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Can a Running App Replace PT?

Online running analysis is a new trend emerging in the marketplace. In fact, one of the most popular running magazines, Runner's World, published an article last month called “New App is Like Physical Therapist on your Phone.” The app was developed by well-known running physical therapist (PT) Jay Dicharry and aims to help people improve their running form and strength by using videos and pictures they take of themselves, answering a series of questions and inputting the information into the app. They then receive a running analysis and exercises to improve their running.

When the article came out, I had several emails and text messages from patients and friends wanting me to comment on what I thought. Common questions were: Does it work? Will it help? Will it hurt? Are physical therapists being replaced?

After my initial gut-wrenching thought, “How could a fellow PT sell out and automate such an individualized and personal process as physical therapy or a running gait analysis?" (insert temper tantrum), I took a deep breath and stepped back to think it through (hence this article coming out now instead of last month!).

So…what do I think?

  1. This app is not the devil (despite my initial reaction): This app is simply trying to help people fall in love with running again and stay injury free. It belongs in the same category as other online form analysis apps, running stores doing gait analysis, trainers, etc. who are trying to help people. Our goals are the same. 

  2. This app will likely help a lot of people but primarily will be useful for new runners and people who don’t have a lot of running experience. New runners are at higher risk for injury, especially in the first three years after they begin running. Perhaps this app will catch a handful of new runners before they get into trouble, allowing them to stay out of trouble.

  3. Good physical therapists will not be replaced by this technology, but they will have to embrace it. Technology like this cannot replace “the art of medicine.” It will be able to calculate angles and degrees; it will be able to comment on form and spit out some exercises to help you improve. What it lacks is the ability to integrate your current and future goals as a client, the psychosocial impact of being an injured athlete, your past medical history, the nuances of how your body moves and, most importantly, how it feels. Such things will still have to be done by a physical therapist who not only understands running mechanics and the sport of running but also is a strong manual therapist.

  4. This app will do more good then harm but will inevitably cause some injuries, and when it does people need to know that physical therapy is much more than the experience they had with the app.

  5. People who have complicated running histories and injuries and have been suffering an injury for a few months or longer are likely better suited for an in-person running analysis and/or physical therapy appointment so that nothing is missed. The most frustrating part of being injured is not being able to do what you love.  

So, if you are fairly new to running or are lacing up your running shoes for the first time today, then go for it! Try the new app: you don’t have anything to lose, and it may even help you. However, if you are frustrated by a long-standing running injury or multiple injuries over the years, seek help soon to get yourself back on the road again! Technology can be a motivator, a collaborator and an incredibly useful tool, but it doesn't replace the personal touch and collaboration you will get with a PT. Either way, if you can run I’ll be happy. 


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