If you paid attention, you could see signs of an uprising.
There was the France police force perusing Strava data to catch COVID-19 lockdown transgressors in the spring. Then there was the massive outcry on running Twitter during Garmin Connect’s five-day outage in late July. And, of course, there was Joshua Cheptegei, who took time out of his 5,000m world record-breaking race in August to properly start and stop his watch and secure the greatest flex professional running has ever seen:
It has been in these pandemic times, when we crave connection in the form of kudos, motivation in the form of segment hunts and, for some of us, a new fitness venture in the form of running, that Strava has truly permeated the mainstream.The fitness tracking app has grown steadily since its inception in 2009, but its latest available user numbers show much faster growth as of late — 13 million of Strava's 55 million users signed up in 2020, and Business of Apps reports a projected 100 million users by 2022.
Lately, it seems like meeting a runner without a Strava account is like dating someone who doesn’t have Facebook: definitely uncommon, maybe a bit refreshing, perhaps a bit suspicious. In fact, Strava is becoming the Facebook of runners – a means of connection and ever-widening window into one’s social world, if one allows it. And the app has so insidiously positioned itself as such, with its overt display of followers, comments section, and endless segment leaderboards that we haven’t stopped and wondered if we should tie our running, one of our last inherently wireless and personal activities, to yet another tether of the virtual world.
Of course, Strava's combination of fitness tracking and social features has helped runners of all speeds and experience levels to keep training fun in these last few months. The XC contributor Greg Wieczorek, an accountant and 2:25 marathoner challenged himself to win the crowns to 100 segments in his home city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Artists like Christian O. of Germany and Callie Lauren of California use it to share impressive drawings and mosaics.
The app is also a tool of self-expression for professional runners. Ben Flanagan, a 10,000m specialist and runner with the Reebok Boston Track Club said his use of Strava has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic.
"A part of my job as a professional,” he said, “is to represent my brand in a positive way, and producing engaging content is a part of that.”
Flanagan shares all his runs online. He is also active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but finds a unique pleasure in posting on Strava.
"The persona you show is different on Strava,” he said. “You don’t have to be worried at all about saving face. You can be transparent, raw… maybe because It's closely tied to running that I feel more comfortable expressing feelings around my training.”
It’s no accident that runners across the speed spectrum enjoy the app. It is well documented in research that people receive rushes of dopamine and feelings of pleasure when receiving notifications and interacting on social media. While Strava has not been researched as extensively as some social media giants, Jeroen Stragier, a technology and behaviour researcher at Belgium’s Ghent University, found that activities on Strava were roughly eight times more likely to be interacted with than a tweet.
And as the app evolves it of course adds more features in order to deepen the interactive rabbit hole for runners, though an increasing number them are being hidden behind a paywall. All-time segment leaderboards, social clubs, live segment hunts and new "local legends" feature, which is awarded to the athlete who completes a given segment the most over a rolling 90-day period, allow for all runners, not just fast ones, to extract a momentary social thrill (and tiny dopamine hit) from the interface.
For some, that’s bad
The running community still has plenty of digital ghosts. Certain runners are hesitant to use Strava, and allow social media to infiltrate their one daily escape from the world. Lyndsay Tessier, a Canadian marathoner and ninth-place finisher at the 2019 world championship, has not downloaded the fitness app because she suspects that its connective nature would become a nuisance to her training.
"I think as soon as you invite an audience into your run, it changes the integrity of it, even subconsciously” she said. “I’m already on Facebook and Instagram – I don’t need people to approve of my runs.”
Tessier said she thinks Strava would get her to compare her runs with those of others, and that it could lead to compromised training, anxiety, and a constant feeling of wanting to train harder. Mike Thornton, a marathoner from Paris, Ont., shares some of Tessier’s feelings. He uses Strava, but is considering curtailing uploading future runs.
“Every time you run, good or bad, everyone’s going to see it and sometimes you feel like you have to publicly justify how good or bad your run went.”
Josh Kozelj, a varsity distance runner from British Columbia downloaded Strava for the first time in February.
“At first, it was a blast — especially over the summer when the pandemic cancelled races across the board,” he said.
But he deleted it by the end of the summer. Comparing himself to others, disclosing his location, and following social numbers quickly got old.
“I felt too pressured to rack up kudos, KOMs, and I questioned why certain of my runs didn’t get as many kudos.”
Strava is hurtling its users towards a question that is important and inherent to social media — how much will the judgment of others affect how we post, what we post, and how behave knowing it will be there for all to see, and to judge? We’ve entertained the question on other platforms. But this time, instead of having the opinions of others making us fret about which filter to use, it risks hijacking our training, and draining what is most sacred and simple about a run. And that’s much worse.
Still, it would be a shame to let Strava’s social features distract from its fun and useful tools, like its increasingly sophisticated training log. The app now allows users to track weekly intensity, as opposed to mileage, which was very recently encouraged by a group of fast researchers, and explained here by Alex Hutchinson in Outside . Another new feature uses your data to compare your fitness with that of past training blocks — that is information one cannot easily replicate with pen and paper.
And perhaps more connectivity is not all bad. Daily kudos are nice ego boosts, and are harmless as long as you, just like me, are not addicted to the app and could delete it at any time, probably. Right?