Ward Nicholson

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Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 1

Think that the most interesting things about Strava are the cool maps, graphs, and charts of your own and other athletes’ running, biking, and swimming workouts? Nope, not for me. What I have found more intriguing are all the things you eventually notice by reading “between the lines” that no one seems to talk about.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 1 here gives the backstory about how I got involved with Strava in the first place, and also looks at what I consider the “Kudos trap” — kudosing being similar to liking someone on Facebook — that one can get sucked into there. (Yep, as usual, Wardolfski gets sidetracked composing what was intended to be a fairly brief intro, but then it really gets away from him.) The things I’ve learned from following other runners are covered in Parts 2 and 3.

Social media is not something I’ve ever been much interested in participating in, with rare exceptions. At least not Facebook or Twitter, both of which strike me as high school all over again. Not to mention that both are also just a cacophony of poor web design and poor usability — they’re frustrating to wade through and simply ugly to look at. I do understand that for certain groups of people or organizations or families, Facebook serves as the main clearinghouse for information, and can be valuable.

But for me, none of that applies. I tend not to be a joiner, if for no other reason than just because I don’t like the peer pressure, even if subtle, to behave a certain way that tends to come with participating in most groups.

Also, in groups, behavior tends to come down to the lowest common denominator, so things degenerate into either: (a) online flame- or slag-fests, or (b) the opposite, a bunch of meaningless Kumbaya or Pollyanna praise to whomever or whatever, or failing those, (c) people trying to top each other with clever one-liners, or (d) the feed gets polluted with too many jerks promoting either themselves or their wares. Or, (e) most common of all, the comments are just plain mundane, vapid, and uninteresting the majority of the time — a huge waste of attention span.

My response to all that is usually: No thanks. I’d rather go my own way in my own independent fashion. And then with Facebook, there are the privacy issues, which we needn’t get into here.

That said, I do have a fake Facebook account so that when needed I can log in anonymously to obtain needed info posted by someone there, but generally don’t bother with it other than that. I also signed up for a Twitter account a few years ago in an aborted attempt to try and help promote my self-employed work, but after a few tweets, the account has sat there silently since.

Once in a great while, though, I’ll make an exception for some online group or forum, if there’s enough meaningful “meat” to it to pull me in without too many of the above-mentioned cons. One of the online communities that has meant something to me has been Strava, the popular workout-logging and social-media site for endurance athletes — though perhaps not for the usual reasons many Strava users join, as it turns out.

According to various interviews with Strava co-founder and CEO, Michael Horvath, the main reason behind launching the site was to recreate the motivation for continuing to work out that he used receive from teammates as a rower in college. Which he saw, of course, as an unmet need that would apply for many others besides just himself. His experience was that once he’d graduated from school and moved on to the world of work, he found himself struggling to continue working out on nothing but his own willpower. Of course, rowing is a team sport — but even after Horvath later shifted to running marathons, he still found the going difficult.

What initially sucked me into Strava’s maw

But that doesn’t at all describe why I eventually became interested in Strava. For whatever reason, I’ve always been self-driven and very internally motivated when it comes to running. I enjoy training alone, and indeed prefer it, except for perhaps one workout a week with a friend. I like the solitude, the time alone with my own thoughts (or as often, no thoughts), communing with the elements, as it were, by myself with no other distractions. I don’t need someone else or anything else to motivate me. That’s not what makes me tick.

What drew me to try out Strava, instead, was just two things, really. First, a couple of years ago I had finally gotten a GPS running watch for the first time — a Garmin — and after using it for quite some time (and completely ignoring the online data-syncing features all the while) eventually found myself wanting to see what these fitness-tracking sites were all about, and to which you could upload workout data from your watch.

(Note: I’d owned running-specific watches for quite a few years before that, but economized by using ones that calculated the distance run via a footpod with internal accelerometer. While cheaper and much less of a drain on the limited juice of tiny watch batteries, this method is less accurate than watches containing a GPS unit, and it also lacks the route-mapping capabilities of the latter.)

Till that time I had been keeping my own running log in plain-ASCII text format on my own computer, because I liked the pure simplicity of ASCII and the non-obsolescence of the file format. But it was hard to scan down through all the entries when reviewing workouts for various patterns, such as things that might repeatably lead to progress; potential injury precipitators; comparing my performance in similar workouts over time; under what training I ended up feeling best, worst; etc. Online logs potentially seemed as if they might offer a better way to organize and sift the various workout numbers and descriptors to give (supposedly) better insight.

And the second reason for getting online with Strava was that I thought it would be interesting and potentially helpful to follow the training of a few of the elite athletes whose careers I had been following from afar, at least those who might be users of Strava — the 800-pound gorilla and most popular of the fitness-tracking sites. That’s not counting Garmin Connect, of course, which is the initial online upload point for all Garmin GPS watch users, and that then serves as the conduit for piping their data to other, third-party tracking sites like Strava. But Garmin Connect isn’t a social-media watering hole for fitness athletes on the web like Strava is.

Strava offered the chance to get a more intimate look at these elites’ training, as well as a more objective view of it than the biased and misleading reports you tend to see in the running news media. Often, such reports will feature a few specific weeks’ workouts that comprise the athlete’s key or peak sessions leading up to a major competition. But they don’t give much insight into what they actually do, or are capable of doing, on a longer-term week-in, week-out basis, and how that changes over weeks and months as the athlete builds to a peak during a training block for a major competition, or over the course of an entire competitive season.

So, at first I signed up for Strava and uploaded all the workouts for the previous several months stored on my watch. But I didn’t do that just with Strava. I also did so with several other similar fitness-tracking sites so I could compare them against each other head-to-head. These included, in addition to Strava and Garmin Connect: Final Surge, TrainingPeaks, and SportTracks (the latter so far being my favorite in terms of the presentation and usability of workout-specific features).

Later, I happened to start following the ultra- and trail-running world, and became particularly interested after hearing the story of Jim Walmsley’s epic near-course-record-followed-by-wrong-turn-and-flameout in the 2016 Western States’ 100-Mile Endurance Run. Although he was not the first of the genre, Walmsley seemed to be ushering in a new era of talented, former track athletes who found a new life in trail-running, leaving their former careers behind while smashing course records left and right.

I had followed ultrarunning for a time back in the 1970s and ’80s, but now it was fast becoming a whole new world, and I thought following Walmsley on Strava — along with a few others since, such as Hayden Hawks and Sage Canaday — would prove very interesting, as it has.

Trying to follow others in lurk mode… but then being followed back (uh-oh)

It wasn’t until I started following some athletes on Strava who competed in the same local area where I lived, though, that I got pulled into the site’s social-media side. What precipitated it was that, just as with Walmsley, Hawks, and Canaday, I hit the Follow button to gain access to the workout entries of these local athletes. With the elites, that had been that. I was able to simply lurk and see how they trained.

But well-known elite athletes have thousands of followers and can’t possibly follow everyone back, nor would they be expected to. Local athletes, on the other hand, might not have any more than several score followers, sometimes considerably fewer. So when they receive an alert about someone new following them, they’ll probably take note of it, and maybe follow you back. In my case, I’ve set Strava’s privacy controls pretty tight, so that you have to ask and receive permission to follow my activity.

Two of the local athletes I followed did request to follow me back. Which meant that ole socially somewhat unsocial Wardolfski had to make a decision: Do I allow these runners to follow me, or not? And if not, why not? They’d freely allowed anyone to follow them. Was it right for me to peer into their workouts without allowing them to also look at mine? Although I hadn’t really considered before whether someone might want to follow me or my workouts on Strava — after all, that wasn’t why I joined! — it seemed only fair that I allow athletes I’d followed to follow me.

So, after going through and changing my workouts one by one from Private to Public, and then cleaning up and renaming the workout titles for the last couple of months’ entries to make them more meaningful and understandable for others, with less deciphering of the workout data required on their part, I okayed the Follow requests.

Strava’s “Kudos” tarbaby

But then another dilemma almost immediately presented itself: Both these athletes soon Kudosed my most recent workout or two (similar to Liking a Facebook post). Sheesh, now what was I supposed to do? What was the etiquette? Was I supposed to kudos them back? Social-media misfit and naif that I am, I didn’t know — though I had my suspicions, ones that amounted to that proverbial sinking feeling. I didn’t care about getting a kudos in the first place, and I really didn’t want to have to kudos people back. Would they be offended if I didn’t? I wasn’t sure.

So yet again, ole asocial Wardolfski had to mull things over. After consulting advice and opinion that I was pointed to by the internet search-engine oracles, it seemed that, yes, you were sort of expected to kudos people back if they had kudosed you. But not everyone played by the same rules. Most people seemed to think it appropriate to kudos people back, though not necessarily on an exact tit-for-tat basis.

Well, then, how do you determine what workouts to kudos someone for? Some hard-asses said they only kudosed someone’s workout if it was truly superb, bordering on otherworldly, and nothing less. Some said if they found themselves clicking a workout title to dig into it at least a little further, even if only out of idle curiosity, that would be worth kudosing. Others said just getting out the door every day was an accomplishment in today’s world, so they would kudos just about any workout.

Why kudosing individual workouts is silly (I think)

I felt things were more complex than that. To me, praiseworthy workouts don’t occur in isolation, but in the context of one’s training program as a whole. The wisdom and restraint to take an easy recovery workout may be just as important as a hard workout, depending on where it falls in your training cycle. In fact, a really hard workout may well be downright stupid if it exceeds your capabilities to easily recover from, or comes too close on the heels of other hard workouts.

To me, any individual workout is only a piece in a larger puzzle, and how you put things together as a whole is what is really key. Sometimes, too, skipping a workout entirely is the wisest course of action, depending on where you might find yourself or how you feel (if considerably below par) on any given day. How would you kudos a skipped workout — something that isn’t even visible at all in your string of Strava workouts? No, I didn’t think the idea of kudosing individual workouts held much water in the first place.

Enter the kudos-bots

Then I discovered in researching the issue further that quite a few people were getting bombarded with kudoses by different people from other countries halfway around the globe within a couple of seconds of a workout having been uploaded to Strava from their GPS watch. Such kudosers had to have some sort of kudos-bots doing it automatically for them via Strava’s programming APIs.

Why? The people on the receiving end of such kudos spamming weren’t exactly clear, but they felt it was obviously some sort of purely self-serving motive on the part of the kudosers, perhaps to get people to kudos them back so the original kudoser could amass as many Strava kudos as possible. Or to get people to take a look at their Strava profile where perhaps they might list their website or products for sale or something.

A foot-dragging capitulation to the “kudos game”

In the end, unless the number of kudosees might begin to get burdensome (which for me would be anything beyond about 5 or 6 other athletes, I suppose), I decided to kudos people back, though not at parity, and somewhat randomly so as not to be too formulaic. I might meet these guys eventually locally, and actually would enjoy doing so.

But what a bother all this kudosing was! Why did anyone even care about it in the first place? I had thought other distance runners were mostly probably as self-motivated as I was. Were the other runners giving out kudoses doing so because they felt forced just like me? Or did they perhaps think it was actually kind of fun or something? I still don’t know, and can only repeat that it seems like a meaningless bother.

A proposal for how to cut off those pesky Strava kudoses by the root

For the record, Herr Wardolfski does have a rather perverse potential solution to offer here, as is his wont: Why not include a Strava account setting to make it possible to prevent your own workouts from being kudosed?

When you think about it, kudosing functions as part of what is called in anthropology the “gift economy.” A gift economy — where people gift each other with the tacit expectation it will eventually “pay” for itself by being gifted back in some roughly equivalent form or amount — really functions on the foundation of perceived obligations. If, by barring yourself, or in Strava’s case, your workouts, from being kudosed, then you effectively remove the ability for others to create or, actually, force a perceived obligation on you, in so many words. Because kudosing on Strava is really a form of subtle coercion or peer pressure, in fact, if you “play the game” the way you’re “supposed” to.

I have the suspicion here, though, that part of the whole underlying reason for kudoses on Strava, and likes on Facebook, and so forth, is to get people hooked or addicted to the game so they keep coming back. Making the site “sticky,” in web-marketing parlance. (More like a black widow spider’s web, I would say, designed to trap the unwary.)

Liking and kudosing and other equivalents have become so commonplace online now that we don’t even think about or question the whole thing anymore. But you can just see the marketing strategists rubbing their hands with glee at how perfect this kind of game is for pressuring people to keep on playing it… while delivering all those captive eyeballs to their advertisers, or steering them toward a “premium,” paid subscription, of course.

What if, like me, however, you don’t like being pressured socially in this way? This is one of the fundamental things I really detest about social media in general.

On the surface, social media is promoted as a way to widen your network of friends and have fun interacting with people you couldn’t otherwise, or might not have met in other ways. Or to maintain connections you have with people you’re too distant from geographically to engage with regularly in person (spread-out families, for example). And it does do that — albeit without the aspect of in-person interaction with them and, particularly, often with the loss of social contact with people you already know, if the time taken to interact with online virtual friends displaces the time you would have spent in person with people closer to you.

So… If you could prevent others on Strava from kudosing you in the first place, that would cut off the Hydra head at the root. Plus, if people wanted to interact with you, they’d have to make a comment on your post or activity: much more “human” and interesting than simply clicking the Kudos button, in my opinion. Somehow, though, I doubt giving users the power to disallow kudos for their own workouts is an idea the people behind Strava are going to welcome with open arms.

(Later edit: Already, I’m beginning to get fed up with the kudos game, and — in lieu of Strava exercising their altruistic side by giving us a “Do not allow others to kudos me” preference setting — am toying with the idea of simply unilaterally ceasing to give any more kudoses. Perhaps even inserting a brief phrase in my Strava bio that shows up at the top of one’s profile page, which would say something like: “Comments welcome, but kudoses will not be returned since I’m not interested in keeping up with tit-for-tat games.”)

Moving on

But… as intriguing or frustrating as kudosing may be in its game-theory implications, that’s not really what this blog rumination was intended to be about. Much more interesting to me are the other things I’ve learned on Strava that I perhaps didn’t expect to find initially.

Often it turns out that when immersing myself in something new, what I discover or find interesting about it isn’t what gets talked about when that topic is discussed in the mainstream. And that has proven true with Strava as well. So, up next are some of those things that seem to fly under the radar, but made me perk up with curiosity.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2 Responses to Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 1

  1. Funny!

    I think a case could be made that such buttons like kudos are for all those hordes of sociable people whose fingers itch to do more than just follow… yet not enough to actually say something and add value. In other words, it makes people feel interactively virtuous on the cheap.

    I like your plan, but I also hope you make your post visible to folks on Strava so they could comment… who knows, you may have allies, and could stir up a motion toward making kudosing a choice.

  2. Completely agree that clicking a Kudos or Like button in lieu of taking the time to make a comment is a form of “cheaping out” for most people on social media.

    No good way to place a link on Strava to this blog post, really, in a way that would get eyeballs. But I could potentially start a Support thread there bringing up the issue. May have to think about that — thanks for the suggestion!

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