Running with Apps

There are two types of runners: serious and casual. As the latter, I jog weekends outside or on a treadmill to remedy overeating and in pursuit of the elusive runner’s high. A serious runner, on the other hand, is an athlete with charts.

Having jogged regularly since college, I’ve run through countless pairs of sneakers and sets of earphones. It’s no secret that music acts as a drug to enhance performance without leaving traces in a blood test.

In our Reviewer’s Choice Awards in 2002, I wrote this about the original Apple iPod: “Loading it with motivating music, I set a personal best jogging through the park.”

But technology moves on. Hundreds of apps now compete to be your running mate. And like users themselves, the apps typically fall into two categories: serious and fun.

For this column, I chose two apps from opposite ends of the iOS/Android continuum: Kinematix TUNE and Nike+ Run Club (NRC).

Kinematix harnesses the Internet of Things’ penchant for sensors. It embeds them in a pair of insoles wired to Bluetooth transmitters you connect to your sneakers. The app for your smartphone is free, but the required hardware is $200. The NRC app, on the other hand, is free and relies on the tech already in your phone.

The TUNE app measures the symmetry of toes and heels striking the ground and provides real-time coaching to improve your performance. Unfortunately, all this was lost on me as I first had trouble pairing the transmitters with my phone, then made the mistake of placing the Kinematix insoles atop the sneakers’ insoles instead of under them. The sensor insoles bunched up so that the app indicated my heels were striking the ground 0 percent of the time. Also, the app started out with sprints bookended by a shrieking whistle that reminded me of why I hated gym class. I did like the fact that the transmitters pulsated light, a safety feature for night running. And I liked the app’s mapping of my run, though that’s enabled by the phone’s built-in GPS. With perseverance, TUNE did collect a surfeit of data about my feet.

Unlike TUNE, there is no learning curve with the NRC app. You just touch Start, and the app tracks time, distance, and pace. You can view your run on a map. Photo-taking and music-playing buttons are integrated into the app itself. While serious runners are likely to get the most benefit from TUNE, casual runners will be more in tune with the NRC app.

After choosing the running app that’s right for you, put together an upbeat song list. If you’re headed out, make sure to download music into your phone before you step away from your home’s Wi-Fi so you don’t get stuck with cellular data charges from streaming. If you belong to a health club, make sure the facility includes Wi-Fi access.

Consider that an unfashionable AM/FM radio still has a place on a wristband. It delivers free music and news without the delay of finding and downloading apps and content, charging devices, or having to glance at a screen when you should be avoiding tripping on a pothole.

Even for casual runners, exercising outside is serious business. Screens should be viewed only while standing still. Ambient sound needs to get through always. Wearing over-the-ear headphones in traffic is flirting with disaster. I pop in buds that can’t seal out my surroundings.

Jogging can be joyous, and personal electronics enhance the experience. Just don’t get so caught up in an app that you lose sight of what’s important.