I hate running.
"So don't run," you might reply. And I can't argue with your airtight logic, there, smart guy. But I want to like running, I really do. It's good, cheap exercise I can do anywhere. My friends who run look so much better in their jeans than I do. They enter races--real races, not like the 5K I did last year with zero training just because I wanted a medal. They run half marathons and full marathons, and when they talk about the runner's high they get, or conversely, how crappy they feel when they can't run for whatever reason, I get envious. I want to run, too.
Plus, now that my son is almost 2, I want to finally say buh-bye to the last of the baby weight, so my mission is to force a running routine until it becomes a habit. I've tried and failed at this so many times--I go for one run, maybe two or three, and then for whatever lame reason (a blister, sore legs, work deadlines--or rewatching Mad Men from the beginning suddenly seems more important), I just...stop. But not this time. This time I'm going to stick with it, and these are the apps that are guiding me toward my goal of becoming a Real Runner, one step at a time.
GymPact--iOS, Android (free)
I am naturally frugal (okay, cheap), which is one reason why running appeals to me. GymPact has been the most instrumental app in keeping me on track, because if I don't run at least three times in a week, I'll be penalized $10 cash money per missed run. Yowch. (The minimum is $5 per missed workout, but I doubled down for extra incentive.)
GymPact connects with RunKeeper, and for a RunKeeper entry to count as a GymPact workout, it has to be at least 30 minutes at a pace of at least 2 mph, which works out to just 1 mile total. Even with a mix of walking and running, my semi-pathetic average pace of 16 minutes a mile easily clears the bar--it's just the 30 minutes part that's the challenge. But it's a doable challenge, especially at only three days in a week. (Nonrunning workouts can count, too, if you check in at a gym, yoga studio, indoor climbing facility, or other fitness location and put in a 30-minute workout.)
GymPact keeps your credit card or PayPal details on file, and if you live up to your pledge, you'll never get charged. But if you don't meet your week's goal by midnight on Sunday--poof, there goes your money. And here's the kicker: It goes directly to the people who actually did their workouts. Yes, GymPact redistributes the shirkers' penalty amounts to the people who have met their goal, averaging about 30 to 40 cents per workout, per week. Once you've earned $10, you can request a payout to your PayPal account. But the smugness of knowing you're getting paid to exercise is the real payoff.
RunKeeper--iOS, Android (free)
To get GymPact credit for a run, I have to log it with RunKeeper. This is an essential app for anyone dorky enough to want to track all their fitness activities--it'll map all your walks and runs and spit out fun stats like pace, time, calories burned, and elevation gained.
For beginners like me, that's quite enough, and the free account will suffice. But with a Pro account or some in-app purchases, RunKeeper can go a lot further--it's got built-in training programs for all fitness levels, and you can even pair it with a heart monitor and get real-time audio cues about your heart rate. Me, I just want to know it's faithfully recording the stats GymPact needs (that, and how much longer the pain will last), so Time, Distance, and Average Pace are the only audio cues I want. The personal records, awards, goals, friends list, and leaderboards are just icing on the cake. The cake that I'm totally going to eat after I finish running.
Zombies, Run! 2--iOS, Android ($4)
So with GymPact providing the incentive, and RunKeeper recording the proof, what about the little problem of running being super-freaking boring? Easy, I just hired a few zombies to chase me. Zombies, Run! 2 provides a game-ification aspect to running, and it's been instrumental in getting me to actually want to run. It's also entertaining enough that I often lose myself in the story while I'm panting down the street.
All you have to do is put your headphones in, pick a playlist on your iPhone, start the first mission, and run. The story unfolds in creepy stereo sound: You're air-dropped into a dystopian nightmare, running from a pack of bloodthirsty zombies who are chasing you back to your bombed-out base. When they get close, you'd better run all-out to keep them away. Sounds corny, but it works. Even if I'm taking a walk break, the sound of those lurching, heavy-breathing zombies catching up makes me break into a sprint every time.
As you run, you pick up items that you can use between workouts to build your base and level up. The app comes with 23 missions, and once you burn through those, you can add more via in-app purchase. The 40 missions of Season 2, for example, costs another $4. The best endorsement I can give this game is that it creeped me out so much (especially since I tend to run at twilight) that I extended one run a full 10 minutes past GymPact's 30-minute minimum just to get to the end of a mission. You can pause any mission and resume it anytime, but I just had to listen until the end.
While the audio adventure in Zombies, Run! 2 can keep me engrossed enough to forget the pain in my calves and just enjoy the run, it's hard not to notice that I'm plodding down the same old streets in my cul-de-sac neighborhood again and again. Yawn. To keep my eyes as interested as my ears, I like to switch up my route, and WalkJogRun contains hundreds of new-to-me routes near my location, easily sorted by distance. Once I find a promising one, I can view it on a map and add it to my favorites list, and it's easy to plot out runs I've been thinking of trying, to see how long they are.
An Android version of WalkJogRun is in the works, but until then, the RunKeeper-like MapMyRun (free for iOS and Android) also contains tons of new routes submitted by other users. I just wish that either app would give me audio cues if I veer off my chosen route. Looking at the on-screen maps works fine if I've got my phone in an armband, but if it's zipped inside the sweat-resistant pocket of my beloved workout tights, I can't see the screen and I'm running a bit blind.
PaceDJ--iOS ($3), Android ($1)
Having a few good tunes to run to is great--even when I'm beating a path away from the brain-eaters in Zombies, Run, it mixes in music from my running playlist between the bits of story. (By the way, I re-created my playlist on Rdio in case you want to check it out.)
But creating this playlist involved a lot of trial and error: I added songs that I thought would keep me pumped up, but some of them turned out to be the wrong tempo, which made it difficult for me to find my groove. Ever since I got PaceDJ, though, finding new songs to run to has been a snap. It analyzes your music library and uses an online database to determine each song's beats per minute (bpm).
For running, the app defaults to finding songs around 160 bpm, but you can raise or lower that to your perfect number, like my embarrassing 138. (The app has a Measure My Pace feature, but it never gave me a decent result.) Songs that it doesn't recognize are listed in the app's Manage Music/Fix BPMs setting--you can manually update the BPM of any song by tapping the beat on the screen. It's great at unearthing amazing running songs in corners of my library I hadn't anticipated...who knew Boston's "Peace of Mind" is my ultimate power song? I only wish PaceDJ had some kind of History feature that let you review the songs you heard on your run and add them to a playlist.
Charity Miles--iOS, Android (free)
So now that I've got places to run and tunes to fist-pump to (between the waves of zombies trying to eat my brains, anyway), the whole trick is to just keep at it--day after day, run after run, sweaty mile after sweaty mile. I have a couple little tricks to force myself out the door. If I want to run in the morning, for example, I'll set my phone's alarm but won't leave it next to my bed. Instead, it's in my running shoe, which is next to my folded running clothes, across the room, in the doorway...where if I don't move it I'll trip over the pile and break my neck. The other handy trick I've been using is Charity Miles.
Charity Miles makes each run about more than just me (or my fitness goals). It tracks my time and distance with GPS, but not in order to chart my progress or weight loss or any of that. Instead, I pick a charity I want to run for, and go. For every mile I run or walk, I earn 25 cents for the charity I chose. (Biking workouts also count, for 10 cents a mile.) The money comes via a $1 million sponsorship pool of corporate donations, and the list of charities you can direct it to is impressive: Autism Speaks, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the ASPCA, Habitat for Humanity, and many more.
The money comes from sponsoring corporations--$1 million is the initial amount users are running toward--and the app asks you to post thank-yous on Twitter and Facebook, but that's entirely optional (although a Facebook login is required). You don't even have to go a whole mile; the minimum distance is only 0.1 mile, so you can fire it up on almost any walk and get in the habit of helping while you move.
I know, my slow-but-steady 2-mile runs won't instantly solve world hunger any more than they'll cause me to wake up tomorrow 20 pounds lighter. But, hey, every little bit counts and the important part is that I keep at it, which is a little easier thanks to these apps.