How to Use Strava to Optimize Your Training


, by Chris Case

Photography by: dolomite-summits

Among its many roles, Strava is a virtual competition. This feature can be effectively used to hone fitness, especially when it’s worked into a structured training plan, as Chris Case explains.

Strava is many things to many people: training log, a global community for social support, a fitness-focused form of social media, and the list goes on.

But is it an effective training tool? Absolutely, especially when it’s used intelligently to complement a structured training plan.

The gamification aspect of Strava offers users advantages, in the same way that fast group rides and some races do. It’s all in the way KOMs/QOMs or Segments are used, and how often.

For an injection of intensity, nothing beats competition, whether in real life or in a virtual sense. Every athlete is able to produce a bigger, better effort when in a race setting or out gunning for a Strava PR or KOM/QOM. People are watching; the pressure is on! This is a good thing.

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It becomes a bad thing if it becomes the goal for every ride. When talking about intense efforts—whether Strava hunting or structured intervals—there is a time and place in the training phase when they are appropriate. And there are other times when they’re best set aside.

It’s up to each athlete (and his or her coach) to be disciplined about choosing when to sprinkle in a bout of Strava competition to hone form. (Of course, if having fun is all you’re after, crush away.)

Photography by: / Yuri A

The science of Strava

The ability to effectively use Strava for training has been the subject of a formal study, published in 2013. The researchers, from the University of Pisa, looked at data from nearly 30,000 Strava users, analyzing subjects’ weekly effort using the training stress score (TSS) formula. They examined changes in vertical ascent rates (VAM) on Strava segments to assess “performance.”

The researchers concluded two major points from crunching the numbers. First, there was very little correlation between effort and performance. In other words, training harder didn’t make the subjects faster.

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Second, and most importantly, the only cyclists to see performance improvements were those who used periodization to direct their training. This was determined by looking at VAM figures during the race season: athletes who started training hard in November and had a higher average weekly TSS saw higher VAM rates months later when racing kicked off.

The ultimate message is that, in order to maximize performance, an athlete should be disciplined when using Segment smashing and KOM/QOM hunting as a tool to go deep.

Blending periodization and Strava

To optimize the use of Strava for training, take advantage of the gamification aspect infrequently. Let your structured training plan dictate when you chase Segment stats, otherwise stick to the plan and enjoy the ride.

In order to maximize performance, an athlete should be disciplined when using Segment smashing and KOM/QOM hunting as a tool to go deep.

Here are several tips to make Strava a valuable part of your structured training:

Take advantage of the gamification ... selectively

Strava enables you to create a competitive atmosphere, even when riding alone, which is great if you’re looking to get that boost in effort that only comes from racing, virtual or otherwise. Just resist the urge to race every segment. With Strava Segments peppered across every ride you do, it’s easy to get carried away. And, if you frequently hit Strava segments hard, multiple times per week, it leads to diminishing returns. The fatigue you accumulate will eventually prevent you from effectively reaching the intensity you need to optimize fitness gains. You end up training neither hard enough or easy enough. That middle ground limits adaptation. So, the best thing you can do is…

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Pick a day to go all-in

Some riders can’t resist hunting segments, even if they have a plan or their coach asks them not to. So, if you can’t help but hunt, dedicate one day each week to racing them. And remember that a single hard effort creates fatigue—by building sport-specific strength—but it doesn’t yield fitness gains or repeatability. If you’re going all in, make a day of it. For example, if you’re working on your one-minute power, repeat efforts with short recoveries on a one-minute segment. That will hone your capacity to repeatedly go deep, which is often what you’ll face on race day.

Photography by: Zamrznuti tonovi

Use your Segment history as a benchmark

You’ve probably heard of famous pro cyclists using a favorite climb as a testing ground for their fitness. Indeed, there is great value in tracking your progress, over time, on a certain climb. With Strava Segments, you can easily take this same approach, for example, by testing yourself on a specific segment—longer ones, in the 20-minute range are better—a few times each year. Strava enables you to filter your results history and track your times and power numbers. This allows you to reference what year you set your PR, for example, and how you stack up now. A word of caution, however: Since so many factors affect a performance on a given day, including wind, temperature, and fatigue, be careful not to read into a poor result too quickly.

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Social motivation

Beyond Segments, perhaps the most powerful incentive to use Strava is for the motivation it can provide. Setting goals, tracking progress, and sharing your achievements is highly motivating. Having something to work towards and achieve drives motivation, engagement, and consistency, which are all key components of effective training.

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