Strava fuels community and runner anxiety

Last November, I ran the New York City Marathon.

Like going vegan or doing CrossFit, it’s something you’ll discover within seconds of meeting me any time of the year. All I did was eat carbs, run, and talk to people about running, and as a result, I gathered a group of friends who also ran. And the first thing you do with a new running friend? Add them to Strava.

Many people find companionship in this kind of community. Every good run is met with cheers, and every bad run is met with support. But for me and other runners, all we got out of it was anxiety.

While preparing for the marathon, the longest run in my training plan – 20 miles – coincided with a heavy cold rainstorm that hit New York City. I was slower, less confident on my feet, and carrying a few extra pounds of soaked fabric. It was uncomfortable, sure, but ultimately the biggest failure of this race wasn’t my legs, my shoes, or my general lack of weather-wicking running clothes – it was a technological failure.

At mile five, my waterproof headphones stopped working because they were so waterlogged that they turned off. By the time my clothes were soaked and dripping with rainwater at mile seven, I couldn’t navigate with my phone either – it was too wet to control. But I was only using my phone for music and as a backup tracker, so I wasn’t too worried.

I mainly track my runs on my Apple Watch, which automatically uploads my workouts to Strava. My watch was working great until rain interrupted my training at mile 15. I didn’t notice it until mile 17 when, looking at my watch to check my stats, I saw that it wasn’t working. had recorded none of the previous two miles. . I stopped in my tracks and cried, put the watch in waterproof mode, and walked a few more miles only to have my watch—and especially my Strava upload—say “20 miles.” At the time, everyone else in my Strava training for the marathon was also running 20 miles that weekend. They must have known that I was participating too. They had to know I did it, because if not, did it matter?

This race wasn’t just a training run for me. It was a spectacle and I had lost my audience.

The pressure to perform well within an exercise culture dominated by technology and social media logging, particularly influenced by platforms like Strava, can promote community and accountability. But it can also lead to a joyless, comparison-driven environment, and ultimately turn personal workouts into performative acts for public validation.

Why does self-monitoring take the fun out of exercising?

There’s a truth I learned during marathon training: technology and self-monitoring have changed the way we exercise. If we have a bad run, we have to make excuses for our poor performance. We are only proud of ourselves if we accomplish something more than someone else. As @ironmanclaire notes on TikTok, “justifying slow runs on Strava is the name of the game.” Here are some of the justifications people put forward:

  • Shake yourself

  • I swallowed a bug

  • Stimulating Jessica (Jessica is not a real person)

  • I stopped to chat with a friend

  • I felt sick

  • Maximum stomach aches

  • So many traffic lights

  • GPS was off

  • Just vibrate

  • Stopped for coffee

  • Low heart rate

I have, humiliatingly, used just about all of it. When I scroll through my app and see people running faster and further than me, I worry about my training plan. I feel like I’m not doing enough: I’m not running fast enough, I’m not running far enough, I’m not running up hills enough. I worry that my friends are getting more kudos (Strava’s version of likes) than me.

We know that Strava and other similar fitness tracking apps can create “obsessive tendencies to avoid” among users, affecting their mental health and general well-being.

“Social features of fitness apps that promote self-recognition, such as posting only positive workout data or photos, may be linked to maladaptive perceptions of exercise and long-term burnout. In contrast, social features of fitness apps that promote reciprocity, such as giving support and feedback on colleagues’ activities are likely to lead to adaptive outcomes,” Dr Eoin Whelan, senior lecturer in information systems at company at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics who worked on the study “How the social dimension of fitness apps can improve and harm well-being,” told cycling shop Road.

We constantly blame ourselves, and for what? I struggle to summarize it better than Elizabeth Barber did in her 2018 Wired essay, “What happens when you follow your boyfriend on Strava“.

“We’re all on Strava, I’m pretty sure, to get better with our own data,” says Barber. “But on Strava, personal development meets social media. There are many apps that make life performative and competitive, but Strava succeeds in recreating a lamented necessity – exercise – as an enviable experience. A runner’s workout on Strava , with a title and photos, is a statement of who she is and, perhaps, who you should be too.” She ultimately discovered that she liked herself “much better” when she was “running unsupervised.”

She describes Strava as a “joyless databank for the insecure.” And if I think about my race, it’s not safe. I’m not a natural athlete. I’m slower than everyone I follow on the app and often feel less motivated than them. Running the marathon has never been my life’s dream, and while I enjoy the occasional runner’s high, I would much rather have a regular high.

Strava is, at its core, a social media platform – and these platforms encourage comparison.

“You fall into this comparison trap,” influencer and running coach Courtney Kitchen told Mashable. “If you see someone else running the same race as you, like the same number of miles or whatever you ran that day, and they did it faster, you can feel worse about yourself.”

But this isn’t a problem unique to Strava: it simply exists online in 2023. There are more runners than ever, and with running influencers becoming more and more popular, we’re apparently more competitive and efficient online.

There are of course other reasons why you might not want to use a fitness tracker. Strava once gave the location of secret American military bases (oops). If you leave your profile public and allow the app to display your cards, it’s pretty simple for a stalker to identify not only your home address, but also your general running route. And because data collected by Strava and other fitness trackers is not protected by law Like other health information, apps can be hacked and fall into the wrong hands.

Running towards sporting authenticity and community

As one study shows, “Reflections from the “Strava sphere”: congratulations, community and (self)monitoring on a social network for athletes“, emphasizes Strava, it can be a source of motivation and entertainment. This can help “establish or strengthen social networks.” The platform rewards users for their bodily self-discipline.

Ewan Heritage, another running influencer and coach, told Mashable that the fact that Strava requires you to share the real run contributes to its ability to be seen as a more authentic influencer and athlete.

“It gives me responsibility for the running sessions I have to complete,” Heritage said. “I can post on Instagram that I’m doing this 5k to go faster and that’s how I do it, but I don’t actually do it. But after I do it, my fans can see that I “I did and it makes it more authentic. They can see that I am doing the work that I am preaching about.

And it’s true: it’s really hard to lie on these trackers.

If you use Strava or other fitness trackers purely for your own knowledge, voluntary self-monitoring can have a pretty positive impact. Several scientists agree that self-tracking improves self-reflection and can make people feel more in control of their performance and their bodies. For example, Kitchen told me she loved all the data and statistics because it was fun to see her improvement. But it can also lead people to view themselves as a manipulable project that must be constantly worked on.

And, to be honest, my Strava posts are fun. My friends post photos of themselves doing things they love, usually in a pretty unflattering way. It’s nice to see people having a good time and, of course, there’s something about Strava that’s less addictive than other social media sites. You can’t monetize your account, you don’t spend hours browsing other people’s posts, and that’s pretty cool. Kitchen agrees, saying it’s her favorite social media platform.

Strava helps some users who aren’t in the same state as their friends feel like they can exercise together even when they’re not next to each other. I’ve done distance races, where you run at the same time as other people on Strava, and you get a t-shirt or medal mailed to you. I used to use this kind of trackers like personal diariesand I still do it – in the private section of training.

But when everything we do feels like a performance, it’s hard to see the point in revealing even more of our vulnerabilities just for the public to examine. People saw me do whatever it took to train for the marathon, and then they saw me run it. It was cool, but I still don’t know if it was worth it.

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