Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

Which wearable/app combo is best for an intro to running?

I'm not a runner. I never have been. Back when I was in middle school I even pretended to not speak English so that I could shrug my shoulders when my gym teacher would try to tell me to run instead of walk. No really, that happened.

There was a time I flirted with running, though. Back before the Nike+ Run Club was referred to as Nike+ Run Club I decided to try out the app's running plans. Specifically, I let the app try to get me prepped for a 5K race I was never going to run.

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And guess what? It worked. I was able to run a 5K, and get this: I even enjoyed it. For the first time, I felt the sweet high of running and understood why people do this to themselves.

Then I fell off the wagon.

Now that we're in a different world, filled with wearables and apps with coaching programs, I wanted to try them all out to see which one is the best from a beginner's perspective. Be warned: This is by no means an exhaustive list of your options.

Here's what I tried out in my quest once again to run 5K.

Nike Run Club and Apple Watch

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

My fond memories of Nike's coaching program had me excited to see what it could do when paired with my Apple Watch. Since I last used Nike's app, it's been upgraded quite a bit. Hell, there's even a special edition Apple Watch.

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It was time to dive back in. I chose the "Get Started" running option, setting it at 4 weeks. Things started off easy, with a cool 10 minute run followed by a rest day. Then I was given a benchmark run: 15 minutes of running action spurred on by my own coach urging me on, and one of Nike's running playlists on Spotify giving me some much-needed adrenaline.

Everything was going wonderfully. It felt like the future. Here was a person actively cheering me on, telling me that I can conquer mountains and that I should keep pushing forward. My coach even urged I raise my knees higher, and I did. It felt good.

And then I glanced at my Apple Watch, hoping to get a quick glance of my heart rate and time. But they weren't there. It was just my watch face. I pulled out my phone and saw that things were going great there, but nothing was going on for my Apple Watch.

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

I opened up the Run Club app on the Watch and decided to see what would happen if I started a run. It started a run all right, but not the run I was already on. The progress I was making was not being shown on my smartwatch.

I tried Nike Run Club a second time, this time trying to start my run on my Watch. The problem with that is it didn't select my day's run; I wasn't getting my helpful coach. I was just being tracked for a regular run, alienated from my digital coaching professional. Damn.

It turns out this is an issue with Nike Run Club. For whatever reason, sometimes starting a run on your phone with your running program won't show up on your Watch. That's how it's supposed to work, and you'll even get a notification in the phone app that tells you the exact same thing as a "Pro-Tip."

Here's a Pro-Tip, Nike. When your app's lack of cohesion with the Apple Watch doesn't work, it makes my running experience worse. For someone who doesn't like running - which covers tons of beginners - that's a serious punch in the gut.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Garmin Connect

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

Next up was Garmin, but expectations weren't high. The company and its products are beloved by runners, but many of those runners are already experienced, looking for advanced metrics and stuff that sounds terrifying to newbies, like high intensity interval training.

It turns out it's not easy to get a running program up and going on a Garmin either. Garmin Connect, the app version, doesn't allow you to select things like running plans. Instead, I had to go to the web version of Garmin Connect and choose it there. Once I'd done that, I could sync it to the app, and then download it to the watch.

Once running day arrived, I could just head to the running mode and it automatically popped up. While it takes a bit to set up, once you've done that, everything is simple and just works. Well, maybe it's a bit too simple if you're just starting out as I was - no voice guidance, no integrated music player - but Garmin provides a steady, reliable running experience. This may sound silly, but knowing that Garmin is a big deal for runners made me feel like I was taking myself seriously as one. I wasn't even sporting the celebrated Forerunner 935, I was just rocking a Vivoactive 3.

And oh, newbies beware: Garmin Connect is very upfront about heart rate zones. You'll see things like "LZ2" or "LZ3" on your workout. Don't be afraid, as Garmin also spells out what that means for you in layman's terms, like "easy Run." You won't even have to think about it, so don't get thrown off by it or feel intimidated.

As for the actual plan, Garmin is all-in on using interval training to get you to 5K. Unlike some of the other programs, it doesn't really give you long runs well until the very end. After an initial walk or run (your option) for 15 minutes, you're given a whole bunch of intervals. At the end of each run, there's a brief cooldown period. Despite the lack of audio coaching, it feels like Garmin's plan was developed by an expert runner.

And really, that's the draw of Garmin here. It's not the most polished or advanced coaching option (you can't even call it a coaching option), but it's also the one that felt the most responsible about running. There was no flash here. This was all about me taking my running seriously.

Fitbit Ionic and Fitbit Coach

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

When I think Fitbit, I think of a warm, comforting place where all running amateurs are welcome, and a comforting voice in my ear whispering "40 minutes is a perfectly OK 5K time". This is the device people buy their relatives who want to try to get into fitness. There's even Fitbit Coach, which has a bunch of workout plans for you to try out.

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Unfortunately, Fitbit Coach does not have any plans to get you running a 5K (yet). but there are plans to add it in the future. Instead, it just has a running lesson. And, well, embarrassingly, it didn't even sync to Fitbit's Ionic when I tried it out. The only workouts listed in the Coach app on the Ionic were a 10-minute workout and a 12-minute workout. My selected workout was not available.

So, much like the Apple Watch and Nike Run Club, I had to rely on my phone. I certainly got my music, but the presentation of the audio coach was horrendous. It was I was looking at SoundCloud's web player through mobile Safari. It was ugly and way too big and - for some reason - won't leave landscape mode, even when the phone is portrait. While it presents my interval steps, it doesn't tell me any information about the actual run, like my heart rate or calories.

The coaching itself was fine, but the presentation was severely lacking. Sure, the majority of the time I'm running my phone is in my pocket, tucked away and out of sight, but during interval training you're usually walking for some of it, which for me means that I take out my phone to see how I'm doing.

I couldn't do that here. It would have been nice for Coach to have a better interface, it's the least it could do for not offering a long-term coaching plan for getting to 5K. And oh, the $7.99-a-month Fitbit Coach subscription is definitely not worth it for beginning runners right now.

Samsung Gear Fit2 Pro and MapMyRun

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

I quite enjoy using the Gear Fit2 Pro. It feels like a wearable that understands positive reinforcement can get people moving, rather than guilt-based motivation ("You didn't hit your goal yesterday, do it today!").

Thanks to Samsung's partnership with Under Armour, there's a suite of apps available for the Gear Fit2 Pro. It's nice, but the partnership definitely needs some more time to cook. The same problem that plagued Apple Watch and Run Club is here.

I can start a MapMyRun run on either the Gear Fit2 Pro or the app, but they don't work in unison. Worse, if I start a run on the Fit2 Pro, it's not part of my running program. It's just a regular run. That means I don't get the audio coaching, which in this case tells me what I need to do next.

For example, one of my runs had me walking for 10 minutes, then running for 12 minutes, and then walking another 10 minutes. This was a test run to check my progress. My results would be used by MapMyRun to adjust the rest of the running plan to better get me to my goal of running a 5K.

If I were to do a regular run via the Fit2 Pro rather than adhere to the instructions of the program, it would throw everything off. MapMyRun wouldn't be able to see my progress in the program and make adjustments to better help me hit 5K. The lack of communication between the Gear Fit2 Pro and MapMyRun app is incredibly disappointing. It's a shame because of all the devices I wore, the Fit2 Pro was the most comfortable.

The good thing - if there is a good thing - is that the Fit2 Pro automatically detects workouts. So at least I didn't have the shame of turning on a separate workout just so I could feel like my wearable was doing something of value. So while MapMyRun's $5.99 monthly subscription feels like a good amount for the actual app, and the coaching and everything else about MapMyRun is perfectly fine, pairing it with the Fit2 Pro just doesn't work.

Apple Watch and Runtastic

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

The only reason I turned to Runtastic is because my other option, the Polar M200, was giving me terrible sync issues with my iPhone. I couldn't even set it up. I sure am glad I gave Runtastic a shot though, because it was easily the best coaching experience I've had thus far.

I knew I was in love when I started my program's first run on the iPhone app and it automatically started on my Apple Watch. It was instant, and it completely wiped the frustration of Nike Run Club out of my head. It simply worked.

I've tried so many programs where the wearable and smartphone handoff didn't work, and here it worked without me thinking about it. Wonderful. Second, the coaching here isn't too bad. Okay, so it's not exactly coaching, it's just a robotic voice telling you what you need to do next, but it's fairly comprehensive.

The coach tells you your next step with good punctuality. Say you've got intervals of a minute run and a minute walk, it'll let you know when you've got 20 seconds of your current interval left, then it'll remind you when you have 10 seconds left. Then it'll countdown from 3 to your next interval.

Coaching to 5K: A beginner's chronicle of the best training apps and wearables

And oh, like Garmin, intervals are the name of the game here. While most of the other programs throw longer runs at you to see where you are physically, Runtastic starts you off with simple interval training. Run for a minute, walk for a minute, rinse and repeat.

For a beginner who doesn't have running stamina, this is a godsend. Especially as, over the next couple of weeks, it gradually dials up the intensity. For instance, my second run was two minutes of running with one minute of walking in between. It slowly ramps you up until you run more and more, and by the time you're at the end you're feeling accomplished.

The Nike Run Club plan, which was called Get Started, threw me into a 10-minute run, and then after a day a 12-minute run. Going on those runs, and then being so tired that you have to walk a little bit is discouraging. There's no reward there that makes you feel accomplished, it just makes you feel like you don't measure up. Interval training with smaller intervals give you a lot of little victories, gradually upping your confidence level and endurance at the same time.

Of all the training programs and wearable combinations I tried, Runtastic and the Apple Watch felt like the best fit. It was the most easy to get into, the actual coaching felt rewarding yet challenging and it didn't have me wanting to pull my hair out. It is the most pricy option, coming in at $9.99 per month, but it's also proven to be the best.

Eye of the tiger

I'm not a runner. I never have been. Lucky for me, when technology works like it's supposed to it can enable you to do things you didn't think you could do. In this case, it's giving me the confidence to believe that I could become a runner.

In fact, I even started a Runtastic training plan after I got done with this testing to get a more regular running routine going. You're not going to be hurting when it comes to options, and you shouldn't feel overwhelmed or lost.

Yeah, some of these platforms have training programs that work better than others - and they're all more helpful than Fitbit's (for now). But your biggest obstacle won't be you, it'll be finding a wearable that complements your chosen training program the best.


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