Blog Post

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.”

8 Responses to “Strava for iOS and Android: Gold medal app or a bust?”

  1. Scott Crosby

    As others have mentioned, it’s odd to only review Strava in the context of running. It’s primarily designed for cycling, and for that it has been nothing short of revolutionary. Time-displaced distributed competition has made the world into one big bike race, and for areas with thousands of cyclists like the SF bay, Strava is the de facto way to share rides, both from a route and performance/effort perspective. The world of cycling is completely addicted, and as Strava conquers the world, it will be a major player in affinity-based social networks.

    I know the ostensible topic of the article is the android/ios apps and not Strava itself per se, but the bigger context is important I think.

  2. David McCormack

    Strava started life as a service for cyclists and it wore only this hat for a long time before they started to add support for runners. This is a key point in my opinion that out of fairness should have been mentioned in the article. The running stuff is probably still work in progress. To give just one concrete example of where this impedance mismatch raises its head, the 0.1 mile granularity to which you refer is far less of an issue for a cyclist than a runner.

    Another thing worth mentioning is that Strava works much better when used in conjunction with a dedicated sports GPS device than it does with a smartphone app. If your device supports 1 second logging, you can analyse your rides (and runs, if you’re into that kinda thing *spits on ground*) in excruciating detail afterwards.

    Strava has completely transformed the training experience for me and most of the other guys in my cycling group – even when you’re on your own, every ride can be a race if you want! I’m a big, big fan.

  3. Kevin,
    One thing you missed is the ability to record your exercise by type, for those cross trainers out there. I started using the app to record nordic skiing, looking forward to using it for mountain biking this summer.

  4. I use Strava for cycling. I find it hugely motivating in how you can compare segments both with yourself, and with others. It’s of a lot more value in areas like the SF Bay Area where there are many, many cyclists. I don’t know that the # of runners on Strava is similar or not, but I think it’s great.

    Also, for premium members, the segment finder new to Strava 2.1 is great. You go to a new area and find all sorts of segments that you can compete for KOMs.

  5. I’ve been using Strava for training on the bike since last summer and have to say it’s been a phenomenal motivator, pushing me to fitness levels I haven’t seen in years. As a masters cyclist (48 YO), I need every bit of help I can get to be competitive!

    Now I look forward to my hard workouts, and plan them around various segments in my area. The “explore” and KOM (king of the mountain)features have gotten me to expand my training region considerably, adding variety to my workouts.
    As with running, the on-bike features are minimal, but I use a Garmin GPS biking computer to collect my data since it works with my power meter. This makes the at-home Strava experience even better because it lets me track my power output on known “segments.” While not unique to Strava, it’s integration with other features allows it to show your metrics like your VAM (a measure of how fast you go up hills). This helps motivate me to train harder since I make my workouts public and can compare my efforts with others. There’s now a group of us who cheer each other on and, of course, compete on the hills.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing what the Strava team comes up with next. Every few weeks, they’re sneaking in new features that make the system even more enjoyable.

  6. Mark Kelley

    Kevin – thanks for sharing this – but I dont’ think I’d want to lug around an iphone or android smartphone on my track interval workouts – or even my temp runs. After using Polar products for years I switched to using Nike+ last year and have been satisfied with the watch (GPS, shoe sensor HR monitor) data and tracking which also provide similar stats. Nike+ will also tell you to “speed up” if you want it to through my ipod nano that I pin to the back of my hat with the headphones.

    Nike+ has a social aspect to it as well as you may know…but like the Nike+ website – it sort of sucks. I created some challenges there (fastest 5K, fastest marathon in December, etc) but it was like walking into burning man and yelling out your challenge. a bit of a non-starter.

    If Nike could make use of this as a post-workout and social tool it would be an ideal combo.

    • Alan Peery

      Mark — Strava supports upload of GPS data from Garmin devices. I’ve not tried it myself, but colleagues have had success. Strava might support your Nike+ device as well.