Best running apps for beginners: couch to 5K, the appy way

Looking for a chance of pace? The best beginners' running apps will get you off the sofa and onto the pavements

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There are plenty of incredibly advanced running watches for expert pavement pounders, but the best beginners’ running apps provide an arguably even more valuable service: giving you the tools and the encouragement you need to lace up those trainers and hit the road, when your running experience to date ended with the egg-and-spoon race at school.

As long-forgotten 80s electro-pop ironists the Flying Lizards so rightly observed, the best things in life are free. But you can give them to the birds and the bees: we want running apps; that's what we want.

What are the best running apps?

Free-to-download running apps such as Endomondo and Runkeeper make it to our top five for offering a huge range of functionality and asking nothing in return, so as long as you have a phone or smartwatch that can handle them, and a decent pair of running shoes, there’s no barrier to getting started.

Others might cost a little more, either up front or to unlock more levels or features, but are invariably worth it for their own unique charms. Couch to 5K is our overall winner for its beginner-friendly pacing, advice and encouragement, well worth the price of a daily coffee if you’re not sure where to start. Zombies, Run! is free to download but if you find yourself getting addicted – highly likely – you can pay to unlock more levels.

Other than that, there’s not much left to do but read about what makes each app suited, or indeed unsuited, to your needs. Some have the best mapping, some have an accountability-boosting social aspect, and some allow you to integrate your own music with the workout or storyline (while you’re at it, why not grab a pair of the best running headphones to complete your setup?) so keep reading below to find what works for you. 

1. Couch to 5K

Tried, tested and loved by all, especially beginner joggers

Specifications
Best for: Absolute beginners
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: No
Size: 109.2MB
Reasons to buy
+Really great for beginners+NHS-approved training routine
Reasons to avoid
-A bit chirpy 

The ultimate method for turning couch potatoes into running machines, the Couch to 5K app gets our top spot as the best running app for beginners. With its gentle learning curve, it’s ideal for anyone who’s never tried jogging before. 

The programme is intended to be completed over nine weeks, in three 30-minute bursts a week – that’s under three months to get you ready for your first 5k, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. It simply alternates running, walking and resting from the beginning, but ramps up the exercising intervals and decreases the rests as your fitness improves. With thousands vouching for its effectiveness, Couch to 5K is a great, accessible way for anyone to develop a love of running.  

2. Endomondo

The chatty free app giving others a run for their money

Specifications
Best for: Audio feedback
Available on: Android, iOS and Windows
In-app purchases?: Yes
Size: 201MB
Reasons to buy
+Audio coaching towards your goals +Social with real-time pep talks
Reasons to avoid
-Won’t teach you how to run 

Endomondo tracks your vitals – distance, speed and calories burned as you go, so you can keep an eye on your progress while running. That's not unusual, but it has an edge.

The function that puts it just ahead of its many, very similar rivals is its added audio capabilities. You can pair it with earbuds for in-run feedback, audio coaching that motivates you towards a goal you set. You can also receive real-time pep talks from absent running buddies. 

3. Runkeeper

Always keep one eye on home with this GPS-enabled running app

Specifications
Best for: Setting goals
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: Yes
Size: 157.2MB
Reasons to buy
+Real-time stats+Great GPS
Reasons to avoid
- No audio

Aside from the absence of audio feedback, Runkeeper is pretty similar to Endomondo. It’s free to download, gives your distance, caloric output and speed as you run, and it gives you the option to post your runs on social media, should you choose to be that type of runner. 

It has two big USPs: GPS tracking, so that you can keep an eye on your route and know how to get home even if you go astray; and a healthy working relationship with runkeeper.com, which allows you to access your stats online and keep abreast of your progress. 

4. Runtastic

Loads of metrics, loads of sports

Specifications
Best for: Not just running
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: Yes
Size: 177.7MB
Reasons to buy
+Works with other sports+Measures loads of elements
Reasons to avoid
-Web interface leaves a lot to be desired 

Yep, another app with ‘run’ in the title, but distance tracker app Runtastic isn’t just another journeyman pace-maker. 

While it’s obviously its capabilities as a running app that have earned it its place in our list, it’s really useful for those who are building up their confidence in other sports too, allowing you to keep track of your time, distance covered, speed, calories, elevation and even more across sports from running to hiking to cycling to skiing. 

Reviewers loved how good the GPS tracking is without data, and the real-time updates on average and current pace, distance, and duration. The simple, accessible history screen is another nice touch. 

5. Nike+ Run Club

Join for the coaching, stay for the workouts

Specifications
Best for: Personalised coaching plans
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: No
Size: 205.8MB
Reasons to buy
+Encouragement from audio coach+Set more complex challenges
Reasons to avoid
-Some had trouble with updates 

The Nike+ Run Club app’s interface is incredibly slick, and is probably enough on its own to get you more excited to go running, just like a snazzy pair of the brand’s kicks gives you a push to go out and show them off. 

It’s not all about looks though, and the payoff for beginner runners is truly ace. It not only allows you to set challenges for yourself on each outing, but over time periods – for example running five miles over the course of a week – and the excellent audio coaching is there for encouragement too. 

6. Map My Run

See where you’ve been, and where you could be going next

Specifications
Best for: Improving performance
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: Yes
Size: 251.9MB
Reasons to buy
+Voice coaching+Discover and track using maps
Reasons to avoid
-Best features reserved for premium 

Under Armour’s Map My Run is ideal for those who appreciate a bit of encouragement and like to have things laid out visually. As you’d expect, it tracks and maps each of your runs and gives you stats to help you improve, but much like Endomondo it also gives you voice prompts through your headphones as you go about your workout. 

It’s the great GPS tracking, even on the free version, that sets it apart though, and you can even use that superior mapping to discover new run routes in your neighbourhood. 

7. Zombies, Run!

The incentive-giving app for reluctant runners

Specifications
Best for: Entertainment
Available on: Android and iOS
In-app purchases?: Yes
Size: 301.1MB
Reasons to buy
+Creative incentive to run+Great audio story
Reasons to avoid
- App is pretty processor intensive 

If you’re a touch cynical about starting running, an excellent incentive might be being pursued by zombies, who wish to eat you. 

Described as 'Couch to 5k… with zombies,' this entertaining app takes you on an 8-week training programme while also prepping you for the inevitable dawn of the dead. Don your headphones, and it’ll give you clear instructions on when to run, walk, jog and stop to stretch, while combining your workout with a zombie-themed audio story in which you, as Runner 5, help to find supplies and protect your outpost from the shuffling hordes. 

Gamification of ostensibly mundane activity seldom comes more perfectly realised than this.