ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.
Almost every morning, as I set out to run intervals on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, I go through an absurd ritual: I pop open my overstuffed fitness-apps folder and laboriously launch six different apps to track my 30-minute run.
I use Nike+ Running, Runkeeper, MapMyRun, Runtastic and Strava, as well as Pear Sports, a heart-rate-focused tracker with some running features.
I've been doing this for months, in the hopes that I’d figure out which one is superior. I think I’ve run this test into the ground, though: While they’re all fine apps, none is a breakout.
See also: I Need To Put My Fitness Apps On A Diet
First, a word of advice: Don’t do this at home. Using so many running apps simultaneously is a major drain on my iPhone's battery. It’s not unusual for me to lose half my battery charge on a single run. And I've noticed that under iOS 7, they have an increased propensity to get shut down by the system for using too much memory, dumping some or all of my data for a run in the process.
Clockwise from top left: RunKeeper, Nike+ Running, Strava, Pear Sports, Runtastic and MapMyRun.
Picking The Perfect App
When looking at running apps, I consider the following factors:
- Accuracy: Does it log my run well?
- Motivation: Does the app spur me to run faster, better, or more frequently?
- Friends: Are a significant number of my friends also using the app?
- Sharing: Can I easily post my run on social networks?
- Openness: Does it connect with other fitness apps to share data?
- Cost: Do I need to pay anything to get useful features?
Keep in mind that I don't consider myself a very serious runner. Most of the time, I have a four-footed companion who dictates the pace. My main concern is spiking my heart rate, burning some calories, and slowly improving my speed on my route’s stair climbs.
Another conundrum I have is that my fitness-oriented friends all seem to have picked different apps. Even if I loved one app's feature set, the desire to share my running experiences with other people would outweigh that. And while I can pick the apps I use, I can't force them to use different ones.
Here are my impressions so far.
This app scores high on motivation. For whatever reason, when I broadcast my runs to friends on Facebook and Path, my Nike+ posts get more reaction. And sharing results at the end of the run is easy. Nike has athletes and celebrities record “attaboy” messages that play when I've met some personal level of achievement.
And yet relatively few of my friends seem to use the app itself, making it more of a tool for cheering me on than having a shared experience of fitness.
Another minus: The app doesn't pair with external heart-rate monitors. (Nike does sell hardware that tracks heart rate, but that costs extra.)
The app is free, though Nike makes money in other ways: The Nike+ app recently reminded me that I’d put enough miles on my existing pair of sneakers, and should really think about replacing them.
I like this app’s connectivity to other fitness services. It logs my runs automatically in MyFitnessPal, saving me a step when it comes to tracking calories. And manually logging activities—like a session on my LifeSpan Fitness treadmill desk—is easy. But only a small set of friends are on the app. My RunKeeper runs also count as activity on GymPact, a fitness-motivation app I use. Live tracking and analysis cost extra—$4.99/mo. or $19.99/yr.
This app feels the most social of the ones I've tried. It sends push notifications when my friends finish a workout, which usually prompts a smile. (Some might find the notifications obnoxious, though.) For whatever reason, it seems to have reached more of my social graph; integrations with Fitbit and other fitness trackers and apps seem to have helped.
MapMyRun recently introduced new tools for finding nearby running routes, but in my experience, a glitch which shows my runs, regardless of location, rather than nearby routes, has made this feature useless. The app can also be slow to build my route, showing segments as missing until it catches up. And for whatever reason, my mileage is slightly higher on MapMyRun than on other apps, which makes me question its accuracy.
This app, originally popular in Europe, has been climbing the charts in the U.S. recently, scoring right behind Nike+ Running on App Annie’s rankings. Unlike the others, it doesn’t have its own social network of runners, though it does let you share to most social networks. (Update: You can add friends on Runtastic.com, though not through the Runtastic app.)
Having just recently added Runtastic to my repertoire, I don't have a strong impression of it—save that it seems to duplicate the features I can find elsewhere.
Runtastic recently added a new feature, Story Running, which helps you do interval training through specially composed music and narratives, but I haven’t tried it out yet.
The difference in the set of friends who use Strava versus other running apps is striking: The jocks in my social circle are all on Strava. One reason may be that Strava offers apps and Web tools for both running and cycling, naturally selecting for multi-sport athletes.
I avoided Strava for that reason, thinking that it was too competitively oriented for a beginning runner like me. But I found that Strava’s capability to break my run down into segments and compare me to other runners was actually useful. I'm never going to score near the top of Strava's leaderboards, but at least I know whether I'm running a particular route relatively fast or slow.
I've also found Strava to be more crash-resistant than the other apps. On one run the other week, the app appeared to have lost a mile or so of my run. Yet when I checked Strava's website later, it had managed to reconstruct the data.
I also like features of Strava which lessen the work I have to do. For example, if you link your Instagram account, Strava will automatically add photos taken during your run to your history. Other apps let you add photos, but they end up confined to your running app, requiring you to upload them twice if you also want to post them to Instagram.
Pear takes a very different approach to running apps: Where most focus on mapping your route, Pear is dedicated to tracking your heart rate and coaching you through runs. I like this approach, because it squares with what I’ve read in the literature about the value of high-intensity interval training—brief spurts of maximum effort which elevate your heart rate. (Pear does record a map of your route, but that's not the focus.)
The Pear app is meant to be used with a $69.95 heart-rate strap, also from Pear (though it's actually a fairly standard unit manufactured for Pear by Dayton Industrial). Pear also offers coaching plans; I found a free one that’s perfect for my hilly route. There are others, free and paid, that you can download from Pear’s online store to help you train for races or meet other fitness goals.
While most of the other running apps I’ve tested can connect with a heart-rate monitor, the charts they provide are crude compared to Pear's. And while others have audio coaching features, in my experience, I’ve found that they’re oriented around keeping you steadily in one heart-rate zone rather than raising and lowering your heart rate as you'd want to do for intervals.
One unexpected use of Pear: I can use the app at the gym, too, to make sure that my weightlifting workouts also raise my heart rate.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
So which one do I dump? It's a surprisingly hard decision.
If I stopped using Nike+ Running, I'd worry about missing the cheers I get from my Facebook friends. RunKeeper’s connectivity with MyFitnessPal and GymPact is useful. MapMyRun would be easier to drop if I didn't have so many friends on it. Pear Sports' heart-rate tracking has already become an essential part of my routine. And Strava's data-analysis features seem far ahead of the competition.
Hence my dilemma. I think I could easily drop Nike+ Running, since Strava is matching its ability to post runs to Path. Runtastic, RunKeeper, and MapMyRun all feel pretty similar—though RunKeeper has the best time-saving connectivity to other fitness apps. Nothing comes close to Pear for tracking my heart rate.
If you forced me to choose, I’d likely keep just Pear and Strava, and the reason is their superior analytics. I’d miss some of my buddies on other apps, but running is ultimately a solitary effort: Just you and the pavement, one foot in front of the other. I don't need six apps watching my every step.
Updated to note Runtastic.com's social features.