is effective; research shows that HIIT can boost cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, and even brain power.

What should a HIIT app do?

A great HIIT app should include a great HIIT timer. You tell the app your interval length goals. How long should the intense intervals be? The rest periods? The warm-up and cool-down?

Then, once you actually start your run, the HIIT app should alert you every time the intensity level changes. “Beep, beep! Thirty seconds of all-out sprint! Go, go, go!” Then, just when you feel like your heart’s going to explode, finally, blessedly, you get another alert: “Beep, beep! Jog for a minute and rest.” And then the whole cycle starts again; you scale your effort up and down, while the app does stopwatch duty. Maybe it even tracks your effort level via heart rate and taunts you if you’re slacking. The app is the coach, barking orders to you, the athlete.

Apple’s HIIT feature

Apple has access to APIs that third-party developers don’t, so I was eager to see how they would implement these HIIT features. As the long summer of Apple Watch developer betas crawled by, I waited impatiently for the opportunity to test the new workout app for myself. Finally, yesterday, I got my first chance, here on vacation at the beach.

I had imagined myself streaking down the sand, like that famous opening scene from Chariots of Fire. Splashing through the foam. Feet pounding the sand. Eyes closed, face lifted skyward, arms outstretched. My Apple Watch would coach me to a lofty runner’s high; it would command me, and I would fly.

Only… as I quickly discovered, that’s not really how the Watch’s HIIT feature works. Inexplicably, the HIIT workout doesn’t actually do any of that. In fact, it doesn’t really seem to do anything. The workout app includes no interval timing functionality whatsoever. You’re apparently expected to track your progress in your head somehow by watching the clock. That’s problematic. You’re left asking, “Did I start this interval at the 5:15 or the 5:30 mark?” Or “How many intervals is that? Have I finished three or four?”

HIIT requires ruthless timekeeping. You need someone (whether a person or a digital companion) to order you around. Run now. Rest now. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Don’t count the ticking seconds. Focus entirely on your effort level. Apple’s “You’re on your own” approach just doesn’t cut it.

Wrap-up

Until Apple adds an interval timer to the workout app, its HIIT feature is pretty useless. Its calorie-counting algorithm may be more accurate than previous workout types, but it does little to help you reap the benefits of high-intensity training. For now, HIIT nerds are better off using a third-party HIIT tracker like Seconds. You’ll lose the official workout app’s perks (like its convenient ‘Now Playing’ pane), but at least you’ll know when to bust your butt and when to take a break. ■