Friday, September 25, 2015

Running Apps: or hinderance?

This blog was written for, and originally appeared on the website here


The popularity of Strava and other similar apps has skyrocketed in the last couple of years off the back of the latest global running boom. It’s really changed the dynamics of training sessions. These days before athletes start their post-run stretch, it’s almost de rigor to now whip out the smart phone and upload the session to Strava to check out the stats and the goodie bag of rewards.

As a coach, this is worthy of some further thought, and the use of apps such as Strava poses many questions in terms of athlete motivation, reinforcement and the very nature of what drives us as runners and indeed human beings.

But firstly, I’ll speak from an athlete’s point of view. As a performance focused athlete over many years, I can recognize the benefits of such an app as Strava. Its ability to centralize all my recording devices is convenient and for me it acts as a central log for all of my training. Its interface is simple and user friendly. It attempts to offer some deeper analysis based off heart-rate data… ‘suffer scores’ etc. and has a couple of cool features such as a pace ‘evener’ (great for working out equivalent flat speed over trail/elevation). However on the whole, I tend to ignore the science and head straight to the ego, I’m of course talking about CR (course record) / KOM (King of Mountain) and segments.

Branden Davies Checking over his Strava account after hitting the trails
Branden Davies Checking over his Strava account after hitting the trails. Photo by Nadine Davies

What better positive reinforcement is there than running a course or year best PR, or better still snatching the coveted solid crown. It’s no wonder that it’s mobiles and not protein drinks that are first reached for post-session. Motivationally speaking it’s fantastic, but like everything in life, one can have too much of a good thing.

There are numerous pitfalls; and as a coach I can see how the allure of the virtual ‘pat on the back’ can take away from the essence of training. I’ve known athletes to choose routes based on segments, to choose to run solo rather than in a group, or basically become more obsessed about the rewards rather than the very process of training. I know because I’m also guilty of it.

A visual of the INOV-8 All Terrain Running Club
A visual of the INOV-8 All Terrain Running Club

There is also the unrivaled ability via Strava to view others’ training. One of the pitfalls of any athlete is to use comparison with others as an indicator of progress and a guide for the future. This is simply a recipe for disaster.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying if we all tried to replicate Steve Way’s training, we’d all end up broken and an over-trained mess! While there is nothing new under the sun as far as training goes, the access to information and the ability to imitate can be detrimental. One man’s easy run can be another’s tempo, and so caution must be taken.

As runners we have different physical and mental compositions. You have to find what works best for you according to your own goals and intuitions. A good coach should be able to identify your strengths and weaknesses and create an individualised plan that is right for you.

Brendan Davies WSER100
Brendan Davies at last year’s famous Western States 100 ultra race. In 2015 he will compete at Western States again, this time wearing our RACE ULTRA 270. Photo by Matt Trappe

For the recreational runners, features such as ‘recovery time’ are generally features that should be given some thought. However, these often amuse me somewhat. On my Suunto Movescount I’m regularly in over 100 hours recovery deficit… so should I be listening to the watch and putting my feet up? I think not. Running, unlike the layman’s view, is not a simple sport. While there is of course room for science, it’s the ability to try new things, go against the orthodox, try and fail and try again approach that has taken all the recreational runners to the pointy end.

Other features from devices that buzz and beep and generally remind you to do everything from drink, eat and breath are handy and as a training and racing aid can be beneficial. If you are a heart rate trainer, it’s never been easier.

While it’s great to have this level of assistance, it’s also easy to become a slave to the data and bogged down in it. Remember how the champions of the past used to do it, and every now and then, go try running naked (no mobile or watch!) and get back to the core of why we run in the first place.

* I log every km of my training, both as an athlete and when coaching on Strava. My account can be found here:

* I’m also a member of the INOV-8 ALL TERRAIN RUNNING CLUB on Strava. Join the club here: