From Disruption to Disruption: The Bright Future of INDOOR Running Applications

For millennia, people have enjoyed the sport of running without exact knowledge of their average pace, fastest mile or for that matter their city, country or world ranking. But times are anew, and tens of millions of current runners use their mobile devices with running applications. Whether indoors or out, the physiological data and professional running assistance that are readily available to runners of all levels today could only have been dreamt of a decade ago, even by well-funded top-tier athletes.

Perhaps less known are the fundamental differences between specific indoor and outdoor running applications. These parallel ‘genres’ were developed separately, produce different content and also employ different business models. Inside the bonnet, indoor and outdoor applications differ in the manner running information is generated: Outdoor apps use GPS for speed and distance while indoor apps use motion sensors and algorithms. The main difference however is in the display, derived from the different ‘pains’ of outdoor and indoor runners:

  • Outdoor runners use applications like Strava, RunKeeper and Nike+ to record their activity and get basic information by occasionally glancing at their GPS based mobile devices or by passively receiving audio signals. This non-distracting interface mindset enables use of technology while remaining fully connected and reactive to the outside and nature itself.

    • Outdoor running apps are mainly freemium.

  • Indoor running applications like RunSocial, Zwift and Fitness Arcadeare different because they require constant focus on an engaging (preferably large) display. The purpose is to physically and mentally disconnect from the real world and blend in to the engaging virtual world developers have created.

    • Indoor running apps are mainly Subscription.

Taking advantage of the availability and popularity mobile devices, GPS based outdoor running applications reached the market ahead of indoor running applications. This delay might also be explained by additional reasons:

  • Treadmills already provided users with the running information they demanded (at the time) like speed, distance and calories burned. Perhaps interestingly, this was the ‘pain’ that facilitated the creation of the original outdoor running applications.

  • While GPS sensors already existed in mobile devices, the technology to sense, digitize, transmit and decipher running information from the treadmill was at its infancy.

It should be mentioned that from their outset, outdoor running applications did accept manually imputed running data from treadmill users. However, manually inputting merely time and speed produces substandard reports compared to advanced second-by-second analysis outdoor runners enjoy thanks to GPS readings. Besides this basic gesture to indoor runners, no significant measures have been taken by mainstream outdoor running applications to engage and attract the hundreds of millions of indoor treadmill runners.

The high-end treadmill era

The first to feel this ‘pain’ and apply solutions were established worldwide treadmill companies such as Technogym and Star Trac. This challenge to ‘stay ahead of the game’ and reinvent the treadmill was complex, expensive and risky. Running data needed to be digitized from the 50-year-old treadmill, complex running algorithms had to be carefully designed and compelling indoor running applications had to be conceptualized and created. As any startup executive will immediately notice this is not a simple task for a single company, but the mission was accomplished by various manufacturers with current products still on the market. Digitizing the treadmill was also inspired by successful digitizing projects of indoor cycling like Peloton and Athlete Lab.

The popular treadmill app era

However successful and tempting, the business model offering a high-end digitized and connected treadmill for the price of $7,000-10,000 is beyond the reach of most home users and even average-sized gyms. To open indoor running applications to the masses, i.e. the hundreds of millions of regular treadmill users, a columniation of two advances occurred:

  • The appearance of affordable Bluetooth devices that digitize and transmit running speed from any treadmill to any indoor running application. a b c

  • A barrage of affordable indoor running apps which feed from any wireless transmitter. a b c

This new cross-market competition disrupted the indoor running application market, shifting hegemony from a handful of treadmill companies to an endless web of independent and hungry content providers and running wearable producers.

It is interesting to note that the running application market immerged only after robust success of independent cycling applications such as a. b c. The reasons why indoor cycling applications led this segment and gained market share might be related to:

  • The default acceptance of outdoor cyclists to mechanical devices vs outdoor runners’ desire ‘to be free’.

  • Keeping pace, acceleration and deceleration while indoor cycling is identical to outdoor cycling whereas on the treadmill controlling speed is cumbersome and un-natural, especially during racing events.

The MoonRun era

Despite been the only indoor running option for 50 years, the inherent mechanical design of the treadmill itself ultimately poses limitations to growth of the indoor running application market:

  • Treadmills are large, heavy, cumbersome, require a room and are relatively expensive (average retail $700 in the US).

  • While running, treadmills impose a high impact to the body therefore not recommended for a large percentage of the population.

  • The monotonous one-directional running imposed by the treadmill is not natural compared to running on a trail outside therefore it either limits developers’ creativity or enforces user dissonance.

  • Even though technologically possible, for obvious safety reasons, gaming developers cannot include fast pace interactive functions while running on the treadmill such as sudden turns, directional jumping, squatting and turning.

These treadmill-related barriers limit the market to evolve and merge with the lucrative gaming industry.

In this respect the novel MoonRun is a genuine game changer. At just over 1kg, it is portable, retails at a fraction of the price of the treadmill, enables healthy uplifted running which reduces body impact, enables natural speed acceleration and deceleration as well as safe and intuitive changing of running directions, jumping and squatting - like outside.

These abilities challenge running app developers to break away from the imposed treadmill limitations and take their users to realistic-virtual exercise worlds limited only by their imagination. Arcade Fitness was the first indoor running app to do so by introducing jumps, turns, obstacles and other gamified surprises to their running games.

The next era. Fusing running with gaming

If Fitness Arcade’s gamified example is followed by the more established indoor running applications such as Zwift and RunSocial, this industry will undertake another major disruption. This trend has potential merge the indoor running application industry to the $200B gaming industry, in which popular games like TempleRun might have a MoonRun option. It is possible that in the future indoor runners will avail to mass competitions, run from home in big real-time events like the New York Marathon )and get an official medal) or run alongside legendary champions in their recorded historical races - we have the technology. As VR and AR technologies develop and become more user friendly and popular, so will indoor running app developers utilize these platforms with unimaginable futuristic engagement options.

New wearables will also influence this industry. Sensors embedded in running attire now transmit information directly to indoor running applications, eventually enabling the addition of individual sports like tennis and even team sports like soccer. Each of the team players might physically be anywhere but in the application they will be together. The soccer team might nominate a real coach and compete in the application ‘league’. The team might then have online fans and even a real referee. In fact, a cool startup called Referanté is already working on the referee component.

To summarize, the grand appearance of popular indoor running applications and novel running devices have the potential not only to ‘make a dent in the world’ but also to fix many personal ‘dents’. Will indoor running aps evolve to become the ‘healthy’ vertical of the $200B gaming industry? Parents, spouses, children and healthcare stakeholders might support this.

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