The Phonelessness of the Long Distance Runner

As smartwatches mature, they make the decision to leave the phone behind easier

Anyone who has followed my Twitter feed for a while will know that I’m a keen sports enthusiast, particularly when it comes to running. It’s an important part of my life and one where I feel exceedingly lucky to have an area of overlap with one of my research topics — wearables. After all, how many people get to test out such a wide range of tech while doing something they love? Whether I’m out for a 5k or a marathon, it’s fair to say I’ll always have some tech with me.

But there’s one gadget that I’m always happy to leave behind when I’m running, and that’s my phone. I really enjoy getting out for a run as a way of taking a break from notifications and messages, and clearing my head. Added to that, most of today’s smartphones are pretty chunky. Larger displays are welcome when watching videos or looking at photos, but less so when you need to squeeze your phone into a pocket — the rise of vest-style phone holders is testament to this.

A couple of years ago, there was a sense of trade-off when heading out running without a phone. After all, what if you wanted to listen to music? Or if you were running somewhere new and got lost? Or — most urgently — you took a tumble somewhere off-grid and needed to call for help?

For me, this is where modern smartwatches deliver an incredible amount of utility. Yes, they are capable companions for health and fitness generally, but they can do so much more. I’ve been testing out an Apple Watch for the past few weeks and it’s really underlined just how much I can get from a smartwatch on a day-to-day basis, and especially when I’m out running.

For example, if I’m heading out on a long run, I can rest assured that I can download some music and podcasts straight to the Watch from Spotify and pair it with my headphones. If I need to stop and grab a drink or jump on public transport for any reason, I’ve got contactless payment set up and ready to go. If I take a wrong turn, I can check Maps and get myself back on the right path. Added to this, the Watch I’m using has cellular capabilities, meaning I could call for help if something went wrong — thankfully I’ve not needed to do this yet.

Of course, there are many other smartwatches that offer the same set of capabilities and I’d be remiss not to mention the Samsung Galaxy Watch4, which really impressed me in testing recently and is just one of an array of capable devices out there. I was quietly impressed with Wear OS 3.0, which runs on the Galaxy Watch4, and it’s likely that apps like Google Maps and Spotify will make their way to more smartwatches now thanks to the new platform. But elsewhere, more “serious” running watches like the Garmin Forerunner 945 add in features like music downloads, contactless payments and navigation, while running their own operating system.

In my opinion, these features demonstrate their value most when someone doesn’t have their phone with them. If I’ve got my phone with me, I’m still likely to use that for the vast majority of my mobile computing. But take away the phone and I place huge value on having a smartwatch that can meet my needs on the move.

Admittedly, this could be seen as a problem for the smartwatch market — after all, no one wants to position their device as something you only use when you don’t have access to something else. Still, it shows how far smartwatches have come, when even a few years ago a lot of the features I’ve discussed were very uncommon.

What next? It certainly feels like cellular connectivity is another piece of the puzzle that various players in the market want to crack, and it’s no surprise at all that using a smartwatch when exercising is pretty much always the main use demonstrated for cellular-enabled wearables. Again, the times when someone is phoneless is when this will have the most value. However, at CCS Insight, we’ve long held the expectation that smartwatches as a secondary point of connectivity will have a major role in the advent of on-person computing. See this year’s predictions, for example.

As an avid smartwatch user and a keen runner, I’ve found a sweet spot right in the middle of these interests. I’ve been lucky enough to test out multiple smartwatches this year and typically always come away impressed with their capabilities, especially when I’m exercising. These are devices that offer more utility than ever before, and I can’t wait to see what comes down the track next.