Whether you're training for a major marathon or just looking to finally get off the couch, fitness apps can give you some great insights into how your training is going and how your body is responding to it.
The trade-off is that, in a lot of cases, everything from your heart rate data to where and when you run, bike and hike, won't be private anymore. Apps including Strava, Nike Training Club and My Fitness Pal all collect your data and have varying practices as to who they share it with or sell it to.
As I explain in this deep dive, if your data ends up in the wrong hands, experts say that could put both your digital and physical security and privacy at risk. But there are a few simple things that you can do to protect yourself.
Whatever you do, don't let the fear of being followed either online or on the street keep you from running. The "runner's high" is real and so are the physical- and mental-health benefits that come with pounding the pavement on a regular basis.
Here are some tips to get you started.
How to stay safe online
For those too addicted to data crunching and kudos to say goodbye to Strava and other run-tracking apps, here are some ways to protect your data and for keeping online predators from crossing over into the physical world.
Think before you hand over personal info. There's no reason you have to use your real name, birthday and other personal details, said Jeff Sizemore, chief governance office for the data security company Egnyte. Read your privacy policies. If an app or a piece of fitness hardware says it's going to share your data with outside companies, don't give them a way to connect it to you.
Lock down your account. Treat apps like Strava the same way you do your mainstream social media accounts. Don't let people you don't know follow you. These apps track and often post your activity and location, which could reveal where you live, work and run to potential attackers. Instead, require fellow runners to ask for permission to follow you, so you can pick and choose who has access to your information. In Strava, you can restrict who can see your profile page and your activities in the "privacy controls" section of your settings.
Hide the starts and ends of your runs. Strava maps can make it painfully obvious where you live. Protect your privacy through the "map visibility" section of your settings. It'll let you hide the starts and stops of your runs, as well as give you the option of hiding your maps completely.
Disable "Flybys." This is a Strava feature that lets you play back your run and see what other users, including complete strangers, you passed along the way and where you crossed paths with them. If that feels more than a little creepy, you can make yourself invisible to those using this feature by setting your privacy controls for flybys at "no one."
Opt out of info sharing. Strava charges subscription fees, but it still wants to share your personal data with outside companies so they can send you targeted ads. If that irks you, turn it off. Strava's "personal information sharing" setting is buried at the very bottom of your "privacy controls," but it includes a toggle switch that will let you revoke permission.
How to stay safe on the streets
Here are a few tips from the New York Road Runners, organizers of the famed New York City Marathon, and others along with some product recommendations from my running team and me for staying safe.
Vary your routes. Running the same routes, the same days at the same times will make it less likely that you'll sleep in and skip a day or fail to meet your mileage goals. But routines can also make it easier for bad people to find and follow you. Instead, change it up and make yourself harder to track.
Running is better with friends. There's more fun and safety in numbers. Lone runners are far more likely to be attacked than any size group. In addition, accidents do happen. If you get hit by a car, run into some aggressive wildlife or just twist your ankle by stepping in a pothole, you'll have someone with you to call for help.
Bring your phone. Yes, they are heavy, but you never know when you're going to need to call for help, said Gene Fay, CEO of the cybersecurity company ThreatX and a 59-time marathoner. Cash and ID are musts too. That said, keep all of it concealed to avoid making yourself a target. Somehow I manage to cram all of that, plus my keys, gels and other running snacks, and a tiny water flask into this stretchy belt.
Leave the headphones at home. A great playlist may help you keep up the pace, but you're also less likely to hear an approaching car or attacker. Opt instead for a clip-on bluetooth speaker that will let you hear everything going on around you.
Lights are a must. If you're running at night, make sure you take along lights and reflective gear. Fay notes that lights that flash are more likely to be noticed. My favorite rechargeable vest features multicolored LED lights and reflective straps that will make it easy for cars to spot you, as well as a super-bright, flashing chest lamp that will make sure you see everything from cracks in the sidewalk to piles of dog poop, icy patches and yes, here in NYC, the occasional rat. Some of my teammates also like these rechargeable shoe lights, though you're going to need reflective gear and body lights to go with them.
Tracking isn't always a bad thing. If you do run alone, stick to well-light, populated areas. Tell someone where you're going, so they know where to look if you go missing. Apps and devices that let friends and family track you, without sharing that data with the world, can be good ideas, Fay said. Be extra aware of your surroundings.