Last November, I ran the New York City Marathon.
Like going vegan or doing CrossFit, it’s something you’d find out about within seconds of meeting me at any point throughout the year. All I did was eat carbs, run, and talk to people about running and, as a result, I collected a group of friends who also ran. And the first thing you do with a new running friend? Add them on Strava.
Many people find companionship in that kind of community. Every good run is met with cheers, and every bad one is met with support. But for me, and other runners, all we got out of it was anxiety.
While preparing for the marathon, the longest run on my training plan — 20 miles — coincided with a heavy, cold rainstorm that hit New York City. I was slower, less confident on my feet, and carrying an additional few pounds of soaking wet cloth. It was uncomfortable, sure, but ultimately the biggest failure of this run wasn’t due to my legs, my shoes, or my general lack of weather-wicking running attire — it was a failure of technology.
By mile five, my waterproof headphones stopped working because they got so waterlogged that they turned off. By the time my clothes were soaked and dripping with rainwater at mile seven, I could no longer navigate on my phone, either — it was too wet to control. But I was only using my phone for music and as a backup tracker, so I wasn’t too worried.
The best headphones for running
I predominately track my runs on my Apple Watch, which automatically uploads my workouts to Strava. My watch was working great until the rain paused my workout at mile 15. I didn’t notice this until mile 17 when, upon looking at my watch to check my stats, I saw that it hadn’t recorded any of the previous two miles. I stopped in my tracks and cried, put the watch on waterproof mode, and ran an additional few miles so that my watch — and especially my Strava upload — would read “20 miles.” At the time, everyone else on my Strava training for the marathon was also completing 20 miles that weekend. They had to know I was participating, too. They had to know I did it because, if not, did it even count?
This run was not just a training run for me. It was a performance, and I had lost my audience.
The pressure to perform well within an exercise culture dominated by technology and social media logging, particularly influenced by platforms like Strava, can promote community and accountability. But it can also engender a joyless, comparison-driven environment, and ultimately transform personal workouts into performative acts for public validation.
Why does self-surveillance take the joy out of exercise?
There’s a truth I’ve learned while marathon training: Technology and self-surveillance have changed the way we exercise. If we have a bad run, we have to make excuses for our poor performance. We are only proud of ourselves if we achieve something more than someone else. Like @ironmanclaire notes on TikTok, “justifying slow runs on Strava is the name of the game.” Here are just some of the justifications people make:
Swallowed a bug
Pacing Jessica (Jessica is not a real person)
Stopped to chat with a friend
Was feeling sick
Stomach aches to the maximum
So many traffic lights
GPS was off
Stopped for coffee
Low heart rate
I have, humiliatingly, used just about all of these. When I scroll through my app and see people running faster and farther than me, I get anxious about my training plan. I feel like I’m not doing enough: not running fast enough, not running far enough, not running up enough hills. I’m worried that my friends get more kudos (the Strava version of “likes”) than I do.
We’ve known that Strava and other fitness-tracking apps like it can create “obsessive tendencies which need to be avoided” in users, affecting their overall mental health and well-being.
“Fitness app social features that promote self-recognition, such as posting only positive workout data or photos, can be linked to maladaptive perceptions of exercise and burnout in the long run. In contrast, fitness app social features which promote reciprocation, such as giving support and commenting on colleagues’ activities, are likely to lead to adaptive outcomes,” Dr. Eoin Whelan, a senior lecturer in business information systems at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics who worked on the study “How the social dimension of fitness apps can enhance and undermine wellbeing,” told cycling outlet Road.
We are constantly telling on ourselves, and for what? I struggle to encapsulate it better than Elizabeth Barber did in her 2018 Wired essay, “What Happens When You Track Your Boyfriend on Strava.”
“We are all on Strava, I’m pretty sure, to better ourselves with our own data,” Barber posits. “But on Strava, self-improvement meets social media. There are lots of apps that make living performative and competitive, but Strava overachieves in recreating begrudged necessity — exercise — as an enviable experience. A runner’s workout on Strava, with a title and photos, is a declaration of who she is and, maybe, who you should be too.” She found, in the end, that she liked herself “far better” when she “ran unwatched.”
She describes Strava as a “joyless data bank for the insecure.” And if I am anything about my running, it’s insecure. I am not a natural athlete. I’m slower than every single person I follow on the app, and I often feel less motivated than them. It has never been my life’s dream to run the marathon, and, while I do appreciate the occasional runner’s high, I’d far prefer getting a regular high.
Strava is, at its core, a social media platform — and these platforms famously encourage comparison.
“You do fall into that comparison trap,” Courtney Kitchen, a running influencer and coach, told Mashable. “If you see someone else running the same run that you did, like the same amount of miles or whatever that you ran that day, and they did it faster, you can feel worse about yourself.”
But that isn’t a problem that’s unique to Strava — that’s just existing online in 2023. There are more runners than ever before and, with running influencers becoming increasingly popular, we are seemingly more competitive and performative online.
There are, of course, other reasons why you might not want to use a fitness tracker. Strava once gave away the location of secret U.S. military bases (whoops). If you leave your profile public and allow the app to show your maps, it’s pretty easy for a stalker to identify not only your home address but also your general running route. And because data collected by Strava and other fitness trackers aren’t protected by the law like other health information is, the apps can get hacked and into the wrong hands.
Running toward athletic authenticity and community
As one study, “Reflections from the ‘Strava-sphere’: Kudos, community, and (self-)surveillance on a social network for athletes,” points out, Strava can be a source of motivation and entertainment. It can help to “establish or strengthen social networks.” The platform rewards users for their bodily self-discipline.
Ewan Heritage, another running influencer and coach, told Mashable that the fact that Strava forces you to share the real run helps his ability to be seen as a more authentic influencer and athlete.
“It gives me accountability for the running sessions that I have to do,” Heritage said. “I can post on Instagram that I’m doing this 5K session to get faster and this is how you do it, but I’m not actually doing it. But then after I’ve done it, my fans can see that I’ve done it and then it makes it more authentic. They can see that I’m putting in the work that I’m preaching about.”
And it’s true — it’s really hard to lie on these trackers.
If you’re using Strava or other fitness trackers just for your own knowledge, voluntary self-monitoring can have a pretty positive impact. Multiple scientists agree that self-tracking enhances self-reflection and can lead to people feeling more in control over their performance and their bodies. For instance, Kitchen told me she likes all the data and statistics because it’s fun to see her improvement. But this can also lead people to start viewing themselves as a manipulatable project that needs to be constantly worked on.
And, to be fair, my Strava posts are fun. My friends post pictures of themselves doing things they like in, typically, some pretty unflattering ways. It’s nice to see people having a nice time, and, of course, there’s something about Strava that’s less addicting than other social media sites. You can’t monetize you’re account, you don’t spend hours scrolling through other people’s posts, and that’s all pretty nice. Kitchen agrees, saying it’s her favorite social media platform.
Strava helps some users who aren’t in the same state as their friends feel like they can exercise together even when they’re not side by side. I’ve participated in remote races, where you run at the same time as a bunch of other people on Strava, and you get mailed a t-shirt or a medal. I used to use these kinds of trackers as personal diaries, and still do — in the private section of the workout.
But when everything we do feels like a performance, it’s difficult to see the point in laying bare even more of our vulnerabilities just for the public to scrutinize. People watched me go through everything it took to train for the marathon, and then they watched me run it. That was cool — but I’m still not sure if it was worth it.