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How to set up an Apple Watch for Swimrun

Published 20 February 2024

Photo of a pair of swimrunners doing a cliff jump.

Garmin watches are everywhere in endurance sports, but I've been an Apple fan since college, and the Watch Ultra is great for long-course athletes. But while it works pretty perfectly out-of-the-box for triathlon, the Watch requires a bit of setup for swimrun. Let me walk through mine.

Why the Apple Watch?

There are a ton of features of the watch I think are particularly great for training and racing.

  • The combo of cellular, maps and payments gives you a rain-proof solution for long runs. Send messages, make calls and pay but food to get out of a jams.
  • Satellite, siren and fall detection give you good coverage in an emergency
  • The ocean band is rock-solid in the water, but you can also get fancier bands to dress it up.
  • Track detection keeps my track runs accurate automatically
  • Audible, apple music, and podcasts all work seamlessly without having to drag a phone around

I've found I can all of my training with just a the Watch; the only thing I find I miss is a camera. I've also found swim tracking to be a bit dicey: drills, kickboard and strokes other than freestyle tend to confuse it. But I can live with that.

Setting up the watch for swimrun

Swimrun training and racing can be tracked with the Workout app, just like an outdoor run using the multiport workout type. There's just a few things you need to do:

  • Use the action button to mark transitions
  • Add a swimrun workout
  • Configure transitions
  • Use the workout while racing or training
  • Import workouts to Strava and Training Peaks

I'll go through these one-by-one.

Using the action button

The action button (the big orange one) is how you'll switch from runs to swims. This is great because it allows you to keep the watch in water lock mode throughout training.

Using the action button for workouts isn't great. In their wisdom, Apple's designers make the button do different things based on the type of workout, and it's rarely want you want it to do. Sometimes it'll pause (like when you're swimming and inadvertently knock it on a lane divider or another swimmer); sometimes it'll advance the workout segment (which of course you can't undo), and sometimes it'll just randomly start recording. When I'm not swimrunning, I usually have the action button turned off.

To turn it on, in Watch's Settings app, click on the Action Button setting.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Settings app showing the Action Button setting page.

Then, ensure the drop-down is set to Workout.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Action Button setting page showing the workout option selected.

Adding a swimrun workout

On the Apple Watch, swimrun is a flavor of "Multisport" activity. It's not on the default list so you may need to add it by scrolling to the bottom, clicking "Add Workout" and finding it in the alphabetical list of workout types.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the bottom of the list of workouts, including an Add Workout button.
Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the alphabetical list of activities with Multisport in the center.

The default multiport workout is a triathlon. To change it, you'll need to hit the three dots in the button's top right and add a new workout.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the Multisport activity

In that menu, there's already a "Swim-Run" workout, but it's poorly named — it's more of an aquathlon setting, with only a single swim and run segment. Instead, scroll to the bottom and click "Create Workout".

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the Multisport activity's create workout option

Name it whatever you want, and then click the "+ Add" button, alternatively adding open water swims and outdoor runs.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the menu for creating a new workout within the Multisport activity

You can leave the distances as "open", but you'll need to have at least as many workouts added as you have segments — so, for ÖTILLÖ, the Swimrun World Championship, you'd need all 47 segments here. This is obviously a bit tedious, but you only need to do it once.

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing a list of alternating swim and run workouts

Once you're finished, hit "Create Workout" and that workout will be the default for multisport. If it's not, you can also select it by hitting the three dots button next in the top right corner of the multisport activity, and scrolling through the list.

Configuring transitions

The apple watch does an amazing job at tracking transitions in triathlons automatically, but for swimrun it's ... not great. It tends to get confused, transition at the wrong times, and even crash. What's worse, while in transition mode, the watch stops tracking GPS, so you end up losing data.

My recommendation is to do transitions manually. To do this, click the three dots button next in the top right corner of the multisport activity and scroll all the way to the bottom, and hit "Preferences". Then hit "Transitions".

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the menu for preferences within the Multisport activity

In the Transitions menu, make sure the drop down is selecting "Manual".

Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the menu for transition preferences within the Multisport activity
This last bit is a matter of taste. You can have the watch time transitions for you, which is great in triathlon. However, with all the gear to move around, I've found the extra button press to be too fiddly when trying to transition quickly. I turn the transition option off, and just click the action button once before starting my transition into the water, and once again once I've completed my transition coming out.
Screenshot of the Apple Watch's Workout app showing the menu for transition timing preference within the Multisport activity

Now you're set up and ready to race!

Using the workout while racing or training

Once set up, you can use your new swimrun workout for both racing and training. All you have to do is start the workout, and click the action button during transitions. There's nothing else to worry about.

If your watch gets confused, you can always advance multiple segments in a row.

You can end the workout by holding the digital crown to turn off the water lock, swiping right once, and clicking "End" just like any other workout.

Importing workouts to Strava and Training Peaks

Strava imports swimruns as a single generic "workout". This is great, as it gives you a full map of your race, which I find super cool. However, because it's neither a run nor a swim, Strava doesn't count these distances toward goals or things like shoe wear. It also won't award you fitness.

To gain access to these features, you can edit the workout and turn it into a Trail Run manually.

Screenshot of my Strava Route for ÖTILLÖ Austin

Training Peaks will do something a little different, slicing up the multisport workout into a list of swims and runs. The result can look like chaos, but allows you to access all of your data.

Screenshot of my first few segments from ÖTILLÖ Austin in Training Peaks

You'll notice an 18-minute transition and seven-second swim; that's the moment I decided to stop timing transitions in swimrun!

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