My take on running apps

Virtually all reasonable running apps track the same essential information free of charge:

  • Run distance
  • Run time
  • Pace
  • An estimate of calories burned
  • Net elevation increase
  • A weekly total of all of the above
  • A map of the route you took, whether manually mapped or tracked via your watch/phone’s GPS
  • Functionality to post viewable data from your runs on social media

All seek to upsell you more features to get you to pay for an advanced version of their free service… which usually offers more detailed reporting on tracked data, and access to specific training programs.

Strava is the Beyonce of running apps: It has a large, somewhat manufactured and evangelical fanbase, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best app to use. One free feature Strava does provide that other apps don’t is a Foursquare-like geocached comparison of your performance along a given route versus other runners who have taken that same route. This can turn running a particular route into a competition with other runners… if that’s your thing.

Many other running apps are perfectly suitable for tracking your runs. MapMyRun, Runkeeper, Nike+, TrainingPeaks and so on allow you to suitably track this information.

While I use a Fitbit, its run tracking leaves a lot to be desired. While it does monitor run time and hear rate in conjunction with your tracker, you’re not able to map runs manually, leaving you completely at the mercy of your enabled GPS tracking to map any runs.

As I’ve said before, GPS is often inaccurate as a run tracker due to location-drift, regardless of your location. You’re tracked by a satellite in space periodically pinging your device. Even if a GPS tracker doesn’t screw up your tracked route, the tracked route often drifts off-path into buildings and other surrounding terrain, screwing up your tracked mileage by as much as half a mile on a 60 minute run. This can make tracked stats like pace per mile a completely inaccurate number, much like trying to use an abacus on a wobble board.

Thus any stats based off of my Fitbit, like pacing, mileage or stride length stats, are too inaccurate to be useful. I have noticed that other people’s mapped data from other trackers like Garmin have similar issues.

I still use my tracker to time runs and get heart rate data plus step count, but I map runs manually elsewhere to get the remaining stats.

Screenshot (Sep 18, 2018 7_59_10 PM)

Personally, I track all my runs on Runkeeper and have since I seriously got back into running years ago. I wouldn’t call it the *best* app, but it’s suited my tracking needs just fine. I have yet to discover through research any app that will allow me to port my historical data without losing valuable information (this always seems to be met with a subjective counterargument that said information isn’t valuable).

One free feature on Runkeeper I find useful is the ability to track mileage on your different pairs of running shoes. I like to know how many miles I’ve put on every pair of shoes and where they are in their respective lifespans. Other apps likely do this, but I appreciate that Runkeeper has the feature.


All this said, I still utilize a Google Doc (pictured below) on top of this to track my runs as well as my planned training schedule. The doc easily allows me to view my training progress over longer-term periods, as well as see how future training may impact my development. And one key value over Excel is that by being stored in the cloud, I can access it anywhere regardless of device.

RunLikeHell-2018-09-18

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The key to finding a useful app for anyone is to figure out what data you want to accurately track, and then utilize a combination of tools that will allow you to accurately track that data.

Some just want to know approximately how many miles they run. If you have a Garmin GPS tracker, then that tracker’s app is probably fine by itself, even if the results are a bit inaccurate. Some couldn’t care less if they ran 4.15 miles and the app only says they went 4.00. As long as they know that weekly total of, say, 35 miles is pretty close to what they did, that’s enough for them.

To a lesser extent, this is true of Fitbit, though I will say a built-in GPS will be much more useful than GPS tracking that relies on your phone. The transmission between devices can lead to highly inaccurate results. Ditto simply using an app and your phone. I will note that at first I used Runkeeper’s GPS tracking, but at times I would get wildly inaccurate maps that ended up useless. I finally just decided to enter runs manually afterward and that’s worked better for me.

Some may want to track their pace, and most won’t want to put in the amount of effort I do to verify that pace. If you can accept some degree of inaccuracy from your tracker, and the tracker tends to be mostly consistent in how it tracks (and how inaccurate it is with) your route, then you may be fine with the GPS tracking.

Just don’t take the pace readings as gospel: If it says you ran an 8:00 mile, and it’s important to you that you know that you ran exactly an 8:00 mile or better, you may want to double check your distance on a map of your route, and calculate it out.

If you can see that your tracker tends to be consistently inaccurate (say, it always measures your pace about 10 seconds fast), then that can make your readings useful provided you know to make that adjustment afterward.

For speedwork, it’s often a lot easier, especially if on a track. If you know exactly how far an interval is, your measured time is enough data to figure out your pace with a calculator. I would go off charts and the math rather than your tracker’s pace reading. Your tracker may give you a pace that’s inaccurate, but 400 meters is always 400 meters.

In any case, the best app for running honestly depends more on your needs and equipment, more than on the quality of the app itself.

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