Patrick McGee photographed 600 metres away from the finish line of London Marathon in central London on April 22, 2018.
Patrick McGee 600 metres from the finish line of the London Marathon © Tolga Akmen/FT

Last autumn I became one of those annoying people who count their steps. Who think about their steps; who ask others about their steps.

I set a goal of 15,000 steps a day. At first I met my target often. But as the novelty wore off, goals made in the morning meant less to me than when I was tired at the end of a day. Just when I was losing motivation, my brother introduced me to a tool that held me accountable and kept me on target. At the end of this column, I’ll invite you to join me on a four-week running challenge using the same technology.

StepBet is an app that forces users to put their money where their feet are. Participants pledge to take a certain number of steps over the course of a few weeks and back it up with $40. Their money is pooled with that of others and if they fail, the $40 is lost. All users who complete the challenge split the pool evenly after StepBet takes a cut.

The financially savvy part of my brain knows this is a terrible proposition. A few work trips get in the way and poof — I lose 100 per cent of my investment. If I win, I get my $40 plus maybe the price of a coffee or pizza.

But this is not about income or investing. It’s about loss-aversion and motivation. Within days of taking the bet, I realised my brain had been rewired: why go to the small grocery store across the park, my new brain said, when the larger one had the added virtue of being several blocks away?

I have tried lots of apps over the years that ping me reminders to run, work out, eat healthily or read. But it is easy to ignore them. Something about losing my cash and effectively paying others who had met their goal made me a slave to the app, in a good way.

Then I discovered a version of the app for marathon training. RunBet compels users to stick to a progressively more difficult running schedule and compete with others over several weeks.

To train for the Paris and London marathons in April, I joined a group of 20 runners gearing up for the Big Sur marathon in California. The 12-week plan demanded we run four times a week, beginning with a total of 26 miles per week and building up to about 40 miles.

On a snowy Sunday in March, the app said I had to run 19 miles. I grudgingly left my house cursing its stupidity, but after I returned home 2 hours and 58 minutes later, I went to bed praising it.

Laura Noonan’s update

The day after the marathon started hideously early (thank you, UBS earnings) but was suspiciously pain free. By day two I was in agony, but day three brought a return to running for the #finishformatt movement. This has prompted thousands of runners across the world to run the final 3.7 miles for Matt Campbell, the London Marathon runner who died after collapsing at the 22.5-mile mark. More than £400,000 has been raised for his chosen charity, the Brathay Trust.

My main focus for May is cross-training (at least four sessions per week), fuelled by a variety of apps that promise to keep me moving even on weeks when I’m travelling, with no gym access. So far on a trip to New York I’ve learned that a 15-minute full-body workout can inflict almost as much pain as the marathon. Who knew?

The schedule that RunBet offers is very similar to many others, such as those from RunKeeper or Nike. The only real difference is they hold my money in escrow and taunt me with it. Sadly, it is the best motivation tool I know.

Two motivation experts, Katherine Milkman and Angela Duckworth, said my experience is pretty typical. These professors at the University of Pennsylvania are using insights from behavioural psychology to oversee a massive experiment on how to build long-lasting habits.

The professors said “commitment devices” such as StepBet, RunBet, or an all-purpose tool called stickK, have been tested and shown to be “incredibly effective”.

They explained that the long-term costs of avoiding exercise are usually delayed, whereas doing the wrong thing — cracking open a beer and bingeing on Netflix — brings instant gratification. What commitment devices do is bring forward the long-term costs of avoiding exercise.

“Now, it’s not just that if you don’t run enough you won’t be ready for your marathon, or that you’ll die at a slightly younger age from physical inactivity. It’s more, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose $40 this week!’” said Prof Milkman. “That’s very concrete, it’s very short-term, and that hurts. So the pain of the mistake actually is moved forward.”

The biggest challenge of commitment devices, she added, “is getting people to sign up in the first place”.

Take up the baton

RunBet have created a challenge especially for readers — you will follow a running schedule that we design: Fit Hacks Run Challenge. Download the app RunBet from the Apple or Google Play stores and find our challenge. Commit $40 and pledge to run two to four times a week for five weeks. Meet the goal and you will take back your $40 — plus maybe a little extra.

If you think our challenge is too hard, try an easier game first to get started. We hope to set more challenges in the future. Too easy? If you run more than is called for, see if you can get to the top of leaderboard. There may be prizes . . .

Tell us about your progress in the comments below.

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