Strava: An Ultra Runner’s Friend Or Foe?

Writ­ten By Katie Hick­ling

Katie is an ama­teur ultra run­ner (emphas­is on the word ama­teur — her words, not ours!) who, when not run­ning, tries to fit in a career in fin­an­cial ser­vices tech­no­logy. Oth­er interests are also known to include dogs, crick­et, and writ­ing Ultra X art­icles.

29 July 2020

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Read­ing Time: 6 minutes

The accel­er­a­tion of tech­no­lo­gic­al innov­a­tion over the past few years has enabled data to become read­ily access­ible at a low-cost. Unsur­pris­ingly, this has also filtered through to ama­teur and grass roots levels of the sport with the explo­sion of com­mer­cial com­pan­ies selling products to cap­ture and track train­ing data. Garmin Con­nect, Train­ing Peaks, Suunto Movescount, and per­haps the most fam­ous of them all, Strava.

To start with, the caveat: that gen­er­ally such inven­tions can be con­sidered a good thing. The abil­ity to record and track ses­sions and receive out­put data such as pace, heart rate, cadence etc helps us to train more effect­ively, improve per­form­ance and become more informed as a run­ner of the impact that train­ing ses­sions are hav­ing on our bod­ies — data pre­vi­ously only access­ible to elite ath­letes or those will­ing to fork out a lot of money for it. I remem­ber back to 2014–2015 dur­ing my uni­ver­sity triath­lon days, test­ing and sports sci­ence tech­no­logy was only avail­able to those on elite schol­ar­ship pro­grammes. The rest of us had to make do with con­duct­ing ses­sions using RPE and tim­ing off Casio F91W’s (Google it if you want to see what sports watches looked like back in the day).

Apps with a social media angle such as Strava also offer a valu­able con­nec­tion to oth­ers in the run­ning com­munity, provid­ing inspir­a­tion and encour­age­ment and, recently, enabling vir­tu­al chal­lenges to take place in the absence of real-life events, which have provided an out­let and source of motiv­a­tion to many dur­ing test­ing times. Such is the pop­ular­ity of these products that it is very rare indeed to find a run­ner who doesn’t use at least one of them, but do these tools add value, or are they just a smoke screen that dis­tracts us from what actu­ally mat­ters when it comes to fol­low­ing the basic train­ing prin­ciples that enable suc­cess?

Have we lost sight of what the pur­pose of train­ing is?

Endur­ance sports such as ultra run­ning fol­low rel­at­ively straight­for­ward train­ing prin­ciples. How­ever, with gad­gets that now allow us to ana­lyse every minute detail of an easy run this can make it easi­er to get dis­trac­ted from the pur­pose of spe­cif­ic ses­sions and lose sense of the big­ger pic­ture of what train­ing is for… help­ing us achieve a per­son­al goal or race per­form­ance at the end. Psy­cho­lo­gic­ally, it can be harder to execute ses­sions as inten­ded when there is con­cern about the fact this week’s easy run was 15 secs per mile slower or what every­one on Strava is going to think about it.

From per­son­al exper­i­ence I know of sev­er­al ath­letes who have pur­pose­fully stopped upload­ing recov­ery runs onto Strava due to worry about oth­ers judging the slow pace. I have also in the past deleted track ses­sions after I was unable to hit sim­il­ar speeds as in pre­vi­ous ses­sions. More run­ners have done this than they prob­ably care to admit in some form or anoth­er. For example, titling runs as “strong head­wind” or “hot” to explain why the out­put met­rics might be slightly off than usu­al. Ulti­mately the ques­tion to be asked is do we train for ourselves and/or the pur­pose of per­form­ance in a race goal that is import­ant to us or to pro­duce out­come “van­ity stats” to impress oth­ers?

Judging per­form­ance based on train­ing data rather than race res­ults

An inter­est­ing point is the dif­fer­ence between the pro­cess of train­ing and “race day” and the abil­ity of train­ing data to pre­dict race res­ults. “Race day” is argu­ably a dif­fer­ent beast to train­ing, as there is a lot less scope to con­trol factors such as weath­er, time of day the event occurs etc. Also, in the pres­sure of a race day envir­on­ment it can be very easy to do stu­pid things that wouldn’t oth­er­wise hap­pen in a con­trolled train­ing scen­ario. How­ever, the deluge of train­ing data avail­able has cre­ated a mind­set where indi­vidu­als can judge and pre­dict race out­comes by com­par­ing train­ing data shared on apps such as Strava.

Pic­ture this 10 years ago: a group of run­ners turn up at a loc­al race, on the start line they would have lim­ited know­ledge of what train­ing their com­pet­it­ors had put in the weeks before­hand and, after­wards, if they wished, they go away with an idea of how they com­pare to each oth­er based on the race res­ults. Nowadays, the whole train­ing pro­cess up to what you had to eat the night before can be shared for all to see on social media.

There are two fun­da­ment­al flaws with tak­ing train­ing data on Strava as the gos­pel for race day per­form­ance. Firstly, as was men­tioned pre­vi­ously, “race day” is an entirely dif­fer­ent envir­on­ment to train­ing and there is no guar­an­tee that train­ing met­rics can be repro­duced in race con­di­tions. Secondly, met­rics on apps such as Strava can be eas­ily manip­u­lated to paint a pic­ture that isn’t neces­sar­ily the true ver­sion of real­ity.

In extreme examples, there are a group of people for whom it can be argued Strava has almost replaced racing. By manip­u­lat­ing train­ing data they cre­ate this per­sona of them­selves and their per­form­ance levels that they feel they need to live up to. There­fore, why go through the pres­sure of a race envir­on­ment when you can just train and pro­duce stats in exchange for kudos. Although, ulti­mately such a scen­ario isn’t good for a long-term, healthy rela­tion­ship with the sport.

Runner with headtorch checking Garmin

If it’s not on Strava then it didn’t hap­pen’

Just because we have the cap­ab­il­ity to meas­ure and record every run we do, does that mean we should? Using a GPS watch can be help­ful when try­ing to work out pacing for a tempo or inter­val ses­sion but there is some­thing to be said about every so often leav­ing the tech behind and run­ning for enjoy­ment using per­ceived effort.

On a final note, adding data does not neces­sar­ily guar­an­tee qual­ity. For example, take two ath­letes train­ing for a moun­tain ultra mara­thon. Ath­lete A does a long run ses­sion of sev­er­al hours over hilly ter­rain with exten­ded peri­ods of time spent walk­ing and stop­ping to refuel. He doesn’t record out­put vari­ables such as pace per km, pre­fer­ring instead to match his effort levels to the ter­rain. Ath­lete B choses instead to do a two hour long run on road with struc­tured sec­tions spent at three dif­fer­ent intens­it­ies. His stats look very impress­ive when pos­ted to Strava and he gets a lot of likes. How­ever, com­pared to Ath­lete A’s so called unstruc­tured ses­sion, it is a lot less likely to pre­pare him adequately for the demands of the event.

Con­clu­sion

To con­clude, the com­mer­cial­isa­tion of sports sci­ence tech­no­logy to make it access­ible to the masses brings many bene­fits to train­ing and main­tain­ing the pos­it­ive com­munity that run­ning is known for. How­ever, as with oth­er social media plat­forms these tech­no­lo­gies can cre­ate neg­at­ive beha­viours, which can be dam­aging and lead to loss of enjoy­ment in run­ning. There is a fine line between know­ing when to pay atten­tion to our train­ing data and know­ing when to leave the gad­gets behind and train because we love it.

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