Before I received my beloved Garmin 10 as a birthday gift last fall, I relied on running apps on my iPhone to track my runs. (Before I got my first iPhone in 2012, I just used the stopwatch on my phone and MapMyRun’s route creator or stuck to the treadmill).
Once I started running with my Garmin 10, I fell in love with its ease of use, its accuracy, and its battery life (which I find is longer than that of an iPhone, especially when the iPhone is using GPS). I stopped using running apps (except Charity Miles, but not for tracking purposes) after I got my Garmin 10, but I’ve had readers and friends ask me what free running apps I would recommend. So, after a couple months of testing, here is my review of the best free running apps!
Garmins, Soleus,TomTom, and Timex watches can cost anywhere from $100-$400, so free running apps are a great option if you are on a budget, new to running, or simply prefer not to purchase an expensive device when you already have a smartphone. All four apps I tested—RunKeeper, MapMyRun, Strava, and Charity Miles—are available for both iPhone and Android smartphones free of cost. (RunKeeper, MapMyRun, and Strava do have membership options that require payment, but I only am reviewing the free apps for this post).
I tested these apps on my iPhone 5s. I ran 3-4 runs with each app to receive a range of data points. With each run, I started the app when I started my Garmin and stopped the app when I stopped my Garmin. The only exception was when I got stopped at stoplights: my Garmin has an auto-pause function, and I did not realize some of the apps had auto-pause functions until I sat down to write this review. I also ran different routes, both in Valparaiso, IN, and in Bothell, WA, to test the iPhone GPS in different locations.
Overall, I find my Garmin Forerunner 10 to be highly accurate in tracking pace and distance. I run on trails that have markers every ½ mile, and my Garmin almost always exactly matches those markers (when it’s off, it’s only by 0.01-0.02 miles at the very end of my run). Even during crowded city races, the Garmin 10 is accurate. At the St. Louis Half Marathon (13.1 miles), my chip time was 1:43:12; my Garmin read 1:43:14 for 13.15 miles (I didn’t stop it until a few seconds over the finish line and was not the best at running tangents in this race). Due to the consistent accuracy of my Garmin, I chose to use it as the standard against which I would assess these apps.
The Strava app is an excellent choice for runners who desire community support, want to participate in community running challenges, and enjoy exploring new routes. The defining features of the Strava app are the ability to connect with friends to see their workouts, its Segment Explorer, which will help you find nearby routes based on your previous runs, and its wide array of challenges that allow you to virtually compete with other runners. For example, challenges right now include an Asics Beat the Sun Challenge (run over 148 km/92 miles over three weeks), Strava Races Half Marathon and 10K challenges for June, and a Climb for Nepal Run that invites you to climb the elevation gain of Nepal in by running hill courses.
I found the Strava app to be accurate and simple to use. During your run, it provides minimal data feedback: a timer, distance covered (by tenth of a mile) and split pace, with no audio cues during your run (you can go into settings and turn these on if you wish). After your run, it shows your splits per mile, your total time and distance, and your average pace. Strava tracks your routes and allows you to compete against yourself when you run the same route again.
The one downside for me about Strava was that it did not provide you with your instant pace. This makes it tricky for doing any structured speedwork or tempo runs where you are aiming for a certain pace, especially if you are doing repeats less than one mile long.
The RunKeeper app is easy to use and accurate. Like Strava, it offers a social dimension where you can compete against your friends and cheer other athletes on. It also helps you set goals based on your previous workouts and allows you to manually set goals, including total miles, weight loss, and racing. When you are running (or cycling/walking/etc), the app displays your time, distance, current pace, average pace, and calories burned. You can sync RunKeeper with the music on your phone to add music to your run.
My favorite aspect of RunKeeper is the detailed data charts it provides after a workout. You can view your pace overtime, your elevation gains and losses, cadence, mile splits, and compare two workouts. One part of RunKeeper I did not like is that it is automatically set to tell you your distance and pace every five minutes and every ½ mile. It was a little too talkative for my preference. You can go into settings and change the feedback options.
MapMyRun recently was revamped when UnderArmour bought them out last year. The app has a variety of features including challenges, social media sharing, nutrition tracking (manually entered), gear tracking (where you enter shoes and it records how many miles you run on them), and training plans through a connected trainer app. You can access more features when you upgrade to MVP for a monthly fee. MapMyRun displays your distance, time, current pace, and calories burned during your run.
Even though I almost exclusively used MapMyRun before I got my Garmin, this app was my least favorite that I tried. It was the least accurate, off about 2-3% percent each time I used it. This discrepancy was not huge for my 6 mile runs, as you can see in the images, but it would add up a lot over the course of a half or full marathon or long training runs. The instant pace lacked consistency and would jump all over the place, especially near trees or overpasses. Like RunKeeper, MapMyRun enjoys shouting out your mile splits for everyone in a quarter mile radius to hear. That said, MapMyRun was still user-friendly and not a bad option if you are looking to simply track your time and distance.
Charity Miles is not the best option if you want detailed tracking of your run, but I want to mention it since I support its mission. Charity Miles allows you to raise money for a charity of your choosing by running. Companies sponsor a charity money pool, and then the money is given to your charity at a per mile rate. Charities include Wounded Warrior Project, Alzheimer’s Association, Feeding America, Back on My Feet, St. Jude Children’s Research, Girls on the Run, Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, and many others. Charity Miles provides you with simple feedback of distance ran and duration of your run. Since their recent update, the distance tracker is actually very accurate. I run with Charity Miles every day to give back to a cause I care about. Even if you already have a GPS watch or don’t track your mileage, I encourage you to try Charity Miles!
Note: Except for Charity Miles, these apps will also save your route and show you a map of each run, but for sake of my personal safety and privacy, I cropped all maps and routes out of the screenshots.
Overall, I recommend RunKeeper and Strava for the most accurate tracking and data for your runs. If you’re more of a minimalist, Strava is probably the best option for you, while if you enjoy auditory data feedback and more data for review after the run, RunKeeper is best suited for you. Since all these apps are free to download, it’s easy to try them all out to find the best free running app for you!
Question of the Day:
What running apps do you or have you used?
What GPS watch do you use?