WatchOS 5: 5 new fitness features for the Apple Watch

Training tools for runners, automatic workout detection and all the other fitness features in WatchOS 5 that will make your Apple Watch a better workout buddy.

Vanessa Hand Orellana CNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Vanessa Hand Orellana
4 min read
James Martin/CNET

Apple's latest WatchOS 5 update is now available for download, and it brings a ton of great new features for the Apple Watch like a walkie-talkie app, Siri shortcuts and Podcast support. But as someone who uses her Apple Watch mostly for its fitness  and workout features, those are the improvements I'm most excited about.  

Here are the key fitness upgrades in WatchOS 5.

Automatic workout tracking

Don't bother messing around with the watchface when you're prepping for a sweat session; with WatchOS 5, the Apple Watch will be able to figure it out for you.

If you forgot to start a workout, you'll get an alert and vibration prompting you to begin tracking. But if you're laser focused on your workout and you take forever to respond, you'll still get retroactive credit for the activity you just did. Not only will it know when you're working out, it will know what activity you're doing. Within three minutes of you starting, the Watch will be able to figure out which of these activities you were doing: running, walking (indoor or outdoor), swimming (open or pool), elliptical and rowing machine.

The automatic tracking also works at the end of a workout as the Watch will use your heart rate to figure out when you're winding down and remind you to end the workout so you're not getting extra credits.


The Apple Watch will be able to track hikes more accurately with WatchOS 5. 

James Martin/CNET

Yoga and hiking improvements

Apple has added two Bay Area staples to its list of activities within the workout app. Yogis and hikers have always been able to track their sessions as "other" and label accordingly, but may not have been getting the most accurate credits for either.

Each activity now has its own individual algorithm that looks into a series of biometric data during each session to better calculate calories burned and the impact the activity will have on the rest of your day. Yogis therefore may see a higher or lower calorie count depending on the intensity of the practice.

For hiking, the Watch will now take into account elevation, heart rate, GPS and distance giving you due credit when you're going up a hill at full steam even though your pace may have decreased. Which means I will finally be able to log my San Francisco commute up California Street as exactly what it is: a hike!

Apple Watch Series 3 will use the built-in altimeters to calculate elevation, while the Series 2 and below will rely on the altimeter on the phone.

Pro tools for runners

If you're a runner like me, you're also getting a new set of tools to help you reach your personal record. In addition to pace, WatchOS 5 will give you the option to add cadence (steps per minute) and rolling mile pace (how fast you ran the previous mile) to the list of metrics you can see while you're out pounding the pavement, or on the treadmill.

The update also adds custom pace alerts for runs with haptic feedback so that you can keep your eyes on the finish line instead of your wrist. Set up your target pace before your run and then you'll feel a vibration when you're going off track. You'll get a different type of vibration depending on whether you're going too fast or too slow.


Pace alerts for runners on WatchOS 5.

James Martin/CNET

Time to get competitive

Let's be honest, activity "sharing" on the Watch is more for announcing how active you are to your friends, or a shameful reminder that you're trailing behind, at least for me. WatchOS 5 makes the competition factor of activity sharing official. Challenge your friend to close your activity rings for seven days straight and win a prize at the end. You get one point for every percent of the ring you complete. The winner gets an award that's unique to your competition and can continue requesting a rematch until you're both ridiculously fit or burnt out.

Power playlist

Music is a pretty big motivator for most of us during a workout, and WatchOS 5 will give you more options to choose from. Streaming will still be exclusive to Apple Music , but you'll be able to sync playlists for playback offline from third-party apps like Pandora and potentially Spotify if they take advantage of this feature. It also includes meditation apps, audiobooks and podcasts with Apple's podcast app coming to the Apple Watch with WatchOS 5.

But if you're still holding on the the original Apple Watch you're out of luck, because WatchOS 5 will only be available for the Series 1 and later.

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