Ward Nicholson

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Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 2

After having ripped at length on Strava’s “kudosing” silliness in Part 1, we turn now to the intriguing, odd, sometimes matter-of-fact, and occasionally mystifying things one can discover looking at other runners’ activities on Strava.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

A confession to make here: I am one of those guys who likes to go around turning over rocks, looking at the underside of things, just to see what there is to see wriggling around in typically unobserved places. Mainly because I find that the more of reality one can be aware of — whatever that encompasses in its various aspects — the more meaningful and understandable it is, and the richer the experience. And, sometimes, the more power and control the added insight gives you in working with it.

For my money, it’s not what you see on the surface of things, up on top in the light of day, that’s the most interesting. What’s more fascinating is what you don’t necessarily notice at first: the things hidden in shadow that come to light only later once you’ve managed to flip that rock upside down.

This applies equally both to the mechanical side of things and the psychological. If you’re a guy at least, for most of us there is always a certain fascination with what makes things function as far as the nitty-gritty “nuts and bolts” of it.

But even more fascinating, for me anyway, is the psychological underbelly. Why? Because what’s up on the surface is often just what people want you to see or, alternatively, perhaps only what they are conscious of communicating, which doesn’t necessarily gibe with what’s actually going on underneath. And any discrepancy between the two usually tells you a lot.

Sometimes of course, what you see (up on top) is exactly what you get (down beneath). Just as often, though, what’s up on top obscures a more meaningful reality below. And I hasten to add that that doesn’t necessarily indicate subterfuge or mean there’s anything sinister going on — though it might. Sometimes what’s beneath isn’t being purposely hidden. It might simply be a blind spot. Possibly, too, it might not even necessarily be unconscious to the person or organization presenting what’s on offer, it’s just not what’s of most interest to them.

Even so, the fact the two are different is usually always intriguing and helpfully informative in some way.

When it comes to Strava, the often unobserved (or at least unremarked-upon) things I’ll be discussing here relate in part to those using it, but also reflect on the software itself. We aren’t necessarily talking about anything earth-shattering here, but you nevertheless might find some of it a bit surprising, or to ring a bell of recognition you hadn’t been aware of before. Let’s dive in.

Have you ever noticed all the “ghost” accounts on Strava?

Lots of athletes try out Strava briefly, log a few workouts, then leave behind what I call ghost accounts. This is a phenomenon you might not even notice for a while when you’re busy uploading your first big batch of workouts from your GPS watch or smartphone, sampling the other Strava goodies like following the workouts of elite athletes, commenting on other people’s activities, or trying to place higher on segment (running or biking route) leaderboards or perhaps even claim a new course/segment record.

I didn’t notice these ghost accounts myself at first. It wasn’t until I started performing searches for other athletes I might want to follow that they began turning up. I would keyboard in a name for an athlete I had known or competed against in the past, or perhaps one whose name I had seen in recent race results for events in our local area. Up would pop some possible hits, and I’d click on the more likely candidates to see if I might be able to verify whether any of them was the runner in question.

And then I would see the telltale signs of abandonment or neglect: a lone bar or two or three representing a corresponding week or two or three of workout mileage on the bar chart comprising the runner’s or biker’s last year of activity, and then… nothing. And that would be it. Or, you might see a lone bar, or two or three in a group, then nothing for another year followed by another lone bar or two or three, and then nothing again.

It appears to me that these ghost accounts greatly outnumber active accounts by a good three to one or more. And while you can delete your Strava account if you like, what I’m calling ghost accounts obviously aren’t deleted accounts, they’re abandoned ones.

So then… Why so many ghost accounts?

What’s going on here? To start with, people obviously have some initial expectations when they sign up for a Strava account, which I would assume are based on one or more of these reasons:

  • You might want to have a look-see at Strava’s presentation of all your workout data charted out for analysis, including route maps of your runs or rides.
  • You thought perhaps seeing the feedback of a nice-and-purty daily and weekly record of your workouts on Strava would provide added motivation for continuing to work out, if you had been struggling with that.
  • You’d like to follow some well-known elite athlete(s) on Strava, and the price of admission was to sign up for your own account first to be able to then follow their workouts.
  • You thought it would be fun to interact or compete with other athletes, either commenting back and forth, and/or perhaps trying to take down each other’s segment records (KOMs/QOMs or CRs).

Based on the above initial expectations people have, then, here are a few guesses, keyed to the above bullet points (in order) for why so many people abandon Strava.

Workout analytics? Pish. In my opinion, Strava’s workout analytics don’t add anything too terribly magical to what you can get from the basic parameters already available on Garmin Connect (where the largest contingent of users’ data initially resides before it’s piped over to Strava). Or even when compared to what’s available in a basic written workout log that you keep yourself using a spreadsheet.

These items would be the most useful basics such as your mile-by-mile splits for a continuous run, or your custom split times for interval workouts, and graphs of your pace (to which Strava adds grade-adjusted pace), heart rate (HR), and cadence (stride rate) recorded throughout the workout, along with the average pace, average HR, average cadence, and total calories burned. The route maps? Yes, there are some added goodies compared to Garmin Connect, but nothing earth-shattering.

And without putting in the effort to run a special “lactate threshold” performance test that follows a specific protocol using a heart-rate monitor, your HR or effort zones as depicted on Strava won’t accurately reflect your actual effort level. Even if you do run such a test, the value is still limited, in my opinion (for reasons outlined in the next paragraph). And to enable these more exacting parameters in the first place, you have to sign up for a Strava Premium account, which is something I did at one point. But after the initial month’s trial period was over, I could not see much value because the analytics did not prove very useful, as far as I was concerned.

Slavishly keying effort to HR just does not reflect the many variables involved in actual workouts. If you are anywhere halfway close to the proper effort for a given interval workout type, HR is almost worthless, because even for most long-interval repeats (say 1,000 meters to one mile) HR is continually escalating during the repeat and never stabilizes. HR also rises with dehydration, but even in cooler weather where conditions are more “ideal” for measuring HR, there is still a certain amount of dehydration that takes place during any run, just from exhaling water vapor via the lungs with every breath. So, what is a correct HR to target for a given effort can be a shifting baseline even during a single steady-state run under ideal conditions.

And as far as calories burned, well, no serious runner probably cares much about calories burned, unless perhaps you’re an ultrarunner wanting to determine how many calories you need to be sucking down per hour. But even then, that’s more something you have to learn by experience anyway.

Potential motivational fuel? Nope, really, that’s gotta come first.  Now, what about those on Strava relatively new to working out, who thought that by getting a GPS watch, logging their workouts to Strava, and participating there, it would just be “cool,” and make something they really didn’t like much in the first place more fun?

To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse. If you don’t see the value in exercise or working out much to begin with, or stick with it long enough to get in the kind of shape you need to be in to really enjoy it (which can take quite a few weeks if you are woefully out of shape to start with), nothing much is probably going to change that.

On the other end of the spectrum, I would imagine there are lots of self-motivated types (like me) who get the GPS watch and say, what the heck, I’ll see what this Strava thing is all about. Then when they actually do so, if they follow more than a few runners, their activity feed gets so crowded that their eyes glaze over. And if they are similarly exasperated or put off by the emotional logic behind the kudosing game as I am (see Part 1 for the story on that), not to mention all the hoo-hah over KOMs/QOMs and CRs, they may just hit the eject button, and say what the heck is all the hullabaloo about?

Joining up just to follow elite athletes’ activities? That doesn’t seem to be the case.  As far as following the workouts of elite runners, with most of them, how to interpret the workouts is the big problem. It’s rare that things are handed to you on a silver platter with comments by the athlete explaining their target pace(s) for a given workout, how the workout went, how the effort fits into their overall workout plan, and so on. You need to work that out for yourself by taking note of what their race results and associated per-mile paces are, comparing those to their workout paces, and then assessing, based on that info, what type of effort any given workout constitutes: short/fast tempo, medium/long tempo, or what type of interval work (whether threshold vs. VO2max), and blah-blah-blah.

Then you have to consider the overall arc of their training over a period of weeks or months to see how the individual workouts fit within that, and how their overall training approach works. Without that type of close observation, which most people do not have the patience for or training knowledge to meaningfully dissect, you are only going to be able to draw the most general conclusions. Otherwise, I suspect most followers’ eyes probably glaze over, other than taking a look at the running routes mapped out, average paces, and so forth.

One interesting note here, though. I did a bit of detective work looking into ghost accounts to see if I could find examples where someone with an inactive account might possibly be on Strava solely for the purpose of following a well-known elite athlete. The result: I didn’t find any ghost accounts that were following any well-known elite athletes. Now, I only looked at perhaps 15 accounts and struck out on all of them before electing to give up on that foray. So that obviously doesn’t mean you might not find a few who have done so, but it suggests that if so, it’s not a very frequent thing.

Social-media fun and games as attractant? Only for some, and they’re a trap.  I suspect a lot of the social-media features are lost on runners. More serious runners like myself are self-starters and don’t particularly need encouragement from others to work out, and to boot may value our privacy. Then when you do start uploading workouts, you start getting kudoses you probably don’t even care about if you’re a said self-starter, for which there is then the perceived need to reciprocate kudoses back if you’re to be someone who respectfully plays the Strava “game.” (See Part 1 for an examination of Strava’s “kudos trap.”)

And as far as playing the other Strava game of KOMs/QOMs and CRs, in truth, it’s diametrically opposed to a key principle of training: which is that you train to put forth your supreme efforts in a race later. You don’t race in training itself, or else you’re defeating the purpose of it: to build fitness while leaving something in the tank so you’ll have it to burn in a race.

KOMs/QOMs and CRs in reality are like an ever-escalating “arms race.” In the beginning, on a relatively isolated course segment, you may be able to establish or take down a CR without much effort. But sooner or later, someone else will horn in on your territory to take it away from you, and after that, it will eventually start taking a Herculean effort to reclaim, if it is even possible at all. (Without resorting to methods of cheating on Strava, anyway, which is a separate topic I’m not interested in covering here.)

What is the point of all this? Silly bragging rights, really, that mean little. There is always going to be someone more talented, or with more time on their hands to train harder, or, probably, be more crazy in their efforts to get that CR.

When it comes to both kudos and CRs, is it no wonder so many runners drop out, feeling pressured to do something that feels contrived?

On-again, off-again, hot-and-cold Strava participants

Here is another curious behavior somewhat related to the ghost-account issue you sometimes see: I’m currently following a local runner who is one of the top three or four competitors in our region of the state, which covers numerous counties. To be that competitive, he has to be training at a high level a good deal of the time, and some of the workouts of his I’ve seen confirm that.

But yet he may go days or weeks without uploading a workout, then all of a sudden he’s back again with a few more weeks’ workouts, then gone again. He’s not the only guy like that. In the process of trying to find other key local runners I might want to follow, I have run across others who are much more run-of-the-mill athletes but who exhibit the same behavior pattern.

What gives? Did some glitch arise in the syncing process between their watch and computer (or smartphone) that’s preventing their workouts from uploading to Strava, but that unexpectedly resolves itself later? Running watches are pretty easy to operate — as easy as cellphones are, at least — but when it comes to computing-device glitches, I suppose there may be some older runners or perhaps younger semi-techno-klutzes who can’t easily troubleshoot issues.

On the other hand, is the runner perhaps dealing with recurring injuries that put them out of commission from time to time but they don’t want to comment on? Are they alternatively hot and cold with enthusiasm about their running and workouts? Do unanticipated life events — a change in employment, the birth of a child, a move from one home to another — come up periodically to derail their running?

For me, running is a “lifestyle” thing that’s an essential part of my existence, one of the key activities in my daily routine that’s necessary to anchor and stabilize my health, stress maintenance, sleep quality, and my general satisfaction in life and overall daily functionality from being physically fit. And that makes me wonder how other people approach running. If they’re active on Strava, you would assume they have a certain amount of commitment, but perhaps not. They don’t say. And so far there’s no private-messaging feature on Strava, so you can’t inquire “backchannel” to keep discreet something that might be potentially sensitive for them either.

The thin value of Strava Premium

Most runners opt for the freebie version of Strava instead of the paid version, Premium, at a ratio of perhaps 20 to one (which is a very off-the-cuff guess — but whatever it is, it’s by a huge margin). There are good reasons.

First, the $60/year price tag is a substantial sum for the questionable workout analysis Premium gives you, much of which is basically throwaway data that doesn’t tell you much. Yes, you also get the opportunity to see where you stand with age- and weight-bracketed CRs, but, as covered above, becoming focused on CRs is just unwise, and short-circuits what training should really be about.

But otherwise, assessing the value of Premium gets into what workout data is relevant and what isn’t. I myself tried Strava Premium for the free-trial period of a month, but simply didn’t see the value. Following were my reactions.

“Personalized Coaching”? It’s not personalized, really. It’s canned training programs based on what your goals (competitive targets) for specific distances are. Nothing is truly tailored to your particular physiological strong points or weaknesses.

It doesn’t know what types of training you respond best to. Nor can it take into account whether you’re a more of a “fast-twitch” or “slow-twitch” runner — shorthand terms for whether you’re blessed with natural speed or not, and therefore which muscle fiber type tends to predominate in your musculature and determine the best mix of intervals vs. tempo work vs. longer, slower runs.

“Live Performance Data”? Basically that turns out to be a workout-metrics display for a cellphone mounted on your bike. Yeah, it may be more convenient than looking at your GPS watch, but basically, we’ve already got that. I guess the map display is cool, but gosh, how did we ever train without that for years and years? We couldn’t have actually done that, or still do that, could we?

And of course, if you’re a runner, you aren’t going to be holding a cellphone in your hand in front of your face while you’re running, so that’s all useless anyway. The few “live” items you might really want — instantaneous pace and heart rate — you can already set up to see at a glance on your running watch if you want, anyway.

“Advanced Analysis”? By this they mean, in part, Suffer Score. But that carries with it an embedded workout philosophy that you might not agree with. I certainly don’t, at least. Suffer Score, according to Strava’s selling verbiage, “is based on the time you spend in different heart rate zones compared with your maximum heart rate.” And then Strava’s marketing-ese further paints the glowing picture of aspirational agony: “The deeper you dig, the longer you can hold on, the higher the Suffer Score.” Tough for 100 to 150, Extreme for 151 to 250, and Epic for greater than 250. Can you say eventual overtraining and burnout, if this is the gold standard you adhere to for working out or comparing yourself to others?

And then there are the other things Premium offers such as getting to set goals (you mean you couldn’t just do that privately on your own?), or comparing yourself in age- or weight-class-stratified CR leaderboards, or personal heatmaps of “all the places you’ve ever run or ridden.” Oh boy, big whoop, like I can’t remember the routes I run every week?! Or the Fitness and Freshness chart, which supposedly tells you what kind of shape you’re in so as to predict race performances. But which actually is as much of a stab in the dark as anything, based as it is on Suffer Score (if using a HR monitor) and/or Training Load (for bikers using a power meter), which are imperfect to begin with. (Training Load is better than Suffer Score, but still suffers from Strava’s problematic algorithm for weighting time spent at different training HR zones or training loads. And this is all based in turn on theoretical work — see Eric Banister and Andrew Coggan — that is still crude in terms of applicability.)

Judging by those who own them, wrist-based heart-rate (HR) monitors still have some ways to go in functioning properly

According to DC Rainmaker , the prolific workout-tech reviewer , perhaps less than 5% of runners are unable get accurate HR data from optical, wrist-based monitors. So when I first got one for myself, I thought perhaps I was just in that unlucky minority when I found the technology did not work at all well for me. But judging from what I’m seeing in the HR monitor plots from other runners’ workouts on Strava, I am far from the only one for whom optical, wrist-based heart-rate monitors don’t work. To me, it looks as if it might be upwards of 25% instead of under 5%.

I personally have tried the Garmin Forerunner (FR) 225 watch with wrist-based HR, and it just could not get a fix on my HR that would last more than 10 to 20 seconds at a time, at best, and even then it wandered around an awful lot. (Note: I always made sure to strap the watch on tightly below the wrist, as required, and tried it on both arms, and on the bottom of each arm as well as the top. This result was also based on testing the unit numerous times, simultaneously, against a known-good HR chest strap that was synced with my Garmin FR 220 model, worn on the opposite arm from the FR 225.)

I did my homework beforehand as well: The FR 225 incorporates one of the most highly rated optical HR units, licensed from Mio, and which Garmin later replaced with their own Elevate optical sensor when they introduced the FR 235 model. Currently (fall of 2017) The Garmin Forerunner 235 seems to be the most popular wrist-based optical HR model on the market, but, depending on the runner, only reliably captures HR for some of them, based on either those I’ve followed on Strava, or others there whose workouts I’ve looked into.

Most competitive runners don’t seem to pay much attention to HR data anyway

To continue here with HR-data observations, for those on Strava, HR monitors, despite all their positive press, are not really utilized to guide most runners’ workouts that much, and probably for good reason. HR data is rarely commented on except by followers who often point out, as I’ve noted here, how inaccurate they often seem. Either that, or commenters reference them as not much more than a crude tachometer (i.e., “You’re a beast, man!”), and little else. Based on what I’ve noted in the two sections above, as well as general comments I see online elsewhere from other runners, I think this is a combination of two or three things.

First, a lot of runners don’t like chest-strap monitors, myself among them. Why? Because they are somewhat uncomfortable if put on firmly enough not to slip down, and they thereby restrict your breathing a bit at the same time. On the other hand, if put on loosely enough so you have fully unrestricted chest expansion when breathing, they will eventually slip down and have to be adjusted mid-run from time to time. Maybe not a huge deal in the summer when you can get at the strap easily if running without a shirt on (an option available only to men, of course). But in the winter under layers of clothing, this is a nonstarter if you have to pull those layers up in 20F or 30F-degree weather just to get at the strap.

Second, even if you don’t have issues with discomfort, you look like a complete dork wearing one in the summer without a shirt. Yeah, sure, generally I don’t care what other people think about me, and I know a lot of other runners feel the same, but… there are limits. And that’s one of them.

Third, even if you’ve got a wrist-based monitor that works reliably for you in lieu of a chest strap, you may feel, as I do, that HR monitors put you more out of touch with your body, rather than more in touch. We’ve had good heuristics and rules of thumb for decades now about what constitutes the right effort level for a given type of workout anyway: “conversational pace” for easy runs, “comfortably hard” for tempo runs, how easily you can finish the final repeat or two of an interval workout, and with what length recovery interval in between. And you can also combine those with how well you recover the following day as a second gauge for whether or not your runs and workouts were performed at the proper effort, enabling you to fine-tune your perceptions further.

In so many words, then, one thing many of us like about running is that it’s a “natural” activity. How far do we really want to junk it up with gadgetry? Only to a point, judging by the other runners I follow on Strava. How far we run and at what pace seem to be the two biggies we’re interested in that are recorded automatically and thereby made easy by GPS watches. The rest of it — if you don’t eventually learn subjectively what constitutes proper effort for yourself, in combination with talking to other runners and reading up — probably isn’t going to help you that much.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2 Responses to Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 2

  1. What the last paragraph says.

    The whole time I read it, I am thinking… is this a world I would ever want to join? The answer is a loud no.

    I think you should offer these two pieces to a running magazine. Top notch!

  2. What, and bite the hand that feeds? Surely you jest. :-) More seriously, I suspect a magazine like Runner’s World, even if they were to run a piece like this, would want to cut it by at least half, which would take too much of the wind out of the sails of it, mostly gutting its impact.

    In fairness, this is a bit of a rant, of course. There are plenty of runners and bikers who love Strava. But at the same time there’s a big divide between those who do, and thems who don’t. At least in the running community (can’t speak for bikers), based on commentary I see elsewhere, I would say it’s something of a fractious split.

    And then there are others like me who use it more in the spirit of sharing our workout logs, and commenting back and forth now and then, who mostly ignore the social foofaraw and “traps” I’ve outlined without getting too terribly caught up in it one way or the other.

    You’ve got me wondering if I should perhaps look into enabling ads on the blog here for a bit of extra income, though. Only if there were controls enabling picking and choosing between the types of ads that were run, however. I.e., the ability to pre-emptively disallow any pop-ups or pop-unders; ads that dynamically insert themselves in between article paragraphs; anything that auto-plays; animations; any totally trashy, shameless stuff; etc. Last I heard, as of maybe a couple of years ago, there was no real way to do this, but perhaps I ought to check into that again.

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