How the Apple Watch works (or doesn't work...) with Garmin Connect

If you're an active cyclist who already uses a Garmin 520, 530, 540, 1080-style GPS head unit and are considering adding an Apple Watch to your setup, it's important to understand how the two devices will work together.

While the Apple Watch can be a great add-on that can enhance your cycling experience, adding one into the Garmin ecosystem comes with some limitations. This is especially important if you're hoping to replace your mobile phone on rides with the cellular version of the Apple Watch. Let's take a look at what you should know:

First: there is no Garmin Connect app for the Apple Watch

If you currently use a Garmin GPS head unit on your handlebar, it's likely paired to the Garmin Connect app on your iPhone or Android. That's how your ride data gets saved, synced to Strava and other fitness tracking products, and so on.

Note that there is no Garmin Connect app for the Apple Watch. This is probably because Garmin offers their own smartwatches which directly compete with the Apple Watch, so they aren't exactly incentivized to support it.

Without Garmin Connect, you will not have access to two key features on Garmin GPS head units: 

  • Incident Detection: this safety feature on some Garmin head units can notify your emergency contacts if you're in an accident. It relies on cellular connectivity on your mobile phone and the Garmin Connect app to work. No phone = no Garmin Connect = no incident detection. See "Alternatives to Garmin Incident Detection", below, for some other options.

  • LiveTrack: this feature in Garmin Connect can allow contacts you specify to view your route and position on a map. It will not work without the Garmin Connect app.

Leaving your mobile phone at home

Do you consider Garmin Connect a must-have for access to LiveTrack and Incident Detection? You can always run the app on your mobile phone, then bring your phone along on rides...this sort of defeats the purpose of the watch, however - one popular reason to purchase an Apple Watch is so you can leave your bulky mobile phone at home while you're out riding!

So you'll need to carefully consider whether or not you can live without Garmin Connect and your phone along for the ride. Let's take a look at some alternatives that can duplicate some of the functionality of Garmin Connect, if you choose to ride with an Apple Watch and leave your phone at home:

Alternatives to Garmin Incident Detection

Apple offers their own competing technology, "Crash Detection" and "Fall Detection" - which can notify emergency services or your emergency contact in case of some incidents, like some bike crashes.

This will only work on the Cellular version of the Apple Watch, (again, assuming you don't have your phone with you) and of course, NONE of these services work outside your cellular coverage area.

Another option is Strava Beacon. Like Garmin's LiveTrack, Beacon allows you to share your location with contacts you specify while you ride. The main drawback of Beacon is that you have to start your ride using the Strava app for Beacon to work - but if you've got a Garmin GPS on your handlebar already, why would you also want to use the Strava app? An imperfect solution to be sure.

Also, if you want to use Beacon WITHOUT your mobile phone, you'll need the cellular version of the Apple Watch for connectivity. If you have the GPS-only version of the Apple Watch, then your mobile phone needs to be present for connectivity anywhere the Watch goes.

Can the Apple Watch replace both my mobile phone AND the Garmin head unit on training rides?

What about the idea of leaving your mobile phone at home while riding and removing the Garmin head unit from your bike? This option is viable if you choose the Apple Watch cellular version, so you have connectivity on-the-go.

Trying to use an Apple Watch as an alternative to a Garmin GPS head unit has some serious limitations to be aware of. Before you try it, carefully consider:

  • Limited battery life. The Apple Watch is OK for rides of a couple hours, but all day adventures are out of the question.
  • No "out front" display - Garmin GPS devices have big screens that are easy to see in the riding position. To look at the Apple Watch, you have to take your hands off the bar, since it's wrist-mounted, and the screen is also much smaller.
  • Missing features - Garmin head units have tons of display options and custom screens and fields you can customize for your needs (power zones, watts/kg, live segments), while the Apple Watch will really only give you the "how fast, how far" information.

If you really want to try this on your training rides, consider using a 3rd party app, like Cyclemeter, which is more robust than the Apple activity tracking app for bike rides.

What about the Apple Watch for cyclocross racing?

Despite these drawbacks, I think the Apple Watch is a great option as an alternative to Garmin head units for cyclocross racing specifically - removing the Garmin from your handlebar entirely, instead of supplementing it. You may have noticed that wristwatch GPS devices are very popular among European cyclocross pros.

One reason is that when you change bikes in a 'cross race, the GPS on your wrist stays with the rider - if it was a handlebar mounted GPS, switching bikes means you no longer have the GPS, or you must remove it from the bike you're dropping in the pit, then re-install it on your fresh bike from the pit.

Since the most recent revision of the Apple Watch supports power meters, using an Apple Watch to track heart rate, segments, elapsed time, and power data during a cyclocross race can work very well and is totally realistic. On training rides? I still want the Garmin GPS on the handlebar every time.


Back to blog