Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Guest post: How accurate are running apps anyway?

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Finally, someone took me up on my request to write a blog post for me. Kidding. I was a little skeptical when I received a request for a guest post from someone I didn’t know and who’s background wasn’t nutrition. However, Sara took the spirit of my blog and applied it to running (my second love). I hope you all enjoy her post as much as I did!

Running apps for smartphones have been gaining momentum ever since they sprung from the starting block. Runners everywhere are strapping their phones to their arms and keeping track of distance run, pace and calories burned.

Or so they think.

How accurate are these apps, anyway? Can they really be as precise as a GPS watch?

A professional run coach named Matt Johnson decided to find out for himself. Using a running app for a smartphone, the same app for an Android phone, a GPS watch and a bicycle computer with a wheel sensor, Matt set out on a five-mile bike ride. The wheel sensor was the controlled variable of the experiment as it measures the actual ground covered by the wheel and is the same method used to measure race routes by USA Track and Field. He also conducted the same test while running the Chicago Marathon (obviously without the wheel sensor).

The results of the experiment showed the GPS watch was considerably more accurate than the running apps. The running app reported he ran 27.92 miles during the marathon, over a mile and a half more than what he actually ran!

So what are the risks? An inaccurate measure of your distance traveled will equate to an inaccurate measure of your pace. This will give you a false sense of achievement—or lack of achievement—and will lead to quite the wake-up call on race day when you suddenly can’t keep the same pace on a measured course.

A phone GPS differs from a running watch GPS in both design and function. A phone GPS device has a weaker signal and is designed more to find a general location and not a precise, pinpoint location like that of the stronger signal devices found in GPS watches. GPS devices in phones are generally smaller because they need to compete for space and signal strength with all of the other inner workings of a phone.

The GPS devices in a phone also perform differently than those of running watches. In a phone, the GPS does not track continuous movement but rather records timed snapshots of your location, kind of like a store security camera. The distance between the snapshots is then calculated as a straight line so movements like turns or zig-zags are not recorded. While it may seem minimal, these lost steps can really add up over the course of a long run.

Different phones and different apps all have different algorithms of calculating the distance traveled. You might be using one particular kind of phone or app and running alongside your friend, who has a different phone or app. The numbers produced at the end of your run will likely vary greatly.

So running watches are the way to go? Actually, a combination of both will give you the most out of your run. While watches may be more accurate, phones can provide additional data that many watches cannot.

There are GPS running watches on the market that sync up with smartphones to give you the best of both worlds. The watches will provide you with the pinpoint accuracy of your route while the phone provides additional data that can be analyzed and stored. As this article on Verizon Wireless explains, the phone can act as your own personal running coach. You can receive real-time coaching tips based on your pace and heart rate. Music will help keep your tempo. The data recorded by your watch will be instantly transferred to your phone to see your stride length, route map and more. Training plans will be altered for you based on your progress. There are running watches that are compatible with Android, iPhone and Windows devices.

So while a running watch provides greater accuracy of your run, smartphones provide a valuable source of additional data. Combine the two and let them run stride by stride.

About the author: Sara Upton is a freelance blogger and distance runner living in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She enjoys long runs on the beach with her golden retriever, Sally.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

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