My Favorite Running Apps for iPhone & Apple Watch

When I ran high school track and then ran to get back in shape in college, there were no iPhones or GPS running apps, so I got by with a simple Timex Ironman watch. I measured all the nearby streets with my car and wrote down the distances, and I would calculate my distance and pace after I finished my runs. Things changed quite a bit over the next several years while I was busy becoming obese. When I finally felt that I had a physical and spiritual need to take better care of my body and start running again almost 3 years ago, old school Timex watches just wouldn’t cut it anymore.

Why bother with driving my car around to measure routes when I could use GPS apps on my iPhone to run anywhere I want and have instant tracking and updates? Throw in some sport headphones or bluetooth headphones, and I can both listen to music during runs and have my GPS running apps give me spoken updates as often as every quarter mile during my runs. This all sounds so common to runners today, but I thought it was really awesome 3 years ago! Since then I have tested virtually every popular running app in the App Store, often seeking new features that fit my training goals, and then when I got my Apple Watch Sport a year ago, it offered new possibilities to running with technology. (Read about my up and down experience with the Apple Watch.) With endless trial and error I have figured out what does and does not work best for me. Here are my thoughts on the different apps I have used.

Running-Apps-Apple-Watch (1500w)

watch graphic designed by freepik.com

NIKE+ RUNNING

The Nike+ Running app (get the app) has been my go-to app since day 1. In my experience it is the most reliable running app available for iPhone. While it is lacking in extras and special features, it almost always has the correct distance and never crashes. During the 2015 Carmel Marathon (read about the marathon) I used it for distance/time/pace updates every quarter mile through my bluetooth headphones, and it announced every mile within a few yards of the mile markers on the course.

PROS

  • accurate distance measurements

  • Does not crash.

  • Does not lose workouts.

  • clean, simple, user-friendly interface

  • audible updates as often as every quarter mile

  • good auto-pause function

  • Apple Watch app works well.

CONS

  • Elevation profiles are confusing and mostly useless.

  • no intervals, laps or pre-programmed workouts

    • Only gives mile splits in final workout data.
  • lack of running community

    • It does have friends and social sharing features, but all the runners I know who share their workouts online seem to use either Runkeeper, Daily Mile or Strava.
  • for running only

    • Does not have any workout options for cycling, walking, elliptical, etc.

RUNKEEPER

I actually use multiple apps simultaneously during my runs, and the main 2 apps I always use are Nike+ Running and Runkeeper (get the app). I use Runkeeper for 2 main reasons: 1) the list of friends and other local runners who also use this app and share their workouts with each other and 2) the elevation profiles. I did not start using Runkeeper till I moved from Indiana to Alabama a year ago (read about our move). All the hills here made me want a better way to track my elevation during workouts, and this is far superior to Nike+ in this area. Also for quite awhile it gave absolutely the best Apple Watch running experience of any app I tried, but the last few months Runkeeper seems to have tweaked their Apple Watch app too much, creating a lesser experience along the way. Now I just start this app from my iPhone screen and start Nike+ from my Apple Watch screen.

PROS

  • great elevation profiles for runs

  • usually very accurate distances

    • The distances seem to get off from Nike+ if I stop multiple times during a run for water, bathrooms or road crossings.
  • great community of runners (47+ million users) to share workouts and encourage each other

    • You can also tag running partners in your workouts.
  • long list of workout types to choose from (not limited to running)

    • Workout types include running, cycling, mountain biking, walking, hiking, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, skating, swimming, wheelchair, rowing and nordic walking.

  • custom workouts
    • This is another area that is a huge upgrade over Nike+. As my training got more serious last year with more intervals and repeats in my workouts, I discovered that Runkeeper allowed the pre-programmed workouts I had long desired.
    • 400 METER REPEATS EXAMPLE: 1 mile slow warm-up, 0.25 mile fast, 0.25 mile slow (repeat fast/slow intervals 7 more times), 1 mile slow cool-down
      • Runkeeper will announce the beginning/end of each interval, and the final workout stats will show the splits for each interval.

CONS

  • The unreliable Apple Watch app seems to struggle to communicate with the iPhone counterpart, leading to dropped workouts.
  • While the iPhone app is typically reliable, it does occasionally drop workouts for no apparent reason.
  • The auto-pause function does not always pause when it should.
    • For example, Nike+ will pause very quickly at a crosswalk, while Runkeeper sometimes will keep going for another 30 seconds before it pauses (or maybe not pause at all).
  • While distance is typically very accurate, if a longer run is paused multiple times, the distance sometimes gets off track a bit.

RUNMETER

While it does not have the name recognition of some of the other running apps, Runmeter offers an unparalleled number of features, including some that I had been seeking for a long time but could never find in any other apps.

The biggest example is something I think every running app should have, but is rare to find. I have always wanted a feature that allowed me to hit a lap button at any point during my workout, just like you could do at any time on an old school Timex Ironman watch. Most running apps just give you stats on a per-mile basis, but I simply want to hit lap after a warm-up that might be a random distance like 1.37 miles, the distance from my driveway to the start of the local paved walking/running trail, and then be able to see my workout stats separated by custom laps rather than just exact mile points. Not only does Runmeter offer this feature, but the amount of information it gives for every single mile and every single lap is phenomenal. I use the lap feature not only to separate warm-ups and cool-downs, but it is also great for fartleks and hill workouts where you enter different zones of speed or difficulty without following an exact, predetermined interval distance.

While the basic app is free, the very best features and full Apple Watch functionality only come with a $10/year subscription. The subscription price may seem steep for the casual runner, but it is well worth it for those who are getting a little more serious about their training or simply want the level of features and customization that cannot be found in other running apps.

While Runmeter‘s features are far more advanced than the other options in the iOS App Store, the user interface is not as clean or simple as Nike+, and therefore I do not use this app on every single run. Since I have tracked every single mile for nearly 3 years with Nike+, it holds the main, basic database for my distances, times, paces and PRs, and I do not use Runmeter to keep up with all my monthly and annual mileage statistics. I use Runmeter to track deeper statistics on long runs, trail runs and complex workouts like intervals, but for the basic, easy paced 5 miler, I usually skip Runmeter and just keep it simple.

PROS

  • Offers the most advanced level of (seemingly endless) customization of any running app in the App Store.

  • Includes features that I desired for a long time but could never find in other apps.

  • lap feature

  • The amount of information it gives for every mile and lap/interval is unrivaled.

  • solid Apple Watch app

  • accurate distances

  • extremely responsive auto-pause function

  • Exports run data in numerous formats (and to numerous other websites and apps).

CONS

  • $10 annual subscription price to access the best features and full Apple Watch functionality

  • Offers so many possibilities that it can be difficult and confusing trying to customize the set-up.

  • not as clean and simple as Nike+ and other apps

  • no built-in running community or social functionality (although it will export runs to all the popular sites)

  • no website login to view workouts from a computer

    • All run data is self-contained within the app, and while it can be stored in your personal iCloud storage, it does not save your data to its own servers.
    • Full run data can be exported to most other running sites.
  • Auto-pause function is wonky.
    • It works almost too well, and when I stop a lot, such as when I’m hiking with kids or if I am taking pictures while trail-running, it tends to make my pace seem way too fast.
      • For example, I was recently hiking with all 3 of my kids, and I used both Runmeter and Nike+ to track the hike. It took us a couple hours to go about 2 miles, and with all the stopping and water breaks for the kids, Nike+ tracked the total hike at about a 30 minutes per mile. With our slow pace, this was probably close to accurate. However, Runmeter somehow tracked my average pace as 7:00/mile! So basically if you are constantly stopping, Runmeter and its overactive auto-pause can get way off track, but for regular runs with minimal stops at water fountains and street crossings, it is accurate and produces great statistics.

APPLE WATCH WORKOUT APP

I have been running with my Apple Watch Sport for a little over a year now, so I have had ample opportunity to test its native Workout app. It is definitely one of the most simple apps that I have ever used for running (and biking). Its features are lacking, and the statistics it produces are few. Its GPS tracking is usually inaccurate, and it has no built-in social functions. Basically there is not much about this app that is special, and after trying it for a few weeks last year I stopped using it completely for runs. I always use it while riding my stationary bike just to track my time and heart rate.

However, lately the Apple Watch Workout app has re-emerged as my most important run-tracking app for exactly one reason: the heart rate monitor.

HEART RATE BASED RUNNING

A couple months ago I completely changed the way I exercise and eat. I have been following the Primal Diet and the MAF Method. (You can read about these experiences by clicking here.) The Primal Diet is low-carb/high-fat, and you can read about my early experiences with the Primal Diet  Along with the Primal Diet I have incorporated Dr. Phil Maffetone’s heart rated based training, MAF Method for short. I track my heart rate very closely now, and with the MAF Method I currently keep my heart rate under 148 bpm at all times while running. If my heart rate goes over 148, I walk till my heart rate drops again.

I have paid attention to my heart rate a little bit over the past year simply because I finally had a device that tracked my heart rate, but it was not until I started the MAF Method that heart rate became an important part of my workouts. Now I need accurate, constant heart rate data while I am running. I believe Apple has made it very difficult for 3rd party apps to use the stream of heart rate information from the Apple Watch heart rate monitor. It seems that Runkeeper and Nike+, while typically reporting an accurate average heart rate after workouts, do not show my current heart rate accurately during workouts. For MAF Method training, this just does not cut it. I need up-to-the-second heart rate data so I can quickly make adjustments during runs, and none of the running apps give this.

NEED FOR CURRENT HEART RATE DATA

The only Apple Watch app that accurately gives my current heart rate is the native Workout app. So now it is on my Apple Watch screen at all times during runs. I still use Nike+ and Runkeeper (and sometimes Runmeter) to track my distance, time, elevation, etc., but my heart rate has become more important than any of those other statistics. So while the Workout app is the least feature-rich app I use, it is the most important for my current workout regime.

OTHER GOOD RUNNING APPS

I have discussed the running apps that I love and use regularly, but there are some other good running apps in the App Store.

  • For a long time I shared all my workouts on dailymile.com, but I have never tried the GPS app (released last year). Daily Mile does have a good social community for runners.
  • Map My Run is owned by Under Armour now, and it is supposed to be really good.
  • Strava is another of the most popular of the good apps I do not use. It seem to be very similar to Runkeeper, especially with the built-in social community, and I already use enough different apps to keep up with any more. I do believe Strava is a particularly strong app for bikers and triathletes, and if I ever get into those sports then I will probably use Strava.

  • Jennae Lei

    I often run with my dog, and like your kids, he is prone to stopping as much as I’ll allow. The Runmeter app’s auto-stop feature is easily turned off. Just look for the “Stop Detection” slide switch early on the Settings page. Personally, I leave it in the Off position for all regular runs.