West of 1450 Ocean Avenue on the Pacific Coast Highway, at the Getty Villa, last summer I examined the figures painted on a Greek vase trying to answer this question, “What running gear did our first Olympic athletes use?” Based on my observation, not running shoes or
socks. No water belts, vests, or backpacks. No shirts, no shorts, no pants, or clothes of any kind. Although they did wear hats made from olive branches and get an olive oil rubdown, these are not the subjects of this Coach’s Corner either. I mean our ancient Olympians ran with no smart phones or sport watches, which leads me to ask, “Why would we want to run with a smart phone or a sports watch?”
First off, let’s exclude the obvious reasons, because we already own one and we want to make phone calls and tell time. What other reasons might we have? And the second obvious answer, because these devices have apps, and apps are new, and we must have them. Apps are the software that we operate on our smart phones. So, a better question may be, “If we run with a smart phone, which apps do we want?”
Now in my browser, digging deeper, I entered the search term “best running app,” which produced two hundred and thirty articles titled, “Best Running Apps.” I read a half-dozen. Next, I pushed the App Store button on my iPhone and searched for “running app.” My iPhone offered apps in five categories: trainer, treadmill, map, workout, and games. After I counted over fifty apps under “trainer,” I gave up. I admit, from the start, I was overwhelmed by the number of apps offered. I found it impossible to cover every choice, and I have experience with only a few.
And what are the tasks that apps claim to perform? This is a partial list: (1) display distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) pace, (4) total steps, (5) cadence (steps per minute), (6) heart rate and heart rate zones, (7) chime alerts for custom time intervals, as for our run/walk intervals, and (8) for distance intervals, (9) display elevation, (10) temperature, (11) current tide, and (12) weather forecast, (13) provide a metronome, (14) find or map your route, (15) compare your training and compete with other runners, (16) listen to music or pod casts, selecting music with a beat timed to your target cadence, (17) obtain workout instructions, training plans, and a calendar, (18) obtain recovery advice, (19) post on social media, (20) join a virtual running club (none of you Leggers want this, I hope), (21) donate to charity as you run, and (22) pay for coffee after you run. And these are only the apps for runners.
As I was overwhelmed, I did not search for “best walking apps,” but I thought you’d like to know, as a walker on long mileage, I add apps: (23) to identify birds, “Is that a Brandt’s, a Pelagic, or a Double-Crested cormorant?” is always a conversation starter, (24) to identify plants, “Yes, that is Toxicodendron diversilobum (“poison oak”) growing on your left by the stair railing,” and, at track night on Wednesday, (25) to find stars, planets, and constellations, where I think my observation, “That is the Moon,” impresses Coach Barry and other Leggers with my astronomy knowledge.
Frankly, some app features are not important to me, but I am not the standard by which all judgments should be made. Nevertheless, I believe that I can divide these app functions into two kinds. First, one kind provides information that we can use while running, for example, providing our distance, elapsed time, current and average pace, our walk-run interval, cadence (steps per minute), heart rate, and the current position of Jupiter. Second, the other kind do something after we run, like keep a record, suggest a workout, or give us an analysis of our training.
To make our choice simpler, let’s start with two limiting assumptions: first, we own a smart phone, nothing else, and second, we want an app to perform six functions during our run: (1) to display our distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) current pace, (4) chime alerts for our custom repeating run-walk interval, (5) display our current cadence, and (6) display our current heart rate. And to see if I could get the six functions I wanted, I picked four free apps: (1) Nike Run Club, (2) Map My Run, (3) Strava, and (4) Run Keeper.
Can any of these apps provide all six functions? What about the last two, cadence and heart rate? These last two functions require two kinds of sensors not found on my iPhone. First, we need sensors to detect our steps per minute, and second, we need sensors to detect our heart rate. Sensors for heart rate can be one of three kinds: (1) those worn on our wrists, which are comfortable but fail in the cold and rain, (2) those worn on a chest strap, which are uncomfortable but can be used by swimmers, or (3) we press two fingers to our necks, over our carotid artery, or to our wrists if we prefer, which we do while counting for ten seconds and looking at the time display on our smart phones.
And to get these two kinds of sensors, we need to buy another device. For this, I have: (1) an Apple Watch Series 7 GPS ($429.00), (2) a sport watch, an older Garmin 235 ($249.99), and (3) a tracker, the Fitbit Charge 5 ($149.95). I confess that I wear all of them because I am an idiot, but you don’t have to become one too. You could buy one, and once we have one, we can discuss cadence and heart rate.
Let’s start with the Apple Watch. The apps on my watch are identical to the apps on my iPhone and provide all the capability of this pairing. Of the four apps, the first, Nike Run Club, can display one function at a time, with the tap of a finger: (1) distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) current pace, (5) cadence, and (6) heart rate, but no (4) interval timer. Second, my free version of MapMyRun provides: (1) distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) current pace, and fails to provide (4) an interval timer. The premium version of MapMyRun promises (4) interval timer, (5) cadence, and (6) heart rate, but I didn’t want to pay $5.99 per month, or $29.99 per year, to use them. These
are current discounted prices. Third, Strava provided: (1) distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) speed (mph, not pace), (6) heart rate, and failed to provide (4) an interval timer. Lastly, RunKeeper provided: (1) distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) current split pace, and (6) heart rate, but not (5) cadence. Importantly, RunKeeper was the only one of the four free apps to provide (4) an interval timer. And none help to identify cormorants.
I just described the combination of iPhone and Apple Watch, but what if, instead of an Apple Watch, I purchased a current Garmin 55 ($199.99)? First, Garmin pairs with the apps on my iPhone. Second, the Garmin has all the features I want already built-in: (1) distance, (2) elapsed time, (3) current pace, (4) average pace, (5) cadence, (6) heart rate, and (7) custom interval timers. Importantly, with the Garmin alone, I have all these features, without needing a smart phone or app.
And what about my Fitbit Charge 5? Bear in mind, my Apple Watch needs to charge every day, while my Garmin 235 lasts only eight hours. I understand that the newer Garmin 55 extends its battery life to 20 hours. Regarding my Fitbit, although I find it difficult to use while running, it is a decent tracker. Without my intervention, it sits on my wrist and records my entire activity, day-and-night, for five days between charges, and I can look at the record on my iPhone.
Which brings us to the second category of app functions, the recording and analytic features. In my experience, I would like a running app to warn us when we are at risk of injury. For example, we recommend that we avoid increasing our average weekly mileage, from one two-week training cycle to the next, by more than ten percent. All the four apps can record and summarize our weekly mileage.
All the apps offer premium subscriptions. For example, in Strava, in addition to your $59.95 per year subscription, you could pay $39.95 per month more, or $359.40 per year in smaller monthly installments, for a training plan from McMillan Running. I suppose this training plan would prove useful to me, if I had no training experience, no interest in learning how to self-coach, and lived in isolation from other resources. I assume that you want to learn how to train yourself, not just receive instructions from an app, but that assumption may only suit me.
I may be in the wrong demographic. Over thirty-six years ago, I bought Jeff Galloway’s Book on Running, now available on Amazon, used, starting at $14.77, and have prepared my own training plans ever since. In any case, until I use one of these subscription training plans, I cannot review them fairly.
On the other hand, I can make one observation. App features and pricing are opaque. It’s hard to get a straight answer on what they do and what these features cost. You must push a button and pay a subscription to find out what is behind Door #3. Expect apps to pitch you for subscriptions. I recommend that we explore apps before paying. Start with “free.” If you must subscribe, start with one month before latching onto an annual fee, even when extracted in smaller monthly payments. We can limit how much we spend when figuring out whether the hidden features are worth the total cost.
Yes, because I know you wise guys will point it out this Saturday, I already get the irony that a guy, me, who drops $2,300 on an iPhone, an Apple Watch, a Garmin 235, and a Fitbit Charge 5, refused to pay $5.99 a month for a MapMyRun subscription. I won’t pay on principle. (My wife says pig-headedness.) You may also point out, that while I can use all three watches at the same time, I cannot use more than one app on my phone at a time. The apps interfere with one another. And you may point out that, with three watches and four apps, I forget to turn them on, even wearing only one, and then forget to turn them off. After track night last Wednesday,
when I got out of my car, my Garmin announced I had a new record, a 2:53 mile. I assume that is why my Garmin also predicts that I still can run a 3:55 marathon.
And, lastly and finally, what about the Greeks? What would happen, if we went for a run, and forgot all this stuff at home? I don’t mean we forget our clothes, not like the Greeks in that respect. I mean we forget our smart phones, apps, and watches. We still could run in locations with distances we already know. We could run interval workouts measured in city blocks, lifeguard towers, or telephone poles. We could remain aware of our conversation pace. We could even find the Pleiades. We still could get an olive oil rubdown. My point is, we still could have a productive workout. The only problem is, I still can’t tell the difference between a Brant’s and a Pelagic cormorant.