Gentler Streak quieted my evil brain goblin so I could run in peace


Six weeks ago, I was having a tough time sticking to my running routines and goals. Physically, I was mostly fine. Mentally, the thought of running — a sport I usually love — made me roll into a blanket burrito and never leave my bed. I started hating myself, but none of my usual fitness apps and trackers were helping. After building a weeklong streak, I couldn’t muster the energy to get out of bed one Saturday. I broke it and spent the next day wallowing in guilt and self-pity.

Fed up, I went digging around the internet and ended up downloading the Gentler Streak app.

Gentler Streak is what it sounds like. It’s an iOS and Apple Watch app with a more compassionate approach toward building a fitness habit. You can set an activity status: active, on a break, sick, and injured. Selecting one of the latter three won’t break your streak. Instead, your activity is represented on an “activity path,” which is a visualization for your overall training load. There’s educational reading about nutrition, exercise, rest, and the interplay between all three. Each day, you open the app, and it’ll give you a nudge. If you’re super well-rested, you might get told to push it a little. If you’re tired, you’ll get reminded that resting is good, actually. And if you really don’t know what to do, you can tap a “Go Gentler” button on the Apple Watch to see a series of suggested exercises based on activities you like, with recommended durations and intensity levels.

There’s a lot I love about all this. First and foremost, I enjoy that it incorporates breaks and “failure” into your eventual success — and doesn’t judge you for it.

Even phrasing it as “choosing to take a rest day” helps trick your brain into feeling more intentional.
Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

That lack of judgment is what I needed. Eleven years into my running journey, I’d stumbled into my worst-ever slump. I was caught in a vicious cycle of falling off the horse, getting back on, and then getting angry whenever my efforts were less than perfect. A silly walking app helped with reframing my all-or-nothing mindset. The problem is, inside my brain resides an evil hypercritical goblin that will find and dwell in every tiny failing while minimizing all my successes. So what if a fun walking app was getting me out and about? Walking isn’t running. So what if I ran twice a week for a few weeks? You used to run four to five times a week, easy peasy.

I know I’m not supposed to listen to the evil brain goblin, but there are times when life rudely hands it a mighty powerful megaphone. Adding Gentler Streak helped shut it up. It’s not rocket science for an app to say “taking a rest day won’t affect your overall fitness.” But many don’t. Seeing that phrase over and over again underscored that I had, against my better judgment, started conflating streaks with consistency. Streaks are just one measure of consistency and a flawed one at that. A single break — which may actually be the better choice for your health — will wreck your streak, and that’s perceived as a bad thing.

The only thing worse than breaking a streak is feeling beholden to one.

None of what Gentler Streak does is novel. Features that emphasize recovery are rampant in other fitness apps. It’s more that it leads with intuition instead of data. There’s a real emphasis on creating space for everything, as opposed to sticking to something. One teaches you how to adapt; the other relies on willpower — and willpower always runs out.

The only thing worse than breaking a streak is feeling beholden to one

Take the daily “Go Gentler” suggestions. Rest and active recovery (e.g., yoga, walking, low-intensity activity, etc.) are always options 1 and 2. The remaining three are usually things that will help you maintain where you are, push you a little, or push you a lot. You don’t actually have to put in a lot of thought either because the suggestions are there. On stressful days when you’re out of willpower, that helps keep the evil brain goblin from waking up.

Like any app, Gentler Streaks still has its flaws, one of them being its reliance on the Apple Watch. You can use it with other trackers, but I’ve had issues with it pulling my sleep data from the Oura Ring reliably. Another is the subscription — $7.99 per month or $27.49 for a year. I paid, as features like the Go Gentler suggestions and extra data insights are paywalled.

Despite these shortcomings, a gentler approach seems to be working for me. Some people with iron wills may scoff. To them, I doff my cap and say I envy their blessedly silent brain goblins. But I’m running faster, longer, and more enjoyably than I have in six months. My calf remains uninjured. When I tell myself, “I’m busy today, I’ll squeeze in that run tomorrow” — the run actually happens. I’ll take it.