The Evolution of Exercise: How Apps Like Runna Are Shaping the Future of Fitness
In 2009, two entrepreneurs named James Park and Eric Friedman began a revolution in public health and fitness. That year saw the launch of their company, Fitbit's, first product: the Fitbit Classic, a wearable device that could be worn as a wristband or attached to clothing, that would measure the wearer’s steps, distance travelled and calories burned.
By quantifying (and to an extent gamifying) a simple metric that has a big impact on fitness — the number of steps we take in a day — Fitbit started a revolution in fitness and public health. The device made two important concepts mainstream: firstly, that anyone can measure and monitor simple metrics that impact our health; secondly, that technology in the form of apps and wearables could help.
Fast forward fourteen years and health and fitness apps have become huge business. The global market is estimated to be worth over $8bn in 2023; fitness apps, covering a huge range of types and functions, attracted nearly 400 million unique users in 2021, according to Business of Apps.
Apple Fitness & Apple Watch
Fitbit’s success has generated a gravitational pull that has pulled in some of the biggest names in technology. Apple launched its own Fitness app in 2014 to connect with its wearable device, the Apple Watch, with Google bringing out its own competitor, Google Fit, in the same year.
This success is circular. Fitbit and other fitness apps made their running jump into the mainstream largely thanks to the proliferation of apps that the iPhone and App Store ushered in.
Similarly, the Apple Watch has brought fitness apps into a new era. By collecting complex biometric data, the Apple Watch was a trailblazer in what has now become a proliferation of apps and wearables that can track factors like sleep levels, heart rates, blood pressure and skin temperature.
Indeed, Apple’s suite goes beyond fitness and into healthcare. Apple Watches can measure irregularities in heartbeat and improve mental health, as well as automatically call emergency services if the wearer is injured in a crash.
For Ben Parker, Co-founder and Head Coach at Runna, one name dominates the history of the industry.
“The fundamental one is Strava. It is the social media of running and fitness,” Ben, a former professional running coach (before becoming a tech entrepreneur) told Oho Group.
“It’s such a great way to share your journey, motivate your friends and keep yourself accountable with other people.”
Unlike other social media companies, however, Strava doesn’t rely on hooking its users into spending hours scrolling and viewing adverts. For 99% of users, the service is free, and the company monetises the 1% of users that subscribe to its premium service.
“It’s the one social media business in the world that is for good,” says Ben.
As Ben is such a fan of the app, Strava of course syncs with Runna. “You’re showcasing the workout you’re doing on Runna in your Strava feed,” says Ben. “The motivation is so key.”
As with any social media app, however, it is possible to over-share. In 2017 Strava uploaded a map of all the exercise routes ever run with the app — unwittingly revealing the location of several secret US military bases in doing so.
Besides Strava, Ben is a huge fan and personal user of Garmin.
“I think Garmin are the best of the fitness smartwatches,” says Ben. Along with Apple Watch, Garmin offers detailed breakdowns of users’ biometric data during workouts. “It’s the one that I wear on my wrist everyday.”
For runners in particular, Garmin makes it easy for users to track their pace and distances. This is something Ben strongly advocates runners to do as it enables them to monitor their progress over time.
Garmin combines sophisticated GPS tracking with the full range of biometric data inputs, including Pulse Ox — which measures the oxygen content of the blood being pumped around your body — to create a suite of highly sophisticated suite of fitness wearables.
Ben built Runna in order to scale the service that he was providing to runners, one at a time, to a format that could serve thousands of people.
“We want to genuinely help people. It all comes back to building the very best training experience for any runner.”
New users enter certain key data into the platform, such as their age, gender, and importantly their running goals, and Runna’s software then generates a bespoke training platform for them, following the same formula that Ben would when starting to coach a new runner.
“We want our workouts optimised around the data from your Garmin or your Whoop band. If you slept badly, we need to be adjusting your training. If you have a menstrual cycle, it may be important to adjust your training.”
This level of input, says Ben, is something that elite Olympic athletes from developed countries, with teams of dedicated sports scientists around them, might experience a handful of times in their career. Runna’s ambition is to bring this to everyday users.
The data that Runna accumulates from its 47,000 users and 2 million completed workouts feeds into a data model that can improve the coaching plans it provides in future. The theory underlying training plans at present is based off coaches who might have coached one thousand people; bringing apps like Runna to a wider audience provides exponentially more data to improve future recommendations.
Despite the evolution of this industry, Ben feels that the future holds yet more exciting innovations.
“People are so much more comfortable and familiar wearing wearables tracking their sleep, their menstrual cycle, their steps, their weight, their water intake — all of this is incredibly useful,” he says. In the future, Ben expects apps to continue to become more personalised to individual goals and workouts as their data bank expands.
Additionally, the way in which Runna delivers workouts to its users is likely to continue evolving. There are plans to bring Ben’s voice directly to the runners he is “coaching” through the app by using AI to deliver instructions from him mid-workout.
“You could be on a run, we could sense your cadence from your phone. We could then provide guidance such as ‘You need to think about increasing your cadence. I’m going to give you a metronome to help you run to the right beat at the right time’”
More About Runna
New users of Runna are offered a one week free trial to experience the service. However, readers of this blog post can sign up for a two week free trial using the code OHO, or by following this link.
If you want to work in sports apps — speak to firstname.lastname@example.org to hear about opportunities to join the growing tech team.