Confessions of a Stravaddict

I don’t even have to open the email to know exactly what it says. “Uh Oh!” begins to subject line, “[Insert name of fast, competitive frenemy] just stole your CR!” I click on the link to her activity and find that not only did she run the segment three minutes faster than I did, but she did it while pushing a stroller. “Got what it takes to reclaim your crown?” the email teases. Time to lace up my shoes, sprint that segment and steal my CR back!

Sound familiar? I have a love/hate relationship with Strava, the social network app of choice for runners. I’m addicted to giving and receiving kudos, monitoring my splits and elevation gain, tracking my best efforts on familiar routes, and sharing photos of my runs with like-minded friends who don’t roll their eyes every time I utter the words “long run.”

But, like all social networks, it has a dark side, a breeding ground for FOMO, unhealthy competition and potential overuse injuries. In fact, Strava’s website has a “Stand With Us” page that reads like a list of safety disclaimers, with #2 stating, “We Rest. We listen to our bodies to avoid injury and we inspire in ways other than by being number one. We don’t burn ourselves out. We enjoy our recovery days because they too tell our story on Strava.”

Clearly, I’m not the only person who gets herself caught up in the wonderful world of Strava.

Strava launched in 2009, largely as a social network for cyclists. Avid cyclists mapped their favorite sprints and climbs in order to keep track of the leaderboard, crowning the fastest cyclist of each segment the “King/Queen of the Mountain” (KOM). When GPS devices became more common with runners Strava branched into the running market with its app in 2012, and now in most markets more runners than cyclists are joining Strava, with over 1.2 million active users. Strava owes its success to social networking; their “power is the power of the community.”

The Love

And their power is strong. In addition to my real-life running buddies, I love to follow professional runners. On Instagram they post photos of their recovery meals, their dogs and their scenic morning runs, but they also do a whole lot of sponsor advertising. When I see Shalane Flanagan post for the 20th time how much she loves her anti-muscle cramp elixir I’m left wondering whether or not that’s true. In contrast, GPS data doesn’t lie, and seeing the data from a pro-runner’s training log reminds me that these are real athletes putting in ass-kicking hard work.

Leading up to the Olympic Trials I watched Kara Goucher grind out a series of 20-mile long runs around a grid of country roads outside Boulder at a very steady 6:30 pace. Sage Canaday, Sally McRae and Kaci Lickteig currently log 100-plus mile weeks as they prepare for Western States. Seeing a pro-runner’s training in real time is about as real as it gets.

Strava’s best features:

Route Progress Tracking. Visually appealing graphs and charts allow you to monitor your progress on segments, hills and routine routes to keep track of best efforts and to tell you how you’re trending, (ie faster or slower than before).

Leaderboard. Here you can see how you stack up against your friends and the pros for each of the segments you run.

Flybys. This feature allows you to run past another Strava user, and is especially fun when running in an area with lots of Strava heads; you can watch an animated playback of your activity matched with the activity of anyone else around you.

Strava Maps. This feature can spice up any boring running route. Marriage proposals and Star Wars art are all the rage in Strava maps!

The Dark Side

Strava CRAfter reading the above you might think Strava is some kind of idyllic runner’s paradise, where everyone competes in a spirit of positivity and communal support. But “Stravaddicts” can quickly become “Stravassholes.”

In 2010, a cyclist died chasing a downhill KOM, losing control as he sped around a turn. One of his parents sued Strava for breaching their duty of care and encouraging dangerous behavior (the case was thrown out). And cyclists chasing KOMs proved fatal for pedestrians in San Francisco and New York, respectively. It is likely that the “Stand With Us” page that I referenced above was created in response to accidents like these.

Running, fortunately, does not come with as many assumed risks as cycling and the competition that Strava encourages is more ego-threatening than life-threatening. A friend of mine (we’ll call her Kelly) is currently beginning a training cycle for her second 50-mile race, and she decided to hire a coach. In her initial coaching conversation, she shared that she struggled with running with our group because she was always bringing up the rear, and, even though she is recovering from an injury, she felt pressured to run to keep up with everyone else. The coach’s response was clear and blunt:

Stop using Strava. You don’t need to see what your friends are doing because you don’t need to put in the miles they’re putting in, and you don’t need to be running the paces they’re running. You need to focus on you.”

Kelly’s coach’s simple statement,“You need to focus on you,” has lead me to confront some deep anxieties about my own running. Even the best of running buddies aren’t immune to competition, and when I see a friend run a route faster than usual I worry that I won’t be able to keep up with her anymore. If I see a friend nail back-to-back long runs, I worry that she is more hardcore than I am. When I see someone steal my course record on a local segment I immediately want to get out there and reclaim my crown. All of this, regardless of whether I’m following a completely different training program, or it’s supposed to be an easy day, or if I’m running paces that are right for me.

Don’t get me wrong: I support all my Strava friends, am proud of them and believe they deserve their moments of glory, but jealousy is a total bitch and it takes a lot of strength to back away from the temptation to risk injury by pushing ourselves too much and too far.

***

CR reclaimed!

So is it time for me to take a break? When I finish a run, I can’t wait to upload my data and post to Strava. But I wonder, am I excited because I want to analyze my own effort, or am I excited to give my run a clever name, get my kudos, and see if I won any segments? Do I run to beat other people, to look good on a training log, or to say, “It only happened if it’s on Strava?” or do I run because it is part of who I am, because I enjoy chasing personal goals, because I want to thrive? Is the social networking just a way for me to share my joy with others and seek support and guidance from my running peers?

It helps to remember there’s a lot more to training than what we see on Strava. We see numbers, data and maps, but that’s only a piece of the big picture. Like all social networks, there is so much more to a person’s story that isn’t publicly shared. We don’t see nutrition, injuries, family and work commitments, stress levels, sleep habits, or even strength training.

I keep a private log that I use to record the gritty details of my runs and the factors that affect their quality, and I find it grounding to look back on those details. If I truly want to focus on me and be the best runner I can be, I don’t want to feel guilty for running slowly on an easy day, or wonder what others will think when they see my pace. I want to be able to analyze my effort without the distraction of my peers. I want to run for me.

I might take a break from time to time, but I won’t cut Strava loose forever. It provides a wonderful community where I can share my love of running. And without this community running wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Running is personal, but it’s also about being proud of our peers, celebrating collective accomplishments, and lifting each other up. And, who am I kidding? I also really like getting those kudos!

Do you use Strava? Do you think it positively affects your training or do you find yourself getting caught up in the competition?

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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15 comments

  1. I love Strava! Gives an easier way to analyze than Garmin Connect and is more of a social network for runners. It doesn’t always upload the data correctly and I’ll often have different splits on my device than what shows on Strava. I don’t care about the segments or CR though. Not everyone is on Strava so those aren’t really true. I find myself more caught up on how many peeps I ended up running with and if it shows that I ran with them all. It’s important to remember that most people don’t have their full training on Strava. I don’t Garmin my easy runs at all so those won’t ever be on there.

  2. I have Strava and am a casual user of it. What I like best about Strava is the flyby feature. It’s fun to see where me and my friends were at different points in a race. Also it’s a nice way of keeping in touch with friends who live far away. Most people I know are much faster than me so I never have a CR or in the top ten of any list, so I don’t care about those features and it doesn’t affect me.

  3. I signed up a week ago, and so far am not hooked– I scroll through the feed to see what people did and give a few thumbs-up, but mostly I forget about it. Maybe that’ll change? I log my runs on the calendar on the wall in my laundry room, my training log here on SR, on my coach’s Google Sheet… maybe I’m just sock of logging my run info all over the place, lol. Great post, and nice job on the “Salty” run!!

  4. I don’t use Strava, for a couple reasons. But one of the major things to note is that, like you said, it’s just like all social networks and you don’t see everything. I never run with a GPS watch on easy days (and know lots of people who do the same), so if I did upload stuff to Strava, it would only show my hard efforts and would look like I run fast all the time, which is definitely not true! I wonder if lots of the data are skewed from that. (There was an article a while back using Strava to make assumptions about people’s mileage and the mileage was so low for sub-elite runners it made me doubt all the runs were logged.) It’s like Instagram, where people only show a filtered version of their life. That gets dangerous when people start to assume everyone else is always running super fast; all the easy days/injuries/reality get filtered out.

  5. Great post! I can’t even deal with my internal competition between my current self and former self, so having to see what others do and have to constantly have my performance compared to others sounds … nope. I can’t do it. Maybe I’ll get there, but not there yet!

  6. I am on Strava but don’t check it frequently. I do enjoy seeing my progress on certain routes and the CRs!

  7. The coach I was working with has his runners use it so he can see our workouts. I’m not a superfan. Mostly, his runners all follow each other; we can see what everyone else is doing, so it’s really hard to not compare yourself to other runners in the group. And if you get injured (like I am currently), it’s really depressing to see everyone else out logging miles and I’m logging elliptical workouts for like the fifth week in a row and I feel like I’m getting “pity kudos” from everyone! I am back to using RunKeeper until I get better!

  8. I have strava but JUST started using it (like…this week). I use a few other methods for tracking my training so I don’t really NEED it, but decided to give it a try. I am worried that the insecurity and comparing will get the best of me- as I’m coming off of 2 months off and out of shape, comparing and stressing about what others are doing is the LAST thing I need. But, I do think once I get going again it could be good for me to have a bit more accountability and also some competitive drive to get me back to where I was (competitive with myself and CR’s no specifically other runners)

  9. I have Strava, but it’s more of an afterthought app for me. I have been using Runkeeper from my very first run, so I am hesitant to switch and leave all of those years of run data behind! Also it doesn’t seem Strava is heavily used where I live, so the social aspect isn’t as prevalent. I AM sort of interested in creeping on the elite runners though- so maybe I’ll have to log in and follow some of them! :)

    1. I’m pretty sure you can import all your old data. My friend recently loaded all her Nike workouts and stole all the local course records in one day!

  10. Great article. I can relate to so many of the things you mention! I started using Strava consistently in January 2016 and have admittedly become an addict. Sometimes it’s hard to resist creeping those around you, especially people you know have similar race goals/goal races as you. I mean, if it’s not on Strava, did it REALLY happen? Sigh. I keep a seperate log as well with more detailed comments about how my runs went, but do appreciate the visuals provided by Strava. In my opinion, they do this better than Garmin Connect.