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The Strava Effect

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It was hot. Really hot, for 6 a.m. I was hauling tail up the east ridge of Mount Sanitas, jumping over wilted yucca and kicking up red dirt. I reached the summit just as the sun crested the horizon. I was the only person on the summit, but I wasn’t alone.

Like thousands of other runners, I was on Strava.

My watch pinged, letting me know that not only was I not first to reach the summit today—I wasn’t even the fastest.

Strava is a mileage-tracking and social-media app for runners, cyclists, skiers, hikers, SUPers and everything in between. It combines a complex array of maps and routes with a Facebook-like news feed.

Though Strava doesn’t release statistics on the number of active app users, it’s estimated that well over one million people use Strava to track their mileage, share workouts and photos, draw shapes and build community. In a running hub like my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, this means it’s hard to find a solitary trail in the real—or virtual—world. I’ve even been asked out via Strava twice—once in the middle of a run.

“So, you run here often?” The message popped up midway through an afternoon trail run in Chautauqua Park.

“Race you to the top. Loser buys the beer,” I responded. His less-than-impressive splits did not lead to a second outing, though I am two beers the richer.

A double-edged sword

Strava tracks mileage through a smartphone app and GPS watches. Beloved by cyclists, road runners and trail runners alike, it displays a breakdown of your route with time, pace and splits, called “segments.” These segments allow you to face off in a virtual race with other runners in your area, which could mean friendly competition between running partners, or, in my case, an uncontrollable desire to see how you measure up against hometown heroes like 10K champion Kara Goucher (badly, in my case).

This easy comparison is bit of a double-edged sword, and, like any form of social media, it has both fans and detractors.

“I think it is useful as a social tool,” says ultra-legend Anton Krupicka. “I love seeing what my friends are up to and sharing with them what I’m up to.”

Many trail runners, like 2016 Leadville 100 Champion Clare Gallagher, have turned to Strava as a means of motivation. “Seeing my friends around the world running and training hard motivates me to do the same,” she says.

But some runners, like professional coach and ultrarunner Joe Grant, have abstained from the app.

“Like anything, it can be misused and taken to extremes,” he says. “Too much comparison to others and constant competition can really detract from your own training.”

Indeed, with an app that’s designed to help runners compare ourselves to one another, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place. I’ve run the same stretch of trail over and over, trying to nail a split that I wasn’t embarrassed to share. I’ve sought out trails and roads that I normally wouldn’t run so that I could score the tiny trophy icon that indicates I had the fastest time so far. I’ve found myself circling the neighborhood late at night just so I could boost my weekly mileage by .38 of a mile, and earn a virtual badge.

The irony is that trail running, with its steep climbs and technical descents, does not lend itself to particularly fast splits. It sometimes seems silly to track a run when my pace will waffle from fast, runnable downhills to slow, uphill power hikes. But, with dozens of users virtually peering over my shoulder, sharing my latest sufferfest can be hard to resist.

For better or worse, Strava has socialized trail running, turning far-flung trails into race tracks and morning runs into quests for a Fastest Known Time (FKT). For those looking to explore new trails and meet new running partners, this presents a world of resources. For those seeking solitude, remember that you can always put down your phone and run away.

Strava Etiquette

The Golden Rule
If you don’t have something nice to say, log off. If you wouldn’t say it in person, keep it offline.

Caring Is Creepy
Giving out kudos is great, but too many is weird.

Drive By
Turn off your watch before you get in the car. We know you didn’t just run a three-minute mile. 

Rules of the Trail
Trying to work your way up in the leaderboards is no excuse to be a jerk. Please, be kind when you’re hitting the trail—your record-breaking attempt can wait until another day if other users are slowing you down.

Swipe Left
Strava is not Tinder. Maybe save the pick-up lines for your next singles group run.

Let It G0
It can be tempting to keep running the same segment again and again, but eventually you have to let it go.

Name Game
Give your workout a name. Surely five miles is plenty of time to think of something more clever than “Afternoon Run.”

Get Off the Grid
Strava is a great tool, but, at the end of the day, trail running isn’t about laying down digital segments. It’s about connecting with yourself. Consider going for a run sans Strava to reconnect with why you love trail running.