Can your phone help you run better?
From motivation to accountability, statistics to escaping zombies, there is an app out there for every type of runner
There is a large variety of smartphone apps to keep you motivated and provide valuable feedback on your run. Photograph: iStock
The only reason I use my phone these days when I run is to take a photo. I’m guilty of stopping to snap a scenic shot, possibly even mid-run, to capture a moment in time. I do track distance on my Garmin watch but I don’t take full advantage of the variety of smartphone apps that I could be using. I wonder what I am missing out on. This week, I called on my trustee team of ForgetTheGym runners and asked them which phone apps they recommend for runners and if using the apps is actually helping them with their running.
Without a doubt, the most positive feedback is for the widely popular app Strava. “Facebook for Active People” is what one of the gang called it. In addition to the social element where you can share your progress with others, it literally tracks every metric about your run, presents it visually and offers the most technical running nerd endless hours of analysis of their running history, and everyone else’s run if they so wish.
While I’m not sure I’d want others to know what runs (or lack of) I have completed, most runners say it is actually very motivating knowing your “followers” can see your run, your pace and your running routes. Running buddies support each other and congratulate each other on progress. You can keep your account quite private, however, if you are a shy runner. You decide who can see your running history. There are extra features being added all the time and it syncs nicely with all our running watches. Like with most of these apps, there are optional extra features available at a cost, but I’d say the basic option seems pretty comprehensive as it is.
Similar apps include RunKeeper, MapMyRun, Runtastic and Nike+Running. They also track the running metrics such as pace, distance and route using the GPS in your phone to give you real-time updates on your run and allow you to view your training afterwards. You can even assign a pair of running shoes to your run so you know how many miles are in them and when you need to replace them. Strava may be regarded as the market leader, but many runners have stayed loyal to the tracking app they originally started out using. Apps like these are good for new runners as they postpone the need to make any big investments in running watches. It is motivating, especially as a beginner, to see your distance and your route and your progress as time goes on.
Keep an eye on your battery when experimenting with these apps. With GPS and the apps constantly looking for your location, some can hit your battery power. A phone app is no good if the second half of your run is not recorded as there is no battery power left. You will never be able to prove to anyone how much you sprinted the last kilometre. This is the reason many long-distance runners eventually use a running watch as well as their phone.
For new runners, there are two approaches to starting running with the help of their phone. Using one of the traditional couch to 5k apps will guide you with a voice in your head through the walk/run stages of your training, telling you to stop, start and congratulating you on a great job. There are many choices but the NHS One You Couch to 5k and Couch to 5k Runner from Fitness22 come highly recommended. Your only challenge that remains is to get yourself out the door.
Alternatively, if you are following a training programme from a book, coach or online (like our one at irishtimes.com/life-and-style/get-running), you programme your ‘homework’ into a simple app like Interval Timer. Listen out for the beep which will guide you as you alternate between walking and running. An interval timer app is not just for beginners. Why not use it to help you with your speed interval sessions. You will never need to look at your watch, just keep going until you hear the beep to take a break.
One of the most sensible apps for runners on the market is RoadID. Many of the distance-tracking apps have a facility to help monitor safety but RoadID’s sole purpose is to keep you safe on the run by allowing you to share your run real-time with chosen friends/family. They can follow your path and receive an alert if you stop for longer than intended. You can even set your lock screen to show your next-of-kin and medical details. Hopefully, you won’t need to call on it much, but having the app in the background could give many runners more confidence running alone.
The prize for the most fun app definitely goes to Zombies Run!, a series of narrated stories integrated with your music where you are assigned a mission while also having to avoid being caught by a zombie. There is no better way to help you speed up than having a zombie on your tail. It sounds like the ultimate running distraction and an novel, alternative way to do speed work.
As a running coach, I use CoachesEye to analyse running technique and give detailed feedback to runners on how their body moves. Not just for runners, it’s a great tool and perfect for showing individuals how efficiently they are moving. With my ChiRunning hat on, I also use the Metronome Beats app to help a runner find their right cadence and run to the right rhythm for their body. It’s a good alternative to running with a clip-on metronome.
Speaking of rhythms, many runners love music when they run. Standard music apps such as Spotify have recognised that runners enjoy a good tune and offer features to ensure you run to music that makes you feel good and light on your feet. Spotify and many similar apps now have options within them to allow you select songs at a chosen beat per minute (BPM) to match your ideal cadence. If you are confident that your running rhythm is good, you can even amend a setting on these apps to automatically speed up or slow down the beat of your favourite songs to match your footfall.
One app I am very keen to download is Relive. I have noticed it pop up on my Facebook feed quite recently. It allows a runner to retrace their route with a beautiful birds-eye graphic and share the results in a video. It’s a nice way to view your achievement and certainly a motivating reason to keep on going to the end. You an even integrate your en-route photos. Whether you plan to share it with others or just watch it over and over again from the couch is up to you. I can imagine this would be wonderful to use when away on holiday to see an alternative view of your travels, whether you are running or just exploring.
For those who like to track their food, sleep and every other element of their healthy day, apps such as MyFitnessPal are very popular. Wearable gadgets such as Fitbit or running watches automatically sync with our phone. Seeing all our data in one place can indeed be rewarding but having to monitor everything can also be another challenge on an already busy to-do list.
If it all becomes too much pressure, consider running tech-free and anonymously for a while. Indeed, if we tried to use all the apps we would never have time to run but finding the right one for you might really make a difference.
From motivation to accountability, statistics to escaping zombies, there is literally an app out there for every type of runner.
– Mary Jennings is founder and running coach at ForgetTheGym.ie
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!