Last week, I put my iTunes on steroids, recruited a horde of virtual zombies to chase me, and found six different ways to run through Central Park.
Welcome to the new world of running apps. While smartphone-toting runners have long used apps like Nike+ and RunKeeper, which track your runs using GPS and offer training plans, three different apps have recently helped me get out of a running rut.
The first app is a new one called Cruise Control, which adjusts the tempo of the songs in your iTunes library to help you speed up the pace. The second app I’ve been using is called Zombies, Run! It intermittently puts the sounds of snarling zombies into your ear to make you run faster. And lastly, there’s WalkJogRun, which helps you find creative running routes in your local neighborhood, shared by other users.
All of these apps are relatively pricey, ranging from $3 to $5 each. And the only one currently available on both iPhone and Android is Zombies, Run! The other two are iPhone-only. And, since they all use your smartphone’s built-in GPS, they all are geared toward running outdoors, especially WalkJogRun.
But despite being forced out into the cold, I’ve enjoyed using these apps and can recommend them if you’re looking to shake up your routine. My top pick of the three was Cruise Control, probably because I rely a lot on music to keep me motivated while running.
Cruise Control costs $4.99, and works sort of the same way cruise control in your car works: If you’re going too slow, Cruise Control will adjust the tempo of your music to help you speed up; if you’re running too fast, the app tries to slow you down.
It does this using an algorithm that speeds up your music without altering the pitch, so that a sped-up song doesn’t sound like the Chipmunks and a dragged-out song doesn’t make the artist sound sleepy or drunk.
There are four modes in Cruise Control: Free Run, Pace, Heart Rate and Cadence. Free Run mode detects and keeps track of your cadence. Pace mode allows you to set a target pace — let’s say sub-nine-minute miles — and creates a playlist that will get you there, adjusting the tempo of songs along the way. The Cadence mode acts as a kind of metronome, prescribing you a cadence to try to maintain.
The Heart Rate mode requires an iPhone-compatible heart-rate monitor to work properly. I didn’t have a heart-rate monitor for testing Heart Rate mode, so I mostly used Free Run and Pace modes.
For me, Cruise Control worked: When my music tracks suddenly sped up, I found myself running faster to keep pace. It was like having a personal deejay in my ear (minus, you know, the whole club atmosphere). If I didn’t like a song, I could tap a thumbs-down sign at the bottom of the app to quickly remove it from my Cruise Control playlist.
But Cruise Control does have one pretty big drawback: The app only plays songs that are between 70 and 90, or 140 and 180 beats per minute, and only about a hundred songs out of 700 in my iTunes library met those requirements. The creator of Cruise Control told me that, for most users, only 10 to 20 percent of their song libraries will be played through Cruise Control.
Next was Zombies, Run!. There are a couple versions of this app, but the one I downloaded is the more expensive version, listed for $3.99 in iTunes. The app is also available on Android.
Zombies, Run! is fun. It made me feel as though I was the last woman standing in a bad zombie flick — “The Running Dead”? — although I was in Central Park, not a post-apocalyptic suburb of London, and the “zombies” 20 meters ahead of me were mostly other humans in cold-weather running gear.
The app’s story kicks off by dropping you from a helicopter into a town called Abel Township. The communications operator is a man named Sam with a thick British accent, who often sounds alarmed. Sam guides you through the different “missions” of the app, introducing new characters and warning you of zombies up ahead. All of this is taking place in your ears, without any crazy graphics or animation happening in the app, so you can keep your eyes on the road.
Missions can last 30 minutes or one hour. The app basically “gamifies” the act of running — along the way, you collect virtual supplies, like batteries, mobile phones and even sports bras, which allow you to grow your base in the township.
You might think running to non-stop helicopter drones and zombie growls would get old after a while. Fortunately, Zombies, Run! thought of that, and the app patches in music from your smartphone’s music library. So, after the helicopter “dropped me off” during the first mission, a Beastie Boys song from my workout playlist came on, like a commercial break.
After using the app a few times, I had only made my way partially through two of 23 missions. But I would keep using Zombies, Run! to add some adventure to my routine. Runners looking for less adventure and more of a training guide might want to try the 5K version of Zombies, Run!, which costs $1.99.
The last app I tried is called WalkJogRun. This iPhone-only app costs $4.99.
Using the smartphone’s GPS, WalkJogRun finds new routes in your vicinity, pulling from its crowd-sourced database of over 1.5 million routes. The routes are categorized by length, so, if I was aiming for a three-mile run, I would select from that group. (Some runs in my neighborhood exceeded 45 miles. I didn’t attempt those.)
Other runners can also leave notes and tips on their shared routes, indicating if a path by the Hudson River is particularly windy, or if a route is a good alternative to the one the New York City marathon runners use.
WalkJogRun helped me discover a new route in my neighborhood that had me sightseeing (and dodging crowds) along Broadway. It also brought me back to another route I haven’t run in years.
However, WalkJogRun is pretty similar to another mapping app called Map My Run, which is free. And I didn’t have enough time to rate this app’s long-term training plans to see how they compared to the plans offered in the RunKeeper app I’ve used on and off for awhile. Lastly, you can’t control your iTunes music through WalkJogRun.
If music is a must-have while you run, Cruise Control might be worth a download. Zombies, Run! is good for those who need to inject a little fun into those long runs. These apps aren’t cheap, but for a few bucks, one of them might just light a fire under your feet.
Update: A previous version of this article said Cruise Control costs $5.49. The app costs $4.99.