Best running apps: 6 to boost your cardio fitness, according to two fitness writers

Looking to get started with running or improve your pace? A running app could be just what you need.

A runner using one of the best running apps
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Feeling inspired to give running a go? Maybe you’ve already signed up for a 5km, 10km, half marathon, or full 26.2 - read our top marathon training tips. Whatever your ability, our guide to the best running apps will likely help, as they're designed by pros.

Whether you're an experienced runner who wants to know how to run faster or someone keen to learn how to start running from scratch, a running app could be key to achieving your goals. 

Most running apps offer you the chance to track data such as your distance, pace, and elevation. If you link it up to a smart device, such as a fitness tracker, then you can access even more insights: heart rate, calories burned, and even running stride. In essence, a running app can offer up a wealth of information which, when harnessed in the right way, can provide a real boost to your training. 

Problem is - where to start? There are 6,570,000,000 results for "running app" on Google, all promising similar results. That's why team Marie Claire UK have put them to the test for you to tell you which are actually worth the download. Amy Sedghi is an experienced fitness writer and keen runner, having completed the London Marathon this year, and Ally Head is MC's Health Editor and an eight times marathoner. Here, they share their go-to's. 

Don't miss our guides to the best sex apps, best sleep tracking apps, best fitness apps, and best yoga apps, while you're here. 

What are the benefits of downloading a running app?

"Training apps can be great as they provide runners with structure, which ordinarily they may not have," explains Lewis Moses, running advisor for INCUS Performance and lead coach at New Levels Coaching

When training for a specific event, like the London Marathon (which I trained for earlier this year), running apps can also help provide a structure by providing week-by-week breakdowns and helping you see how far you've come (both in terms of overall mileage and in development). In my case, they also were useful for putting things in perspective and reminding me of how much time I had before the big day.

What is the best running app for beginners?

Good question. There are loads - but Moses' go-to recommendation is Couch to 5km.

"There are some great apps out there and for beginner runners or people looking to take up running for the first time, the most popular app tends to be 'couch to 5k' which is a fantastic app and free of charge," he shares. 

But running apps are also beneficial for those with a little more running experience points out Moses: "If they are using a coach, who uses an app, they also have accountability, as well as feedback from experts, which can give runners confidence in what they are doing."  

Best running apps: 6 to download

There is a wide variety of running apps out there, and like everything in life, some will work for you and some won't be your cup of tea. Personally, I like to have a mix of options, from those that help with motivation and running plans, to those where you can delve into the data a little deeper. 

Below are mine and Ally's six favourite runnings apps worth trying out. Some are fitness apps that I also use to track other activities that I enjoy, such as swimming, cycling, hiking, and yoga.

Best running app for beginners

1. Couch to 5K

The hugely popular NHS running plan, Couch to 5km, has an accompanying free app. Its main focus is to guide complete novice into being able to run a 5km comfortably within nine weeks (read our running tips for beginners, here). 

It's also really handy if you've been out of the loop for a while  and are looking to get your fitness levels back up - in my case, I skipped ahead on sessions I knew I could comfortably tick off and started from further within the plan.

What we thought when testing: While some embraced exercises and upped their number of workouts during the pandemic, I went the other way. A keen runner before lockdown, I took a break for a good while, which made getting back into the swing of it a little intimidating. 

The beauty of the app is that it's accessible, easy to use, and completely non-judgmental. If the idea of getting your head around "negative splits" and "fartlek runs" is too much (understandable), then start off with the Couch to 5K, where you'll be gently guided through. There are some celebrity trainers to join you on your runs too, from Jo Whiley and Sarah Millican to Olympian Denise Lewis.   

Ally used it when she first started running, too, and still recommends it to anyone looking to start out.

Cost: Free. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Best running apps for Garmin users

2. Garmin Connect

This is the best running app to go for if you have a Garmin devices. If you're using an Apple Watch, Fitbit or WHOOP band, then there are corresponding apps for those, too. Essentially though, they're created to help you make the most of the data your fitness tracker is collecting during your workouts (and day-to-day life). 

What we thought when testing: As I use a Garmin Swim 2 watch, Garmin Connect is one of the running apps I have it connected to, so I can instantly see my runs once I've finished. As well as making note of measures, such as heart rate, distance and pace, it also records how stressed it thinks I am and how much it reckons I've slept (I look at this data but take it with a pinch of salt). 

During the London Marathon, the Garmin watch was as much my guide as the pacers and runners en route, as I focused on my heart rate to check if I was keeping to the required effort level I was after. I could drill down into the data it collected after to analyse my run, which is helpful for future events.

The thing I really love though about the Garmin Connect app is the dashboard which shows me measurements of my activities at a glance. The training plans are also super useful, especially if you don't train with a running club or a coach but want guidance.

Cost: Free. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Best overall running app

3. Strava

"If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen" is a phrase I hear often, but not necessarily one I pay much attention to. For example, my London Marathon activity still hasn't been uploaded but believe me when I say: I certainly know it happened. 

Having said that, Strava is a great tool for tracking progress, comparing against past efforts (and with others), and working towards goals. Personally, I find it keeps me accountable too, especially when I've shared training goals with friends and I know they'll see my activities. A bit of kudos post-run is always a nice ego boost too. 

What we thought when testing: One really great thing about Strava is that it's an app that's compatible with a number of different fitness trackers. You can also set it up so that it automatically uploads finished activities from the GPS device or watch when you have an internet connection, making it truly effortless. I love that it's one less thing for me to have to do when I get in the door.

There's plenty on the app for those who are competitive: running challenges, collecting virtual trophies, and competing for segments, but it doesn't need to be all about comparing your activities with others. I find breaking down my own runs, looking at how my effort compared km by km helpful, and sometimes, I just enjoy adding pictures and videos (a new feature for Strava) to my uploads.

Ally uses Strava for accurate GPS tracking, a handy training log, and a social-focused way of connecting with other runners, too.

Cost: Free, although a Strava Premium subscription allows access to additional features. It's currently priced at £6 per month, or £4 per month if billed annually. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Best running app for guided workouts

4. WithU

Guided workouts on apps can be excellent, but one thing that can cause an issue is trying to follow along by watching an instructor on screen whilst your head is supposed to be elsewhere. WithU have solved that dilemma though, with their audio-guided workouts. Just remember to grab your exercise headphones, before you head out.

What we thought when testing: There's a good range of structured running workouts on the app, but it's also useful to mix in some strength, conditioning and stretching exercises when you're training. In that respect, this app has it all. 

In total, there are more than 1,000 audio-guided workouts to choose from, including those from a new partnership with Parkrun. As part of the collaboration, WithU have created five eight-week programmes designed to work for runners of all abilities (it also mixes up runs with mobility flows and other beneficial sessions). What's also really cool about the runs is that the real-time GPS tracking allows for WithU's coaches to give you a shout of motivation just when you might need it most.

Cost: Free to download and to use a number of workouts. To access the full range, a membership to WithU Unlimited is required and costs £9.99 for a monthly rolling plan or £79.99 for an annual one. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Best running app for iPhone

5. MapMyRun

MapMyRun delivers everything that you might want to get started, such as being able to track your run on your phone (useful in case you don't want to or can't invest in a smartwatch or fitness tracker), plus it gives you simple feedback, such as distance and duration of activity.

That doesn't mean that it's not a useful tool for more experienced runners. There's the ability to analyse data and adjust training plans in the app, as

What we thought when testing: This is one of the first running apps I used way back when I first laced up my trainers. I like that you can also sync the running app with Under Armour's smart shoes - in other words, send your run data straight from your shoe to your phone.

Cost: Free to download. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Best running app for trail

6. Komoot

If you're into trail running, then Komoot is an app to download pronto. It's a community-focused app, that brings together running routes and 'highlights'  (whether that be a scenic viewing point or pub along the way). 

You can adjust the search for routes, depending on the area, length of run you're after, terrain, and difficulty level.

What we thought when testing: 

I really enjoy using it to discover new off-road routes and for mixing up training by including it in some trail runs. As well as finding maps from those you follow, or from strangers, Komoot also put together collections of routes, such as this one on the top 20 best runs around the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It's also really fun to explore popular routes when you're traveling or in a new area.

Cost: Free to download. To access some features, a subscription to Komoot Premium is required and costs £4.99 a month. Available on both Apple and Android devices.

Happy running. 

Amy Sedghi

Amy Sedghi is a freelance journalist, specialising in health and fitness, travel, beauty, sustainability and cycling.

Having started her career in The Guardian newsroom working with an award-winning team, Amy's proud to have reported on a variety of topics, speaking to a range of voices and travelling far and wide to do so. From interviews on ski lifts to writing up breaking stories outside courtrooms, Amy is used to reporting from a range of locations (she’s even been known to type up a story in a tent).

She also loves being active, spending time outdoors and travelling - with some of her favourite features she’s worked on combining all three. Cycling and eating her way round the Isle of Man, learning to sail on the Côte d'Azur and traversing the Caminito del Rey path in Spain are just some of her highlights.

Covering a diverse range of subjects appeals to Amy. One minute she may be writing about her online styling session with Katie Holmes’ stylist and the next she’s transporting readers to the basketball courts of Haringey where she joined a group trying to lower knife crime in the capital.

While at university, Amy was awarded The Media Society bursary. Following her stint at the Guardian, Amy worked at Google and as well as writing for Marie Claire, she regularly contributes interviews, features and articles to National Geographic Traveller, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, Stylist, Refinery29, Glorious Sport, Cycling Weekly and Rouleur.

When she’s not writing, Amy can be found trying to get through her towering stack of books-to-read, cycling down at Herne Hill Velodrome or looking for the next place to eat and drink with friends.