In this first of three articles explaining the ins and outs of Strava, veteran triathlete Frank Smuts gives us the low-down on this popular social network platform for athletes and explains what it can do for you.

Strava is to sporting members of the human race what Facebook is to the rest of humanity. However, there are major differences between these two popular social network platforms. First up, it’s not as easy to fake success on Strava like one can on Facebook. And secondly, Strava users never have to disguise their motives when trying to prove they’re better than everyone else. In fact, on this platform, you’re actively encouraged to beat your fellow man. Heck, you even get kudos for it and a virtual crown if you succeed in beating them all!

Simply put, Strava is a cleverly designed online portal that, in principle, fulfils two main roles: First, it captures your sports activity and, secondly, it ranks your performance in relation to other athletes. However, this ranking system often leads to unbridled competitiveness which can get ugly. The end result: Some athletes love Strava and fully embrace all its features, while others absolutely hate it. So the questions you have to ask yourself when joining are: What is Strava to you? And can it add any value to your life?

Wikipedia defines Strava as a “website and mobile app used to track athletic activity via GPS.” This explanation suggests Strava merely captures your training and racing data. But I think Wikipedia erred by omitting Strava’s main driving force – namely that it ranks athletes according to their performances over GPS-marked sections called “segments”.

This ranking system motivates the competitive pro-Strava contingency to better their cycling, running or swimming times over these segments. While the anti-Strava population strongly believes this pecking order distorts the real reason for sport – which should be the quality of life and satisfaction on a personal level, without the need to compare oneself to others.

The saying goes; you can’t make everybody happy unless you’re pizza. This brings us to the question: Does Strava only cater for the fast and furious, or is it multi-dimensional enough to add value to every Tom, Dick and Henrietta’s sporting life?

How Strava invaded my life
Allow me to address the issue by telling you how Strava invaded my life. I’m not a morning person. By the time I normally get out of bed most other respectful athletes have already clocked about two hours of training. Secondly, I am also rather lazy. But I consider my inability to deal with underachievement an even worse character trait! So, to get me going each morning, I flip open my iPad, tap Strava and shudder at what I see – a densely populated timeline of activities already banked by my fellow athletes.

I don’t think Strava initially set out to be a crutch for people that need a kick in the butt, but it definitely morphed into that for me. I see people of all ages, sizes and talents showing character by finding time during their busy days to train and it rids me of excuses. Without fail it gets me to plan my day with a time, a place and a commitment to train. I both love and hate Strava for this very reason. But, as mentioned, it’s a much-needed kick in the butt that definitely serves a greater good in my life.

Learning from others
On another dimension, Strava’s legitimised voyeurism also allows for a steady stream of knowledge to be shared. And the best part is it’s not once-off info, but a real-time, day in, day out view of every Strava member’s activities. Each athlete is in principle a reality show in his or her own right… and I get to share in it all. I have a great variety of Strava connections from whom I learn a lot. I get to see the varied ways in which different people approach their training and racing. Some alter between low and high intensity, mixing up long, slow distances with short and fast, while others persist with staying in the fatigue zone. Some take a break. Then again, some never stop, like me.

I also like the fact that I get to stay in touch with the general pace and speed of athletes in terms of age and other parameters, even weight. If you’re a coach, lots can be inferred from these stats and be applied to great effect. It amazes me no end to see the how easy the youngsters achieve super-fast splits. But, at the same time, I find it just as inspirational to see the not-so-young looking after their bodies and keeping themselves in top shape.

For me though, the jackpot is to follow professional athletes. To pay the bills they need to win – and I get to see how they train to accomplish it. Just the fact that they allow us mere mortals a view on their training programs via Strava is a privilege and worth a lot. And although I don’t want to, I have to admit I’ve made many amendments to my training schedules by watching and learning from other athletes from all levels – and Strava made that possible.

What your Strava account says about you
Strava allows for the customization of every training session. A photo, a caption, along with other comments can be applied, or not. This gives us a glimpse of each athlete’s personality; how they experience their training and their disposition towards other athletes, or not. For some it’s simply about the basic stats and nothing more. They’re the machines that never add a caption, a photo or any other subtlety that give away anything about themselves. They firmly belong to the “or not” group.

Similar to the “Like” button on Facebook, Strava has a Kudos button. By giving a kudos athletes show their recognition and approval of each other’s efforts. It doesn’t take long to build a relationship with people you’ve never met when you share kudos, which is great. Then again, there are people who just can’t get themselves to share a kudos. I choose to believe they use Strava merely as a data capturing platform. Other athletes often upload a photo taken during their training session, or add a creative caption and other details – it opens up a window into their personalities, their environment and training regimes.

The jackpot is when you connect with an athlete located in a distant part of the globe, like Alaska, Nepal or any other exotic place, who adds photos and other interesting details. The experience never ceases to add value to my life, as I get to see places I never knew existed before, coupled with an athletic human interaction.

Bringing out the beast from within
Up until now, I’ve only sung Strava’s praises, but where humans are involved there will always be controversy – and Strava can definitely bring out the beast in some athletes. The term “Stavasshole” actually came into existence courtesy of Strava, or more to the point, athletes that use this great app and portal in the wrong way. As mentioned before, Strava encourages competitiveness, but when egos get it the way it can become a recipe for trouble.

The most coveted achievement in Strava is a KOM (King Of the Mountain) or QOM (Queen Of the Mountain) title. As you’d expect, the most ardent Strava members are the KOM or QOM hunters. These dedicated athletes make it their goal to record the fastest time over specific segments. They shoot to the top of the ranking list and get the golden KOM/QOM crown next to their names. The previous KOM/QOM holder then gets notified that his or her crown has been stolen, and it’s game on!

All of this allows for a great sporting spirit, banter, motivation, and everything else that makes Strava fun. However the issue of “stravassholes” can’t be ignored. Sadly, this darker side of Strava is a reality and I don’t see it ever going away – because it’s perpetuated by members who’ve lost control of their egos. I’ve had the nasty experience of being pushed off my bike once by a fellow mountain biker – simply because I apparently obstructed the single track he was about to enter, and my presence would derail his Strava effort! Extremists appear in all spheres of life and, sadly, Strava is no exception.

The fact that testosterone plays such a major role in sporting pursuits doesn’t help much either. The KOM/QOM hunters are out there, and some of them won’t let you or I come anywhere between them and that coveted crown – or even just a personal best time. Chasing your Strava goals in life is a great motivator, but whatever you do try and stay humble. Keep in mind there will always be someone faster, richer, brighter and everything else, than you. We’re all but a blip on the radar of the universe, so please don’t take yourself too seriously.

Get it on your phone
Getting Strava on your phone is pretty straight forward, simply browse to your app store on Android or iOS and register an account. We’ll get into Premium accounts later in the series but for most users, the free account is perfectly adequate to track and share your activities. You can set up a profile and find friends linked to other social networks quite easily. You can start familiarising yourself with the app and even track an activity this weekend. Simply find the record icon in the bottom centre of the screen, and tap it when you are ready to go. When you are done, you just tap the same button and save your workout. We’ll cover all the details of configuring your app next week.

Wrapping up, for now
The important thing as an athlete is for you to enjoy Strava for all it can add to your life, it’s a very sophisticated platform and well worth the effort. In next week’s article about Strava, we’ll take a look at how to configure your account and preferences correctly, connect your Garmin device and interact with other athletes on the platform. The Strava premium account features are very sophisticated – offering more info on your live feed, training programs, real time Strava Live on your Garmin device while you train and other perks. Bottom line: Strava offers a lot. So why not join the club and enjoy this portal that opens up the athletic world in some pretty amazing ways. The next article will be published Tuesday 1 August 2017. – (c) 2017 NavWorld

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