12 May 2016

Strava: The fitness app that drives us crazy

| Kim Huynh
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Cycling apps
“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).

Photo: iStock

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How about a contest for the best named Strava segment in the ACT? My nominations are:
“I love to have a sprint with Duncan” on Slim Dusty Circuit in Moncrief;
“A wax strip away (It’s close to a Brazilian)” goes past the Brazilian embassy in Yarralumla;
“Bob, Shane and Christine” a dated reference to three Green politicians and the three green sections of cycle lane that the segment on Commmonwealth Ave includes.

And yes, I am the proud father of those segment names.

I haven’t used Strava, but have used MapMyRun. I think it has encouraged me to push myself too hard, trying to do the jogging pace I naturally ran at when I was much younger, and I keep getting injured. I’m only going to use it occasionally from now on to check distances of new routes. I also think many cyclists tend to go too fast in crowded areas, and it seems Strava will encourage this and lead to more danger for all bike path users. Maybe people should confine its use to safe roads.

I suppose, yes, in some ways Strava is the equivalent of posting pictures of your food and coffee to Facebook or Instagram. But I disagree it’s dangerous or diminishes the pleasure of exercise. I think reviewing your segments after the fact is a great feature, although I don’t pay close enough attention to any particular routes to try and beat others.

I went from not being able to jog 400m a few years ago, to regularly running 5km and 10km events. I credit this largely to the motivation that GPS fitness apps provide. It’s very satisfying to see your own times come down – and doubly satisfying to gauge your improvements against others around the same age and ability. Following the progress of friends interstate and overseas is yet another thing that keeps you going; if they’re getting out there then I should too!

Berran said :

When is http://www.asada.gov.au going to start drug testing Strava KOM, QOM and medal winners? Ha ha

Maybe drug tested verified results is going to be part of Strava’s monetisation strategy.

When is http://www.asada.gov.au going to start drug testing Strava KOM, QOM and medal winners? Ha ha

Holden Caulfield9:32 am 12 May 16

At the risk of taking the low hanging fruit, it’s hardly a surprise that some serious and/or lycra-clad cyclists might take their Strava use way too seriously. It all just seems to fit in with other patterns of behaviour.

That said, I am a Strava user, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a serious cyclist. For two reasons, I don’t own a road bike and lycra is only worn by me as undergarments for warmth.

I use Strava because I want to monitor my own use, track kilometres ridden etc. I’m not all that interested in comparing myself with others; maybe a little bit. I’m not going to lie, it is quite nice finishing a ride and seeing the “trophies” you’ve earned on various segments. And, yes, I have at times knuckled down and busted a gut to set a new PB on a segment.

As with most things in life it’s all about maintaining balance and perspective. What matters most is getting out and doing the exercise and, most importantly, enjoying that exercise.

Which brings me back nicely to my opening para; perspective is something some serious lycra-clad wannabes lack. Definitely not all, but, very clearly, some.

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