Keep on Striving

Strava, and the constantly quantified runner

A terrible thing happened to me on my run last Sunday. I didn’t get mugged, lost or run over. I didn’t pick up an injury. The rain didn’t pour; the wind didn’t howl. In fact, it was a perfectly pleasant springtime Sunday. I’d decided to try a different route, take a path that was new to me, and it turned out to be a good decision. The route was scenic, varied and perfectly suited to a long, uninterrupted run. I was having a great time, and could feel that I was running well. So enjoyable was it that I made a conscious decision not to look at my Garmin — live in the moment, I told myself — and so it wasn’t until I turned into my road that I checked my watch to see how far I’d run. And here’s the terrible thing: my watch wasn’t on, it hadn’t been on for almost the entire run. All that was recorded was the jog from my home to some nearby traffic lights — a slow half-mile.

Angrily, I came in through the front door and kicked off my trainers. The Garmin was tossed dismissively onto the floor. Useless. A complete waste of time. The pleasures of the run were now forgotten. It was all my fault; I must have paused it at the traffic lights and forgotten to press ‘resume’. Lost in a reverie of happy running, I hadn’t heard the warning beeps. What made me angry wasn’t just that there was no record of this run, it was that I wouldn’t be able to upload it onto Strava. And as any self-respecting Stravista knows, if it isn’t on Strava, it didn’t happen.

I use Strava. Every run, every race, every track session I take part in gets added to that mass of data that is the world’s most popular online sporting network. I am one of millions of runners and cyclists who use the website (or the app) to track my distances and times, and just as importantly, to compare them with those of others. There are other such websites and apps (Garmin Connect and Nike+, for example) but Strava is by the far the most ubiquitous and, as with all social networks, the more people that use it, the more useful it becomes.

Fellow club-members, pro-athletes, and potentially any other member of the site, can be followed, allowing you to see who’s running where, how often and how fast. Routes are divided into segments, which means you can compete with others, become a course record holder or, in the case of cyclists, King of the Mountains. You can see a map of exactly where you’ve run, get a breakdown of your performance in laps, learn how much elevation you gained, monitor your progress with a training log and set yourself specific goals and challenges.

On Strava, we give each other Kudos (the equivalent of a Facebook Like) — and who doesn’t like a pat on the back after a hard run? Another feature, which I know many runners appreciate, is that you can also add details of the shoes you wore on each run, thereby learning exactly how many miles you’ve covered in each pair of trainers you possess.

For me, Strava has two particular benefits. One is that I love running and I love maps, so seeing a map of where I’ve run, or where others have run, is a source of such happiness that I’m almost embarrassed to admit it. The other is that knowing my run will be up on Strava, there for all my followers to see, means that I’m always pushing myself to do better. These days, thanks in large part to Strava, whenever I feel like slacking off a bit on a run, I don’t do it — I keep on going. The fear of being seen to be a quitter is for me a powerful motivator. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

The fact that I’d forgotten to turn my Garmin back on during this pleasant Sunday run might not have been a complete disaster as Strava enables you to manually upload your run. So if you know how far you ran and how long it took, you type these numbers in and you can at least find out your pace and keep your training log up to date. I didn’t know how far I’d run, it was a new route, and I hadn’t bothered to see what time it was when I set off, so it was no use. My run was like the tree that falls soundlessly in the forest — there was no-one there to hear it.

But why does it matter? Looked at objectively, my reasons for being unhappy about not being able to upload a run onto Strava are pretty feeble. I know I ran well, I know it will be easy to find the route again, I know I enjoyed myself. Surely those are the important things. Running is essentially a solitary pursuit, and much of the pleasure that can be derived from it is of a personal nature. It shouldn’t make any difference whether other people can see what I’ve done or not. And why is it necessary for me to always know exactly how far and how fast I ran? I know a long run from a short one; I don’t need to be told whether it was fast or slow, hard or easy. So, why do I care?

It’s possible that I’m just another devotee of the ‘quantified self’. That tendency that many of us now have to monitor our behaviour, and then to publish it, so that others might give us praise (Kudos to that!). Thanks to our smartphones and watches, we can track and assess not just our runs and our rides, but also our calories, our footsteps, our heartbeats: the minutia of our lives. Runners and cyclists, obsessed with the details that the numbers provide, have been pioneers of the cult of the constantly quantified, and that may or may not be a good thing.

There is a risk that Strava (and other technological tools) becomes an end in itself rather than simply a means to running well. It isn’t the run, it’s the recording of it that counts. And in this process something gets lost. When a perfectly good Sunday afternoon run is ruined for me because I can’t upload it, something’s wrong. I should be more appreciative of my surroundings, thankful that I have the opportunity, the health, and the ability to go on runs like this at all. Whatever the benefits of Strava are, and I do believe there are many, it should never be allowed to eclipse the essential joy that can be found in simply going for a run. Which doesn’t me to say that I’m going to stop using Strava, far from it. It’s just that I need to learn how to use it in a way that won’t stop me from enjoying myself.

I’m at that stage in my running where times are important. I don’t believe I have yet reached my potential, and I’m pretty sure that, all going well, I’ve still a got a few years left in which to get faster, albeit at a gradually decreasing rate of progress. As a result, I do want to know how fast I ran a particular distance, even on a Sunday run. I need to up my mileage, but in gradual amounts to avoid the risk of injury, so it is necessary for me to know how many miles I’m covering in a week. I also run with a club, so sharing details of routes and races with other club members, as well as giving and receiving lots of Kudos, is not only useful, but is an important factor in the sense of community that club running can provide. Strava might not always be helpful, but just at the moment it’s a part of my running life and I’ll stick with it. I just need to remember that just because it isn’t on Strava, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

This article was written under the influence of Moses Smith.

Edward Price is a writer and editor. He lives in London with his wife and son, and runs for his local club, Barnet and District AC. @edprice7


Originally published at www.therunningstories.com.

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