By Jason Snell
September 19, 2018 9:14 AM PT
Running down that dream: Podcast and interval training on an Apple Watch
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
The day the Apple Watch was introduced, four years ago1, I immediately envisioned a use case for it that would be the perfect way for me to embrace a universe where I could strap a computer on my wrist. It involved using a pair of wireless headphones to listen to podcasts while using a “Couch to 5K” app to get me in running shape.
This summer, I achieved this goal. It took this long because watchOS needed more time to evolve on a bunch of fronts. Third-party apps needed better control over the device, especially to run (and play audio) in the background. The entire device, originally designed to be a remote screen for code that ran on its companion iPhone, needed to be able to run more reliably on its own. Bluetooth audio connectivity needed to get better. AirPods needed to exist.
But last month I was able to walk out the door of my house with nothing in my pocket but a house key, and go for a run with my favorite podcasts playing in my ears and a running trainer occasionally interrupting (and tapping my wrist) to tell me whether it was time to run or walk.
The App Store is littered with Couch to 5K apps, the kind that get a person who hasn’t run in a long time (that’s me!) back into shape. They work by gradually increasing the amount of running you do over time, generally by alternating periods where you walk and run, with the run time slowly getting longer until on one fateful day you’re just told to run for 11 minutes. I’ve done this program before. That’s an interesting day.
But my goal was to run without an iPhone swinging around in the pocket of my gym shorts. And finding a Couch to 5K app that could reliably run without any iPhone nearby proved impossible. (If there was one out there, I never found it, and I tried a bunch.)
In May I mentioned my plight on the Upgrade podcast, and Listener Ben replied by pointing out an app that wasn’t designed for Couch to 5K programs, but more generally for interval training. It’s called Intervals Pro, and while I had to crib a Couch to 5K program from a different app and manually enter it in, once I had done that, Intervals Pro was capable of guiding me through a workout while my iPhone stayed at home.
Things are even better now. Intervals Pro was recently updated to add a Couch to 5K workout pattern, so no data entry is required. You just tap on which day of the program you’re in, and the timers begin. I’ve set the app to speak each event—essentially, the Siri voice says “Run in 5 seconds,” and haptics begin firing every second, ending in a large tap that is your final prompt to begin running. It works perfectly. The watch app even shows distance, pace, and heart rate, and the newest version offers audio playback controls, too.
The other piece of the puzzle was getting podcasts to load on my watch and play back while I’m running2. When watchOS 5 was announced, I had been keeping my eye on its release, because Apple is finally including a Podcasts watch app. But I’m an Overcast user, so it would be a bit messy—I’d have to manually adjust which podcasts I had listened to across devices.
Turns out I didn’t need to wait. I got to beta test Overcast 5 for a month, and developer Marco Arment added a standalone Apple Watch app that plays back audio that’s been automatically synced to the watch. Generally, if I walk right out of the house with my watch and AirPods, I will find my current podcasts loaded without having to pre-load any of them. (In the beta there were occasional hiccups where podcasts wouldn’t sync, but I haven’t noticed any in the final, shipping version.) Play status data syncs both ways, so when I go back to my iPhone, it knows that I got 20 minutes into the next episode while I was on my run.
A dream realized
I don’t love running—that is an understatement—but it’s a whole lot more pleasant when I’ve got podcasts to listen to, and I’m much more likely to do it if I’ve got a coach telling me when to run and when to rest. And now I’ve got that, reliably, on my Apple Watch.
Perhaps most impressively, these two apps—Overcast and Intervals Pro—play well together. When Intervals Pro needs to talk, it dips the Overcast audio and talks. It would be nice if it recognized that Overcast is spoken audio and paused the audio entirely, but that is a level of polish that will come in time. The two apps keep on running, and I guess that means I’m going to keep on running, too.
- September 9, 2014. I remember it well. It was my last full day on the job at IDG! For me and a whole bunch of other people. Great timing. ↩
- Yes, some apps did offer offline podcast playback on Apple Watch before this, but they were really unreliable and labor intensive to sync, when they worked at all. watchOS 5 has changed the game. ↩
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