I love running for the sole reason you can do it anywhere. I've run in foreign cities, using the time to explore back alleys and lesser-known monuments. In total, I’ve completed 13 marathons, including Boston, New York, and Chicago. I even ran the Beijing marathon in China.
I felt alive pounding the pavement day after day, running with like-minded friends. But two cross-country moves and a couple of children later, I was running solo and not enjoying myself. I gave up and joined the local gym.
When the pandemic hit, we bought a Peloton. I’d never taken a spin class, but I wanted a way to exercise from home that wasn’t mind-numbingly boring. Membership to the Peloton universe came with an app. One I ignored for at least six months.
After a few days visiting my parents at Christmas, I needed to blow off steam. So I grabbed my sneakers and headed out the door. I opened the Peloton app and found a 20-minute outdoor run. What the heck, I thought. Why not give it a try?
A voice spoke in my ear while an up-tempo song played. She took me through a few stretches and gradually increased the pace, calling for 20-second sprints and minute-long recoveries. Before I knew it, the class ended, and I’d run harder than I had in a long time.
The combination of pop music and guidance from the cheery Brit left me exhilarated. Sweat poured down my face, my heart pounded, and I couldn’t wait to do it again. Connecting with the right app provides a low-tech solution to the most common exercise problems — knowing what to do and when to do it, and having the motivation to get out the door.
There are several guided running apps like Peloton’s, from freemium to subscription-based, including Apple Fitness+, Nike+Run Club, Garmin Connect, Strava, and Aaptiv (to name a few). There’s even an app called Zombies, Run! where zombies chase you, and you have to outrun them. Each app provides a variety of challenges while tracking your mileage and pace for a monthly fee. In addition, some offer coaching and training programs.
“I started running with an app called Couch to 5K,” says Jeff Barton, editor of Runner’s Life. “It was the catalyst that ignited my passion for running because it provided step-by-step instructions and took the guesswork out of building a training plan.” Virtual coaches helped him stick with it, leading him to win an age group award in his first race.
After Couch to 5K, Barton moved on to Nike’s app because he liked keeping up with his daily stats and no longer needed the training plan. I tried Strava, which offers a vibrant social networking component. You can upload pictures and share your workouts with friends. I liked many of the features, and the free version is fine for most, but as an introvert I didn’t use the social component.
The Power of the Playlist
A new study, published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, backs up what I experienced. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found runners who listened to a motivational playlist after completing a series of mentally demanding tasks ran at the same pace and perceived effort level as when they weren’t mentally exhausted.
The researchers speculate running to a motivational playlist is an excellent strategy for getting the most of your workout when you’re mentally exhausted. I agree. The right music can turn a drudgery of a workout into a far more pleasant experience.
Everyone has their idea of what pumps them up. You can experiment to find what works for you. Listening to Eminem's “Lose Yourself” on repeat got me through my fastest marathon effort. Barton has a playlist of more than 200 songs, most of which are upbeat rap, hip hop, and R&B tunes. He agrees these beats keep him going when he’s both mentally and physically tired.
I prefer to let the app pick my tunes, which is another reason I connect with the Peloton app, but others offer the same service. The instructors are reminiscent of old-school MTV VJs. You can choose among genres, like hip-hop, rock and roll, pop, or countless others. Skilled coaches use a song’s beats per minute to coincide with the difficulty level. Rapid beats encourage a faster pace, and you can find yourself sprinting along without realizing it.
Other running apps will pull from your phone’s playlist, iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify. All you have to do is connect your account.
Tips to Improve Using a Guided Running App
There are four basic types of runs all the running apps offer, though each may call them something different. They focus on one of three variables: duration, frequency, and intensity. While your training program should include a mix of all three, only focus on improving one variable at a time. Trying to do too much can cause burnout or injury.
- Endurance or long runs (duration). These runs build stamina and will vary in time depending on your experience and goals. The pace should be conversational, meaning you could talk to a friend if someone were next to you. If you’re training for an endurance event, hit one long run per week. Increase your mileage by no more than ten percent weekly until you’ve hit your target distance.
- Tempo or progressive runs (intensity). Tempo runs are faster than conversational pace and will leave you feeling spent. Progressive runs get faster as time goes on. Aim for one or two a week if you want to beat a personal best in an upcoming race.
- Speed, Intervals, or HIIT runs (intensity). You’ll have periods of all-out efforts combined with recovery during these challenging workouts. Speedwork torches calories and trains your legs to turn over faster. But they’re taxing and stressful to your system. Keep these runs to one or two a week.
- Recovery runs (frequency). These are taken at an easy pace, and the goal is to vibe to good music while getting the blood pumping to your tired muscles. Recovery and endurance runs will make up the majority of your training.
When I qualified for the Boston Marathon, I ran one tempo, one speed, and one long run per week. The others were slow and easy. How much you run is up to you, the distance you want to cover, and your finishing goals. If you’re unsure, pick an app that offers a training program like Barton did with Couch to 5K.
If you’re a beginner, Barton advises staying away from the competitive aspects of these apps. Many provide leader boards and options to rank yourself among others of your age and ability. It’s great if competition is motivating, but it can lead you to do too much too soon.
If you’re not training for a race, there’s nothing wrong with shuffling along at whatever pace feels comfortable. But, over time, our bodies adapt and burn fewer calories for the same amount of effort. Adding challenges will prevent that from happening, and keep things interesting.
I can’t say I’m back to my once speedy self, but running with an app has ignited a passion I thought I’d never reclaim. I’m back to my low-tech fitness ways, although this time, I’ve got ’90s hip hop and a peppy instructor in my ear.