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Training Center: Will Strava make you faster?

The social platform is fun, but is there a benefit to turning every ride into a game?

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At the 2012 Tour of the Gila, UnitedHealthcare was driving a hard pace up the second category Copperas Vista climb during the Gila Monster stage. Unable to resist, I rode to the front and said, “Sorry guys, I know you’re working hard, but I really need this Strava segment.” I got a few laughs muffled by heavy breathing. It was clear pros recognized that something entirely new was sweeping the cycling world, and for some it was bigger than racing.

What was emerging was a new medium — call it “social training media.” Strava was one of the original platforms, and tools like Zwift and Garmin Connect soon followed. In his pioneering book, “Understanding Media”, Marshall McLuhan explains that a new medium imitates what already exists before finding its own unique expression. Ultimately this expression shapes the nature of the content, or “message.” A poignant example is the way in which Twitter has changed political campaigning.

True to McLuhan’s theories, Strava started simply as a virtual competitive tool, and quickly evolved into a social platform with Facebook-like rider feeds.

We’re just beginning to understand how Strava changes how we train. Does it ultimately help or hurt? It depends on how you use it.

Few professional researchers have studied Strava. Jeroen Stragier, who studies media, innovation, and communication technologies (not training science), at Ghent University in Belgium, has produced two studies.

Drawing on use and gratification theories in media, Stragier studied nearly 400 users to understand what motivated them to use Strava. He identified three factors: self-monitoring (such as goal setting and training analysis), social support, and enjoyment. The study found that self-monitoring drove cyclists to try Strava, but social aspects and enjoyment kept them coming back.

This may be why Elle Anderson, a former Strava employee and Euro-based pro roadie and ’cross racer, emphasizes that Strava is about more than just timed segments and QOMs. “I use it a lot for motivation,” Anderson says. “When I post a really hard training ride and people give me ‘kudos,’ I can feel really great about the training.”

Indeed, the motivation and enjoyment created by social tools are great for training, says Grant Holicky of Apex Coaching in Boulder. What concerns him is another effect on training called gamification. (That is, turning every ride into a game.)

Let’s be clear: racing and group rides both turn cycling into a game. “This is why we all race. We’re competitive,” Holicky says. “When you put that competition element in, it’s fantastic because it drives an effort-level that you probably don’t see otherwise.” The issue is that there’s a time and a place for those types of efforts. Social training platforms can turn every ride into a game.

Going hard too often can hurt training. A third Strava study helps prove this fact. Published in 2013, the authors from the University of Pisa analyzed data from nearly 30,000 Strava users. They compared weekly effort — using the training stress score formula developed by Dr. Andrew Coggan and Hunter Allen — to training performance, measured by VAM. (VAM, or “velocità ascensionale media” in Italian, translates as average ascent speed, or vertical meters climbed per hour.)

The study made two key discoveries. First, there was very little correlation between effort and performance. Translation: training harder doesn’t necessarily make you faster. Second, the only cyclists to see improvements in performance were the ones to periodize their training — alternating between periods of hard training, or overcompensation, with periods of rest. The periodized riders also achieved higher VAM scores than the riders who maintained an intense level year-round.

As a cyclist, Anderson understands this. She loves taking the periodic QOM, but she also works with a coach and a structured plan. To achieve those QOMs she has to be selective. “I know when to say, ‘OK, today is a rest day, I’m not going to go for a segment.’ Or, ‘Today I have some intervals, so I’m just going to do my intervals.’”

How to periodize your social training

Avoid training in the middle
Going after KOMs too frequently will lead you to accumulate too many hard efforts, which will lead to fatigue and prevent quality training. In this middle ground, fitness gains are limited.

KOM hunting
If you really want to hunt for KOMs, pick a single day to go after them. “One day per week, I want intensity,” Holicky says. “I want a big hard ride and I tell my athletes to go Strava hunting.”

Use segments as benchmarks
Tracking your time on a given segment is great for assessing your form and training progress, or testing the effectiveness of your current training block. Periodically time trial a 20-minute climb to test your threshold or a five-minute stretch to measure VO2 max strength. Strava allows you to compare your performance history. “It’s a really neat way to compare my fitness year over year and have something to shoot for,” says Anderson.

Don’t overreact
Wind, temperature, and fatigue all affect your time on a segment. Some riders lose this perspective. “As soon as they have one slower time on a climb, their first reaction is, ‘I must be unfit,’” Holicky says. Your natural reaction might be to train harder, but if you were slower because you were fatigued, you are effectively digging yourself into a hole.

Hidden dangers of short segments
“A lot of athletes [hit] these 30-second sprints or one-minute hills and think it’s short and it’s not going to do that much,” Holicky says. “But when you’re operating in that VO2 max range of 120 to 150 percent of your threshold, the intensity is very extreme and it’s going to have a huge effect on fatigue.” Without sufficient recovery, VO2 max work can lead to over-reaching.

Beware of single hard efforts
Going really hard for one segment might get you the KOM, but there is a tradeoff. “That one huge effort is building power and sport-specific strength on the bike, but it’s not building fitness and repeatability,” Holicky says. Everyone can go hard once in a race, but the winner can keep going. Effective VO2 max work requires repeated efforts, and Strava can add value to this. Doing repeats on a one-minute segment allows you to measure your fade — where you slowed down and when you started struggling.

Strava’s other benefits
Anderson does not recommend using Strava only for KOM/QOM hunting. She uses the platform for goal-setting and to track her weekly progress. She also finds the social motivation very powerful. To her, traditional training tools can be very self-oriented. Strava lets athletes get out of their heads and share their training experiences.