But run-tracking technology doesn’t just help runners train harder. It also gives them the power to train more intelligently, doing what a coach might do for professional athletes. Recreational runners today no longer have to guess how far or how fast they’ve run, or what their body is doing and how it’s adapting. If they can monitor their heart rate, they can make sure they’re hitting the most strategic pace on each run, which can significantly increases their odds of having a positive experience on the course during race day.
Many apps are specifically designed to win over the ever-growing market of new runners: The average pace among Runkeeper’s 50 million users is over 11 minutes per mile, which in a marathon would make for a time just under five hours. “It’s about taking the sport that the hardcore [runners] know and love and packaging that in a way that’s really approachable,” says Jason Jacobs, the CEO of Runkeeper. Along with tracking data, the app offers training plans, tips, reminders to work out, and rewards for accomplishing personal records. It takes advantage of the data runners gather to keep them running—and, of course, using the app more often. “It’s about patting them on a back when they do well, giving them a gentle kick in the butt if they’re slacking,” Jacobs says.
This year, the San Francisco Marathon partnered with Runkeeper, as well as the popular step-tracker Fitbit and fitness-app FitStar. “We see wearable and mobile technology as one of the most exciting things happening in the sport right now,” says Michelle LaFrance, the SF Marathon’s marketing director. “It’s driving the democratization of running.” She argues that the social element of this technology—like my ability to see friends’ activity on Runkeeper, and to display my own for their consumption—is driving more runners to the sport. “When you track yourself and then you share that on social media, you become a force of inspiration in your network,” she says. “We see a huge correlation between the volume that runners share and the number of runners that they get to come run with them.” According to Running USA, almost 80 percent of runners have posted race photos and 62 percent have shared results on social media.
No matter how much technology can enhance the experience of running, though, many veteran runners argue that the biggest allure of the sport remains the chance to go off the grid for a little bit. Race training offers a rare chance to get outdoors, away from the computer, for an hour or four. “There’s so much more to the experience than metrics,” adds Boyle. “Fresh air. Camaraderie. Travel. Shoot, just overall feeling better.”
Like any good trend, run-tracking has already experienced its backlash— the term “running naked,” without any tech. Many runners now deliberately leave their watches and phones at home in order to better tune into their bodies—or say, enjoy the Tuscan scenery. There’s no app for that.