Skip to contentSkip to navigation
Digital Health — 12 min

Finding the Fitness Tracking and Social Apps

28th, 2019
Biron

We take a look at a handful of popular fitness apps that not only track and log your exercise routines, but also encourage motivation by incorporating social networks. Reviewed: Endomondo, Runkeeper, Strava and Zwift.

Fitness tracking apps typically come with lots of impressive bells, whistles and sleek designs, often syncing with other health apps and wearable devices. But being able to log how fast or far you’ve run, what route you took on your bike, or how many calories you burned doesn’t guarantee you’ll stick to a fitness routine, especially if you’re a bit of a beginner. According to kinesiologist Hugo Le Bire, a health and fitness specialist at Biron, for all of the benefits of gathering data and monitoring results it’s only half the battle for anyone trying to get into the rhythm of a regular exercise routine. “The way that many of the fitness apps are designed and marketed,” says Le Bire, “they always make it look so easy to implement regular exercise into your daily life and it's not — it's hard. What’s important, especially for beginners, is having the constant motivation and sense of personal accountability to keep on doing it.”

Fitness apps might help you build a schedule and push notifications when it’s time to go for a run or ride, and they can seem very good at setting personal goals. But they don’t really offer the same mental encouragement that having a trainer or exercise partner can provide, even if the app advertises that its pre-designed running or cycling regimens have been created with the input of professional coaches and trainers.

To illustrate, Le Bire describes what psychologists call the Köhler Effect, wherein the the weakest individuals in a group — even one as small as two people — typically exert more effort to keep up with the achievements of their stronger peers. In athletics, this can mean better overall performances for those usually seen as the weakest link. “That's why group training is so good,” says Le Bire, “you’re motivated by the people around you to do better and keep up with them.”

Of course not everyone has the budget to hire their own trainer, and conflicting schedules can mean it’s not always easy to find a friend who will run or ride with you. Which is why here we’ve chosen to focus mostly on fitness apps that come with a robust social component — either the ability to make appointments remotely with other individuals in the network to co-train in real time, or at least compare results on similar challenges that are posted within the app.

Le Bire knows first hand of what he speaks. Prior to joining Biron three years ago, he owned his own gym in Montreal for more than a decade and consulted closely with clients on their training regimen (this in addition to his own experience in competitive sport, including three years on the Canadian national bobsleigh team). Much of his job was simply helping his clients get past their perceived failures, whether in the form of lacklustre results or missed sessions. “It’s made me a big fan of having a training buddy,” he says, “someone who is roughly at the same level as you, and having that appointment to exercise together. It just strengthens your resolve. And so the best apps are the ones that build accountability and encouragement through the social network they’ve developed.”

Apps for workout tracking

Endomondo

Initially released in 2007, Endomondo, from sport apparel maker Under Armour, is one of the best established fitness apps on the market. Though it’s most popular among runners and cyclists, it allows for up to 58 different workout categories. Endomondo’s live feed records all the usual metrics, including your speed, duration, altitude and calories burned (based on the personal details you’ve entered during set up), as well as heart rate when connected to a heart rate monitor via Bluetooth. At regular intervals, audio prompts provide updates on your progress, a nice bit of motivation when ride or run times are a concern. Using your phone’s GPS functionality Endomondo also maps your route, a popular feature among cyclists looking to vary their routine or compete more directly against others. Endomondo’s social component and large network of users is a big selling point, allowing you to connect with friends and virtual acquaintances in the Endomondo community to share progress, common goals and encouragement. Many of its best features, however, such as the goal setting and workout planning, are only available with the premium paid version. Free for the basic version, $8.49 monthly subscription for premium; available in French and English.

Runkeeper

Despite the name, Runkeeper accommodates a wide array of workout routines, including strength training, though it’s optimized for runners, walkers and hikers. While its live feed tracks most (but not all) the same variables as Endomondo, and it shares the same route mapping feature and social networking capabilities, it arguably has the edge over the latter when it comes to beginners setting personalized goals for themselves. Runners can choose from among such categories as Do a Race, Learn to Run, Get Fit and Lose Weight when devising a training plan, all of which have been created with the input of professional running coaches. Hoping to run in a 10K? Runkeeper, which is owned by Japanese footwear company Ascis, offers three different race preparation plans to help achieve the results you’re after. It also syncs seamlessly with other general health tracking apps like MyFitnessPal (previously discussed here) or wearables like Fitbit, but so do most of the more popular apps in this category, including Endomondo. Free for the basic version, $13.99 monthly subscription for premium, or $54.99 annually; available in French and English.

Strava

In Swedish, Strava means “to strive” and as such it’s geared toward more intermediate and elite-level athletes. “It's more set up for people who are already motivated,” says Le Bire. “They’ve been through the encouragement and preparation phase that beginners require, and now running or cycling is already a regular part of their lives.” At its most basic, Strava offers all the same tools as Runkeeper and Endomondo — tracking speed, duration, calories, GPS mapping etc. — but given its more elite-level focus, the app’s social component leans toward the competitive. (Quite literally, in some cases, encouraging competition between users who ride or run the same routes.) Post-workout, your results are automatically pooled with stats from other users, from which the app generates leaderboards and crowns a King or Queen of the Mountain. More advanced stats, graphs and functionality are only unlocked with the premium version, such as its “Suffer Score” — a popular feature that rates the difficulty and intensity of your workout in conjunction with a heart rate monitor. Though it is targeted at more seasoned athletes, Strava can still be an asset for relatively active people who’ve just temporarily fallen out of their fitness routine, getting them back on track and with a renewed sense of purpose. Note that the app has been criticized in the past for too cavalier an attitude toward the privacy of user’s data, so be sure to check the settings to ensure you’re comfortable with the information you’re sharing.Free for the basic version, $6.42 monthly subscription for premium, or $76.99 annually; available in French and English.

Zwift

As Le Bire points out, “We live in a country that has long winters, and all these apps we’ve discussed are designed to be used outdoors. Which is tough in the winter, and that's where you can lose a lot of people.” Zwift closes that gap by offering both runners and cyclists an interactive, indoor training experience by connecting a treadmill or one of the latest turbo trainers (a stationary mount for your bike) via Bluetooth or Ant+ to your computer or mobile device. The visually rich app then functions like a multi-player game, enabling users to compete or co-train with friends and even pros in a variety of 3D virtual worlds; it could be the closest you ever come to racing in the Alps, or going for a run amidst Mayan jungle and ruins. The set up can be a little complicated so make sure you have what you need before committing; if you don’t have access to one of the newer smart turbo trainers, many classic turbo trainers will work just as well with the addition of a speed sensor. When Zwift originally launched its bike version in 2015, it took the cycling world by storm, and there’s now even an eSports pro cycling league built around the app. The runner’s version of Zwift is only a year old but has already won thousands of converts. For its efforts, Zwift was recently acknowledged by Fast Company magazine as one of the most innovative companies in the sporting sector. $18.99 monthly membership; available in French and English.

Featured articles