Training by yourself can be a lonely pursuit. Whether you’re cycling or running, laying down the miles with no one to compare your performance to can be both disheartening and detrimental. Ultimately, we all need something to strive for, someone to chase and challenges to rise to, and Strava can provide all of that.
Strava is an online platform that allows you to log each and every one of your rides and runs. Now you’re probably thinking that pretty much every sports watch or cycle computer comes with an online portal that does the same thing, and in some respects you’d be right.
Online portals like Garmin Connect, Polar Personal Trainer and TomTom MySports do all log the activity recorded by your device for you to analyse and obsess over, but Strava takes that basic model a bit further.
So how does it work?
At its most basic level Strava works much like the manufacturer specific portals mentioned above. The big difference is that you can import data into Strava from a plethora of devices from all manner of manufacturers.
Cycle computers and sports watches from Garmin will upload their data directly to the portal through a USB connection, while the excellent CopyMySports service will automatically copy your Garmin Connect activities to Strava without the need to physically upload from the device.
Many other devices also support direct export of data to Strava too. I’ve recently started testing the TomTom Runner Cardio watch (full review coming soon) and the TomTom sync app can be configured to send your runs directly to Strava as well as the TomTom MySports portal.
You don’t need to have a dedicated sports watch or cycle computer to use Strava though. You can download Strava apps for both iOS and Android devices, meaning that your phone can be your fitness device.
The Strava app
I have no shortage of fitness tech that can export to Strava, but I still found myself using the iPhone app quite regularly while testing the service. At first I did it out of due diligence rather than a desire to use my phone to track my rides and runs, but I discovered that the Strava app is, pretty much, a work of art.
I can only imagine that the team at Strava are as obsessed with tracking their performance as their users are, because the design, layout and features within the Strava app are as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen.
There are two main parts to the app – tracking your training and analysing it once you’re done. The first part can be as basic or complex as you want it to be. You can simply hit start and let your phone’s GPS do its thing – this will deliver you time, distance, pace and elevation for your ride or run, which is pretty much what you’ll get from most other apps.
But the Strava app is a lot cleverer than that, since it can connect to external sensors using both Bluetooth and ANT+ standards. I tested the app on an iPhone 4S, which meant that I could use Bluetooth 4.0 sensors, but assuming you have an ANT+ adapter to plug into your iPhone, you could use your ANT+ sensors too.
If you’re a Samsung Galaxy S5 user, then you’ll have ANT+ built into your phone, which means that the Strava app will be able to connect to a dizzying amount of external sensors without the need for any plug-in adapters.
I paired a Wahoo Fitness BlueHR heart rate sensor with the Strava app and it worked flawlessly when running and cycling. By fortuitous coincidence, Wahoo Fitness recently sent me a sample of its Bluetooth Smarts cadence sensor, and that too played beautifully with the Strava app.
And while I’m talking about Wahoo devices, you can also pair the RFLKT with the Strava app, allowing you to keep an eye on all your stats while you’re riding without the need to strap your phone to your handlebars.
Once you’ve finished tracking your training, you can delve into your activity feed on the app too – this can be configured to show just your own activities, or yours and your friends’ training.
The app lets you do most of what you can do on the web portal – analyse rides and runs, comment on friends’ activities, accept challenges etc.
The real magic behind Strava is its community. While Strava doesn’t disclose exactly how many registered users it has, it’s probably safe to say that it boasts one of the largest online cycling communities in the world. So, even if none of your real friends care about how many miles you rode at the weekend, or how fast you managed that killer climb, your virtual friends on Strava will appreciate your effort.
But you don’t need to desperately Hoover up friends like a Facebook addict, because the Strava community is always there to give you an idea of just how well, or how badly you’re doing thanks to Segments.
Segments can be created from any ride or run data, essentially breaking down any of your training sessions into an amalgamation of, well, segments. By analysing your performance for each segment of your ride or run, you can compare yourself to other Strava users as well as your own past efforts.
Strava will log your personal records for each segment you complete, and you can then view how that time compares to the rest of the community or, if you prefer, how it compares to your friends. And that’s where things really get interesting, because if you do have friends that cycle and regularly ride similar routes to yourself, it doesn’t take long before the competition starts to heat up.
It’s that competition that will have you pushing yourself harder and harder with each ride or run, essentially dispelling the complacency that can often set in when you’re training alone. I’ll admit that after each long ride I find myself checking my segment performances against some of my friends, and yes, I’m very happy whenever I see myself at the top of the table.
All those segments have been created by Strava users, which, of course means that you can create your own segments too. Just make sure that you’re not creating a new segment for the sake of it – if you regularly ride Box Hill, as I do, you’ll know that a ridiculous amount of segments have been created for that particular climb!
Another great, community driven performance incentive is Strava challenges. Challenges take many forms – how far you can cycle each month, how quickly you can run 10km, how fast you can climb a specific hill etc. – and you can choose which challenges to undertake and which to ignore.
Once you sign up for a challenge you’ll have a set time to complete it. Once you complete the challenge, Strava will tell you where you rank among the thousands of other participants. You can then either sit back on your laurels or try to complete the challenge again to improve your ranking.
Oh, and there’s specific Strava kit in the online store that you can only buy once you’ve completed the challenge associated with it – ideal when you’ve beaten all your friends and want to remind them of that fact when you see them.
The best things in life are free
The most amazing thing about Strava is that it’s absolutely free to register and use the platform. There are some features that aren’t available to free account users, but you can still log all your activities using any of the supported hardware, follow friends and even accept challenges.
If you want the full functionality of Strava you’ll have to sign up for a Premium account, which will set you back $6 per month, or $59 annually. Premium Strava adds some nice features like the Suffer Score, which gives you a breakdown of just how much you’ve punished yourself during your workout based on heart rate data.
Another worthy Premium benefit is the ability to set goals for yourself. Goals are based on segments, whereby you can challenge yourself to improve your time for a specific segment by a certain date. It’s yet another way to encourage you to push that little bit harder.
Premium also lets you filter the leader boards, so you can see where you rank compared to people in your age group, or weight class. And if you’re using the Strava app, your segment performances will update in real time as soon as each segment is completed.
The personal heatmap is a nice touch too, allowing you to see what routes you’ve ridden or run the most, while the ability to download GPX files means that you can explore routes created by other Strava users.
It’s tough to say whether it’s worth paying for the Premium service, since only you can decide whether the extra functionality will be of benefit for you. But if you sign up for the free service and find that you love it, it’s worth giving Premium a go, because I can promise you it’ll just make you love Strava even more.
If you’re a cyclist and you haven’t tried Strava I strongly suggest that you register now and give it a go. Since I’ve been using Strava I’ve become more enthusiastic about riding than I’ve been in years, and I’ve also found myself pushing harder, riding further and seeking out climbs that I would have actively avoided before.
While Strava’s history as a cycling platform is clear by the sheer volume of segments for cyclists, there’s a lot there for runners too, and I love the fact that I can easily track my runs and rides in one place, and set myself challenges for either.
If you feel that you’re not pushing yourself as hard as you should, or that your training has plateaued, Strava could be just the tonic you need to raise your game. The ability to judge each and every performance not just against your own previous efforts, but against thousands of others has an immensely positive effect.
Strava is free to try, so why wait? I can promise you that once you start using it you’ll never want to stop.
- Free to use
- Logs all your cycling and running
- Compatible with a plethora of fitness tech
- Strava app is superb
- App supports Bluetooth sensors
- App supports ANT+ sensors
- App is compatible with Wahoo RFLKT
- Segments give a clear indication of performance
- Easy to follow and encourage friends
- Challenges inspire you to push harder
- Easy to analyse your activities
- Premium service adds some great features
- Free service is so good, it’s tempting to ignore Premium
Price: From free to $6 per month