The Los Angeles Marathon is in March, just about four months away; Rock & Roll San Diego is in June, or just over six months away; and, personally, I’m sweating Boston, which is about five months out. Around this time of year, a lot of us are looking at the long winter training runs ahead with some trepidation.
A coach would be great—but who can afford a coach, or even e-coaching sessions? Instead, I decided to look for a digital coach among the popular cell phone apps on the iTunes and Google Play stores. Software developers have hired some of the most well-respected coaches in marathon running today, and you can access their coaching advice through your phone, paying very little for the privilege.
Here’s basically how they work: you launch the app, and pick from a variety of workouts tailored to your interest and ability. During the run, your "coach" tells you how fast to run and how far. For instance, on an interval day, the app might say, “Run at a 7:15 pace for the next three minutes.” It tells you when you’re done with the interval, offers GPS splits, and prompts you when it’s time to start the next interval.
We tested over a dozen coaching apps, and they varied widely in the quality of advice. But several of them would be a valuable training tool in achieving long-term goals. In addition, they’re probably your only shot at free advice from an Olympic-caliber coach.
Best All-Around Coaching App: Adidas miCoach
Adidas offers seven different marathon training plans, designed by the excellent Greg McMillian. McMillan’s approach is to help runners “feel” the right pace without a heart rate monitor, and the app gives you three levels of intensity—green for easy runs, yellow for fast tempos, and red for when you need to bring the donkey sauce. Overall, the app seems most likely to meet a variety of runners at their individual level, and to teach them how to move their training forward.
Greg McMillan, a renowned exercise physiologist in Flagstaff, Arizona, who coaches Olympians and competitive athletes.
A generic cyber female delivers the coaching directives.
Free; for iPhone and Android.
Best Coaching App for Power-Song Junkies: Nike+ Running
BEST FOR POWER-SONG JUNKIES
The integrated music player on Nike’s app slings adrenaline mixes like none other. While you follow Alberto Salazar's training plans, the app tracks your progress and announces your splits with canned voices. (Too bad you can’t get the voice of the notoriously grouchy Salazar himself, which would probably say things like, “What the $#!*?@? You haven’t hit any of the splits.”) Sadly, Salazar’s coaching methods are reduced in this application to a one-size-fits-all plan. It’s too generic for anyone to implement well.
Arguably the greatest American running coach alive (cf. the accomplishments of American track runners in London last summer).
Celebrity athletes offer peppy encouragement; generic computer voices announce splits.
Free; for iPhone and Android.
Best Coaching App for Raw Beginners: Runmeter
BEST FOR RAW BEGINNERS
The Apple-only Runmeter app has a limited number of training plans and only one for would-be marathoners. That said, the 20-week marathon program is excellent prep for non-runners trying the event for the first time. The walk-run regimen tops out at 30 miles of total running for the week, and emphasizes taking it eeeeeeasy.
Various professional coaches.
A huge range of voices in four different languages, including Indian and Australian-accented English.
$4.99; for iPhone only.
Best Coaching App for Track Rats: Runkeeper
BEST FOR TRACK RATS
The Runkeeper app offers four good marathon plans for everyone from beginners to advanced runners. The plan starts 16 weeks before race day, and you follow it five days a week. Total running per week is between 35 and 60 miles. Using it is simple: Fire up the app and choose one of the suggested workouts. For instance, one day the coach has you doing repeated 800s with time targets for each. The rigor of the program is great—so long as you don’t lose your lunch on the track.
Jeff Gaudette, a former elite with Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, has a 2:22 personal record in the marathon.
The stentorian computer voice is at turns bossy and disparaging. Maybe not someone you want to spend the next 800 miles with.
Free; for iPhone and Android.
The Also-Ran Coaching App: Runtastic
The well-designed Runtastic app offers four training plans, from novice to competitive. The coaching advice is nuanced and thoughtful, helping runners understand the right pace depending on the goals of the day. But we found the huge ranges for per-mile pace too vague to follow.
Dieter Baumann, an elite 5K runner who won gold for Germany in the 1992 Olympics and silver in 1988.
The female English-language option is breathy and enthusiastic, like a Mean Girls-era Lindsay Lohan.
Marathon coaching plans, $24.90; for iPhone and Android.
Best Coaching App for Monied Runners: MapMyRun
FOR RUNNERS WITH MONEY TO BURN
For serious money, you can download a training plan and have personal access to experts from the New York Road Runners club, who will help you prepare for the New York City Marathon next November. Despite flaws with the MapMyRun software as a coaching app, the live human touch brings the technology forward.
A team of physiologists and competitive runners from The New York Road Runners club.
A somewhat creepy software bot gives splits.
Plans range from $49.99 to $999; for iPhone and Android.
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