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.”
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.
The Dark Side
After 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.
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?