Review: Hitting The Pavement With Running Apps

Tamara Keith with iPhone and Garmin watch i i

Tamara Keith put running apps in head-to-head tests with each other and her beloved -- yet incredibly huge -- Garmin GPS watch. NPR hide caption

itoggle caption NPR
Tamara Keith with iPhone and Garmin watch

Tamara Keith put running apps in head-to-head tests with each other and her beloved -- yet incredibly huge -- Garmin GPS watch.

NPR

I've been working on a piece about the democratization of sophisticated running training – thanks to GPS enabled smartphones and cheap running apps.

I couldn't just report on these apps without, you know, trying them out. 90 miles later, I have given four running apps — Runkeeper, iMapMyRun, miCoach and Nike+ — enough of a workout to know which ones work and and which ones aren't worth the sweat.

All of these apps cost less than $10, allow you to see your route on a map, tweet or post your results to Facebook, and upload data to the web.  They give regular audio updates about how far you've gone and how fast you're going so you can strap that bulky phone to your arm and not have to look at it to know how you're doing.  But they do offer different user interfaces and bells and whistles.

Here's what I found:

The Nike+ map.

The Nike + app shows speed and route on one nifty, colorful map.  Tamara Keith hide caption

itoggle caption Tamara Keith

RunKeeper: At $9.99, it is the most expensive of the apps, but it also offers the most features.  It allows you to set up intervals.  So if you want to take a walk break every 10 minutes, you can set it up to remind you. You can also set up a target pace and the app will give you regular updates about whether you are keeping up with your goal.  Thanks to the target pace function, I was motivated to speed up at the end of a recent run, rather than dragging myself home as usual.

Nike+: This is the iPhone version of Nike's popular run tracking tool.  In the past you'd have to buy a $19 Nike+ sensor to put in your shoe. Now all you need is an iphone and this $1.99 app (of course, if you don't already have an iphone, this is hardly a bargain). This app offers the encouraging voices of elite athletes Lance Armstrong and Paula Radcliffe. Also if you're feeling tired you can hit a button to fire up your "power song." Mine is I Will Survive.

Perhaps the coolest feature is post the run analysis. This app combines the map and speed graph into one. A brightly colored map shows how fast (green) or how slow (red) you were going along the route. During one test run this app had some GPS troubles and the map showed me running through buildings.

a map using MiCoach

On this run, the MiCoach app completely missed that I ran around the Tidal Basin. Tamara Keith hide caption

itoggle caption Tamara Keith

iMapMyRun: I tried out the free version of this app.  The version that costs $4.99 allows you to control your music from within the app and it may be worth the extra investment because if you leave the app to switch songs, it stops recording your data. This app is easy to use, but is light on training and motivational tools when compared to the other apps. I also had to take it for three spins before I got it to work error-free.

Highlights: A Comparison Chart

  Runkeeper iMapMyRun MiCoach Nike+
Price $9.99 (or free with fewer features) $4.99 (or free with fewer features) Free 1.99
Talks To You
Music Controls Within App
Supports Intervals    
Training Plans      
Social Networking
Available on Blackberry    
Available on Android    
Famous Voices    
Distance Recorded On A 3 Mile Run 2.98 2.9 2.97 3

miCoach: This free app from Adidas was both the most exciting and most frustrating of the apps I tried.  To use this app, you need to create an account on the miCoach website. There you plug in information about what you're training for and the site creates a customized training plan.  I'm training for a marathon and it gave me a mix of long runs, short, easy runs and training runs with fast intervals to work on speed.  The interval runs were a great motivator.  I know I need to work on speed, but I never do.  When this app told me to speed up I did, and that's a good thing.  However, on more than one occasion this app lost its GPS signal for an extended period of time, yet encouraged me to keep going.  In one case I was running on a trail near my house.  There were some trees, but no tall buildings.  Another time I was on a 6-mile run around the National Mall and Tidal Basin. But when I finished it said I had only gone 3.5 and the map didn't show me running near the Tidal Basin at all. All the cool features lose some appeal, if you can't trust the app to tell you simply how far and fast you're going.

After using the apps on a random assortment of runs, I decided it was time for a more controlled study.  I wanted a side by side comparison to track their accuracy so I ran the exact same three mile route in Rock Creek Park outside Washington, D.C. with each app on my iPhone 4.  They were all within a few hundredths of a mile of each other.  Check out the chart above for the exact distances.  Which run was the fastest?  The one with RunKeeper, where the app kept telling me I needed to speed up if I wanted to achieve my goal.

But for precision and reliability I still come back to my Garmin GPS wristwatch.  I got my first one 6 years ago, and I guess I'm kind of attached.  It may be bulky for a watch, but it's a lot less bulky than a phone.  With the Garmin, I can just run.  There's no voice making me feel guilty for taking it slow and when I'm done it tells me precisely how slow I went.

So, all of this testing has thrown me into a bit of a running technology crisis. I was a Garmin GPS wristwatch early adopter.  I got my first one 6 years ago and don’t run anywhere without it. (I'm really lucky not to have a hockey puck-sized tan line at this point).  But if my phone can do everything my Garmin can do, then I guess I don't really need to run with both.

This morning, I strapped on my running shoes, grabbed my phone and hit the road. At some point I looked down at my bare wrist and got this feeling of guilt, like I'd been unfaithful.

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