Can Social Running Apps Hurt Your Training?

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It’s a fairly established fact that there are pros and cons to running with friends—and ways to fit those group runs into your schedule without compromising your training. But what about virtual friends?

As social running apps have become more ubiquitous, and the technology to enable them more sophisticated, sharing your runs online is getting to be the norm. You can track your miles with RunKeeper, log your routes with MapMyRun, get cheers from friends on Nike+ and Motigo, hang out on the runner’s social network dailymile, or see how you rank on Strava.

“The biggest problem is it can cause you to do some dumb things,” says Rob Manning, who runs Tailwind Coaching, since people tend to go faster and harder than they should.

All that sharing of your workouts on running apps can be motivational, but it can also be too motivational. Manning has one athlete who doesn’t like to post easy runs, because someone will always ask why he ran so slow or make a sarcastic comment. Manning also has clients who want to run the fastest they can even when that’s not on the schedule, just so they can get to the top of the leaderboards. Or, they want to do a challenge—online goals that often revolve around doing a certain number of miles in a certain time—but if they’re not ready for it, “it’s counter-productive,” says Manning.

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On the plus side, “it has been such a wonderful tool,” he says, because all these different running apps and websites bring people together who normally wouldn’t be able to train in the same place. That can be motivational and create a sense of accountability.

“It’s your own little cheer squad,” says Larissa Rivers, the run marketing manager for Strava, who also logs a lot of miles on Strava. “I Strava everything,” she admits.

The benefit of new technology is also that many of these running apps are making data available to the casual runner who didn’t previously have access to it. Just by turning on your phone in your pocket, you can get pace, distance, elevation, and even some approximated effort variables, especially if you connect it to a heart rate monitor.

Of course, says Manning, that data isn’t always 100 percent accurate, which can be frustrating if it’s the only data you’re using. “If you’re really looking to drill down into your data, it’s not the platform,” Manning says of Strava, which includes training logs and weekly reports of mileage and intensity.

Sage Canaday, a professional ultra-runner, uses Strava both to track some of the athletes he coaches, and also as his own training blog. He logs 100 percent of his workouts on the platform, with comments or notes, and it gives him weekly reports with graphs and visual data representations.

He also uses it as his primary social media platform, where runners ask him questions and he interacts with fans and other athletes.

“It comes down to personality,” says Canaday. Of course, he has the luxury of being a well-known personality in the running world. He took a very, very easy day the other day just to show his followers on Strava how important easy days are in training.

For many of the rest of us, it can be stressful to open up your training to scrutiny, whether explicit or not. Some people simply perform better when they don’t think about it too hard. And it may not be a coincidence that many of the most hardcore running platforms have had trouble attracting women. “Women [generally speaking] don’t have to pound their chest every time they go out the door,” says Manning.

There are plenty of running apps and networks to choose from too, serving a variety of runners. Along with the ones already mentioned, you can also try Endomondo or the popular-in-Europe Runtastic. (Or, if that just sounds like a lot of stuff to deal with, Runator aggregates all the apps into one app.)

The key is finding the right one for you and your friends, and finding the right way to fit it into your training.

Use the apps for motivation or as a way to measure yourself, either against others or against yourself over multiple weeks. For example, Canaday will look to see what the fastest times are up Green Mountain, where he lives in Boulder, then he’ll measure himself against those times when he goes for a hard run up it. He can even use the compare tool to see where he fell off the pace or where someone else—someone he might never have actually seen out on his run—passed him.

You can also use most popular apps for basic workout tracking and to find possible routes or non-virtual group runs. Rivers likes to use Strava’s Flyby feature to find runners she passed on her runs. She can then see what routes and places they like, or even make friends with them.

And it makes it easy for your coach to check up on you, since they can just see your public profile. No lying here.

But, no matter what, you should still listen to your coach, especially if you’re using a coached program on one of the social apps. Strava launched a series of coached plans from Greg McMillan, and Runkeeper offers training plans from Jeff Galloway. So when your coach says you need an easy day, take an easy day, even if your friends might make fun of you for it.

“There’s definitely a little danger in that,” admits Canaday, though it’s the same danger that comes from any training groups.

If you’re worried about what people think, Rivers says, then you can make comments on the workout or change the title of the run. You can also make workouts private. “No one really looks that hard at your pace anyway,” she said, unless you’re a professional athlete. Many professional athletes do choose to block their heart rate data (or power meter information on their bike).

The key to really making whatever app you choose work for you is making it as social as possible. Remember being on Twitter when you didn’t have any friends? It was boring. Follow as many people as you can, said Rivers. It allows you to see what routes and workouts they like to do, and to learn from them.

Create clubs, groups, and challenges that mesh with your training plans, allowing you to find people who might be up for doing your workouts with you, create mini-leaderboards just for your group, and even upload planned routes.

“The benefits totally outweigh the risks,” says Canaday.

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