mundane adventures in running
I can’t believe that I used to run without a smart phone. Somehow I was happy not to know how far I’d been, whether I was running negative splits, how my heart rate mapped onto elevation. I have vague memories of trying to run round Hampstead Heath with a constantly jumping Sony Mini Disc player.. or was it a CD Walkman?
It’s seldom that I’ll go out without a phone. The two naked races I’ve completed recently are the only times I’ve run sans technology this year (a bumbag for my phone would have spoilt the effect, and I think would have looked strangely pervy).
So I’ve become fairly reliant on apps for running. When I’m not using Citymapper to find a sensible way home, there are two which dominate: Runkeeper and Spotify.
Runkeeper is my go to tracking app. I’m not sure how I ended up using this one, but Strava is too competitive focused, the Nike one seems a bit gimmicky, Endomondo is charming but glitchy. Same goes for Spotify, I’m not sure why I ended up choosing it over its competitors. Perhaps it’s because it’s a friendly Swedish company and not a Silicon Valley monster, perhaps it’s fond memories of slavishly creating a sleng teng riddim playlist when they first launched.
I don’t always like music while I’m running. Sometimes I find that listening to music helps block out the sounds of the city so I can concentrate on my run, sometimes I find it helps me pass time or measure out 180bpm cadence. Other times music is just a distraction; increasingly I run without headphones. My music free runs tend to be faster and more evenly paced.
My choice of music when running is difficult. For long runs I often download whole albums I’ve not heard, and listen to them in order: a kind of Experience New Music Attrition, like getting stuck in a lift with Mary Ann Hobbs (*shudder*). Then there’s my random long run playlist, which is really random, and curated with a view to taking the listener through a journey of musical moods, to constantly surprise and to keep the listener upbeat and energised. Of course, I also have a couple of 180 playlists, intended to sync with my footfall and help my form (180 is the perfect cadence for most runners, more here, and ad infinitum elsewhere on the internet).
These last ones, 180 playlists, are difficult: Spotify doesn’t seem to note BPM in song details, so I rely on cherry picking music I like from other people’s 180 playlists. It works OK, but it does mean trawling through Evanescence and Train to get to anything listenable.
There’s no perfect solution right now, so I was excited that my running favourite apps had both introduced new features to help improve the music-whilst-running experience: Runkeeper DJ, and Spotify Running. Both promise pretty much the same thing
“Spotify Running gives you a non-stop mix of music you love. Every song matches you. Every beat drives you on.”
“With Runkeeper DJ, you can stop worrying about producing the perfect running playlist — we’ll take care of that for you! In fact, we’ll create playlists for you that match your exact running style.”
I already pay for Spotify Premium, so I tried that one out first. Connected to WIFI in the comfort of my home it was awesome. It lets you set the tempo to 5 bpm increments, which is pretty much exactly what i want (175 bpm for a warm up, 180/185 for the workout). So, in the comfort of my home, amazing. But I don’t tend to run that much in my own home, except when I’m trying to chase my children out of the door and to school. Out and about, I don’t have enough data allowance or a good enough uninterrupted 4g connection to stream on the go. I just can’t stream music when I’m running, which means this feature is pretty much completely redundant for me. I’d be intrigued to know the stats on this. I can’t believe that I’m that peculiar in that I don’t use 4g to stream music.
It would be easy to fix the Spotify problem by letting users download BPM specific playlists based on My Music Recommendations. But right now, the feature tantalisingly close to being amazing, but sadly is pretty useless.
Next onto Runkeeper DJ. I’d been planning to upgrade to Runkeeper Go (their premium version) for a while, and Runkeeper DJ seemed to be the thing I was looking for. The promise is that Runkeeper picks songs stored on your phone and can match music to your run. Great. Runkeeper integrated with Spotify ages ago (for a pretty useless feature which lets you control Spotify through Runkeeper, because of course you want to use some shoddy Runkeeper UI for controlling music rather than the perfectly serviceable UI Spotify have invested loads in perfecting), so my guess was that Runkeeper DJ would be able to scan the 10gigs of Spotify downloads I already had on my phone so I wouldn’t have to stream. Of course it doesn’t. No, instead Runkeeper DJ uses iTunes library. This is mental. In a world where people are moving to streamed music services (even if they download that music) to produce a new exciting feature which is based on the paradigm of saved and stored, bought and owned music is bizarre. Still, Runkeeper DJ found the only music stored in my iTunes library and programmed accordingly for my run. It played U2’s Songs of Innocence. For the whole run. Fuck.
Again, it seems like there’s an easy fix: Runkeeper recognise that people use Spotify, so make Runkeeper DJ talk to my saved Spotify song library.
So both these functions rest on a misconception about how users behave, what they do. Spotify doesn’t understand that a lot of us only have 2gig of data a month and/or a patchy 4g connection on our long runs. Runkeeper don’t understand that the world is moving away from an ownership model where we have MP3s stored in our phones and to streaming services. Integration of the (pisspoor) Tidal streaming service would make more sense than iTunes integration.
I really hope that either a) I am being an idiot and I just haven’t worked out how to use these things properly, or b) Spotify/ Runkeeper fix the problems so I get my money’s worth from my subscriptions.
In the mean time, frustrated running music listeners, here are some things you can get up in your headphones right now:
A pretty cool 180 DJ Mix (very cheesy, but wonderful)