Strava is a great fitness tool and favoured by runners and cyclists. An easy-to-use app, compatibility with both Android and iPhone devices, as well as integration with most other sports watches and trackers - like Fitbit and Garmin - means it's something of a universal language for athletes and fitness fans.
The company has found itself in headlines, however, following the publishing of its heatmap.
Those headlines aren't directed at the amazing scope of Strava's platform, but at the potential for some to pick out areas that Strava is tracking activity in locations you might not expect - military installations in operational areas have been of particular interest.
What is the Strava heatmap?
Most fitness platforms offer some sort of route discovery feature that's cultivated from its users. Strava is particularly good at this thanks to route sharing from its users.
The heatmap is essentially all those routes laid onto the same map, leaving dark areas where there's no Strava activity and moving through reds and yellows to white hot where there's lots of activity. There have been over 1 billion activities uploaded to Strava, so it's a very real map of where Strava users play.
The map of the globe looks amazing, but it's the ability to zoom in and see the exact routes used that makes it interesting. You can search for a location and scope out running routes - perhaps to see if there's a usable running route in a holiday location for example.
The recent media furore comes down to the fact that Strava's heatmap also shows locations where Strava users are less expected, like deep in Afghanistan or Syria, with the suggestion that it's likely to be military users sharing data in these regions, perhaps unknowingly.
The heatmap itself is drawn from anonymised public activity data, so in itself it doesn't reveal who did what where, although some of that information is available within Strava itself.
Strava heatmap: How to turn off your data
If the heatmap has you spooked and you really don't want to be included, Strava has a single tick box that will ensure your data isn't included.
- Head into your Strava account on the website at: https://www.strava.com/settings/privacy
- Scroll to the bottom of the page to Strava Metro and Heatmap
- Uncheck the box marked "include my anonymised public activity data…"
That's all you have to do to ensure this information isn't shared with Strava for the heatmap. But note - there's no setting in the Strava app for this, it has to be via a browser.
Strava route finding can show who runs where - including you
As a Strava user, searching your local area can reveal popular running routes, which is perfect for finding alternative places to run or cycle. It's easy to do through your account, just hit the "Explore" tab when viewing in a browser.
This reveals a lot of data and is where it's important to manage your settings to ensure that you have the level of privacy that's appropriate for you.
You can, for example, look at Segments and find parts of routes. Segments (talking as a Strava user) are amazing, because you can search your area, compare your performance against other users, and challenge yourself to climb the leaderboard. Within a running community context, it's probably one of the best features Strava offers (Garmin also do it, but it's not as prolific).
It also gives you a way to click through and see who runs that route, examine user profiles, see common routes and route history for the user too - which some people might not want.
How do I change my Strava privacy settings?
We've covered the heatmap specifically above, but there's a lot more within Strava for you to get a grip of when it comes to privacy.
By default, your profile is publicly available and Strava users can see you, your routes and your photos. You can see when you ran a route and how fast, as well as where you started - which will often be your home address.
Let's drill down the settings and explain what they do and how to use them. Many of the settings below are available the Strava app on your phone, but some more detailed options are only available on the website.
Strava Enhanced privacy mode
Enhanced privacy is either on or off. When it is off anyone can see your full name and photos and Strava users can follow your profile, examine your routes and download them. The idea is to let other athletes adopt your route, because you found a great one.
Turn enhanced privacy on and only those you approve can see your photos, your name is not visible to logged-out users and only users you approve can download your routes.
If you're not worried about people seeing your routes - or you actively want to share those things - you can make that choice.
Strava Labs Flyby
The Flyby will let people see your route on a timeline - i.e., it will let someone know how long it takes for you to reach a particular point. From an athlete point of view it's interesting to see how someone progresses over particular terrain, for example - do they slow on the hills like you do?
Perhaps more interesting is that you can view Flybys of yourself and other people - so you can see who you passed, how close you were to your friends - and within that sports community context, it's a really clever feature.
But, if you only run one route, there's the potential that someone can use this sort of information to see how long it would take you to reach a particular point in your run. Some might not want other users to know that it will take you 10 minutes from your front door to that dark corner of the woods.
You can turn off Flyby in the privacy settings on the website or in your app.
How to hide your training log
Strava will let you share your training log with everyone or hide it completely. Again, someone might be able to figure out a pattern to your training which you might not like - are you leaving your house empty every Sunday morning?
On the other hand, you just might not want people seeing how active or inactive you've been. Again, it's easy to turn off.
This is an interesting option because it essentially allows you to hide sensitive areas that you don't want included on your activity map. The most obvious example is your home, because you're essentially letting anyone who can view your activities see where you live.
You probably start and stop you runs and rides at your front door, right? Perhaps your route map reveals that you always exit the back of your garden through a hidden entrance?
That might show that creepy person you met at the gym the other night where you live, or if you haven't used privacy controls, anyone using Strava who is looking at activity in your area and stumbles across your profile.
You can enter an address, however, and opt to hide an area of the map, with radius up to 1000m. This will mean that you can't be included on any Segments near that zone either, but also means you can obscure the exact house you're running to/from. Basically, the idea is to let you be part of the local Strava community, but keep your home private.
Top tip for UK users: use a postcode rather than your actual door number.
Make your activity private
Of course there's a single point to make all your activities private, so no one can see them. If the idea of sharing your activities is just creeping you out in general, then tick the box in the app or website.
That will mean your activities are all private - but you do then have the option to go and share them on an individual basis. That will mean, for example, that you can hide training runs and just share your race efforts, for example. You'll still be able to see all your logged runs in Strava, but no one else will.
Special cases for group activities
You can be part of a Strava group and that group activity can be tracked - like a team ride or club run. Someone could then see that you were part of that activity by looking at another user's profile who is also part of that group, which you might not want.
There's a setting to specifically deal with groups, so that you're not included as part of the group when you'd rather stay private.
Hide yourself from Segment leaderboards
As we mentioned above, Segments are one of the great things about Strava and not being included is rather sad - especially if you think you can get towards the top.
Segments are small parts of a route - perhaps from one bridge to another along a towpath that give users a measure of how they compare to other Strava users. It's a challenge and a competition, but if you want out, tick the box so you don't appear in the public leaderboards.
Segments are everywhere, just check out your local area and go and beat some of those local times!
The aim of Strava is to have a sharing community of athletes and that's what it is. Like many social and online networks, the assumption is that you know you're sharing and you're comfortable with it.
For most users, sharing routes and performance information isn't a problem. If you live in a remote area and don't want to reveal your routines, or if you don't want to share exactly which house you live at in the suburbs, then Strava offers these sorts of controls.
Much of the state of Strava privacy has been pulled into focus because of the heatmap - but it's worth remembering that for the majority of people, there's no good reason not to be in the heatmap.
If you are concerned, then you now have a picture of all the Strava measures in place and you can go private and share activities on an individual basis if you prefer.
But remember that other devices you are using might also be sharing your activities with other users, so make sure you check the settings of your GPS watch - for example - Garmin Connect also has privacy settings of its own just like Strava.