Stravanoia

Strava has revolutionised the way we ride our bikes. For some, it’s a way to find new routes, for some it’s a way to chart progress and gains in fitness, and for some, it’s a great social tool – finding and connecting with other riders.

But, is Strava, much like Instagram and Facebook, essentially quite destructive? Is it just anther platform for us to share the most positive picture of our lives and our training: the fastest of rides, the most impressive of KoMs, the most smashed of segments or interval sessions? Does it become something that influences the way you ride, and the story you tell of your training?

I like Strava, but I hate it quite a lot. I love my bike, and likewise quite a lot of the time I hate it – when I’m three hours into a five hour ride and I ache and feel bonky and hungry, when I look at it and feel the pressure to ride it from the demands of both a training plan, and pehaps, more notably – Strava.

I was listening to a recent episode of The Cycling Podcast and Daniel Friebe coins a really interesting phrase: ‘Stravanoia’, and is an issue that has rattled around my head for a while.

Friebe was brings up the topic it with regards to an interview he held with Hendrik Werner, coach of Team Sunweb, and separate discussions he’d had with Brernie Eisel and Ian Boswell. Below is an excerpt, spoken by Friebe, that epitomises the concept. It’s a really interesting part of the podcast that I urge you to listen to, if you’re short on time, go to 36 minutes into the audio here to find the relevant section (however, I highly recommend you listen to The Cycling Podcast every week if you don’t already).

‘It’s this phenomenon of looking closely at people’s training [on Strava], especially over winter, and getting into a tiz about it and thinking you’re not doing enough… it can become quite an obstacle for coaches who are setting riders particular training sessions. Riders can become guilty of not doing the specific exercises, and are too worried about keeping up appearances, and making sure they’re maintaining a decent speed, or making sure they’re going for particular KoMs.’ 

Also mentioned in passing in the podcast is the fear of what can be portrayed on Instagram and the need to carefully curate this. For pros, a post of a cafe stop with a creamy hot chocolate betrays a lack of discipline and focus, for example.

Strava does place a sort of pressure on a rider – for pros that’s a legitimate pressure, though for amateurs, it’s a sort of pressure of self-expectation. The public forum in which you share your training can become a mind-fuck, particularly when the legs are not giving you what you want, or if you’re forced off the bike for a while due to injury or illness.

For enthusiastic amateurs like me, those of us with a ‘training’ mindset, and who spend a lot of time, money and concentration on bikes, Strava can be something of a shop window of your activity (if you load all your rides up there, of course). In that shop window, you don’t want to appear slow, weak or low on miles that week. As meaningless as you know it is, it can be satisfying to get that little ‘kudos’ thumb of approval from all and sundry. Most of those magical thumbs are from people you’ve met once on a ride and have never spoken to since, or who you crossed paths with on the road many years ago and were stalked into friendship via the ‘flyby’ feature. To them, they just see the ride and mindlessly click that button. They don’t look at the details, click into the numbers and look at the intervals or the averages. But you know that some people dig deep into the file, looking at your heart rate trend, looking at your cadence for those tell-tale light fast feet of form, or the minimal stopped time of when you really feel ‘on it’ and are pushing every second of gain out of the ride. And for me at least, they’re the things I look at on my own rides. When I’m feeling good, I like to see a nice high average cadence, a chunky weighted average power, a reasonable top speed. When I’m feeling bad, I don’t even look at the long non-moving time when I pull over at the side of the road to stretch my hips or root around in my pocket for the remnants of an energy bar with fingers frozen by the unusually deep chill Oxfordshire. Those micro-breaks of procrastination can betray a lot.

As Friebe alludes to in the podcast, the public sharing of training data (although a lot of pros mask their ‘hard’ power and heart rate data), can lead to self-destructive or unbeneficial habits even among the most disciplined of pros. The knowledge people may be prying into your session can lead to the desire to push just a little harder on your ‘recovery’ ride, just to nudge up that average speed and average power a little – even to the point where there are no recovery benefits – or where you perhaps push on too hard on a set of intervals designed to be working a particular system, and which, by pushing too hard, can lead to a totally different outcome of the session. It can all come down to keeping up appearances. A lot of training and athletic success comes down to self-belief and confidence. Portraying that on Strava can be the first step.

At the other end of the spectrum from betraying strength on Strava is how you handle those days where those it’s just not going your way. Let’s face it, you have days where you’re the hammer, days when you’re the nail, as the saying goes. Sometimes you can breeze through the hardest set of VO2 max intervals feeling like a king, like there’s rockets in your heels and a motor in your hips. But a lot of the time, you may be tired from work, from the previous ride, from a bad sleep, from anything. Those VO2 intervals may be way off power, or you may go that bit too hard early in the session and blow up half way.

What do you do in those instances? The first mental reaction, for me at least, is a slight sense of resentment at my body for being shit, for failing to obey. And then you consider how to go about the rest of the session. Do you keep grinding away at it, and get it done? As long as you’re still hitting the very lowest end of the training zone, you’re still getting the relevant adaptions, just not as much of them – and doing that is better than not doing it at all. Or do you just bail on the session in angry frustration, feeling that you need to hit that very highest of prescribed powers, or it’s all a waste? 

In the back of your mind, posting up either situation for all and sundry who have decided to follow you on Strava can be a slightly daunting and humiliating experience. Finish the session at lesser numbers and it makes your ‘hard’ sessions look not very hard and thus make you look very mediocre. Totally abandon the session and you look mentally weak. In either situation, how do you paint the scene of the ride in that all-important title and notes section?

I think that you can read a lot into he way that people annotate a Strava ride. The words that are written can be a real indicator of confidence, or a real sign of a rider at their wits end with lack of form. OK, so some people leave their rides as the generic ‘morning ride’, ‘evening ride’ etc, but many turn that title and descriptive notes section into a full-blown account of every revolution of the pedal. I tend to go in for a bit of a description, maybe a sentence or two. I use Training Peaks to really monitor my fitness, and that where I write up a session in more detail if I feel it’s required; meaning that any notes in Strava are as much for the outside world as for me – thus making them something of a boast or justification, depending which way the ride went. And it seems that I’m not the only one who use this ride description to portray something to their Strava audience, rather than for their own future training reference. I can totally understand someone writing up a big adventure ride in a bit of detail, if it was something out of the ordinary or a big event.

It’s the publicly-shared story behind a ‘training session’ that perhaps betrays the most. I know that for me, and at least a few handfuls of others that I follow, this narrative is a little insight into their mind and their sense of confidence. When the session went well, those notes may just be a casual reference to the powers that you hit, or an understated ‘legs felt good’. When the session goes bad, descriptions can be totally lacking – you load the ride into Strava then can’t face looking at the site at all for the rest of the day – or it may be tale of woe as you sit and wallow in misery after the ride, still in your bib shorts typing in dismay before staring blankly into space chewing over what went wrong.

There’s a lot to be said about annoying habits on Strava too. I won’t go into things that irk me such as the need to post up 15 minute S&C sessions or 1km rides to the pub, (though check out twitter.com/Stravawankers for some funny stuff), or the endless pictures of perfect flat whites at cafe stops and the stats on the headunits of a ‘wahooligan’ after an epic day in the saddle as they’re all relatively minor, and just an indicator of my grumpy nature. All in, as alluded to at the top of the piece, Strava is a great platform and I don’t want to pour doom on it.

What I’m getting at here is that with training, comes pressure. For those of us that are known to regularly compete in road races or TTs, or who want to do well in the more fiercely competed Gran Fondos and Haute Routes etc, Strava can be used to magnify, or at least quietly betray, your form. When training goes bad, it brings to light your weaknesses, both in the bare numbers and the way you describe them.

But it’s the way you interact with Strava – how much you care – that matters. Do you feel the need to push on when you shoudn’t, ruining the nature of the session? Do you conjure excuses for a failed session or contemplate not even loading up the ride?

I used to sort of ‘care’ about my appearance and profile on Strava, and it perhaps did lead to some stupid training sessions that just became junk. I wasn’t a KoM-hunter or mega willy-waver as I’m not that good, but I did used to care about those publicly-visible stats. Now, however, I couldn’t really give a monkeys. To train ‘right’ you need to do it without ego. Take Strava for what it is – a social network used to paint the best picture of yourself – and leave it there.


Postscript:

I write this piece at a point where my training mojo is rock bottom, and though I’d like to think I’m a guy of little ego at the best of times, my Strava bravado is currently rock bottom. That may be why this post is a little over-negative. And whilst I apologise for that, I also don’t. I mostly think Strava is a very positive thing, but I do think it can lead to some quite disordered behaviour. Also, if you’ve read a few of my blogs, you’ve probably come to expect a slightly dark take on things, so should’ve been prepared for a critical take!

The legs will get better. I just need to resolve a few issues, physical and emotional. The next post will be more positive. For now, ciao.

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