Before the iPhone came out, I ran with a watch that uses GPS satellite technology to keep tabs on my pace, distance and other measurements when I run.
Like a lot of runners, I’ve gotten hooked on the ability to tally up how many miles I put in on the road and to use my watch to motivate myself to run a bit farther or faster.
The Adidas miCoach
These days ordinary smartphones have GPS built into them and developers are creating apps that use the technology for tracking runs. Plus some of the apps do a lot more than a GPS watch: They can help you devise a training schedule prior to races and more actively coach you during your runs.
I spent a couple of weeks using three running apps for the iPhone—Running Method’s Run Coach Pro, FitnessKeeper’s RunKeeper Pro and Adidas’ miCoach—with the goal of seeing whether any of them could be an adequate substitute for my GPS watch, a Garmin (GRMN) Forerunner 305, which cost me $190 two years ago with a companion heart-rate monitor (the same package now sells for $153 on Amazon). (There’s a BlackBerry version of miCoach app and an Android app is in the works.)
The answer, in one case, is an emphatic yes. There are, however, some tradeoffs to running with an iPhone that might make using any running app a deal-killer for some people. First, the iPhone is a handsome device that faces a risk of disfigurement from your sweaty hands as well as from falling onto concrete so runners will want to consider buying an accessory that keeps the phone safe.
My Garmin is a giant of a watch, but at least it doesn’t require its own carrying case on a run, unlike the iPhone. Armbands for the iPhone let you easily glance at the screen while you’re working out. I ran with the iPhone tucked into a carrying pouch that came with a water-bottle belt I used on long runs. The iPhone is also a music player, which meant I could leave the iPod Shuffle at home. The iPhone’s maps feature also would have been very helpful on runs in unfamiliar places where I’ve gotten completely lost.
Revolver’s Run Coach Pro ($2.99) was the most bare-bones apps I ran with. It starts by guiding you through a few selections to develop a training plan for everything from achieving basic fitness to finishing a 50K “ultra” run. You tell the app your experience level as a runner, when any race you plan to run will occur and which day of the week you like to do your long runs—the endurance workouts that are a cornerstone of half-marathon and marathon training.
The RunKeeper Pro app helps runners record information about their runs.
The app then crafts a weekly running schedule telling you which days to run and rest on; how long to run (in time terms); and how hard to run (for example, easy or race pace). During runs, it tracks your distance, your overall pace and time elapsed.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Run Coach Pro is that you have to look at the iPhone screen while you’re running to check on your progress. That’s a big distraction if, like me, you run with your iPhone in a case on a belt.
The app could have gotten around this by using voice commands to tell me through my headphones when to go faster or slower, which would have been helpful on days when the app recommended I do interval runs, where I was supposed to vary my pace.
RunKeeper’s RunKeeper Pro ($9.99), in contrast, uses a pleasant female voice to tell you when you’re falling short of or exceeding a target pace that you establish with the app before your run. You can control how often the voice chimes in through your headphones at various time and distance intervals.
It also helps them work out smarter, right.
If you’re listening to music, RunKeeper Pro temporarily dims your tunes so you can hear the voice commands. A free version of RunKeeper lacks these voice commands.
I was most disappointed by the lack of a feature that allows you to build a training calendar for a specific race. The publisher says such a feature is coming. The app syncs all the data it collects during a workout to the RunKeeper Web site, which makes it easy to look at some basic weekly and monthly statistics your runs, but charges extra for weekly reports with other data, like average pace and calories burned.
The free miCoach app from apparel maker Adidas does all the same run tracking of the other apps, but it was the only one to really use the intelligence of the iPhone to provide decent coaching during runs.
I first set up a training calendar for a half-marathon in November through the miCoach Web site on my computer, which then synced the plan with my iPhone. It then told me to do a 12-minute “assessment workout” during which a coach instructed me to proceed from a walk to a fast pace, providing detailed instructions on how much I should be exerting myself at each interval (“conversation should be difficult”). It assessed my fitness level by judging how fast I moved into different intervals.
This step was key for helping miCoach calibrate how fast I should be going during different stages of a run. All of the instructions it gave me during runs were personalized to my fitness level based on that initial assessment run.
Adidas has also done a good job keeping all of its coaching from getting too complicated. The app and its companion Web site use a color-coded system of speed zones, from the slowest, blue, to the fastest, red, to visually illustrate how difficult an upcoming series of runs will be.
It’s worth noting that all iPhones now ship with a running app made by Nike, which I omitted from this review because it currently requires an additional $19 sensor that attaches to your running shoes to track runs. A new version of the app that uses the iPhone’s GPS is due out soon. For now, miCoach is the only iPhone app for which I would forsake my Garmin watch.
Walter S. Mossberg is on vacation. Mossberg’s Mailbox will return Sept. 16. Email Nick Wingfield at email@example.com.