How Strava Shapes Our Running Stories
Thanks to the app’s open diary format, a race is more than just a race—it’s an opportunity for public introspection
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The conditions were less than ideal at this year’s Chicago and Boston Marathons. It was warm. It was humid. For many participants, it was one of those days where the inevitable suffering started far too soon, portending the worst–like an obnoxious party guest who shows up early and starts drinking all the expensive booze. Like any self-respecting Strava lurker, I read and relished the postmortems of runners whose races felt much longer than 26.2 miles. I’d like to believe that the pleasure I get from reading this stuff doesn’t come from schadenfreude, so much as an empathy for those who had a miserable experience that I know all too well. In the same way that there is little good fiction about characters who drift through life without conflict or pain, posts about perfect splits and seamless fueling are usually not as interesting as accounts about blowing up at mile 15 and trying to hang on. Or maybe it’s just me.
Of course, the fact that we can now read about each others’ race day travails online is a relatively new phenomenon, but one that’s already so ubiquitous that it’s easy to underestimate just how much Strava is shaping running culture writ large. Not too long ago, the only runners who were expected to tell a story about their races were professional athletes contractually obligated to take part in press conferences. These days, anyone with a Strava account has access to a publishing platform whose format encourages framing athletic feats in narrative terms. Strava users are prompted to give their runs a “title” and to add a synopsis and photos. These details might seem rather banal, but that’s precisely why it’s easy to overlook their impact.
In 1964, the Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” Crudely put, his argument was that new technologies shape how we see the world in ways that we’re often oblivious to. To use the contemporary example of Twitter, McLuhan might have argued that the impact that the platform has on our psyches has less to do with the substance of individual posts than the way the medium prompts us to express ourselves in pithy, easily digestible sentences, crafted for public consumption and approval. I’ve heard more than one writer lament that they often catch themselves “thinking in Tweets.”
Strava, meanwhile, functions as a weird hybrid between a personal training log and an explicitly social medium for sharing photos, workout tips, segment leaderboard rivalries, and words of encouragement. Like other social media, it is also very addictive. In a 2017 essay for Outside, Sam Robinson wrote that it was only after temporarily quitting the app that he realized the degree to which the communal element of Strava had become “an extension of his running experience,” one that provided “constant affirmation” and without which, for better or worse, the sport felt “thinner” and “slightly sterile.”
So how does Strava shape how we run? It seems reasonable to assume that the knowledge that others are peeping your daily miles might result in you occasionally picking a more interesting route, or running just a little faster than you should on recovery days. On the other hand, one of the great benefits of Strava is the ability to pilfer workout ideas from other runners, including some top professionals. On a more subliminal level, there’s the Strava equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen,” i.e. a growing need to digitally document every effort for external validation. As Robinson puts it, the implicit message of Strava is that “running only counts if it’s networked.”
In this hyperconnected era, running a marathon is no longer just running a marathon, but an opportunity to share a personal story of coming back from injury, overcoming heartbreak, finding your physical peak at an advanced age—you name it. Now that the once-private, lonesome pursuit of long-distance running is an increasingly public exercise, there’s more incentive than ever to chronicle our successes and failures for an expectant readership.
All of which could make the sport more interesting, more alive than when the story of what transpired on race day is limited to finishing times and splits. However, a potential drawback of Strava’s open diary format is the subconscious need to make everything more palatable to an invisible audience. One thing that struck me during my voyeuristic perusal of the various tales of carnage from last week’s marathons was the way many people who’d had a rough day nevertheless sounded reassuringly upbeat. Since I tend to do the traditional thing where I get depressed after a crappy race, I wondered how some people could be so equanimous after a bad day. Had they all discovered their inner Buddha, which allowed them to handle disappointment with enviable grace and poise? Or is it, rather, that exclamations of despair play better on Strava if they also include a glimmer of optimism? “Man that sucked, but I’m proud to finish. Learning experience!” is more Kudos-inspiring than “Man that sucked. Nothing good about this. Gonna go weep on a park bench.”
But not all disappointment needs to be buoyed by the promise of redemption. Sometimes things don’t go well and it sucks and that’s really all there is to it. This, too, is a sacred part of distance running; you invest an obscene amount of time in pursuit of an arbitrary goal with no guarantee of success. When it doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, you’re kind of bummed for a while, and eventually you start training again. Because what else are you supposed to do?