Strava – Good or Bad for cycling?


Oh my. Where do I begin? This is a post that’s been a long time coming. I have so many things to say I actually don’t know where to begin.

In the last two days I have seen two examples that have motivated me to finally write a blog post about Strava. The first thing was when I heard that Strava properly defended themselves from a lawsuit of a grieving family. Apparently, a Strava user was attempting to improve on his time on a downhill road segment and was killed in the process. The prosecuting attorney’s argument was based on holding Strava to the same standards just as a race promoter. Ludicrous but they had to try something.  You can read an article here.  The second reason was watching one of my friends suffering miserably during a group ride. These two instances got my juices flowing!

First, let me provide a little background. Strava is a social fitness website where riders who are equipped with GPS devices, Garmin being the most common, ride on certain segments, think stretches of road, download their data, and then see how they fare against other riders who have ridden that same stretch of road or segments. It can be a great resource for riders who want to track their mileage, track performance against themselves and other riders.

What’s interesting is that I was doing a form of Strava back in 2005 and I would post the results of certain local hill climbs on my website. I would have people send me an email and then I would post their times. Here’s a screenshot from my coaching website that is now more of an archive than an active site. Here is the link.

OVERTRAINING

I will begin with how I believe Strava can negatively affect someone’s training and overall health when not used under the supervision of a trained professional.  Strava provides different types of competition for its users. One form is via a mileage challenge. These challenges take on several different forms but each follow the same basic premise – riding a lot of miles. The most common form of mileage challenge is a competition to ride the maximum amount of miles. The time frame for this type of competition is usually an entire month. A variation of that may be to ride a prescribed amount of miles to parallel a professional cycling race. Below are two examples.

1.  May Massive was a worldwide competition to see who could ride the most miles in the month of May.

2. 700 miles in one week, which will equal the distance of the Tour of Colorado a race done by professional bike riders.

This can be a fun and entertaining way to track your monthly mileage and see how you compare to other people around the world. In many cases, it motivates someone to ride more often. And that’s a good thing, but like most good things – too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.

Let’s take the first example of the May Massive.  In this competition you are competing against all cyclists from around the world that have enrolled in the challenge.  There can be as many 30,000 to 50,000 cyclists participating in the competition. When I have looked at the top 10 overall in these competitions I have found the mileage totals to be completely absurd. I think to myself, there is no possible way these people are legitimately riding that type of mileage.

Now let’s look at the second example where you are riding 700 miles in a week just like the professional peloton is doing during the Tour of Colorado. While it may be possible to ride the 700 miles in a week’s time, we as recreational cyclists, are at a huge disadvantage to the cyclists. Professional cyclists are fed at least three nutritious meals, provided with ample time to rest between stages, provided with daily massages and their job IS riding their bike. I’m quite sure I could ride 700 miles in a week while being provided that type or high level of care of course without the racing part 🙂

As a coach I look at things quite differently than say a novice bike rider. Here is where I sometimes see where Strava can do more harm than good. Let’s take my friend as an example. She recently competed in the May Massive mileage challenge. She was determined to be in the top 10 for women across the country and the world and this meant that she had to ride A LOT! If I remember correctly, she did accomplish her goal but to what end? Who really cares save her? My personal opinion is that the May mileage was too much.  But that wasn’t enough for her because she then joined the June mileage challenge.

About three days into the June challenge we were on an evening club ride and she was having a very tough time staying in the group. She had ridden 62 miles earlier in the day and was now on 22 mile hard ride. Why two rides in one day? Well, because how do you accumulate that many miles without riding long miles or even two workouts in one day. I didn’t say anything to her that night. But it should have been obvious to her what was going on. I mean she even made mention that she had ridden 84 miles today and hadn’t received any trophies (awards for fast times on segments).  

The following morning as we were headed to another group ride of 40 miles. I began to query her about her training and recovery habits. Being a former financial planner and a very experienced salesperson I don’t ask questions if I don’t already know the answers. I asked her how many rest days she was taking during the week. I asked her how often she was taking a recovery week during the month. I also asked her how often she goes out on a recovery ride. Each one of these questions and her answers was building a case for me as I easily walked her into the realization that she was overtraining. She even admitted that when she goes out on an easy ride she does not accomplish her goal of doing an easy recovery ride. She said she goes out with every intention of doing an easy recovery ride, but somewhere during the ride she picks up the pace and it turns into an easy/medium ride or an easy/hard ride. Furthermore, if she sees a segment she will attack that segment because she’s had such an easy riding day what harm can it do?  I advised her that if she can’t have the discipline to go easy on an easy day than she should sleep in and stay home!

This all came to a head later that afternoon.  I was so frustrated with her lackluster performance on our group ride.  She was lagging and getting split at lights because she had no umph!  No surge, no sprint and no acceleration.   I had to physically push her on the flats because she kept opening gaps in the paceline.  I was so disappointed that she couldn’t see that riding 400 miles the last six days had done her in.  She looked tired …hung over even.

I spoke to one of our mutual friends and in a joking sort of way said we needed to perform an intervention on our friend, and she knew it immediately what I was talking about. We both realized that our friend was addicted to Strava Yep addicted to Strava sounds funny, but it’s true. You see, there is yet another component of Strava that can lead you to      overtrain. On Strava, you have people following you and they can give you Kudos or leave comments on your ride.  I believe that my friend has gotten caught up in all the attention she receives from all her followers. Furthermore, I suspect that the positive affirmations to her riding has fueled her desire to ride more and receive more comments and so on and so on it’s a cycle If you will.

My next point is somewhat unique to my friend’s situation and other people like her. She has a lot of free time to ride. She doesn’t have a 40 hour workweek to contend with and her children are grown and out of the house. So what you have here is an example of the triple whammy. A social website that promotes and encourages riding a ton of miles, a rider who doesn’t have a coach or training plan with no direction and plenty of idle time and is possibly fueled and enchanted by the positive feedback given by her virtual friends from around the world telling her she is doing a great job. Yeah a great job running herself into the ground!

My friend has been riding so much in an effort to do well on these mileage challenges that she has been ignoring the basic fundamentals of training. What are those fundamentals? In their simplest form, it is to provide your body with stress and then provide adequate time for it to adapt to that stress. We understand this concept very well when we lift weights at the gym. We know that we can’t go into the gym and do hamstring curls and leg extensions, six days a week. We know that on one day we may work on our upper body. Another day we may work our lower body. So why don’t we get this concept when it comes to the bike? Yes, the bike has less impact on your body and because it is such a light load repeated throughout a three-hour training ride it’s possible we don’t make the correlation to our gym experience.

I consider myself fortunate enough to be very self-aware of my body’s limitations and its ability to adapt to stresses I put upon it. I’ve been riding long distances for 10 years. In the past decade, I have been able to learn when my body is asking me to cut back on mileage or come to a screeching halt and REST! As a matter fact, one of the reasons I have the time to write this post today is because I am on an ad hoc rest period of two days. These rest days were not in my training plan but I was feeling tired, lethargic and not motivated to ride Thursday morning. What’s more is that my performance has been fantastic over the last couple of weeks and even as recent as a couple of days ago. So there were no signs or indicators that I was training too much or too hard and that I was wearing down.  However, if I wake up and I’m not motivated to ride then my body is telling me something and I need to listen. I believe my body was asking me for rest and so I have been relaxing and napping for two days. When is the last time you napped?

What if you are not body aware? What if you are still learning how to interpret the signals your body is sending you? Well, then I strongly suggest as a coach and that you acquire a power meter and then immediately buy a subscription for Training Peaks WKO +3.0. There is an awful lot of data that is collected by the power meter. The Training Peaks software allows you to analyze that data with many different charts and graphs. One chart, in particular that is very important in how I assess the progress of my training is the Performance Management Chart. Below is an example of my Performance Management Chart.

Many of you that follow my blog have seen this chart before, but just so that everyone understands what all the squiggly lines mean here is a brief explanation.

Pink line-indicates the amount of stress you have put on your body averaged out for the last seven days.

Yellow line– indicates the amount of rest and recovery you have given your body.

Blue line-indicates the amount of stress you have put on your body averaged out over the last 42 days or six weeks.

What you want to see is the Pink line going up and the Yellow line going down during your build process and then when you give your body a recovery week you should see your pink line and your yellow line coming towards each other. The Blue line should be slowly creeping in an upward direction until you reach your A race/event, your most important event of the year. As you can see from my chart there have been multiple times during this training season that I have taken a recovery week indicated by a plunging PINK line. I have also identified the two events that I have done this year. The Death Valley Double Century , March 2 and the Central Coast Double Century May 11.

There is a much more in-depth discussion that can be had on how the Pink, Yellow and Blue line are calculated. But I think you can graphically see how I have designed my training plan to provide stress and allow appropriate time for adaptation.  As your coach, I would monitor the Performance Management Chart along with constantly asking you how would feel. I would ask for feedback on how you were adapting to the stress and we would tailor and structure your training plan accordingly.

A properly devised training plan is based on hours not miles.  The body doesn’t know how to recognize how many miles you have ridden it only recognizes duration and intensity.

Your Training Stress Score is what your Performance Management Chart uses to calculate the amount of stress your body has received.  A 50 mile ride especially a hilly one may have a higher TSS than say a 75 mile flatter ride with more traffic lights, coasting or even riding in a pack with the benefit of drafting.

In other words, it’s quite possible to have the same training effect with much fewer miles and because a mileage challenge requires a certain number of miles or maximum total amount of miles for the month you may be overreaching and overtraining

Just for kicks I providing you with my Performance Management Chart for the 2012 AND the 2013 season.  Tell me if you can’t see a difference in the two years?  Last year was a very poor year for me lots of personal and professional setbacks.  Not enough training and too much time off the bike.  This year I am riding really well.  Additionally, I am keeping the weight off.  I am consistently at 150 lbs when last year I was over 165 lbs.

Note how the Yellow line (Recovery) is very high in the first half of the graph (2012) and how in 2013 season the Pink line (training stress) is mainly on top and the Yellow Line now in its proper place.

So I have to ask, what is the purpose of competing or if you are one of the “lucky” ones to win a mileage challenge? I don’t think Strava gives cash awards for winning your category. I believe that your accomplishment and your sense of achievement is purely your own which is a very powerful prize.  I’ve seen Strava say you win the gift of fitness for your efforts. But I daresay you run the risk of not winning the gift of fitness. I feel very strongly that if you do not take a long-range approach to your training signing up for multiple mileage challenges will lead you to overtraining. The danger of overtraining is that it could take weeks to recover from it or in the worst cases it could take months if you have caused an overuse injury in the process or constantly fighting a cold in July!

Now don’t get me wrong riding a lot of miles can be necessary as part of a properly structured training plan. As a coach, I advise you to hire a coach before undertaking these mileage challenges and see how they fit into your overall training plan for the year.  I have successfully used training blocks – 4-5 days of hard long miles and then given my body an opportunity to super-compensate for the huge amount of stress I have put on my body.  I have done this twice this season.  The first was at the Death Valley CORPScamp and the second was at the Velo and Vino AdventureCORPS camp in Julian.  Each of those weeks were preceded and followed by a recovery week.

Finally, what’s the point of doing all these miles if you are miserable, tired, cranky and worst of all getting slower?  Personally, I have cut down the quantity of miles year after year and focused more the quality of miles.  I train harder now and ride less.  My results at my events are faster now than when I was doing the 15,000 mile training years.  I am glad I did them when I first started riding because I believe they gave my a huge base.  Don’t be a mileage junkie train with a purpose.  Every day you ride you should have training goals and objectives.  Even a recovery ride has an objective.

SEGMENTS ON STRAVA

As mentioned before, a segment is a stretch of road where the Strava software finds the GPS coordinates and then compares your performance on that stretch of road to other riders who have ridden that same exact stretch of road. The most common segment on Strava is a hill climb. This is where I get the most fun using the software. Living in San Diego, we have plenty of hills and it’s a curiosity to me to see how fast other riders ascend these hills. I actually think this is the best part of Strava. So how can something as simple and as good as that have issues? Well, believe it or not I know of certain riders who wait until days when the weather conditions will facilitate their efforts to win the KOM/QOM , which is the distinction you receive for being the fastest rider on a given segment. These riders will wait until there is a significant tailwind to attempt to set the new fastest time on a segment. I think that’s BS! Man up!

I train alone 90% of the time so I don’t have the benefit of a draft or the benefit of other riders pacing me up a climb, but I know of other riders who do this and use those other riders as a springboard in their KOM attempts. I personally know of riders that have used the drafting of an SUV and bragged about it.  Seriously? And then there are the riders who will drive their bike with their super lightweight race wheels to within a short distance of a climb, do the climb and finish their ride. I think that is lame as well. Many of my KOM attempts on climbs are during a normal training ride, which can be as little as 35 miles to as much as over 100 miles. Heck some of the segments I have created are on the last hill to my house consequently, I’m really tired by the time I attempt a KOM on said hill.

SAFETY

At the beginning of this post I mentioned the Strava user who was killed while riding a downhill segment. This is a sticky subject and one that may not win me many friends. But I think all downhill segments should be removed, flagged and not allowed to be created in Strava. I am personally guilty of riding down certain mountains in an effort to beat my own or a posted best time. I consider myself an extremely good descender. I believe I possess the proper skills, mental focus, and just the right amount of fearlessness necessary to descend a switchback mountain at a very high rate of speed. Most of my bicycle descending skills come from my crotch rocket motorcycling canyon carving days in a pack of other crazy fast motorcyclists. We dragged our knees and rode the local mountains at obscenely outlaw speeds but hey I was younger then and thought I was invincible.  I digress, the basic skills I learned on a motorcycle have helped my bicycle handling skills immensely. There is a local mountain here known as Palomar Mountain. I held the lowest time on the descent of Palomar Mountain for a long while.  Granted Strava was not as popular three years ago. But be that as it may, I did hold the it for almost two years.

Here is a screenshot of the 11.7 mile descent of Palomar Mountain my average speed was 36.8 mph (technical descent)

here is another one on Towne Pass 14 miles at 51.6 mph (not very technical and a tailwind)

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.21.26 PM

My issue with KOD – king of descent is that many riders that do not possess the proper skills or have not been trained properly on how to descend on a mountain and are out there hopelessly competing and trying to beat the times of far more experienced riders. I believe there are many riders who have crashed or have gotten into hot water while descending a mountain while attempting to beat a Strava segment.

Another safety issue I have with Strava segments is when riders create a segment that goes through a traffic control, be it a stop sign or traffic signal. What the heck was that person thinking when they created that segment? NOT SMART! NOT SAFE! I have seen segments where the hill will crest (appropriate end of segment) but yet it goes past the traffic signal as the hill levels off and begins descending on the other side of the traffic signal. Why? That’s just freaking stupid and unsafe. I have flagged those segments and I hope that more of them are flagged by safety conscious riders.

One last comment on safety.  As cyclists we are constantly whining for respect from motorists.  Being a good safe cyclist also means being a good citizen.  Earn that respect from motorists.  Don’t ride your bike like an idiot because you are trying to get a KOM on a segment.  Don’t run red lights or stop signs because some other idiot created a Strava segment that is 20 miles long and includes 10 traffic lights in it (yes those segments are out there).  Be responsible, be courteous and above all be SAFE!

IMPROVEMENTS

I’d like to see where Strava has a bullshit filter. It should know if a hill is 7% grade that you can’t ride it at 50 mph. Many times I see segments where it’s obvious that a rider has forgotten to turn off his GPS unit and is now driving home setting KOM’s all around town at 50 mph.  The software should be able to recognize that the segment is a hill and it isn’t possible to go up the hill at that speed. The software already recognizes the hill, and the percent grade now it just needs one more check before accepting the data and crowning a new KOM/QOM.

Here’s an off-the-wall request for a category – how about a tandem section? Doing a hill climb on a tandem bike is quite different from doing a hill climb on a solo bicycle. Why shouldn’t tandem bicycles be recognized for their hill climbing prowess? But I guess I can see where that can get complicated. You have male/male tandems or female/female and the most common – mixed tandems. And then where would it end triplets of quads? And what about recumbents and velo mobiles? And Eliptogo’s? Where does it end?

FINAL THOUGHTS

I commend Strava for what they’ve done. They’ve helped grow the personal GPS device market significantly, namely Garmin. They’ve gotten experienced riders, like myself, motivated to ride with renewed interest to revisit old climbs. Strava has also created a fun environment for new riders to challenge themselves while gaining insight on their capabilities and limitations as they compare themselves to seasoned riders. All in all Strava can be a positive thing.   With the help of a coach and/or self-discipline Strava does not have to lead you into overtraining or injury.  If you have an addictive personality then you need to be aware when too much is too much.  Only you are responsible for your actions you don’t need Strava to train properly nor can you blame Strava for overtraining.  Let us all be watchdogs and police ourselves and our friends to use it wisely, honorably and safely.

One of the ways I have found that I can use Strava in a positive way is by doing a time trial with my REV Cycling team.  We can choose a hill and launch riders out with time gaps.  All riders ride as hard as they can slower riders are launched out first and don’t want to get caught.  Faster riders are launched with significant time gaps and have to work really hard to chase down the riders that were launched out ahead of them.  When everyone is done the data is downloaded and you have an “official” inexpensive timing service!

Another option would be to settle an argument after a group ride on who actually WAS the fastest rider on a certain hill.  On both of these uses you just click on the filter and choose “Today” then it Strava will show you only the results for that day.

Does the cycling community need Strava?  Maybe.  Many of us will never pin on a race number and pay an entry fee to see how we measure up to other cyclists.  But I think we are all curious…at least a little.  Strava allows us to privately, and at our leisure, check our fitness and our capabilities.  It allows us to connect with cyclists from around the world that share the same passion as we do.  It is a social fitness website. Take what you need and enhance your riding experience with it but don’t become dependent or addicted to it.

I will leave you with a couple of links to Strava groups. The first is the REV Endurance Cycling group which a new development team/club focused on endurance events. The second is the 508 Challenge Cycling Club which encourages riders to ride 508 miles as part of living a healthy lifestyle. Join these clubs if you wish to be part of the Strava world. Whether Strava is for you or not don’t forget the key element in all this ….ride your bike it’s good for you!

5 thoughts on “Strava – Good or Bad for cycling?

  1. I have heard a lot of this strava thing. Most people say the same thing. It’s a great tool, but the end result is bad. The human using it pushes past their limits. Really designed for the expert rider handed down to the novice rider. But the novice riders will be the one who uses it the most and also the ones who don’t know their limitations.

    Getting down to the knitty gritty. Who cares. You won the segment for the day, hour, minute. Only to wake up and find someone beat your posted time. Hero for day… minute?

    My overall impression of Strava is 3 stars. Why 3, because they have a great product but what they are doing with it is bad. What happened to enjoying the ride? You know riding because you like the ride, the people on the ride and the scenes of the ride. What happened to that?… Oh yeah Strava, that’s what happened.

    Don’t let Strava happen to you. Enjoy the ride, or else it’s all in vain.

    Ride safe & wear a helmet.

    Aaron

  2. Nice post George! As a Strava fan, and Strava Ambassador for 3 years now, I enjoy the virtual racing against myself, my friends, and other local riders I’ve never met in person. Your points are spot on though. Too much of a good thing can be bad, and safety is paramount. I don’t agree with Aaron’s comment (above) that Strava keeps people from enjoying the ride. You certainly don’t need Strava, a GPS unit or even a simple cyclometer to enjoy cycling and get a lot out of it, but if you enjoy the digital world and social networking, Strava is an awesome way to see what your friends are up to on the road or trails.

    If you see rides from people that are the result of leaving their GPS unit on while they are driving their car (I’ve seen this many times) you can flag the ride and it will be truncated. I’ve emailed Strava directly about this and they fixed it.

    Have fun with Strava, ignore it when it doesn’t fit into your training, and try to set a personal best on a segment when the time is right. If in doubt, listen to your coach! Thanks again George!

  3. I am so glad you wrote this George and may I also contend that there should be Strava for pears and Strava for apples. Pears are the T-light and stop sign runners and Apples can be the ones who stop, following the rules of the road. How about those pedestrians who are crossing those roads. Running those T-lights can take out a pedestrian and that ticket ranges from $300 to $400 (what I hear). I know running a stop sign ticket is $175 since I rolled through one and paid it (Del Mar).
    I’m giving Aaron my support on his issue because I have met people who are more interested in their Strava segment than riding with the team of people around them. It’s not the type of riding I want to be involved in.
    However, I enjoy Strava for my own PR. When I discovered Strava because a good friend told me about it, I posted my past garmin on Strava and entered with QOM. I didn’t even know what a QOM or KOM was. And yet, I guess I have them.
    The point for me is to simply contend that my riding is intended to be safe #1, filled with a good work-out where I can compare myself to improve my PRs, and certainly enriched with friends that want to ride as a team, that have the skill set to do so, and are more interested in their teammates than they are in watching their numbers on their garmin.
    Thx for your comments George and as always – be safe out there ~ you never know where the shark is going to be in the water and if you are in Costa Rica… it’s also the crocs.
    Debi

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