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10 best running apps to keep you motivated

Whether it's a five-minute jog or a 5km run, we've found the best training aids for your phone

Lydia Willgress
Tuesday 09 February 2021 17:22
<p>Keep track of your progress, map your routes and become a better athlete with our picks</p>

Keep track of your progress, map your routes and become a better athlete with our picks

Running in the UK has been booming for years. But it feels like the trend has significantly accelerated thanks to the coronavirus, with parks full of Lycra-clad runners and sports retailers reporting that clothing, accessories and equipment are flying off the shelves.

Whether you like to pound the pavements in town, or slip and slide through mud on the trails, the benefits of running are clear. According to the NHS website, running not only helps you to “reduce your risk of long-term illnesses, such as heart disease” but it can also “boost your mood and keep your weight under control”.

Of course, running is free – all you need is a pair of trainers. But there are plenty of tools out there to help you on your journey and make getting out the door a little bit easier.

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Whether you’re looking for extra motivation, want to keep track of your runs or hope to take your training to the next level, there’s an app to suit.

We asked the friendly running community on Twitter which they’d recommend, before testing products from across the market during our training sessions.

Our criteria included price, functionality and, most importantly, whether it added to our enjoyment of running. There were lots to choose from, but we’ve rounded up our favourites below – from apps that allow you to plot a route with your fingertip, to those that will help you complete your first 5km.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Best running apps 2021

  • Best for Apple Watch – Strava: Free, iOS / Android
  • Best for intervals – TrainAsOne: £9.99 per month, iOS / Android
  • Best for new routes – Footpath: £3.49 per month, iOS / Android
  • Best for beginners – Couch to 5K: Free, iOS / Android
  • Best for advanced runners – Nurvv Run: £249.99, iOS / Android
  • Best for long distance – OS Maps: £2.99 per month, iOS / Android
  • Best for voice navigation – RunGo: £1.99 per month, iOS / Android
  • Best user interface – Garmin Connect: Free, iOS / Android
  • Best for emergencies – What3words: Free, iOS / Android
  • Best free running app – Nike Run Club: Free, iOS / Android

Strava

Best: For Apple Watch

Free to download, optional subscription £47.99 per year

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Strava has become the benchmark for fitness apps, with over 70 million users worldwide. It tracks a range of activities, from canoeing to rollerblading, but it is particularly good for runners and cyclists. The app is probably best known for its "segments", which are small or sometimes very long sections of road or path, defined and named by users. It means that every time you run, you can measure yourself against your last effort on specific sections, helping you to track your training and fitness.

There’s a basic, free version of Strava, which you can use to track your activities and follow your friends’ efforts. But the paid version – which works out at around £4 per month – gives you access to the segments and leaderboards, so you can discover the all-time fastest "athletes", as well as rankings for gender, age group, people who you follow and more. Strava also lets you analyse a wide range of data, including heart rate, power, and cadence, with #statmaps – colour overlays of your GPS route – helping you understand how your elevation or pace may have changed across a run. Plus, you can use the app to find new routes, explore popular places for runners in your local area and set monthly or weekly milage goals. Whether you’re a serious or social athlete, there’s not much you can’t do. Kudos to Strava for a great app.

TrainAsOne

Best: For interval training

Free to download, optional subscription £9.99 per month or £99.99 peryear

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Anyone who has ever searched for an online training plan will know it’s a bit like dating; there are plenty of options out there but it’s hard – some would say impossible – to find the one that’s right for you. That’s because most of them are stock training plans, designed for the “average” beginner or the “average” sub-four marathoner. Whether you’re at the start of your journey or a seasoned runner, following the right training plan can make all the difference – but only if it is built around you.

Enter TrainAsOne, an AI running coach which learns on the job, helping to create and tailor a training plan based on your data and goals. We loved the fact the plan flexes around you, depending on when and how long you want to train, and automatically adjusts for any missed or off-plan workouts. It also means you can work towards multiple races, so if you have a packed race calendar it will help you peak at the right times and reduce the likelihood of injury.

We downloaded and used the app with an ultramarathon in June in mind, but you don’t need to be running far to take advantage. It was easy to sync to other apps and we enjoyed the variety of the sessions it suggested, from long runs to threshold runs and perceived-effort assessments. On registering, everyone receives a 21-day free trial, before electing to carry on with a subscription (£9.99 per month) or the free service. If you do decide to pay, you get extended plan detail, pace and heart-rate based workouts, sessions adjusted for weather or elevation, and advanced run analysis. This is a smart app, providing an even smarter way to train.

Footpath

Best: For finding new routes

Free to download, optional subscription £3.49 per month or £21.49 per year

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Footpath is the perfect app if you love creating and exploring new routes. In simple terms, this handy app allows you to map routes with your fingers, helping you to plan your next adventure in seconds. Unlike some similar apps on the market, Footpath has coverage for the entire world, with detailed maps that clearly delineate between roads and footpaths, making it much easier to find unknown trails and quiet streets. It also measures distance and elevation, so you know how far you're going and how many hills there are until home, even if you're offline.

We found the app easy to use and incredibly responsive, with the route snapping to roads and trails as you draw. The maps were accurate and up to date, while the distance and elevation estimates were spot on every single time. The app is free to download, with users able to save up to five routes without paying. A subscription (£3.49 per month) gets you unlimited saved routes, route editing, topographic maps, premium overlays to show features such as bike lanes, and the ability to export to GPX and other files. Plus, if you don't like looking at your phone while you're out, you'll love Footpath Elite's voice directions, which tell you when you need to turn (although it's worth noting the feature is for iPhone and Apple Watch users only, currently).

Couch to 5K

Best: For beginners

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Beginning your running journey can be daunting, especially when you sit down to lace up your trainers for the first time. That's where the Couch to 5K app from Public Health England comes in. Between March and December last year, a whopping 1 million people downloaded the app – and it's easy to see why.

Designed for beginners, the user-friendly app will help you gradually work up towards running 5km (or 3.1 miles, if you're still old school like us) in nine weeks. It sounds hard, but the simple and easy-to-follow plan involves three runs a week, starting with a mix of running and walking to help you gradually build up your fitness and stamina. If you’re in need of extra motivation, you also get guided commentary from celebrity coaches including Jo Whiley, Sarah Millican and Sanjeev Kohli. We can't think of another app that has done so much public good, helping millions get fitter and healthier. Plus, it’s totally free.

Nurvv Run

Best: For advanced runners

Free to download, accompanying insoles £249.99

Download for iOS

Download for Android

They say knowledge is power – and that is certainly the case with Nurvv Run. This is by far one of the best pieces of technology we've ever tested, so if you're a data lover, you're in for a treat. Unlike a lot of other products on the market, Nurvv Run is a coaching app that accurately captures data from the point of action – aka, your feet. It does this through two specially designed insoles, with each one boasting 16 sensors to enable them to collect data a whopping 1,000 times per second. All of the data is then fed through to a slick app, which not only provides you with insights on your distance, time and pace, but also your pronation, foot strike, step length and cadence.

We couldn't wait to get our hands on this product and found the trackers were easy to charge and assemble. The insoles made no difference to our comfort during our training runs and we tested them up to 12 miles with no issues. But the cherry on the cake is the Nurvv Run app; it is modern, responsive and bursting at the seams with great advice. Your data is accompanied by graphs and graphics, so you can clearly see the differences between your left and right foot, and what happens to your form when you hit a hill. There's also a live pace setting, which can help you focus on your technique during a run to increase speed or work on your recovery pace, and the app will tell you if it thinks you're overtraining. In five runs, we discovered that we have far from a neutral foot roll and significant asymmetry when it comes to foot strike. The app is free to download but at near £250, the insoles (which you can buy here) are an expensive purchase. You get so much data for your money though, that we think it's worth it.

OS Maps

Best: For long-distance

Free to download, subscription £2.99 per month or £29.99 per year

Download for iOS

Download for Android

We were introduced to OS Maps on a group trail run back in 2018. We already knew about the traditional print maps – but what we didn’t know was that the brand has moved into the digital age, creating a knockout app which brings the UK to your fingertips. For £2.99 per month, OS Maps offers digital access to over 600 maps so you can discover, plan or follow routes. The app is extremely responsive, providing a detailed picture of roads, footpaths, green spaces and landmarks.

We found the "premium topo" setting (which is the most detailed map) made planning routes a dream, helping us to discover new footpaths and trails that we’d run past hundreds of times but never connected. The "greenspace" map, meanwhile, made it easy to identify parks and other areas that are just that bit nicer to run in. The app also enables you to download your maps offline before you set off, adding that little bit of reassurance if you’re not sure you'll have signal, or you're worried about your data limit. There’s also a snazzy aerial 3D feature, which allows you to fly-through a route and get a good understanding of the terrain, viewpoints and points of interest. If you like exploring new routes and getting out into the countryside, there is no better training partner.   

RunGo

Best: For voice navigation

Free to download, optional subscription £1.99 per month

Download for iOS

Download for Android

RunGo boldly describes itself as the “most popular running app for discovering the best routes in the world with turn-by-turn voice navigation”. We are fans of finding new places to run but have a tendency to get lost, so we couldn't wait to try it.

We loved the fact that the app not only allows you to build your own routes using your finger, but also includes over 500,000 routes created by local runners along with live instructions of where to go and when to turn. There are also verified routes (such as the London marathon) and voice-guided tours, which provide you with information about nearby landmarks as you pound the pavements. And you can see the usual statistics like time, pace, distance and elevation.

Perhaps even more importantly, given Covid-19, RunGo also has a virtual mode that allows you to run famous courses, wherever you are. Plus, the app is used by race organisers (to build audio-guided courses), as well as hotels and resorts (to supply their guests with custom maps). We found that footpaths and trails were slightly less easy to spot on RunGo's maps, but we were seriously impressed with the navigation and additional features.

The app is free to download, offering voice navigation and the ability to create routes to all users. For £1.99 a month, you can also export to GPX, find more verified runs, sync runs with your Strava account and set up live tracking.

Garmin Connect

Best: User interface

Free to download

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Garmin Connect knows everything. It can automatically build you a route that starts on your doorstep. It will store all of your activities – from running to workouts, skiing to swimming – so you have all the fitness data you could ever need in the palm of your hand. It will even sync to your phone’s calendar, so you can see your training plan in the same place as your morning Zoom meetings.

To get the most out of it, we recommend a smartwatch or similar device. If you have one of those, Garmin Connect will give you access to some serious, deep-dive training data, particularly if you sign in on the website. If you don’t have one, don’t despair. The app won’t track a run on its own, but it’s easily linked to third-party apps, so your run will automatically upload to Garmin Connect, or you can enter activities manually. It also has all the social features of other apps on the market, allowing you to like and comment on other friends’ activities. Plus, there’s no subscription, so it’s totally free. This is a great app for regular runners and all the graph geeks out there.

What3words

Best: For emergencies

Free to download

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Have you ever been halfway through a trail run when you realise you've got no idea where you are? Or you've promised to meet a friend, only to get to the spot and they aren't there? This is where what3words comes in. The app helps you pinpoint locations by splitting the world into three-metre squares – 57 trillion of them. Each square has a unique combination of three words associated with it – the London Eye, for example, is at "bend.mouse.assume", while Edinburgh Castle can be found at "buck.ears.match".

This makes it easier to find an exact location, get support if you're lost, or alert emergency services if you're in trouble. We regularly run on new footpaths, trails and hills in our local area, and we're not ashamed to say that we are often wary of the isolation. What3words provides reassurance and has helped to boost our confidence when we're walking and running. While we've (thankfully) never had to use the app in an emergency, we have used it to share meeting spots and plot routes. The app easily integrates and interacts with others, including Viewranger and Google Maps, and is super easy to use with a handy "discover" mode to enable you to share where you are or navigate to an address. Other uses the app suggests include planning a treasure hunt, saving favourite spots or remembering a parking space. It is free to download, making it accessible to all, and it'll certainly have a place on our phone for years to come.

Nike Run Club

Best: Free running app

Free to download

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Nike Run Club was this reviewer's first ever running app, and it has only got better since we downloaded it all those years ago. Going above and beyond basic tracking, it offers guidance and motivation so it is easier to get out the door. In particular, we loved the guided runs that offered personal coaching and live encouragement while we pounded the pavements, from an easy and motivational 10km to a short interval session that helped us build our strength and speed.

Nike has also partnered with meditation app Headspace to offer unique runs that help you focus and relax – a lifesaver after a busy day at work or looking after the kids. The app is user friendly and we found it was super easy to set goals, share our runs and track our progress, with key statistics including our pace, distance, elevation, heart rate and mile splits provided (you also get live updates on pace and distance during runs). The maps are colour-coded so you can see where your pace has been steady and where it may have dipped, providing additional insight to help you improve. This is a fun, modern and – crucially – totally free app that's perfect for seasoned runners or beginners looking to reach their goals.

The verdict: Running apps

No matter what app you choose, we know that you’ll feel better for pulling on your trainers and getting out the door. Our favourite was Strava, but there are plenty of other apps depending on your goals.

If you’re looking for an innovative way to train, TrainAsOne is a fantastic choice, while Nike Run Club will offer that little bit of extra motivation. As long as we continue to explore the trails, what3words and OSMaps will also always have a place on our phone. Happy running!

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