Strava for iOS and Android: Gold medal app or a bust?

As a daily runner, I use mobile tech to track my exercise so that I can learn more about what training methods are working compared to those that aren’t. Strava is the mobile application I’m currently testing: The free software was first available for iOS (s AAPL) and, more recently, launched for Android phones(s GOOG). How well does it work?

What does Strava do?

Overall, the Strava app is great for mapping your running routes through the GPS in your mobile phone. I have found the GPS to be very accurate and quick to get a satellite signal. During a run, however, the information available to you is somewhat limited. You get the elapsed time, distance and average pace, which are great, but the bare minimum, if you use iOS or Android.

Missing on the iOS version are any type of audio cues to your pace or distance, for example, something I rely heavily on during my training. And I may be nitpicking, but the distance field only shows miles to the nearest tenth. If I am running a 5K — which is 3.1 miles — when I see the 3.0 on Strava Run, I’m left wondering how close I am to that last tenth of a mile. Is it seconds away or a full minute? Last, I see no way to enter a manual run, such as one from a treadmill, which is used commonly by many who live in colder climates.

Those observations aside, the free app works well for what functionality it does provide. Some runners may not care about the distance measurements in tenths of miles, or they may not want audio cues. This is where personal preferences come into play, and if you don’t care about those functions, Strava Run is great. But it actually gets better after your run.

When you get home

The Strava Run client uploads your running data to your Strava account. On the phone you can see the results of your run: a map, total time, average pace and pace for individual miles, along with the elevation change for each. I don’t yet have a heart-rate monitor, but if I did, Strava would  upload that data too. Strava tracks your equipment used, something I like because I never seem to remember how many miles I have on a pair of shoes. Any segments or achievements on this run are noted as well, but more on that in a bit.

Going to the Strava site provides even more granular data, provided you buy the Premium subscription. Pace and elevation are graphed under a map of the run. Even better, though, are the G.A.P. and pace zone distribution. G.A.P. stands for “grade adjusted pace”: Strava adjusts your actual pace by taking the elevation gain or drop into account.

For example, I ran the second mile of a recent workout in 7:21. Factoring in the net elevation along that mile — it’s more uphill than down — the G.A.P. is 6:59, because I had to work harder than I would have if the route was flat.

The pace zone distribution is even more helpful, in my opinion. Based on your more recent 5K time, Strava calculates target zones for your running, based on type of training.

This ranges from  slow recovery runs, slightly faster endurance runs, tempo training and all-out effort. I’m now better informed about the pace I need to run on easy days versus the speed I need to run for upcoming races. After each run, Strava calculates how much time you spent on your run in each of these zones; ideally, you would spend most of your time in one planned zone, depending on what type of training you planned. You can see I was all over the map on this last workout.

Let’s win awards and get social!

Like many other running software, Strava has a social aspect. You can connect to other Strava users, see their activities in your feed, give them “kudos” for a workout and “race” them virtually on the same routes. Strava also keeps track of your personal achievements for various distances: fastest half-mile or mile, for example. The service goes one step further with segments, both for you and other Strava users. You can pick any segment of a run and track times specific to that route.

I thought this was gimmicky at first, but it actually pushed me during my most recent run. The second mile of my five-mile route is a saved segment, and once I got to the starting point, I spontaneously decided to try to beat my prior time. I didn’t plan on running such a pace when starting my run, but knowing a segment was upcoming motivated me to run harder and earn an achievement.

The final lap

So is Strava worth the download? Absolutely, if you don’t mind getting limited information during your run or don’t use a treadmill. The software is free, but for a Premium subscription — $6 per month or $59 per year — you gain the detailed analytics and social aspects. Here’s a comparison of the free versus Premium service. In either case, you can export your running log data if desired.

The social bit is a huge motivator, something I can relate to personally, and it was reiterated during a call I had with Michael Horvath, the co-founder and CEO of Strava. So are people paying for the Premium plan to add the social aspects? They are, said Horvath. “Nobody buys Premium on day one,” he told me. “But 15 percent of Strava users do upgrade. And when you consider that 40 percent of those who create a Strava account never actually log any activity data, our Premium take-up rate is actually better than 20 percent of the active user base.”