It makes sense why running apps all try to incorporate social media at some level. If everyone in your running club is using Strava or Nike Run Club, FOMO will dictate that you sign up too. That means more downloads, which means a more successful business.
Plus, finding an app to share with friends can be motivational for runners. In my case, my competitive spirit kicks in: if I'm not feeling like running, I can look on Strava and see that my friends went out today, so I shouldn't skip either.
I even use it as a kind of self-shaming motivator, where I imagine my friends will judge me if I don't hit a certain pace or distance. They never would, but the delusion gets me to run that much harder.
So why did I decide to get on my soapbox and say that running apps focus too much on friends? Because friendships only help you get out the door. To hit your PRs, you need rivalries and challenges and one-upmanship. And not enough running apps and watches cater to the competitive spirit that most runners have.
In this new column, Android Central Fitness Editor Michael Hicks talks about the world of wearables, apps, and overall fitness tech related to running and health.
Strava Live Segments are an example of app competitiveness done right. When you approach a popular running stretch, your phone app will show your current progress matched up against your PR and the fastest leaderboard time, pushing you to try and match the recent or all-time fastest paces of local runners.
Even if I'm not currently in good enough shape to break the top ten on my favorite running routes, it's very satisfying to climb up the leaderboard, see how your training is leading to PR splits, or become the "local legend" of a specific neighborhood route.
It's just unfortunate that (A) you have to subscribe to Strava to access the full version and (B) there just aren't that many alternative running apps that take a similar leaderboard approach, outside of more generic categories like monthly steps and miles.
The desktop version of Garmin Connect lets you create segments for free, but more people just import Strava live segments instead. Using Garmin segments means restricting yourself to comparing against other Garmin watch owners, and most of the best Garmin watches are too pricey for a lot of runners.
Fitbit got into trouble recently because it removed community features like Open Groups, Challenges, and Adventures from its app. The company claimed that these had a "limited number of active users," but besides those people who did use them, customers found it frustrating that Fitbit and Google didn't offer an alternative to make up for it, or make these features more compelling to draw more active users.
Generally speaking, I like monthly challenges that push you to hit certain goals. But outside of a rush of endorphins and a little PNG file on your running profile, there's little incentive to finish them and no impact if you fail — there's always next month!
Stats that focus on fitness trends are more helpful. Yes, most of the best running watches give you VO2 Max, training load, predicted race times, and so on. But these macro-scale measurements change so gradually that they're hardly motivational.
What I would find more useful is competition, both against others and myself, and I want that data accessible on my smartwatch instead of buried in submenus.
For self-challenges, I want to see how I'm faring month-over-month in terms of mileage, average pace, and so on, so I can check quickly if I'm improving or falling behind. I'd also want to be able to set my own custom challenges for a month, like a to-do list of achievements to aim for, and see goals and percentages on my watch.
And for social challenges, if other running apps can't implement their own version of Strava Live Segments for whatever reason, I'd want the option to opt into a local running group based on geography and see real-time leaderboards of all the key running stats. I'm fully ready to be shamed by my running neighbors into stepping up my mileage.
For now, I'll keep cheering on my friends in running apps. But if I want real competition to push me to faster times, I have to ignore my watch and go sign up for a local 10K instead.
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Michael is Android Central's resident expert on fitness tech and wearables, with an enthusiast's love of VR tech on the side. After years freelancing for Techradar, Wareable, Windows Central, Digital Trends, and other sites on a variety of tech topics, AC has given him the chance to really dive into the topics he's passionate about. He's also a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves D&D, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.
For wearables, Michael has tested dozens of smartwatches from Garmin, Fitbit, Samsung, Apple, COROS, Polar, Amazfit, and other brands, and will always focus on recommending the best product over the best brand. He's also completed marathons like NYC, SF, Marine Corps, Big Sur, and California International — though he's still trying to break that 4-hour barrier.