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Illustration by Alex Cochran

Keeping track: How running apps reshaped my brain in good and bad ways

Running apps have soared in popularity as gyms closed and people sought out alternative ways to stay active. But does keeping track of outdoor experiences take away some of the joy of disconnecting?

SHARE Keeping track: How running apps reshaped my brain in good and bad ways
SHARE Keeping track: How running apps reshaped my brain in good and bad ways

I used to go running in Converse Chuck Taylors. I’d put on my baggy high school gym shorts and sprint out the door. Down the bike path that ran along the north side of my small town, past rolling green hills that turned gold in the summer, into vineyards, along muddy ditches. 

Vehemently anti-sports as a kid, I started running because I liked the way it made my heart pound, how aware I became of my feet hitting the ground. I was no longer human — just another animal in movement. Distance, pacing or technique never entered my mind. And to wear proper shoes or acknowledge that my running could be misinterpreted as exercise were offensive to my contrarian teen self. 

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People engage in physical activity along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Running is still a hobby, and I’m no athlete. But the advent of running and hiking apps have transformed my attitude about outdoor athletic activities from casual to serious. Strava, Nike Run Club, All Trails and Gaia GPS are a few apps that populate my phone’s home screen. 

Now, when I go on runs, not only do I put on a pair of hand-me-down shoes with arch support, I open up Strava, which a friend told me was “social media for athletes.”

Between all the other social media platforms I have to participate in for work and social connections, I was skeptical of joining yet another. But I caved and ended up with not just one but two apps that track how many miles I ran. And I liked the community these apps create. It became a way to feel like I was participating in a group activity, a welcome sensation when most of my activities this year have been solo because of the pandemic.

I started running more — on my lunch break, in the morning before a meeting and sometimes a quick jog after work. I set a goal to run 1,000 miles this year, and the social pressure created by the apps kept me (mostly) on track. 

The pandemic has clearly ignited the popularity — and social need — of these apps. In May 2020, downloads of the app Strava surpassed 30 million per week, and the company saw a 33% increase in activities uploaded — ranging from cycling to cross-country skiing to simply taking a walk. Nike Run Club was downloaded over 15 million times. 

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Nike Run Club app

Apple App Store

A report from RunRepeat, a running shoe review website, and AllTrails, a hiking app that allows users to leave comments and upload their routes, saw a 171.36% increase in the number of hikes recorded compared to 2019.

Unlike the pricey Peloton cycling machines, running and hiking apps present a free to low-cost way to exercise. But they’re also blurring the boundary to a world that we often think of as an escape from social media and screens. 

When I run now, I pull my phone out and glance at how many miles I’ve already gone and check my pace. The benefit is that when I’m feeling tired (which is pretty much all the time these days) I keep going to make sure I hit my goal. But I’m more accountable, not quite the carefree kid leaping and bounding through muddy ditches because it felt good.

Now, I’m running with a capital “R,” keeping pace and recording that run which my friends will see. Writingin the Guardian on how Strava has become religion for many, Rose George succinctly summed up the relationship runners now have with the app: “The fell (hill) runners knew, as millions of people worldwide do, that if it isn’t on Strava, it didn’t happen.” 

She became obsessed with making sure each run was logged, and wondered, “how a middling, menopausal fell runner, who only began running at the age of 41, and will never win much, got to care so much about any of this.”

I, too, wonder how the simple act of movement has become competitive, despite the fact that I will never be good enough to really compete in the sport. My running time absolutely does not matter, but letting everyone know I’m running does.

These apps present the problems that all apps do: a potentially positive technology becomes obsessive, distorting the filter through which we experience the world. 

In a piece on ditching his phone and unbreaking his brain, New York Time columnist Kevin Roose writes about how “the entire phone-industrial complex ... has convinced us that a six-inch glass-and-steel rectangle is the ideal conduit for worldly experiences.” I think about that rectangle a lot, about the privacy that we’ve lost, and how even something as simple as our movement can be relegated to the glow of an iPhone screen. 

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Janik Sundberg goes for a run on the North Rim Trail at Dimple Dell Regional Park in Sandy on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A year into the pandemic, programs like Catherine Price’s “How to Break up With Your Phone,” seem kind of quaint. The world is no longer being filtered through rectangles. For many, the world is rectangles, by necessity. Birthdays, funerals, holiday celebrations, museum visits, exercising, and, to some extent, the great outdoors, all take place in the digital sphere. 

Connection in a time of isolation — through whatever means are safest — is crucial. Many friends and family have confessed that limiting screen time for themselves and their children is a thing of the past. With school and socializing now online, who can blame them? 

Still, the tracking gets tiring. One week, pandemic fatigue and depression hit me particularly hard. I simply couldn’t run and I fell further and further behind my quota in miles for the week. Instead of something I do simply because it makes me feel good, running was turning into another item to be crossed off a list, another experience to be recorded on my phone, a testament to my productivity. 

My feelings about the apps are mixed. I like the community it provides, and working toward a goal. But I’m still not sure about the way they have reshaped running for me.

This week the first warm day in weeks and hint of spring arrived. As temperatures soared into the 60s, I decided to pull out my bicycle for a quick trip to the market. I considered logging the trip in Strava, but instead I decided to leave my phone at home. 

Salt Lake City’s snow-laced mountains stood out against a brilliant blue sky. I pedaled down the street, enjoying the feeling of being outside without a jacket on, and my pocket felt gloriously light. I smiled a little. This was the feeling of being free, in motion, going forward, going anywhere.

And best of all, my phone wouldn’t know.