The Strava Strain

The hugely popular, addictive fitness app that turns every run into a race is great fun — until you get hurt.

by Emilia Benton
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Strava, Getty Images, Shutterstock

Marc Pelerin, 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 logging runs while pushing his two kids in a double stroller. He didn’t feel bad about logging paces that were two minutes (or more) slower per mile than on his own — until he realized he never saw similar “stroller splits” from other parents. It started to bug him. After a while, it bugged him so much he decided to get off the app.

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

Strava is currently king of the fitness tracking apps, in terms of popularity. This is in part because of the breadth of activities it tracks — while primarily used for cycling and running, users can also track strength training, yoga, Pilates, skiing, and even breath-work. But everyday athletes also love the app for its social networking component, something that became increasingly apparent in the lonely lockdown years: As of last spring, Strava had grown to more than 100 million users, more than double its size since 2020, and was seeing 40 million activities uploaded per week. (You might’ve seen the app in the news earlier this year, when it caught some online flak after a confusing price hike rollout.)

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

Seeing people who I used to be able to run with making massive improvements while I am not keeping up is the big one for me.

But diehard users know that Strava is also secretly the best social networking app around. It can help you build community and meet new people to share your fitness journey with, an aspect that can be especially beneficial for beginners — or new dads. Maybe your usual Saturday morning rides no longer fit into your schedule, but you notice that an old friend tends to get a ride in around the same time you are often free, for example. Even if you aren’t able to connect with anyone in real life, exchanging “kudos” (Strava’s version of “likes”) can help you keep in touch and feel connected to your community, wherever that community may be.

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

The Games Begin

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

“Seeing people who I used to be able to run with making massive improvements while I am not keeping up is the big one for me,” Murphy says. He tries to keep in mind his coach’s wise words: “Meet yourself where you are,” which for him means “cutting back on intensity and prioritizing recovery based on … what’s currently going on in my life.” He’s a working dad with a demanding job and a busy family life, whose day-to-day existence is likely very different from a single, 20-something former collegiate runner.

I don’t want to seem like I’m not trying my best or that I’m being ‘weak’ because I know I have a lot of followers.

Then again, who knows? Most of us realize (even if we don’t always remember) there’s often a stark gap between someone’s actual life and the way they show up on Instagram. The same can be true here. No one’s Strava feed paints the whole picture of their life. “If you’re someone who is constantly pushed by seeing other people’s results, you have to really look at where those people are in terms of their running ability, career, longevity, and things like that,” Siné says. “Those are things that we can’t always get snapshots of just from looking at Strava — one person’s workout and pace for that day doesn’t tell you the whole story of the month or years that they might have put in.”

The competitive aspect is built into Strava, and it’s 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 little digital, publicly viewable laurel to the person who has completed a given segment the most over a 90-day period. It’s fun and motivating — until it isn’t.

As with many forms of competition and comparison, unhealthy online behaviors can feed into forms of toxic masculinity, or the idea that men need to be (or appear) tough all the time or risk being viewed as weak. Strava excels at feeding this feeling of inferiority. If you’ve publicly committed to a “no days off” or run streak and are finding that you’re forcing yourself to stick with it — or publicly show everyone you’re unable to follow through.

The Pressure Mounts

Zachary Ornelas, 31, a father of one (with another on the way), an elite runner and Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier from Ann Arbor, Michigan, has found himself falling into unhealthy Strava habits that have at times affected his training mindset.

“Sometimes, I’ll alter a workout or easy run to chase a Strava segment and end up running way, way harder than I needed to for the day just for the sake of a crown that doesn’t actually mean anything,” he admits. “I also sometimes feel pressure to not be honest when something doesn’t feel great or a workout didn’t go well because I don’t want to seem like I’m not trying my best or that I’m being ‘weak’ because I know I have a lot of followers. I’ve learned over the years to be careful with this, but I definitely think this can be much harder for people 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 patterns of thinking that are rampant in all forms of social media and is working on avoiding such behaviors by not scrolling 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 compels you to push yourself too hard, you could get injured.

For his part, Murphy admits that dealing with these feelings continues to be a work in progress, especially when it comes to avoiding burnout and overtraining. He manages to do this by scheduling breaks and avoiding “run streaks” knowing that for him, they tend to lead to injury. Murphy also emphasized that hiring a coach was a game-changer in terms of getting faster while still keeping running and racing fun.

The Hunt For A Healthy Pace

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

“I don’t always care for the subtle pressure I feel to perform based on my training and race data being public,” King explains. “I do some high volume, low intensity cross-training sessions on the elliptical or pool running and occasionally get chided on Strava for being able to sustain such boring training. But consequent training is a requirement for elite masters running, and that’s important to me. So I’ve started to break some of these sessions into two, and I delete the second one from Strava because I just don’t need the grief.”

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

Meet yourself where you are.

At the end of the day, as with most social networking platforms, Strava can be a great tool for staying connected and keeping in touch with people in your life, particularly those with whom you share key 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’re spending on it, Siné said.

“Ask yourself what brought you to Strava in the first place,” says Waite. “Give yourself a time limit for it every day, and stick to that.” Then go and give some kudos to your new running buddies. After all, we’re in this together.

3 Signs Strava Is Doing More Harm Than Good

  1. You’re second-guessing your own training. Ask yourself: Are you questioning your training because you’ve got your eyes on a fellow athlete who is signed up for the same race as you? If you see that your rival is doing more than you in terms of volume or intensity, you might be tempted to add more miles or speed to your own plan. Do not do this. You don’t know the whole of their athletic history, their goals, or if they’re even following a plan. Stick to your training plan.
  2. You’re skipping rest days. “No days off” is an effective marketing slogan but a risky bet for a training plan. If you feel the need to do a hard workout on what is supposed to be a rest day, it’s possible you will push yourself to the point of injury. And if you keep adding in more activities or extending your workouts to match what you see others doing, you’re likely to end up with a very small recovery deficit. Before you know it, you’ll be stuck in a cycle of injuries and burnout, with the fun aspect of fitness being nowhere in sight.
  3. You’re deleting (a lot of) workouts. OK, maybe you’re embarrassed of your 10-minute-mile 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 motivations 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 becoming distracted by other people’s workouts. (Some examples include TrainingPeaks and FinalSurge, which many coaches use to assign and monitor their athletes’ training.)

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