Strava Crazy? Here’s How To Use It To Ride Better

What you need to know about the psychology of our ride apps to harness their powers for good.


Paul Roberts / Illustrations by Matthew Billington |

Not long ago, I went on what may have been one of the most glorious rides of my life – a three-and-a-half-hour rural loop with a steep 10-kay climb that’s famous among locals. It was one of those days when everything – weather, training, rest, group chemistry, and caffeine – came together perfectly. I soared up the valley at a scorching pace that I knew would earn me a Strava PR – perhaps even a place in the hallowed Top 10. As I pedalled, I could almost see the kudos racking up.

Alas, when I downloaded the file, it was empty. In my post-ride bliss, I’d forgotten to save my ride before powering down. The ride – and all my prospective glory – had vanished. There’d be no ritual post-ride data wallow. No analysing of watts or heart rate. And certainly no PR or kudos: as far as Strava was concerned, I’d never even got out of bed. Hell, I’d been so busy having the ride of my life that I hadn’t taken out my phone, so I didn’t even have a photo to post. I spent the rest of the day in a serious mope; and as embarrassing as it is to admit, the loss still annoys me.

The ability to measure, document, and share what I do on the bike has added enormously to everything from training to bike-related socialising. Yet for a long time, I saw this digital side of cycling as secondary: the priority was always the actual experience. These days, I’m not so sure. Somewhere along the line, I – and a lot of other cyclists – began to prize the digital ‘outputs’ almost as much as the ride itself.

Look at how routine it’s become for us to document everything. I’ve seen dudes whip out their phones for selfies in the middle of a road race, and even social rides start with a chorus of chirps from Garmins and Wahoos. Every 60 seconds, according to Strava, another six cyclists sign up for the app.

Recording and posting is becoming so reflexive that many of us are also asking the question: for all that our apps have given us, are we losing something, too? Are we forgetting about the impossible-to-track feeling of being on a bike that drew us to riding in the first place? And if so, what can we do about it without going full Luddite?

There is a middle ground. But finding it requires an awareness of how tech affects our rides. Here’s how we got to ‘Strava or it didn’t happen’ – and how we might strike a better balance between the real and the digital.

STRAVA

Cycling’s digital revolution combines two of the most popular trends in consumer culture – social media, and self-tracking. And frankly, it would be hard to find a sport better suited to measuring, monitoring, and quantifying. The bike itself, with its standardised components that move in consistent ways, is easily equipped for measurement. (No surprise that cycling had some of the earliest data-gathering technology, including the ‘cyclometer’, introduced in the late 19th century, which used rotations of the wheel to measure distance travelled.) The sport’s mechanical nature also tilts it towards the tech-savvy. And cycling culture has always revolved around the idea of going further and faster.

What’s more, compared with other activities, cycling arguably gives us more reason to measure and share. The bike’s mechanical advantage magnifies our own natural power – which means we can cover more ground than athletes in most other sports, and can tackle extremes like long climbs and blisteringly fast descents. Cycling can put us in places that practically cry out for quantification and documentation.

2. Feel ‘addicted’? It’s not a coincidence.

As with smartphones and other personal tech, cycling gadgets and apps are engineered to feel indispensible. (Poll: when do you check Strava – before or after you change out of your kit?) In a fascinating blog post from 2014, marketing expert and ‘behavioural designer’ Nir Eyal breaks down the way companies such as Nike use exercise data to encourage users to forge a psychological link between exercise and their apps and gadgets.

The goal for Nike, however mercenary it sounds, is to “own the instant just before the user heads out the door to work out,” writes Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Eyal calls this moment the ‘trigger’. As he describes it, “Designers should be able to fill in the blank for the phrase, ‘Every time the user (____), they use my app.’ The blank should be the internal trigger.” A habit-forming product also offers a reward, he says, or what psychologists call ‘intermittent reinforcement’. In Strava, PRs and leaderboard notifications perform this function.

Finally, the product asks for what Eyal calls ‘investment’: actions that increase the likelihood of return. When you log a training activity on Strava, or even follow other riders, Eyal says, you’re making an investment.

3. Tech legitimately helps us to enjoy the ride more.

It’s not just that we’re addicted to data. Besides being useful for training, digital apps can actually make cycling more satisfying. Anyone who’s ever used a notebook to record how many kays they’ve ridden knows how affirming and motivating it is to keep a ride log. As Eyal points out, “Athletes want to know their effort matters.” These apps, he says, allow us to feel that “all that sweating isn’t going to waste”.

Snapping that ’gram can actually up the ‘whee!’ factor on a ride, too. A 2016 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that taking pictures during sightseeing tours and meals made those activities significantly more enjoyable. Why? When people snap pictures, says Kristin Diehl, one of the study’s authors and a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, “they have to decide ‘What is it I want to take a photo of?’ and that shifts how they look at the world.”

Diehl, who also happens to be a competitive triathlete, tells me that when that mental process happens on the bike, we become more mentally and emotionally invested in the ride.

4. It can even help us enjoy the ride longer.

Cyclists have always rehashed their epic adventures, in loving detail, and often over beers or coffee.

But thanks to digital technologies, our ritual recaps can now occur virtually, anywhere and anytime.

In 2015 and 2016, a team led by Deborah Lupton, a sociologist from the University of Canberra in Australia, spent months closely observing 18 self-tracking cyclists as they rode around the cities of Canberra and Melbourne.

Lupton was keen to understand exactly how cyclists were using data – for example, when they reviewed ride data (during the ride versus after) and how they interpreted it. Riders wore GoPros as they prepared for the ride and after they finished.

Lupton found that riders relied on data not only to assess their performance, but also to relive the ride – for example, by using surges in speed, power, or heart rate to confirm their memories of the sensations and emotions they’d experienced. Data can be used for analysis, “but it can also just be about remembering the ride you’ve done,” Lupton told me, “the pleasure of it, or the misery of it.”

Hours or days after a ride, from the quiet solitude of our homes or desks at work, we can post and peruse photos and videos. If the ride was fast and competitive, we can compare our segment times against our friends’ and rivals’ – and make a few playful digs in the comments.

Features like Flyby on Strava even allow us to watch a group ride happen all over again: we can see how people rode to the meet-up, who got dropped, who went off the front.

5. Thanks to social media, we probably ride more, and faster.

Indeed, digitisation has added a new competitive dynamic to cycling. Seeing what others are doing – how fast someone rode a particular segment, or how many hours they put in this week – can motivate us to ride more ourselves. And knowing that our friends can see where we’ve ridden, how far, and how fast – online training programmes such as TrainerRoad even allow you to share your power tests – can push us to ride harder.

Sinan Aral, marketing and social media expert at the MIT Sloan School of Management, calls this a ‘contagion’ effect. In a 2017 study he co-authored for Nature Communications, Aral found that our friends’ social media activities can measurably influence how much effort we put into our own training.

By observing the behaviour of 1.1 million people in a global social network over five years, Aral found that on the same day, on average, an additional kilometre run by one’s friends can influence an individual to run an additional 0.3 kilometres. There’s a similar correlation for speed: seeing a fast run post from a friend on social media can encourage you to up your pace, too.

strava

Motivation is one thing, but non-stop competitive pressure can be counterproductive, to say the least.

The effort to shave seconds can cause some cyclists to ride recklessly, risking crashes and other injury to chase QOMs or KOMs on descents. But even casual rides or solo sessions that should be fun can feel uncomfortably like a race, with a constant need to ‘perform’ for followers, or match our friends’ (or frenemies’) weekly mileage or segment times.

In fact, the always-on-display social media element of cycling can actually interfere with training, says Joe Friel, a veteran coach and training author. That’s especially true for competitive cyclists, who are most in need of time to recover. “If you’re training for KOMs or PRs, well, that’s fine,” Friel says. “But if you’re training for road races, there’s a lot more to it than beating your time up a Strava climb.”

7. And sometimes we totally miss out on the experience.

We now routinely split our cycling into an experiential ‘during’ mode and a data-driven ‘after’ mode.

We collect ride data and photos during the ride, and enjoy them afterwards. That’s great – except that sometimes, it may feel as if the point of the ‘during’ phase is to create that stuff we can use ‘after’.

In the Instagram era, it’s considered essential to come back from a ride with The Shot – a picture or video that you just know “is really going to resonate” with other riders, says Andy Bokanev, an amateur racer and professional photographer with a large Instagram presence. The problem, of course, is that searching for that one photo may dilute your current experience. Or as Bokanev puts it, “You’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is a really cool sunset spot;’ but then instead of just standing there and viewing the damn sunset, you’re trying to take the perfect picture on your iPhone, which is never going to happen anyway, and you’re missing out on the actual moment.”

And, of course, that risk of distraction is hardly limited to photos. When we’re riding in full geek mode, it’s hard not to be constantly aware of the way the ride will be viewed later on, by ourselves and by others, and how that will make us feel. Mentally, we’ve left the bike already.

8. In extreme cases, rides start to revolve around content creation.

“For some folks, the numbers and the images become the experience,” says Keith Campbell, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and an expert in technology, identity, and social interaction.

As a serious amateur surfer, Campbell witnessed a similar transformation in his sport, where the prevalence of GoPros turned rank amateurs into would-be YouTube stars. On recent surfing expeditions, Campbell says, each day’s session is followed by a group review where the athletes, some of whom hope to turn pro, review and pick from the day’s photos and videos to post. “In the old days you’d become a local legend by word of mouth, or by doing something legendary that people saw,” he says. “Today, to be a legend, you need video.”

Clearly, we’re not all looking for pro contracts. But for some, cycling can become a personal branding enterprise. Our data and pictures become a form of ‘social currency’, says Campbell, and “the ride is simply a way of generating that”.

Ouch. Campbell admits that the idea of social currency is pretty mechanistic – yet it does help explain the intense feelings we have for our digital products, and how painful it is when our pictures and data go missing.

9. The content from a ride can even change how we remember it.

You know the scenario: you finish an epic ride only to discover that according to your data, your performance was merely average – no trophies, no PRs, no kudos from admiring riders. Suddenly, you feel less accomplished and even disappointed. In what I’ll call the Strava Overwrite, the digital ‘results’ may undermine our actual memories and feelings.

This overwrite phenomenon is actually quite common in the broader universe of self-tracking gadgetry.

Kate Crawford, a Microsoft researcher and visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab who has written extensively on self-tracking, says anyone who uses the technology is potentially creating a ‘split narrative’ in the way their lives are measured: there’s the experience of the ride, and the actual hard data, and these narratives can diverge.

When that happens, we’re confronted with what feels like a stark choice: either reject the data, or reject our own memories and perceptions. And since neither is very attractive, we’re often left with a sense of cognitive dissonance.

But Lupton, the sociologist behind the Australian study on self-tracking cyclists, sees a silver lining. Any time we encounter a conflict between memory and data, she says, it’s an opportunity to re-examine the relationship between our real and virtual selves; and perhaps, to adjust that relationship.

10. Balance is totally achievable.

For A FEW of us, retaining the things we love about the ride means jettisoning digital technology almost entirely. But to most, our ride apps are simply too useful and enjoyable, so we’ll seek a balance.

For some, that may involve temporarily unplugging. “People go through these phases where they get burned out on data and social media,” says photographer and cyclist John Watson. Despite Watson’s heavy presence on Instagram, he has consciously minimised technology in his own cycling life: he tracks no performance data, and uses Strava only to find cool new trails to ride. Watson says he’s watched many of his riding friends make similar tech downgrades.

One year, they’re “data-hungry road racers”, Watson says. The next, “they’re bike-packing and wearing sandals. We jokingly say, ‘Oh, you’re a hippie rider now. You haven’t shaved your legs in three months and you don’t use a Garmin any more.’” Watson’s point isn’t that we should reject data, but that maybe we need to broaden our definition of data. “If your legs are tired, take a rest day,” Watson says.

“It’s still data – it’s just not on a screen.”

Bokanev takes a similarly utilitarian approach. He relies unabashedly on his digital tools for training, especially during the winter months, when most of his riding is “the monotonous, indoor, day-to-day stuff”, he says, and when cycling data keeps him honest about how many hours he’s putting in. But he ignores his data for races and group rides, “when none of that matters”.

11. Awareness is power.

During a recent trip to Europe, Bokanev had a chance to ride the sportive editions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Both rides were extraordinary – among his best cycling experiences ever.

But he was on a borrowed bike, without any gadgets. “There was a moment where I really wished I had a power meter so I could know how much power I put out there,” Bokanev told me. “And then it’s like, ‘Oh, screw that.’ ” He laughs. “Thankfully, it was just a fleeting thought.”

Bokanev and Watson suggest that cycling in the digital age requires us to draw distinctions between raw data and real knowledge. As often as we check our screens, we need to be checking on the experience of the ride and whether we’re enjoying ourselves.

Ask yourself: do your rides shape the kind of data and pictures you come home with? Or has the goal of getting data and pictures changed the shape of your rides?

In the end, the most important question may be: who are you riding for? Your social media followers – or yourself? And if you’re riding for yourself, is it the self who is on the bike now, or the one who will be reviewing that experience later?

For Bokanev, the key is reminding ourselves that our own experience and memories are inherently more valuable than any digital product. “Those rides when you were just too tired to take out your phone, and later you’re like, ‘Man, I should have taken a photo’? ” he says. “That shouldn’t take away from the actual experience; because in the end, who are you trying to impress? If you were there, that should really be the end of it.”

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