“If you haven’t logged it on Strava then you haven’t ridden your bike!” I heard one fitness app devotee shout to another as they sped past me.
They were referring to the widely popular – among amateurs, pros and Canberrans – fitness tracking app which means “to strive” in Swedish. Last year one of Strava’s founders claimed that 100,000 new members were joining each week.
If you’re a cyclist or runner then you no doubt know people who are crazy about Strava and similar apps designed to measure and motivate physical activity. Many others are driven crazy by Strava-addicted partners or perplexed by the sight of cyclists busting their guts on a daily commute as if they were in the penultimate stage of Le Tour.
So what are these fitness apps all about and why should we be a little wary of them?
The key to Strava’s success is segments that range from a few metres to thousands of kilometres in length. The vast majority are designated by members. Cities, towns, fields, mountains and deserts around the world are broken up into Strava segments. The person with the fastest time for each one is crowned King or Queen of the Mountain (KOM or QOM) – even if the segment is on the flat.
That’s it. Not much to it really.
However, segments have transformed the essentially solitary experiences of cycling and running into intensely competitive ones. To pop down to the shops is suddenly to encounter thousands of rivals who are clipping at your rear wheel or heels.
The 600m long “Pavilion Hotel Pimple” segment on Northbourne Avenue has been attempted 90,510 times by 4,663 Strava members (scroll down to 2590 to find me), while Black Mountain has been Strava-ed 47,789 times by 4,154 riders.
For added incentive the app sets challenges for which members are awarded virtual medals and trophies. The most prestigious challenge is to “Everest” a hill or mountain; that is, ride up and down it enough times to equal the 8,848m elevation of the world’s tallest peak. That means climbing Mount Ainslie 42 times or the Arboretum’s Dairy Farmer’s Hill over 100 times, both of which Canberra cyclists have recently done to raise money for good causes or purely for the kudos.
Some question whether such social fitness apps not only motivate people but also foster machismo and madness.
In 2014 a pedestrian was struck and killed in New York’s Central Park by a cyclist who had earlier come close to achieving KOMs in nearby segments.
And in 2010 an American cyclist was killed in an accident while pedalling at well above the road speed limit. He was attempting to reclaim his KOM crown. The rider’s family sued Strava arguing that the company was in effect organising races and therefore should have alerted members to dangerous forms of behaviour and perilous paths. Strava won, but the case raised two critical twenty-first century issues: In what ways is social media anti-social and to what extent is virtual reality “real?
By encouraging amateurs to act as if we are professionals who need to carefully measure every exertion, apps like Strava also diminish the everyday pleasures of exercise. Focusing on marginal performance gains can come at the cost of enjoying exercising with others with different physical abilities, of beholding a sunrise, of feeling the evening breeze on one’s face, of hanging out with the dog, and of daydreaming and unwinding.
Get in fast and let us know what you think about fitness apps like Strava.
Kim Huynh lectures in international relations at the ANU. He has a pop politics segment on ABC 666 Breakfast and has recently published a (free) collection of novellas entitled Vietnam as if… Tales of youth, love and destiny (ANU Press).