Apple Watch 3 Series Review (For Running)

Apple Watch 3 Series Review (For Running)

I never thought I would be the owner of the Apple Watch 3 Series. Keep in mind; this is a running-focused review. Apple Watches will do a lot more fitness activities than most other GPS watches, but I wanted to focus more on running for the sake of this review.

First About the Apple Watch 3 Series:

The Apple Watch Series 3 came out in September of 2017 and is the 4th generation model of the Apple Watch.  Currently (May 2021), the Apple Watch 3 Series with Wi-Fi and GPS is only $199.

There are plenty of “newer” Apple Watches, including the Apple Watch 6 and the Apple Watch SE. So why even keep the Apple Watch 3 Series? It’s cheaper, and the last Apple Watch you can purchase is 38 mm. So if you have a small wrist, you’ll probably like the Apple Watch 3 Series availability in a smaller size.


The Apple 3 Series is only 1.87 ounces which is extremely lightweight. It doesn’t feel bulky on the wrist at all. It’s amazing to me how light technology watches have become!

Apple Watch 3 Series Review for running

My knowledge of the Apple Watch 3 Series:

I’ve run a couple of times with various models of older Apple Watches. Previous models of the Apple Watch were never accurate when it came to distance and time. When a running watch tells me I’ve run 3.3 miles instead of 3, that’s a big difference.

If a running watch can’t do basic GPS like time, pace, distance, there is no point to use it as a running watch. Or it shouldn’t be marketed as a running watch.

These newer Apple Watches are basically extensions of your phone. They can answer phone calls, texts, pay…you name it, they can probably do it. For me, that is too much technology in a watch. When I run, I like my “me time.” Just me and me.

I am a late adopter of a lot of technology, and I don’t foresee myself putting credit cards on my watch and paying by phone. My Coros watch will show texts, but I disabled that within minutes of setting it up.

My experience with the Apple Watch 3 Series:

Like most products, the Apple Watch 3 Series is fairly straight toward to set up. It did take longer than I expected (about 30 minutes) to set up and apps on my phone to the Apple Watch. All of the apps and scrolling is something I struggled to get used to. As someone who just wants a basic running GPS, I needed to turn off music controls, texts, and other random apps from my phone (do I sound old or what?).

Watch 3 Series running
This particular run was up a mountain.

After a few runs, I got used to it. The Apple Watch 3 Series and the apps have a sharper learning curve. I downloaded the Strava App since I assumed running=strava. It makes sense. Of course, you can use Mapmyrun or RunKeeper.

It was weird to me that the Strava App only allows 3 different fields. Personally, I prefer distance, overall pace overall times. The Strava app includes the current time, which can be helpful, I guess, but it’s rarely accurate.

The actual “workouts app” allows you to have 5 fields which seems like a lot better of an option for runners. That gives you the options for time, heart rate, average time, distance, pace.

I’ve already heard from friends who have and use an Apple Watch that they aren’t the best for running, and many still prefer a running-specific watch.

Acquiring GPS with the Apple Watch 3 Series:

When you get ready to go for your run, you’ll need to acquire your GPS and heart rate. I’ve found something weird about the 3 Series because it doesn’t tell you it’s doing this. The mystery is there of whether you have it or not. If you’re like me, you might assume it has GPS only to find out a few minutes later it does not, and you’re already a quarter of a mile or more into your run.

It would be an easy fix and make the Apple Watch 3 much more runner-friendly to tell you when it has GPS and heart rate. It has enough notifications already; why not add this.

The Actual GPS of the Apple Watch 3 Series:

GPS is probably the most important component of running watches. Nothing makes runners more heated than the topic of how accurate is their GPS Watch.

After you finally have a signal from the 3 Series, you can get on your way.

I found my Apple Watch 3 Series was nearly 2 miles off the actual GPS route on my first run. I had run 8.29 miles, and the watch told me 10.05. My run consisted of a mixture of road and trails.

apple 3 series watch running
There is no way to tell if you have a signal or not

After my shocking experience, I took to Instagram and asked if this was “normal.” I assumed not since I know of people who use the Apple Watch 3 Series to run. I learned running with your phone and putting the phone in “airplane mode” makes the Apple 3 series most accurate. Personally, I don’t believe you should need to do all of that.

After doing that, I’ve tested the Apple Watch 3 Series on several routes from busy streets and areas to the mountains to suburban Napa. I’ve found it usually is about .02 off per mile. That might not seem like “a lot,” but it adds up. It can be 20-30 seconds for a 5k, and that becomes inaccurate. It usually means it’s recording me running anywhere from 7-10 seconds faster than I am per mile.

For many people, this is a deal-breaker. (For me, it’s a deal-breaker as a primary running watch, especially for races and workouts). For easy runs, it’s fine, but if I’m doing workouts, it’s not acceptable. Would the Apple 3 Series be my “race watch”? No, but it’s fine for daily runs or as a backup watch. I don’t really see the point of having multiple watches, though.

Ease of Using the Apple Watch 3 Series:

It took me a long time to figure out how to use the Apple Watch. You need to double-tap to pause, and sometimes I thought I paused, but I guess I didn’t.

I love the simplicity of having only two buttons (the knob and the side button), but I think it makes it more challenging because you are forced to use the touchscreen when running.

Apple Watch 3 Series Review for running

Unless you have technology-friendly gloves, it’s hard actually to pause the watch during the winter. Once you get over the learning curve, it’s fairly straightforward to use. As someone who sweats often or wears gloves, it’s not the best watch for me because it takes a while to press the buttons.

Finally, the Apple 3 Series Watch does not have a track mode. If you like the ability to program workouts into your watch, I recommend finding something with those features.

Comfort of the Apple Watch 3 Series:

Everyday wear and running, Apple watches are comfortable. You don’t really feel like you are wearing a big clunky watch. I appreciate smaller and lighter watches, and the fit and feel works well for me. It doesn’t chafe, and it’s easy to clean the bands (important when you are wearing them and working out).

Plus, if you want to change out bands, there are all sorts of options and colors. (Personally, I think white looks great but gets dirty too easily).

apple 3 series watch running

The Apple Watch 3 Series Indoor Running:

I’ve used the 3 Series on a few treadmills runs, and it’s one of the more accurate GPS Watches. What?! I was not expecting that. As mediocre as it for outdoor GPS running, it’s one of the more accurate watches for indoor running. I rarely even use a GPS watch when running on the treadmill, except for writing reviews. Usually, I compare it among other watches as well as the treadmill. Keep in mind; not all treadmills are calibrated correctly either. Has half of running become calibrating your technology to prepare for runs?

If you only run indoors on a treadmill or indoor track, you’ll be delighted to know the Apple Watch 3 Series is a great option for that.

Heart Rate Data:

Many runners have turned to heart rate training. Heart rate is something that doesn’t lie about training and effort level. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of for watches to have wrist-based heart rate, but now most brands have a watch with heart rate.

A chest strap is still more accurate than any brand, but wrist-based heart rate trackers have made huge strides.

How does Apple compare? I’m happy to report the Apple Watch 3 Series is one of the most accurate GPS watches I’ve tried for heart rate data. My heart rate progresses, as I would assume.

An interesting and great feature of the Apple Watch 3 Series is the notification of high and low heart rate. It even notifies you if your heart rate is irregular. That’s a great feature for overall health.

What do I like about the Apple Watch 3 Series?

  • Good in low light: If you run in the dark, it’s nice and bright to see.
  • GPS is better than it’s been: At first, I used my Coros and the Apple Watch 3 Series together because I wanted to see how they compare. After the first run, most runs were within .1-.2 of each other. I’ve also run with a couple of people who use Garmins, and it appears that most runs are within .1-.2 of each other. This was a great improvement over the first run.
  • Last Apple Watch you can buy in 38 mm. I like the smaller watches.

What do I not like about the Apple Watch 3 Series?

  • Battery life: I will admit, I’m spoiled with the Coros battery. If you are an ultra runner or running for 6+ hours, you’ll need a separate watch. For daily runs, it seems to be fine.
  • Using a Touch Screen While Running: I don’t think this makes it easy to use. If you’re sweaty or wearing gloves, it isn’t very pleasant.
  • Lack of Ability to Program Workouts: This single feature is what breaks it as a primary watch for me. Several Garmin models are cheaper and have the ability to program workouts. If running is your primary reason for a GPS watch, it doesn’t make sense to pay more for fewer running features.

Bonus Features:

  • Ability to call midrun. Maybe you hate bringing your phone with you, but the Apple 3 Series watch has the ability to call during your run. It’s a great feature in case of emergencies or in case you feel terrible.
  • Ability to Pay via Apple Pay: At first, I thought this was “dumb,” but it’s a great way to buy fuel if you feel like you need it. Heck, through apple pay, you can technically make purchases from my watch if I need a mid-run fuel.

Apple Watch 3 Series Cost:

The Apple Watch 3 Series cost is $199. I always assumed all Apple Watches were thousands of dollars.

What are the Most Similar GPS Watches on the Market Right Now?

If we are talking about fitness watches, the most similar are the Fitbit Iconic and the Garmin Vivoactive.

Fitbit Iconic vs. Apple 3 Watch:

Compared to the Fitbit, the 3 Series Watch is more accurate with GPs (which I guess is not saying much). The Fitbit Iconic has twice the battery life.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 vs. Apple 3 Watch:

The Garmin Vivoactive has a 10-13 hour battery life, while the Apple 3 Series Watch has 5-6. Both the Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Apple are designed for more fitness versus running specific.

Apple Watch 3 Series Conclusion:

As someone who likes Apple, I thought it would be fun to try this out. Apple does have a great return policy. While the Apple 3 Series has definitely made strides over previous models, if you are looking for a watch with the primary use of running, I would look elsewhere. You can find several running-specific watches that are both cheaper and have more running features.

If you like the look and feel of Apple, you’ll appreciate the Apple 3 Series does the basic needs of a running watch. If you’re someone that workouts at the gym followed by a couple of mile run, it’s a great option for that!

You can buy one on the Apple Website, and you can see more gear reviews here.

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Questions for you:

Have you run with an Apple 3 Series Watch? 

What is your favorite running watch?