The Beginners Guide to Strava

If you’re a cyclist / sociopath, you’ll know all about Strava 🙂 Joking aside, we’re sure also that many runners have come across it and are

Guest writer - Leonie Doyle
Guest writer – Leonie Doyle

using it too. In fact I know there are, but there’s more to it than simply having your ego stroked for being fastest on a certain segment. 

Only last week I was on a run in the Blue Mountains with some local boys and on approach to the final hill, one of them (who will duly remain unnamed), reveled in delight at telling me what the record was for this section – so off we went in pursuit. Naturally I failed miserably!

But if you’re wondering what all the hype is about, Ultra168 reader and now guest reviewer, Leonie Doyle has offered up her services to explain to us technologically backward individuals what it’s all about and how you can use it. Take it away Leonie…

Strava. In case you’ve been out on the trails too long and not heard, Strava operates a virtual competition for recreational athletes, and it’s not just for cyclists. It’s also a great running partner.

Strava works with just about any Garmin device, or with an iPhone or Android app. No word on Suunto connectivity yet. You go out, do your thing, come home and upload. Like Garmin Connect, Strava analyses your distance, pace and elevation, and shows you a map of where you’ve been. The interface looks good and (generally) works well. But it goes a couple of steps further.

Willy knows best - what he says goes.
Willy knows best – what he says goes.

The first thing that’s unique about Strava is its social features. Users can follow other members, give them ‘kudos’ for their activities and exchange comments.

But Strava’s most intriguing feature is the ability to create ‘segments’ out of specific parts of a route. Segments can be sprint distance or ultra-distance and they are great motivators. Knowing that there are invisible timing mats ahead can transform junk miles into punishing interval sessions.

Segment enthusiasts have come up with some wicked names for their favourite haunts. You could do worse than climb the Stairs of Despair, ride up Spew Hill and then shed some Blood, sweat and fear. If all that sounds too hard there’s always the douche-grade Col de Hipster.

Uploading is a bit like unwrapping a present; you never know what you’re going to get. It was only after my unforced error riding 9km of shoulder-less road linking the Federal Highway with the industrial and airport traffic that I realised not only had I performed Death Defying Acts, but that I had nabbed the fastest time.

Anyone whose workout passes through a segment goes onto a virtual leader board, like a race that everyone runs on a different day. The person who records the fastest time over a segment is awarded King of the Mountain (KOM) for men or QOM for women. Yes, even if it’s flat. There are places for the top ten in popular segments (9th overall etc). And for those who aren’t at the pointy end, there are personal records (PRs) so performance can be tracked over time. If someone takes a KOM off you, you get an ‘Uh oh!’ message via email and (in theory) the desire to claim it back.

Strava (it means ‘Strive’ in Swedish) started in 2008 when its creator Michael Horvath saw the need for a friendly competition for fit amateurs who kept their own hours. What was a handful of avid cyclists is now a global army; it is estimated that there are around a million members.

A growing proportion of these are dedicated runners.

A quick analysis of a 12km segment near Jenolan called Black Range reveals that on the 9th of March 2013—Six Foot Track day—76 runners recorded a time for the segment out of 780 who actually ran through it (just under ten per cent of finishers). One in ten is actually pretty impressive considering that this only includes runners whose best time occurred in the 2013 event.

There were plenty of 'segment baggers' at TNF100 this year
There were plenty of ‘segment baggers’ at TNF100 this year

Over on Ironpot Ridge, part of The North Face 100 course, there are 110 segment ‘baggers’, 70 of them recording their best time on the 18th of May 2013—race day. This is out of the 800 or so runners who make it that far so again, a fairly low percentage.

Expect to see those numbers change by next year. Apart from word of mouth, Strava has plans to better target two groups of athletes outside its traditional (male cyclist) demographic: runners and women.

The company is also busy trying to figure out how to lure more women (initially, Strava had only kings of its mountains, not queens) and runners to the site, primarily by bringing in more of both to work for the company. As with men and women, there’s occasionally a Mars/Venus issue in trying to crack the varying mindsets of runners and cyclists.

The company, which occupies a predictably hip office space in San Francisco, is getting to grips with the differences between cyclists and runners. Cyclists tend to be more into short segments like sprints and hill pinches while distance runners are more into the big picture – getting to the finish line with a high average pace. They can’t afford to throw everything at the first hill.

It has not all been smooth sailing. As the community expands it has been necessary to add features like the ability to ‘flag’ both dodgy records (electric bikes, anyone?) and dangerous segments. Strava has been linked to two deaths, allegedly involving lycra racers taking risks on the road in pursuit of glory. Strava danger isn’t really a problem for runners—least of all trail runners—since they rarely share the road with something that can kill, unless you count bears.

Strava has cottoned onto Lance as well...
Strava has cottoned onto Lance as well…

For the elite ultra-runner with a profile, Strava offers more opportunities to raise the bar. Lance Armstrong has nearly 5,000 followers (not all of them fans). Sage Canaday is there and you can compare your stats to his (he climbed a total of 55,000 metres in his last 100 or so runs).

For the rest of us, it’s a pretty effective—and yes, addictive—way to analyse and improve your effort while getting a look at what your friend (or nemesis) is up to. Not to mention a handy source of ideas for new running routes.

As performance enhancing substances go, Strava is a pretty detectable one. I can almost guarantee you’ll make yourself hurt in the pursuit of glory or at least the avoidance of defeat. On this score, it really can’t be beaten.

The problem, of course, is that you can.

About Leonie

Leonie Doyle is a cycling and running groupie who ruled out doing a trail ultra right up to the point at which she completed one. She writes better than she runs. Catch her both literally and on Strava and Twitter (@leoniedoyle)

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

10 thoughts on “The Beginners Guide to Strava

  1. I didn’t use Strava for a long time as I found it a pain to upload my runs to Garmin Connect then manually upload the tcx file to strava as well then I found this site where you put in your GC login details and it automatically syncs any new activities uploaded. Now I’m addicted 🙂

  2. I have heard of mountain bikers shunning the trail etiquette of giving way to ascending riders on single track because they are racing a Strava segment to improve their position on the leader board. Very poor and rude form. A good training diary, motivating with friends and shows elevation profile really well. Personally I prefer endomondo. It doesn’t have segments and the leader board but accommodates a much wider range of sports than just running and cycling. Kind of an exercisers Facebook.

  3. Strava creates a whole new world of possibilities to runners and race directors. At the Knapsack Lap race this year we played with marking 3 segments on the lap with Strava start and Strava finish signs to try and trigger some internal battles for runners on course. I can see similar concepts attracting categories at events for easy to measure king of the mt etc sections (for those with the gear of course a limiting factor).

    In terms of training I have since used those existing segments to motivate as a fartleck session. Knowing I can see the efforts as measured each lap, but also against previous sessions.

    Watch out for the changing nature of social sessions though. The phrase, “I will see you at ###, rs a Sa segment up here and Im going to have a crack”. Coming to a group session near you soon.

  4. Lots of good fun to be had with Strava and running. Our group have established some hill climb segments around the volcanic cones of central Auckland which have got competitive for sure. One observation: not all devices are equal – a GPS enabled watch is usually more ‘generous’ than a smartphone (allocates more distance to a run, and even gives shorter times to a segment run at the same time/pace). Can be frustrating to ‘win’ a race to the top, only to have Strava say the guy who came second has the KOM…

  5. I would like to use Strava for my bike training but certainly don’t want to be involved with Twitter or Facebook .
    How do I go about this?

  6. Same as Max (above) Can’t find anything that tells me how to get started. I’ve got the android and got Strava on it. What next?

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