Ward Nicholson

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Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 3

And now, the conclusion of our “Strava: The Awful Truth” rant (in so many words), wherein we wrap up our examination of the less-remarked-upon but often revealing aspects of participation in the popular social-media platform for endurance athletes.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Many runners who compete at the local level don’t follow any structured workout plan

This may be one of the more surprising things I found on Strava. I grew up as a competitive runner starting at age 14, and was immersed from day one in the debates about easy runs and long runs vs. interval work vs. tempo and threshold runs vs. VO2max work, or whether to follow an overall plan of higher-mileage/lower-intensity vs. lower-mileage/higher-intensity, and so forth.

No matter where you stood on these issues, if you knew anything at all, you followed a training program that incorporated at least some kind of planned approach. Even if you didn’t or couldn’t follow the plan consistently, or “went by feel” when deciding whether it might be better on any given day to substitute a different type of workout for what you might have originally planned, you usually tried to get in a certain number of faster miles vs. slower miles, a certain amount of tempo or interval work, and so forth. It might have been more of a loose plan or template rather than a set or scheduled one, but when you looked at examples of training programs, the details tended to reflect one approach or another.

What has surprised me on Strava (well, somewhat) is how little rhyme or reason there is to most runners’ approaches to training, at least if you assume the majority of runners on Strava are more competitive types. It isn’t clear to me whether many just run entirely by feel, whatever that’s supposed to mean in terms of what types of workouts might be performed when, or if they truly don’t have much conception of how or why they might want to structure their training in a certain way in the first place.

Many runners seem to do nothing more than continuous runs, with some of them faster and some slower, and that’s it. Never any intervals of any kind, let alone whether they might be done on a track or not. And this is before ever getting into the question of shorter, faster intervals vs. longer, slower ones. No strides, no hill work or hill repeats, nothing other than continuous runs vs. races. The most you see in the majority of cases from many of them is a long run every week or two, and then sometimes a faster pace on some of the shorter runs — quasi-tempo runs, we might call them, though not consciously targeting any specifically defined “tempo” pace.

It’s true, of course, that someone following the 1970s approach of “long, slow distance” (LSD) may run only slower, continuous runs during training, but then race frequently on purpose (say, weekly to biweekly) as a form of tempo, threshold, or VO2max work. However, these days the LSD training philosophy tends to have a bad name, and I doubt very many on Strava other than perhaps a few older, masters athletes do this intentionally (to minimize injury risk, for example) or according to any sort of plan.

Few runners title their workouts in a meaningful, helpful way

This goes along with the previous point and reinforces the lack of workout structure. Most runners don’t seem to care to put in even the brief time it takes on Strava to make things interesting or more understandable for others by renaming their workout titles from the defaults of “Morning Run,” “Lunch Run,” “Afternoon Run,” or “Evening Run” that are inserted automatically by Strava when one’s workout data is first uploaded from their watch.

What might such renamed titles be? For starters, they could be as simple as the bare-bones “Easy Run,” “Tempo Run, “Long Run,” or “Intervals.” Because other than interval workouts (alternating fast bouts of running with slow recovery jogs or walking), on Strava it’s not necessarily clear even by looking at the splits or pace per mile for a given workout what type of training run it is. So it really helps if the runner themselves labels the effort to give a clear picture.

One caveat, though: When it comes to “easy” runs, you sometimes may need to take that label with a grain of salt. That’s because more than a few runners tend to run their so-called easy runs faster than what actually enables them to recover well and feel truly fresh for their next hard workout. Also, the definition of what pace constitutes a “tempo”-run effort varies from one training approach to the next.

(Aside: For pace per mile by itself to tell you whether a run is actually an easy run, you need to first know what the runner is capable of in a 5K or 10K race, say, then figure some percentage of that pace to get a sense. So if you suspect a given runner’s “easy” runs aren’t really so, you’ll need to get a decent bird’s-eye view of their overall training and race results first to be able to make that judgment for yourself. Generally, though, for most runners other than national and international elites, if a run isn’t at least two minutes per mile slower than their 5K race pace, it probably isn’t truly an “easy” run, effort- and recovery-wise.)

So why don’t most Strava participants label their workouts more meaningfully? Well, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that if a runner has no real idea what kind of training plan they might be following, or want to follow, they don’t bother retitling their runs and workouts differently than Strava’s default. But you also have to assume some of it is probably laziness or simple failure to communicate. (Welcome to America in the 21st century, where if you can’t click a button to do something, you don’t think about — or resent being asked to do — anything more, even for someone who might otherwise be an athlete.)

“No pain, no gain” VO2max training is overdone by competitive runners

One of the most interesting fallacies in the running world is that since VO2max (one’s maximum oxygen consumption rate) was one of the first things easily measured by exercise physiologists, it became a top target for training. Why? Well, if you want the truth, mainly because it was easily measurable. (Yes, you do detect circular reasoning in that — you’re not imagining it.)

True, while VO2max does correlate with race performances when you’re talking about vast differences in ability, i.e., comparing elites vs. Joe Blow, there is at the same time a significant margin of error. And so when it comes to comparing one elite vs. another, or really, any set of athletes who compete against each other where differences in performances are smaller, it just doesn’t correlate to the same degree.

Exercise physiologist and coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, whose training approach we’ve looked at previously, says the data shows that for runners whose race performance levels are within 5% of each other — a relatively large margin when it comes to competition — VO2max does no better than chance as a predictor of performance.

Even now that lactate threshold has been found to have much better correlation with racing performances, you still see top runners focusing on VO2max considerably more than they likely should. Why? Well, I would suggest it comes down to the kind of “macho” credo that you suffer a lot more when you do it, along with the related “he who suffers mostest in interval workouts progresses mostest” maxim, another much-beloved fallacy.

Again, why? It might be because the ability to suffer in races enables one to race faster (obviously). But suffering in races is done only infrequently. Do too much of it in training, and it can lead to overtraining or burnout or, at the least, use up much, most, or all of the body’s adaptation energy just to survive workouts, leaving little for actual training adaptations by the body toward improved racing fitness.

At the same time, it also can be due to the underlying cultural puritanical code that’s a legacy of our highly religious and punitively moralistic approach to life, in America at least. Even for those who are not particularly religious, this punitive moralism is so deeply embedded in our society that it has become an almost unquestioned bulwark supporting the “if suffering is good, then more suffering is even better” dogma so prevalent in various approaches to endurance training — nay, even life in general.

At any rate, what you tend to see in Strava is that some top local runners often shoot themselves in the foot by running their intervals and tempo runs too hard. A key indicator here can be workouts on Strava that are labeled “fail” or “aborted.” This type of wording suggests that the runner regards themselves as not tough enough to do what they “should have,” when the truth is much more likely that they are/were being unrealistic and expecting too much of themselves in training.

Then when race time comes, their competitors at the same end of the local pecking order who employ a more varied approach that deemphasizes VO2max intervals in favor of more manageable lactate-threshold sessions, tempo work, and overall mileage tend to outperform the ones who focus too much on the typical pain-train of 10 x 400m VO2max suffer sessions. (At least as far as I can tell, looking at those on Strava.) Which, in part, leads to the next observation…

Mileage is still king when it comes to the top dogs versus everyone else

Despite all the hype that low-mileage “HIIT” workouts (high-intensity interval training, sometimes called “Tabata training” or “Tabata sprints”) get these days — often promoted as a panacea in the popular-fitness press — the most accomplished runners who beat everyone else in races by a country mile put in far, far more mileage than that. And if Strava is any guide, not just at the elite level, but at your local metro-area level as well.

The people who incessantly promote the polar extreme of mostly nothing but HIIT workouts in today’s fitness world seem not to be aware of the history of running training, and that doing what they suggest was tried decades ago in the running world. Interval work at similar intensities (i.e., aimed at speed endurance) still forms one component of competitive runners’ training, but a more modest one, and one that doesn’t substitute for mileage like its johnny-one-note promoters seem to think. (For a good overview of the history and evolution of training methods in running in this regard, see Steve Magness’s retrospective, and this follow-up.)

Masters/seniors runners

Where have all the old stalwarts gone? At least in my local area, there aren’t very many masters runners over roughly age 55, we’ll say, on Strava compared to the younger crowd. I’ve noticed in local race results here, too, that participation drops off steeply after that age, and even more so after age 60. If I were to hazard a guess here (since I’m not feeling like doing a laborious statistical count at the moment), I would say in our local race results the number of 60-plus-year-olds to be found is less than one in 20, far less than their representation in the overall population. But on Strava, the drop-off after those ages seems even more precipitous.

Running can be somewhat hard on aging bodies, true, but you have to wonder how much of the dearth of senior runners on Strava may be a generational divide when it comes to technology usage. For training itself, older runners seem as adept at using their watches, which are fairly straightforward to use. But it’s possible the process of setting up a GPS running watch to upload data to Strava may be a hurdle for the older crowd, along with just the computer-centric nature of the experience of Strava in general. I really don’t know for sure about this, since runners as a demographic group tend to be more well-educated than average.

Masters athletes are the cross-training champs. Older runners often put in much less time running, but frequently compensate by ramping up their time biking, swimming, or working out on exercise machines — and sometimes a combination of all of those. This is presumably because as you age, it takes longer to recover from the road impact of running. So if you want to put in a lot of volume, cross-training is often the more feasible way to do it as you age. Also, beyond diminished recovery ability, injury avoidance is clearly the other primary motivation driving this.

Training volume is king with the top masters too. Like younger runners, the most successful masters athletes put in far more mileage — or overall training volume measured by time when including cross-training — than the less accomplished.

Avoiding the injury bugaboo. Some masters athletes do interval workouts, but others don’t and may not put in hardly any fast running during training, letting races serve as their hard workouts. Again, avoiding injury is the likely priority driving this approach.

Retirees can be the biggest workout animals. Masters athletes who are retired from their careers typically put in more training volume than those who are still working. No surprise there. But what you might not expect is that some of the top masters put in as much training volume (counting cross-training) as much younger elites, because they have the time to enjoy being able to “live the dream” without the constraints of the typically chain-bound, younger “breadwinning” runners.

Modern distance running is often car-dependent

The degree to which some runners rely on cars for their training surprised me somewhat. I hadn’t realized, until getting on Strava, how much my training had been based on an “ethic” of running almost entirely from home base: that is, starting and finishing training runs and workouts at my house.

In recent years, while I do run once a week with a friend, which necessitates one or the other of us driving to the other’s house to begin our run, or both of us to meet at a third location, I still do the bulk of my runs from home. But I’ve found myself starting to get “itchy,” of late, as my mileage has been increasing.

Even for those for whom running from home remains the dominant modality, they may still drive somewhere else to train two to three times per week. Typically there are two main reasons. First, for runners who put in substantial training mileage, running the same streets day after day after day in an urban area can get very repetitive, and they no doubt crave more variety.

Unless you live in a location like Flagstaff, Arizona; Park City, Utah; or Mammoth Lakes, California — a few of the U.S.’s prime, altitude-based, elite training meccas — with miles and miles and miles of forest, mountain, or desert trails to run on, in most cases you’re living in a metro area confined to suburban streets, sidewalks, bike paths, and running tracks, perhaps a few park loops on grass here and there. If you’re only running a couple of days or so a week, that might be no big deal. But once you start hitting, say 4+ days a week and 30 to 40 miles a week or more, the repetition of running the same routes can start to become mentally repetitive.

The other big reason is that people often want to run with friends. Often for the social connection, of course, but for those putting in longer or harder workouts, also to help share the training load psychologically. And both reasons can be combined, of course.

Another reason for driving somewhere to run is finding training venues with specific characteristics, perhaps most often, hills. Hill training can be an important aspect of training for competition: It’s like strength training for your legs since it’s highly specific to the running action, but with significantly increased loading. If you live in a Great Plains state like me, often there are no hills close by, and you might need to drive somewhere to find any.

“Suffer Score” inaccuracy — the elephant in the room

When it comes to anything beyond continuous efforts at paces that don’t vary too terribly much, Strava’s “Suffer Score” application programmers don’t seem to have a good understanding about what really constitutes overall workout stress. I mentioned this earlier, but to be a bit more specific here:

First, and it should be obvious to anyone who does them, interval workouts are given short shrift in terms of the Suffer Score. Here, you might be at the upper end of the “suffering” scale for a certain portion of each work interval, but at the opposite end during your recovery interval, either jogging or walking. Or you could be anywhere in between during either the work or recovery portion, depending on the type of intervals being done. Complicating the issue is how long it takes your heart rate to ramp up to its maximum for that work interval, and all the HR zones it passes through on the way up that level.

If you do anything much at all in the way of interval work, it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that whatever weighting Strava’s Suffer Score algorithm gives to time spent in the upper heart-rate zones for any given workout is significantly off the mark on the low side. Any reasonably experienced competitive runner could tell you this, so it’s mystifying why Strava doesn’t address this shortcoming. And it’s one of the key reasons for runners not to bother with Strava Premium, in my book.

Another reason? Rather than maximizing one’s Suffer Score, which inter-athlete competitiveness in the Strava community tends to encourage, one should be concerned with optimizing it for a given workout, or keeping one’s total effort for an entire week under fairly tight rein, increasing it only very carefully (if warranted in certain training phases, or over the long-term) so as not to fall into overtraining. And unless and until the Suffer Score algorithm improves considerably, you are much better off going by how tired you feel in the hours following a workout, how refreshed you feel after the following night’s sleep, what your heart rate is the morning after, how well you are sleeping, etc.

Grade-Adjusted Pace: another half-hearted exercise of “mailing it in” from Strava’s code jockeys

Perhaps Strava’s Grade-Adjusted Pace (GAP) isn’t too far off when it comes to modest elevation changes in moderately rolling terrain (although it still doesn’t seem to reflect my own efforts completely accurately even at that level). But anything more than that, and it becomes a joke.

The elite trail runners I follow put in loads of miles in mountainous terrain, and more than once I’ve seen GAP numbers for them of around 4:00 per mile on a downhill stretch — and which occur in the midst of 20-mile-plus runs. That’s patently ridiculous, so there are obviously some severe issues with the GAP algorithm, and they continue to go unaddressed month after month, year after year.

You’ll see similarly anomalous GAP efforts for trail runners on uphill splits on steep grades where the athlete’s heart rate is going sky-high, and yet supposedly their GAP is only, say, 6:00 per mile, while their HR for the 4:00-per-mile splits just mentioned will be much, much lower, but for which the athlete is credited with much greater effort. Those types of large discrepancies simply do not compute.

Odds and ends

The most popular GPS running watch brand by far is Garmin. You see a few Suunto watches among elite athletes, and Polar here and there elsewhere, but not many others.

Everybody goofs up the watch buttons they push from time to time. I’m not the only one who sometimes hits the wrong button when starting or stopping my GPS running watch, or forgets to change settings when needed. Even the elites make these simple mistakes, which is both humanizing and humorous.

Lap, laps, and more laps. For their runs or bike rides, some athletes will do an incredible number of laps of short neighborhood loops or urban routes. Some of this is for simple safety reasons, particularly when it comes to biking. One masters athlete in my area does most of his bike rides on a seldom-used stretch of bike path barely more than one mile in length, doing back-and-forth “laps” for anywhere from an hour and a half to four hours and 20+ to 60+ miles at a time. He says it’s mostly to avoid the risk of getting hit by “murder-mobiles” (his tongue-in-cheek term for cars), but mentions other benefits such as being close to home in case he needs to cut the workout short, take a bathroom break, whatever.

There’s also a runner in the area who works at a university, and sometimes runs lots of quarter-mile laps around a small grassy plot on campus, which can total up to perhaps half of a 4 or 5-mile run during his lunch hour. Some days, he’ll drive to a park in the city after work, and do much the same thing on a small little loop no more than perhaps one-eighth of a mile around. This was a bit mind-opening when compared to my own practice of avoiding running more than a couple of laps in a row of any given small circuit or loop wherever I run, and trying to run much longer loops that only require a single circuit to get in that run’s overall mileage.

Out-and-back routes. Similarly, I was a bit surprised by the number of out-and-back routes runners take, even in cities, as opposed to loop courses.

As mentioned just above, I’ve always tended to prefer plotting out loop routes instead, so every step of any given run is “fresh” for that day, so to speak, and I’m not retracing any ground until another run on some following day. For those who run trails, especially in the mountains, that may not always be feasible, though, and out-and-backs are equally as common as loop routes out of necessity. Of course, retracing your steps out in nature is much less “repetitive” mentally than doing so in an urban environment where everything often looks similar no matter where you are.

Seeing how others do this has broadened my approach, of late, though, and I’ve been doing a few out-and-back routes now when options like rail-trails or bike paths are available. (Where I live, I typically have to drive in the car to get to such areas.)

Segment course records: “Love ’em or leave ’em” seems to be the attitude. It’s been heartening to see that many runners don’t appear to care too much about Strava’s segment Course Records (CRs). This is as it should be. As I’ve covered a couple of times already, if you’re an athlete aiming at competitive results in races, racing in training is misplaced effort and a waste of time. True, some elite athletes are so talented and such fitness monsters that they can knock off CRs (sometimes multiple CRs in a single training run) during just a controlled tempo session or even a moderate-effort run (for them) on a course they haven’t run before when traveling for extended training blocks or competitions away from home, or even a local segment at home. But that’s not most people.

Round numbers and “an extra tenth or two” for mileage figures. Many runners tend to be anal-retentive about getting in a “round number” of miles each workout, i.e., 8.0 miles rather than 7.9 or 8.2. One interesting little variation on this for some is to tack on an extra tenth of a mile or two, apparently hewing to the “for good measure” theory, or “just to make sure I’m being extra fair about the actual mileage.”

On the other hand, some runners, especially those putting in mega-mileage, don’t seem to fall into this behavior as much when it comes to individual workouts — the attitude apparently being: Hey, it all adds up, and there’s so much of it, why bother? But they do pay attention to the overall weekly mileage, often making sure they bump just a little over the top of a specific week’s goal on their final run of the week, whether the final figure may be 100.2 miles, 140.3 miles, 120.1, etc.

Kudos, schmudos. And just to repeat — in case you haven’t read Part 1 — Kudos (equivalent to Likes are Facebook) are largely pointless, in my opinion.

Having fun with Strava by not taking it too seriously

It doesn’t take too much experience to conclude that Strava pays much more attention to social features than the accuracy and utility of its workout analytics. And this applies to both the standard freebie version of Strava as well as Premium.

As mentioned, Suffer Score and Grade-Adjusted Pace are both deficient, and as many have also noted elsewhere, workout mileages may sometimes be inexplicably “adjusted,” and splits processed through some sort of algorithm that supposedly corrects them but in reality just plain doesn’t agree with your watch’s internal record, and for no apparent, rigorously defensible reason.

On the bar-chart weekly summaries for members’ profile pages, the mileage bars glom together running, biking, and swimming mileage all in the same weekly mileage bar, which is nuts. Yet on the other hand, time devoted to each workout discipline in the sidebar showing detail for the most recent four weeks is split out between running, biking, and swimming so you can see the individual time component for each.

It’s all evidence that the people behind Strava, despite any verbiage to the contrary, really don’t pay the kind of close to attention to analytical accuracy that it truly requires (and which some of the other online workout-logging sites and apps have nailed better), and are much more enthralled with social features instead.

My overall take on Strava, then: Enjoy it for the community of like-minded athletes you run across and decide to follow. Have fun connecting with others and learning what you can here and there, but don’t take it too seriously.

End of 3-part series
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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