Training for an IRONMAN using TrainingPeaks and an Apple Watch

  

apple watch

When I considered training for my next triathlon using Apple Watch as much as I could, most other triathletes shook their heads and said “I don’t get it, just use a Garmin/Suunto/Other brand?”

But I was intrigued. Apple Watch is only three versions in but has already made great steps in improving battery life and capability. It also shows a renewed focus on health and fitness, and you know Apple will be relentless in improving it each year.

Since my next IRONMAN is in September this year, I have to focus on what the current Apple Watch (series 3 LTE) can give me now. And since TrainingPeaks is my platform of choice for planning and monitoring my progress, I set out to understand how Apple Watch and TP can work together.

Disclaimer: In case you think I am a lifetime athlete, I am not. I have been cycling for around 8 years, doing triathlons for about 4, and always just as hobbies outside of my day job—which involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer. I have completed just one other IRONMAN (Maastricht in 2017) and quite slowly as it happened. In most measures for my age group (I’m 53) I am just below average in terms of performance, but I am delighted I have made it to there. I am slowly climbing up the results—and up the hills now I come to think of it!

Apple Watch & TrainingPeaks – is that even Possible?

Yes it is.

Okay, there is more. Quite a bit actually. Some is great, some is not so good, but if you are like me and are intrigued with the idea that Apple Watch could be your next sports watch, read on.

Let’s Talk Apps

The first thing to realize with Apple Watch is that what you get in the box is not the whole story. Every Apple Watch comes loaded with the Apple Workout app, which is, in classic Apple style, very competent at what it does, but may not meet all your needs.

Luckily, just like your smartphone, the Apple Watch can utilize a multitude of apps to meet your needs for swim, run, bike and tri training. This post and my blog can help you choose which apps will work best for you, and we’ll focus here on how they’ll work with Training Peaks.

Creating or Getting a Training Plan

Training Peaks is my go-to place for storing and logging a training plan. To help you reach your goals with an Apple Watch, you’ll start with the same options as you would with any other device:

Buy a plan from the TP store

I’ve bought a few of these in the past, with varying success. The key is to make sure the one you chose matches your current fitness and goals, has understandable workouts that you can execute. In other words, don’t choose a power-based cycling plan if you don’t have a power meter!

Do it yourself…

You can search the web (outside of TrainingPeaks) for various free plans and then enter them into TP directly, perhaps adjusting as you see fit. This is your cheapest option and gives you plenty of flexibility. I have used this approach in the past, but ultimately it ends up being a little unstructured, and for me leaves too much wiggle room to get out of training.

Employ a trainer

TrainingPeaks has hundreds of coaches who can upload your personalized plan to the platform on a weekly basis, and then provide feedback on your progress and adjust if necessary. My coach, John Rowland from CycloForm, actually lives many miles from me, but provides me with great detailed training plans which he adjusts based on the data I upload from each workout.

A good coach (like John) will be reachable by text or email. There is nothing worse than waiting for a response from your trainer when plans go awry. Sure, you could take a guess, but it’s nice to pass that responsibility on to the coach who should know best (and hope he says take it easy for today, Ian!)

 

OK, I have a plan. How’s this going to work with Apple Watch?

Ideally we could have the following setup:

  1. Your Plan in TP would have all your workouts entered into the Workout creator tool TP provides.
  2. These plans would automatically sync down to your Apple Watch when needed.
  3. You would perform the training session guided by the plan loaded onto Apple Watch.
  4. The log from the session will be uploaded back to TP for analysis by you and/or your coach
  5. Other health data such as sleep duration or HRV are also synced daily to TP.

1, 3, 4 and 5 work great today. But step 2 of syncing the workouts to an Apple Watch app currently involves a manual process of recreating the session in the app you want to use. There is no reason why a developer couldn’t fix this in the future though.

Let’s break down how I approach this:

 

Swimming

TP has good support for creating swimming (pool and open water) workouts, but doesn’t as yet include the ability to specify drills or detailed sessions and strokes for example.

Instead, you can outline a session using RPE, threshold pace or heat rate, which is fine.

Pool Swimming

Having tried various swimming apps that attempt to provide a structured session to follow, I have reverted to just memorising or printing out my plan, which I put it in a waterproof bag. If that works for you, then the standard Apple Workout app produces great stats for pool swimming automatically—no add-on apps needed.

However if you want to log drills, then the Swim.com app works much like the Apple Workouts one, with the extra ability to mark a drill.

Once you have logged your swim, you can use the nifty HealthFit app to export the data directly into TP.

See my detailed swimming focussed blogs here for full details:

Open Water Swimming

I love the quality of the GPS tracks I get from Apple Watch in open water swimming. It’s better than anything else I have tried, which means pacing is more accurate. I should note that I typically do not create structured sessions for open water training. Usually it’s a simple endurance swim around the lake a few times, followed by a nice cup of tea. Beautiful.

Again, once you’re done, use HealthFit or RunGap to export to TP.

 

Cycling

Cycling training is the most challenging of the three disciplines for Apple Watch but is still achievable with some small adjustments.

Outdoor Cycling

One challenge with using the Apple Watch outside is that it’s hard to see the watch on your wrist while cycling—and if you mount it on your handlebars, you’ll lose the wrist-based heart rate monitor function. That means you’ll need a bluetooth heart-rate strap to track this basic workout metric (the Apple Watch is currently not compatible with ANT+ straps).

That can be problematic, because the Apple Watch can only connect with two bluetooth sensors at a time. So if your bike has a power meter, speed/cadence, DI2 or other sensors, you’ll need to stick your iPhone in your back pocket to log that data. To me, this is not the end of the world (at least when it comes to training) and comes with the added bonus of extended battery life.

Personally I keep my Apple Watch on my wrist, put my iPhone in my back pocket, and use an app called CycleMeter (with the Elite upgrade) which has some nice configurations for Apple Watch. It also comes with a decent workout editor to match your planned session (though iSmoothRun also looks good for cycling and I will be trying that too).

Unfortunately for navigation (and route art), I have not found a good option on the Apple Watch yet. You can use Apple Maps, but it doesn’t allow real fine tuning. I have been known to use my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt for GPS and leave heart rate tracking to the Apple Watch. At the end of the ride I’ll upload both files into TP and combine the data.

Indoor Cycling

When spending those joyous hours on a turbo trainer over the winter, my preferred option is to use Zwift, which syncs with my TP workouts, and supports Apple Watch biometrics.

Read my full review of it here: Using Apple Watch as an HR monitor for Zwift

 

Running

Running is perhaps the easiest and most convenient sport to do with your Apple Watch.

Indoor Running

On the treadmill you can just use Apple Watch Workout app and export the data into TP using the above mentioned apps. Alternatively I quite like using Zwift for this too, especially when coupled with a Stryd pod. Check out Running with Zwift and Apple Watch for more.

Outdoor Running

My current favourite app for running is iSmoothRun. Although it can’t currently import the workouts directly from Training Peaks, you can use the iSmoothRun app to create an equivalent workout, then sync it to Apple Watch to follow during your session.

What’s nice about iSmoothRun is that it supports your workouts when running with Apple Watch alone, no iPhone needed. In addition, you can customise the data, selecting from a wide selection of fields that you want to display on Apple Watch.

Once you have finished a run, iSmoothRun can sync the data back into Training Peaks directly. All the data is synced, including HR, GPS track, pace, and even running power if you pair a Stryd power meter.

There are many other running apps available of course. Many of them will have workout builders and options to sync data into Apple Workouts. If they don’t have a direct integration into TP, you can easily use an app such as HealthFit or RunGap to export it instead. HealthFit will even do that automatically for you now (once it detects a new workout has been logged)

Strength and Conditioning

Apple’s built-in workout app is perfectly fine for this. If you want a timer, then there are plenty available on the app store to take a look at. Intervals is good, and also handy for timing intervals on a treadmill!

 

Exporting Data from Apple Activity app to Training Peaks

As noted in various places above my preferred option for all apps is that they:

  1. Export activity data into the Apple Activity app (and by definition the Apple Health app)
  2. I then use HealthFit to export that to Training Peaks. You can configure this to happen automatically in the latest version which makes the whole process “set and forget”

Alternatives such as RunGap are also good.

Other Health Metrics (HRV, BP, Sleep etc)

I have recently been getting more interested in logging other metrics along with my training logs. This has given me an opportunity to buy new gadgets, which is always great.

 

In the morning (while my wife is doing her 7 minute daily workout) I spend a few minutes connecting devices to my body, syncing other data to the Apple Health DB, and exporting it to TrainingPeaks. You can export this data via HealthFit, or use built in TP sync in the various apps (such as HRV4Training or Masimo Health)

 

  • HRV using HRV4Training
  • HRV using Apple Watch Breath App
  • Temperature using Nokia Thermo
  • Blood Oxygen Levels using Masimo Health MightySat
  • Sleep quality and duration using Beddit
  • Weight using Nokia Smart Scale
  • Resting Heart Rate using Apple Watch
  • Blood Pressure using a Nokia BMP
  • Various other manual metrics such as Sickness, Mood, Motivation etc which I enter via HRV4Training
  • VO2Max from Apple Watch (strangely it doesn’t seem possible to sync this one to TP currently)

 

Check out the TrainingPeaks blog on how you can use HRV (Heart Rate Variability) to determine your readiness to perform on a day (and comparing it to the hidden HRV records Apple Watch creates automatically throughout the day and when you use the Breath app – to see it open the Health app and search for HRV).

Logging a Triathlon Event

Currently you have two options for this:

Use the built in Activity app and/or third party single event apps. The issue with this is the complexity of switching apps during transition – which is typically a time where I am sort of dazed and confused and just trying to stagger out of my wet suit without falling into the mud. You can read how that worked out for me.

Use the Tri Tracker app – this is the only one currently available to record a Triathlon in its entirety and make it easy to switch sport by pressing the digital crown and side button together. Simple.

Future Enhancements

Apple have recently announced watchOS 5 which is now available to developers in a beta (test) release. This has a few immediately interesting new features for running in the standard Apple Workout app such as setting a rolling or average pace alert, and showing cadence (you can always use third party apps for this, but it’s nice to see in the standard app).

In addition automatic workout detection offers to start and/or log a workout if you forgot to start it, and will suggest you stop it at the end (which save’s logging the car journey home as part of your workout).

A new communication feature called “walkie-talkie” could potentially be an interesting way to easily communicate with your coach (“Keep it up Ian”) or family (“Go Dad!”) while out training (or even during an event if allowed), and a new Activity Competition feature could be fun to keep you motivated over a 7 day period.

They have also dramatically simplified the programming interface to Apple Health which will hopefully mean bigger and better third party apps becoming available.

The next hardware generation of Apple Watch (series 4) is expected to be announced in September of this year, and will most likely see a larger screen (in the same size watch), better battery life, and rumored new taptic (rather than mechanical) buttons which could also allow for more sensors (such as ECG readings that are currently available through third party straps). I also hear faint rumors of blood oxygen sensor being built in, which would be interesting especially if you train at altitude.

Summary

That’s probably quite a bit of info to take in. But the bottom line is that using Apple Watch for training in TP is perfectly possible, and with a few caveats works very well.

On the wishlist I’d love to see an enterprising developer work with TP to sync training workouts to an app that you could use on Apple Watch without iPhone, and I have no doubt that will eventually happen, and I’d like to see better support for navigation and sensors (such as power) for cycling.

But for now Apple Watch receives an ‘A’ for running and swimming training from me and a ‘B+’ for cycling overall. I believe the future looks especially bright for what is already the biggest watch business of any kind in the world, what with Apple’s investment in health and fitness and renewed focus on this for Apple Watch I can only see it becoming more and more competent and innovative in the coming years.

About the Author

Ian Blackburn

Ian Blackburn is a tech enthusiast, and founder/CEO of bbits.co.uk and lovecleanstreets.com. He is also a keen amateur triathlete.  After using conventional devices to train for his last IRONMAN, he wondered if he could use an Apple Watch 3 as a committed triathlete for the next one. He has written numerous articles about training with the Apple Watch and its associated apps—and will be pursuing a sub-14hr IRONMAN in September 2018.  

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