Separating the good from the bad in a popular fitness app

Mark Pellerin, a 38-year-old running coach and father of two in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, loved Strava, the social networking site for athletes. He enjoyed the community aspect and chopping wood while pushing his two children in a double stroller. He didn’t feel bad about logging paces that were two minutes (or more) slower per mile than he was on his own—until he realized he’d never seen such “stroller splits” from other parents. It started to annoy him. After a while, it annoyed him so much that he decided to quit the app.

“If anything gives me FOMO, it’s midday, weekday running—I really hate seeing everyone’s ‘fast’ times, long distances, and lunchtime starts,” says Pellerin. “I got off the app because I found it just wasn’t helpful to see runners I thought or knew were faster than training at paces that didn’t seem reasonable. It made me feel less than part of a community.

Strava is currently the king of fitness tracking apps in terms of popularity. That’s partly due to the range of activities it tracks—while it’s primarily used for cycling and running, users can also track strength training, yoga, pilates, skiing, and even breathing exercises. But regular athletes also love the app for its social networking component, something that’s become increasingly apparent in years of lonely lockdowns: As of last spring, Strava has grown to more than 100 million users, more than double its 2020 size .here, and saw 40 million activities uploaded per week. (You may have seen the app in the news earlier this year, when it drew some online criticism after a confusing price-gouging rollout.)

As its millions of users can attest, Strava can be useful as a training tool—who doesn’t love data? Having this visual representation of your daily workouts and watching your fitness build over time is motivating.

The big thing for me is seeing people I used to be able to handle make huge improvements while I’m not keeping up.

But diehards know that Strava is secretly the best social networking app, too. It can help you build a community and meet new people to share your fitness journey with, an aspect that can be especially helpful for beginners or new dads. Maybe your usual Saturday morning commutes no longer fit into your schedule, but you notice that an old friend tends to pick you up around the same time you’re often free, for example. Even if you can’t connect with anyone in real life, exchanging “likes” (Strava’s version of “likes”) can help you stay connected and feel connected to your community, wherever that community may be .

“You can connect digitally with people … who may be in other parts of the country or the world, who are interested in the sport you’re doing and are also trying to get better every day,” says Mireille Siné, a running and health coach. consultant based in Los Angeles. “It can also be good for people who are just starting to run or live in an area where they feel a little more isolated. … Strava can provide that push they need through an online community.”

The games begin

Just like with other social media apps, Strava can also easily bring the comparison game. Unlike other social media apps, however, Strava provides cold, hard data to back up. David Murphy, 46, a father of three from Evanston, Illinois, enjoys the opportunity to see what his friends, Chicago-based DWRunning teammates and even professional runners are up to. Mostly, he says, he finds it motivating. Mostly.

“Seeing people that I used to be able to manage make huge improvements while I’m not keeping up is the big thing for me,” Murphy says. He tries to remember his coach’s words of wisdom: “Meet where you’re at,” which for him means “lowering the intensity and prioritizing recovery based on … what’s going on in my life right now.” He’s a working father with a demanding job and a stressful family life, whose day-to-day existence is probably very different from a single, 20-year-old ex-colleague.

I don’t want to seem like I’m not doing my best or that I’m “weak” because I know I have a lot of followers.

On the other hand, who knows? Most of us realize (even if we don’t always remember) that there is often a big difference between someone’s real life and how they appear on Instagram. The same may be true here. No one’s Strava feed paints the whole picture of their life. “If you’re someone who’s constantly driven by seeing other people’s results, you have to really look at where those people are in terms of their running ability, their career, their longevity, things like that,” Siné says. “These are things we can’t always get snapshots of just by looking at Strava – one person’s training and pace for that day doesn’t tell you the full story of the month or years they may have put in.”

The racing aspect is built into Strava and is part of the appeal. Take the club leaderboards, for example, which rank members by miles completed that week, or the Local Legends feature, which gives a small digital, publicly visible laurel to the person who completed a segment the most over a 90-day period. It’s fun and motivating—until it’s not.

As with many forms of competition and comparison, unhealthy online behavior can fuel forms of toxic masculinity, or the idea that men need to be (or look) tough all the time or risk being seen as weak. Strava overcomes this feeling of inferiority. If you’ve publicly committed to “no days off” or a running streak and find yourself forcing yourself to stick to it — or publicly show everyone that you can’t follow through.

Pressure fittings

Zachary Ornelas, 31, a father of one (with another on the way), elite runner and Olympic Trials marathon qualifier from Ann Arbor, Michigan, found himself falling into unhealthy Strava habits that sometimes affected his thinking about training.

“Sometimes I’ll change a workout or an easy run to chase a Strava segment and end up running much, much harder than I should have for the day just for the crown, which doesn’t really mean anything,” he admits. “I also sometimes feel pressure to not be honest when something doesn’t feel great or a workout isn’t going well because I don’t want to seem like I’m not giving it my all or that I’m ‘weak’ because I know I have a huge following. I’ve learned to be careful with this over the years, but I definitely think it can be a lot more difficult for people who are newer to the sport and/or the app.”

If you … get caught up in what other people are doing … maybe the app really isn’t the best thing for you.

Ornelas knows these are unhealthy thought patterns that are pervasive in all forms of social media, and he works on avoiding such behaviors by not scrolling through Strava in bed at night or first thing in the morning. The difference, of course, between Strava and other social media apps is that Strava tracks real-life activity, and if it forces you to push yourself too hard, you could injure yourself.

For her part, Murphy admits that dealing with those feelings remains a work in progress, especially when it comes to avoiding burnout and overtraining. He manages to do this by scheduling rests and avoiding “run streaks,” knowing that for him they usually lead to injury. Murphy also emphasized that hiring a coach has been a game-changer in terms of getting faster while still having fun running and competing.

The hunt for a healthy pace

For Dan King, 63, Boulder, Colo., a father of two grown daughters, limiting the activities he shares with others has proven to be a good coping mechanism.

“I don’t always care about the subtle pressures I feel to perform based on my training and race data that’s public,” King explains. “I do some high-volume, low-intensity cross-training on the elliptical or running in the pool, and I occasionally get scolded on Strava for maintaining such boring workouts. But follow-up training is a requirement for elite runners, and that’s important to me. So I’ve started splitting some of these sessions into two and deleting the second one from Strava because I just don’t need the hassle.”

By recognizing your own trends and acknowledging unhealthy behaviors, apps like Strava can still be useful training tools—provided you keep an eye on your own training plan. “I think most people understand their trends, so if you know you’re the type of person who gets carried away by what other people are doing and looking at other people’s data and their experiences, there are limits to the value in that and maybe the app really isn’t the best thing for you,” says Lenny Waite, Ph.D., a Houston-based sports psychologist and mental performance consultant (and 2016 Olympian for Great Britain).

Meet where you are.

Ultimately, as with most social networking platforms, Strava can be a great tool for keeping in touch and staying in touch with the people in your life, especially those with whom you share major common interests. At the same time, it’s key to treat it like any other social media platform and monitor yourself and how much time you spend on it, Sine said.

“Ask yourself what brought you to Strava in the first place,” says Waite. “Set a time for it every day and stick to it.” Then go and greet your new running buddies. We’re in this together after all.

3 Signs Strava Is Doing More Harm Than Good

  1. You second guess your own learning. Ask yourself: Are you questioning your training because you set eyes on a fellow athlete who is signed up for the same race as you? If you see that your opponent is doing more than you in terms of volume or intensity, you may be tempted to add more miles or speed to your own plan. Do not do this. You don’t know their entire athletic history, their goals, or if they’re even following a plan. Stick to your study plan.
  2. You miss the holidays. “No days off” is an effective marketing slogan, but a risky bet for a training plan. If you feel the need to do a heavy workout on a day that should be rested, you may push yourself to the point of injury. And if you keep adding more activities or expanding your workouts to match what you see others doing, you’ll likely end up with very little recovery deficit. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself in a cycle of injury and burnout, with the fun aspect of fitness out of sight.
  3. You are deleting (many) workouts. Okay, maybe you’re ashamed of your 10-minute stroller runs. Hiding a run here and there from your public feed is understandable, but if it starts to become a habit, it’s time to question your motives for posting at all and whether you need a break from Strava. If you decide to go that route, Waite recommends choosing another tracking network where you can continue to log your own training without the distraction of other people’s workouts. (Some examples include TrainingPeaks and FinalSurge, which many coaches use to schedule and monitor their athletes’ workouts.)

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