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Technology Turning Distance Running into Social Fitness Experience

11 Jan, 2016

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Whether Athletes and Purists Like It or Not, the Self-Sport is Getting an Audience

Once upon a time, running might have been considered one of the most solitary sports on earth. Even those who climb Mount Everest, out of necessity, do it in teams, whereas the average distance runner is usually alone with the wind (or rain, or sun, as the case may be).

For some, that was running’s appeal. For others, the solitary experience was not desirable. For the latter group, technology has intervened, and turned running into a customizable, trackable, social media kind of experience.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Jennifer Stahl recounts a recent solitary and unconnected running experience in Europe that didn’t feel quite “legitimate.”

“I wasn’t connected to Wi-Fi, which meant I couldn’t track myself with my Runkeeper app the way I usually did,” she wrote. “Without it, I had no way of knowing if I was running as fast or as long as my marathon training plan dictated. I also worried that the friends who followed me on Runkeeper would see that I hadn’t logged anything all week and assume I’d been slacking—both silly things to worry about while enjoying such beautiful scenery, I know. But I also know I’m not the only one who has these anxieties.”

She’s not the only one who worries about these things. According to recent data from Running USA, more than half of runners -- 52 percent -- track their runs with a GPS-enabled device such as a smartphone, fitness tracker, or running watch. These devices, plus the apps that enable them, allow runners to keep track of personal bests and fitness data and share it with anyone who cares to look at it on social media pages (or, it could be argued, lots of people who don't care.) Some have attributed the new “connectedness” of running to the rise in running’s popularity. Over half a million Americans finished a marathon last year.

Perhaps it’s not as much about “bragging rights” as we might think. Some runners claims the apps – and sharing their data on social media – provides them with the incentive to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and tie on the running shoes. Stahl writes that the influx of easily available tracking information has lured people to the sport, and kept them going, by making it possible for anyone to see in real time how it’s affecting their bodies.

“These apps and gadgets allow people of all skill levels to run more strategically—and to stay motivated, which is very likely the biggest hurdle to becoming an after-work endurance athlete,” she wrote.

These technologies are also finding their way into organized races. Race directors recognize that when runners can track their performance in conjunction with official race functions (and then share it on social media), it personalizes the experience and offers free social marketing for the races. It also creates a more valuable experience for attendees at a time when race organizers are looking to attract more paying entrants.

“We see wearable and mobile technology as one of the most exciting things happening in the sport right now,” Michelle LaFrance, the San Francisco Marathon’s marketing director, told Stahl. “It’s driving the democratization of running. When you track yourself and then you share that on social media, you become a force of inspiration in your network. We see a huge correlation between the volume that runners share and the number of runners that they get to come run with them.”

The San Francisco Marathon recently partnered with Runkeeper as well as the step-tracker Fitbit and fitness-app FitStar. Fitbit went so far as to build a custom app for the San Francisco marathon that enabled runners to have a “connected race experience.” Earlier this year, organizers of the London Marathon created an official app that allowed runners (and their friends) to track their progress in real-time thanks to a timing chip worn by the runner that could be tracked through apps such as Garmin Fit and RunKeeper.

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