Nowadays, we use apps on our smartphones for just about everything we do; they can save time and make us more productive, they can give us access to information, they can motivate and amuse us. These benefits can definitely be applied to running, so it’s worth taking a look at the world of running apps.
The most common kinds of running app are for tracking: they use the GPS chip of the smartphone as well as information from the cellular network to determine location in real time, and can record the distance run, speed/pace and route taken. Different running apps have different features (or at least similar features executed in varying degrees of quality or quantity), but here are some of the criteria that line up with the most common features.
- Community: A running app like Endomondo, MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, or DailyMile all have ways of connecting with other users for the sake of cheering one another on, competing or even learning from others. Even if you don’t physically run with a group, you can feel like you belong to one (and reap the motivational benefits) through running apps.
- Connectivity: On the other hand, we already have so many social networks, not to mention blogs and other forms of electronic communication. Keeping track of what your running buddies are doing through the app’s interface can feel like another chore. Ideally, your app connects to the social network of your choice(s) so that your friends on Twitter or Facebook can see how far and how fast you’re going. In the interest of safety, you may want to turn off any kind of auto-sharing, so that strangers can’t scope out your favorite route (never mind the daily schedule you follow if you’re a highly regimented runner). Aside from social media, there are 3rd party rewards programs that you may want to plug into.
- GymPact allows you to put money into a pact— you commit to a certain number of workouts per week and if you achieve that, you get a portion of the pot from everyone who didn’t make their commitments. Outdoor, tracked running is one of the easiest ways to get credit for a workout; RunKeeper and MapMyFitness both sync with GymPact.
- Higi (which bought out Earndit), awards points for outdoor exercise, plus check-ins at gyms, parks and other fitness related venues. Points can be redeemed for discounts on gear, apparel, health food and other items. Higi syncs with Nike+, Runkeeper, DailyMile, Endomondo, MapMyFitness as well as other apps and devices.
- Media Control: You run to music, right? It can be annoying having to switch apps while running: tweeting about it, taking pics along the way, and tracking the run. One way to save some annoyance is by having the music control built into the app.
- Versatility: Whether you’re a triathlete, a runner who likes to cross-train, or a runner who’s forced to cross-train due to injury, you may want to be able to track other activities. Sometimes it’s just for the sake of recording that you spent 45 minutes at the gym. Most apps now have walking, cycling and hiking as options, but I’ve personally recorded skiing (both cross-country and downhill), inline skating, and even kayaking with Endomondo— it you’re into variety, make sure your app is too.
- Website: While there are users who never use an app outside their phone, they are missing out. Visiting the website (where the run data has been synced up) makes it easier to see the nitty-gritty of your data by virtue of looking at it through a bigger screen, plus the mouse and keyboard of your computer will let you edit, rename, and annotate the workout to your heart’s content. Take a look at the website of your app: is it clean, intuitive and easy to use? If your geo-data is incorrect, can you adjust it?
- Route finding: While keeping routes private is a good idea from a safety perspective, knowing where to run is a problem that can be solved with a running app. Whether it’s looking at a satellite photo, or browsing through runs others have done, discovering a new route will give you better scenery, fewer road crossings, the physical topography (flat? hill repeats?) you’re looking for— and maybe even a restroom or water fountain. Strava is notable for having a King of the Mountain for certain routes; the one to get the given route done the fastest gets bragging rights… competition is part of the community benefit, after all.
- Contests/Challenges: … because we all like free stuff. Endomondo’s challenges typically give you a random draw entry per kilometer or calorie. Doing more increases your odds of winning, but the prizes are still kept within reach of those who work in an office or have kids to juggle (or both!) instead of merely handing them over to full-time athletes and others who seem to have time to do nothing but run.
There are other kinds of apps that go beyond the tracking. Zombies Run! is basically a game that takes place in a fictional Zombie Apocalypse; instead of playing the game with a Playstation or computer, you accomplish your missions (getting supplies for your group of survivors, escaping a horde, etc.)
When selecting an app, have a look at what the free version gets you compared to the paid/premium version. App developers need to eat too, so they will be pushing the paid version on you. Ideally, the free version has enough features to make you want to start using it and get used to it being part of your run routine, but once that happens, you’re lured into getting the premium version— at a price you can live with. Trying out apps can be free, but nobody likes having their time wasted.
Use your smartphone and the app store to bring your running into the 21st century!
Do you have a favourite app for running? What feature has yet to be implemented on a running app that would change your world?
Axel Kussmann is a husband and father and engineer (thus the love of high-tech) who blogs about triathlon, fitness, and active family living at Iron Rogue.