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Mobile Apps

Hit the track with these running apps

These GPS-tracking apps can tell you exactly how far you run and act as a training coach.

Whether you're training for a marathon or just want to get moving more, your phone can be an excellent coach.

Packed with features and GPS tracking, today's top running apps are great tools both for novice runners who need motivation and want to keep tabs on their progress, and for seasoned athletes who want to stay in peak shape. The best titles have been around for several years and keep getting better, with new features and improved designs. Below, I spotlight four choices for every kind of runner, from beginner to pro.

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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

RunKeeper

Free; iOS and Android

RunKeeper is the granddaddy of running apps; it's one of the oldest and most popular, for plenty of good reasons. It nicely combines activity tracking and social features, giving you a place to record your workouts and connect with your friends who are fellow runners.

The app can record more than 20 activities, including cycling, skiing, swimming and running. The GPS mode follows you as you run outside in any environment, while stopwatch mode is useful for workouts on a treadmill or stationary bike.

You can get audio cues as you run, telling you how far you've gone or for how long, which can be a helpful coaching tool. At the end of each workout, you'll get a summary of how you did, with total distance, total time, average pace and a map of the route you took.

RunKeeper's paid Elite plan gives you even more information, including statistics on your performance over time, training plans for different goals and workout comparisons. It costs $9.99 per month, or just $40 per year.

Other apps that fall under the same umbrella as RunKeeper are Runtastic and Endomondo -- both are great alternatives.

Where it excels

  • RunKeeper's friendly design helps you get started quickly.
  • The programmed workouts guide you on interval runs or help you stick to a certain pace.
  • The Split feature shows your average pace for each mile.

Where it falls flat

  • Each new activity you record gets shared with your friends in a notification by default. You'll need to turn this off if you don't want to broadcast your activities.

Best for: The average runner who wants to track workouts and connect with friends.

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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Strava

Free; iOS and Android

Built with cyclists in mind, Strava is also a handy app for runners. Like RunKeeper, it uses GPS to track your runs, but Strava offers more data and different kinds of insights.

What makes Strava so great is the community-created segments -- stretches of trails and city roads mapped by other users. Segments can be several miles long or a few hundred meters, and you can run along them to compete against other users for the fastest times. Longer segments also make great routes to follow if you need inspiration.

The app can record your runs in real time and give you a summary of your workouts, just like RunKeeper. Strava's monthly challenges keep you engaged in your workouts, as you strive to climb a certain total elevation or run a 10K in a set amount of time.

Strava's website plays nice with the app, and there you'll find extra features, like logging your running shoes so you can keep of track of when you need to replace them. You can also create new segments there and use the robust route maker to plot new running routes in your neighborhood.

Where it excels

  • Strava's segments are a unique way to track your performance against other athletes.
  • The well-designed challenges offer extra motivation.

Where it falls flat

  • The app's data-driven approach can be overwhelming for casual runners.
  • Goal-tracking is available only to paid users.

Best for: Runners who crave more data on their performance and want to virtually compete with others.


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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Couch to 5K

$1.99; iOS and Android

What if you've never run a mile in your life, or you've been off the track for too long? Try out the Couch to 5K program, which, as the name implies, gets you from zero to 3.13 miles in a few months. There are many apps that follow this program, but my favorite is Active Network's Couch to 5K app for iOS and Android.

The program starts out slow, with walking and jogging intervals, and works you up to running a 5K in one go. Having used the program, I can say it's a great way to ease into running consistently. The app has all of the workouts you need over the nine-week program.

Each workout has audio cues telling you when to walk, jog and cool down, and sprinkles motivational messages into your run. GPS tracks your distance and plots your run on a map. When you finish a workout, the app shows you how much time and distance you spent walking and jogging, a helpful metric for comparing your speed from one run to the next.

Where it excels

  • With the app's program, you don't need to do any work to start a new workout; just press a button and go.
  • The progressive workouts can help you get started easily, no matter your current fitness level.

Where it falls flat

  • In my testing, the app's social features wouldn't work -- I couldn't add friends in the app or even see a friends list.
  • The audio cues can be too quiet to hear over music, so you'll need to experiment with the sound levels.

Best for: Beginners who want to start running and need a plan. Also for anyone who wants to work toward running a 5K race.


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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Zombies, Run!

Free; iOS, Android and Windows Phone

For a quirky, entertaining way of getting in shape there's Zombies, Run! Half running activity tracker, half audiobook, the app sends you on a zombie-filled adventure while you exercise.

You are tasked with escaping zombies and delivering supplies to people defending their town, and audio transmissions help guide you along the way. You run to progress through each mission, gathering supplies, delivering them and occasionally outrunning the walking dead, while listening to the story continue. The app tracks your movement with GPS, and there are modes for running indoors on a treadmill or using an elliptical.

You can toggle zombie chases off and on, and the app can use playlists for music in between the transmissions. Zombies, Run! is now a freemium app, which gives you the first four missions for free and the opportunity to unlock new missions each week. If you can't wait, you can unlock all of the 200-plus missions for $2.99 per month or $19.99 per year.

For a more deliberate training program, there's also Zombies, Run! 5K, which has 5K-specific workouts.

Where it excels

  • Post-run activities keep you in the game: you can build up the town with resources you collect in your workout.

Where it falls flat

  • Each story mission lasts 35 minutes or 1 hour, and and you'll need to complete that time to move onto the next. However, other modes let you run or walk for less time.

Best for: Runners who want a fun distraction with their workouts.