(Pocket-lint) - Strava boasts 50 million users and in February 2020 said that it was growing at about a rate of 1 million users a month.

So what is Strava and why should you be involved with it? More importantly, is it worth you paying for the subscription that really unlocks the fun?

What is Strava?

Strava is the Swedish the verb to "strive" and the company classes Strava as a community for athletes. While the numbers are rather small in terms of major social networks - which can boast hundreds of millions of users - Strava holds up well against brands like Fitbit, sitting at just under 30 million users (based on Statista data).

Strava is entirely focused towards athletes. Much of what Strava offers is about the analysis of your performance and importantly, keeping track of your training. The social aspects of Strava really hang off your activities, but in short, it's a tool for those who exercise.

Usefully, it is a universal platform that all athletes can use, regardless of which device or platform they used to capture their sports data with originally.

Who uses Strava?

There are some activities that Strava really favours and that's cycling and running.

While you can record other activities - from hiking to yoga - Strava is at its best when analysing performance and providing interesting comparisons for routes - which really appeals to cyclists and runners.

With lots of users pouring in lots of data, Strava is great for viewing routes, comparing Segments (parts of a route), but essentially, keeping track of your own performance and training goals.

Strava main features

The main elements of Strava breakdown as follows: recording your activity, your feed, your training and performance, routes and segments, and finally challenges. Strava also has a heatmap of your training - which found fame when it hit headlines and caused a greater focus on privacy across the platform - while some features are more prominent on the website than they are in the app.

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Activity Feed

The activity feed is basically the home screen of Strava, where you'll see posts detailing the activities of the people you follow, as well as your own. Rather than scrolling through a collection of manual posts or shared memes, most of these are often synced from users' training devices - be that Apple Watch, Garmin, Fitbit or others.

Manual posts can be created, but these aren't so common; you can also post photos but again, photos are usually added to activities.

Activities can be recorded in Strava itself as well as manually added and for those with no tracking device, recording in the Strava app is often a useful route.

You can comment on an activity, give kudos and share posts - and one of the great things that Strava offers is the ability to share group events or include other users on your activity if they didn't have anything to track it with themselves.

You can tap through into an activity to get more detail about it - beyond speed or distance, you can look at power output, heart rate, speed, or any other metrics the original athlete shared - as well as examining the route. From the website you can edit and save routes so you can use that route yourself, if you're a subsciber.

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Explore

The explore section covers a range of features which expand on your Strava experience. It covers Challenges (in the app - the website has a separate tab for Challenges), club and athlete search. The Strava smartphone app also has a friend finder on the Feed page - it's a social network after all and making connections is part of what you're supposed to do.

It's the athlete search section where you can find friends, either by automated searching (Facebook friends, contacts, for example), or searching by name. Strava also suggests people you might know and might want to follow - but it's worth seeing if that person is active on Strava, because many contacts might have created a profile but then not be an active user.

Challenges will let you sign-up to various things to try and get you motivated, like a distance, climb or duration goal for a week or month. Some of these are sponsored with some rewards, like a discount at a store for taking part in a particular challenge. It's a bit of fun.

There are clubs you can find and follow, some of these are commercial companies sharing content - a little more like you'd find on a Facebook page, for example, but there are also some more local clubs that will share routes and events, like organised rides - and again, you can steal a club's planned route if you want to have a go on your own.

Finally in the Explore section we have Segments, which is a huge part of Strava, and totally worth its own section of this explainer.

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Segments: Where Strava really shines

As the name suggests, Segments are part of a longer route. Strava isn't alone in offering such sections, Garmin also does some segment breakdown in Garmin Connect, but it's no way near as useful as it is in Strava.

Segments lets you compare your performance over a course with previous efforts. Because there are lots of Segments, you can examine your performance on a particular climb, downhill section, flat sprint, off-road route - whatever you want.

When you complete an activity, the Segments that route covers are provided as part of the breakdown in the detail of that activity. If you've been through those Segments before, you can see if you were faster or slower - and over time, you can build up a granular picture of your performance on that specific Segment.

Taking it a stage further, you can see how your performance compares with your friends and other athletes, you can compete to beat their times, you can compete against everyone to take the crown - and it's all deliciously recorded in Strava.

Segments are perhaps the most compelling part of the Strava platform and there's nothing quite as satisfying as looking back over a long ride and seeing how you performed on those segments.

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You can also favourite Segments and set goals on Segments to help you target performance. The great thing about these Segments is that will then sync to compatible devices. For example, you can set a goal on a particular Segment that will sync to your Garmin Edge, so that when you arrive at that Segment on your ride, you're presented with the goal information so you can put the hammer down.

You can also create Segments from routes you have in Strava. While those in busy areas will find most places already have a lot of Segments, if you live somewhere more remote or take a route that no one else really does, you can just create those Segments for your use, to use as a personal performance benchmark. Of course, other Strava users will then be able to use them - and there's plenty of Segments with comedy names that will make you chuckle when you discover them.

Segments also drives Strava's Local Legend feature, which highlights athletes who log the most activities on those Segments.

Mapping and routing in Strava

Maps and routes deserve their own section, because it's one of the major elements of any sports-based service. As we've said, routes are logged against activities, mostly from athletes syncing rides from GPS devices, be that a Garmin watch or a Wahoo bike computer.

We've also mentioned that you can log activities through the smartphone app, using it as a tracking app - and this is popular with athletes who strap on an armband or handlebar mount the phone, open the app and hit record.

The maps in Strava come from Mapbox and are custom for Strava, including satellite, hybrid and standard views, the latter showing plenty of mapping features like isobars and some terrain shading, so you can see terrain features at a glance.

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In the smartphone app

The maps you get in the Strava app Feed are mostly for reference - you can view, you can change what you see, but you can do a lot more with them if you are a subscriber.

The Strava app will let subscribers discover routes in the Explore section. The app will not only suggest routes, but let you create them too.

Starting with creation, you can select the type of route you want - ride, run, walk - the length of route as well as being able to specify if you want it to be hilly or flat, paved or off-road. Three routes are then suggested for you based on your criteria, along with the details - distance, profile, estimated time and the option to change waypoints with a couple of taps.

This is great if you're on holiday and want to explore, or working away from home and want to find a convenient running route from your hotel.

You can also create routes freehand, drawing on the map and having the route automatically calculated. You just have to get the map on the display, tap the pencil icon so it turns orange and then draw where you want to go.

You have to make sure you start and end the ride where you are, otherwise you'll just have a starting point where you first touched the map. What this freehand route creation means is you can draw a shape on the map and then create a route to match - with all the details to go with it. The mind boggles.

Once a route is created and saved, it will be synced to supported devices so you can then head out and ride or run it. It's worth checking, however, as it can create doglegs, laps of roundabouts and other oddities that it's better to know about in advance rather than when you're out on that route.

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On the Strava website

The Strava website is a much better environment for mapping and routes. From a friend's route you can just click the map where there's a button that says "Try this route". Again, this is reserved for subscribers, but that means you can see an interesting route and decide to do it yourself.

You'll get the chance to edit that route - for example to change the start or finish to your home - and then you can save and sync it as you normally would. It's a shame this function is missing from the app, because it would be great to just tap a map in your smartphone feed and create a route from it.

There's also freehand creation in the website, but you don't get the suggestions that you get in the app. That is, once again, a bit of a shame because auto route creation on a larger screen in a browser would also be useful - as would parity between website and app functionality.

Still, you can then draw your routes freehand, applying some constraints on how those routes are mapped out. Strava gives you the option to follow popular routes from its heatmap - so you end up on popular routes rather than backstreets and obscure pathways - and you can also select surface type. For runners that means you can select dirt surfaces, for road bikers you can opt for paved routes only. For those buying into the growing popularity of gravel bikes, you can find all sorts of routes you might never see from the road.

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Data, data, data: Performance tracking

Outside of finding, mapping, recording and creating routes for whatever sport you want to partake in, Strava offers a lot of data analysis on the top of that. From any logged activity you get a record of the data created - heart rate, speed, distance, elevation change, power (either logged from sensors or estimated) and more besides. Much of this will depend on the data you put in - most modern watches will give you heart rate, speed, distance, some will give you cadence; additional sensors are supported too, like power meters or cadence sensors for cyclists. The more you put in, the more you get out.

You can browse the related graphs and see how those hills affected your heart rate and so on as you can on most other sports services, from Apple Health to Polar Flow. Strava also collates your activity data so you can easily see your distance over the weeks, months and years. It's easy to see your total stats and for anyone who wants to log something like miles on a particular pair of shoes, Strava will let you do that.

Again there's a bias towards run, bike and swim, with those sections presented in the profile section of the app or alongside your Feed on the website. But it's some of the more detailed training features that are more interesting - and behind the subscription paywall. Because the information you get out depends on what you share with Strava, subsciptions also favour those who have more data gathering kit. If you just have a basic GPS bike computer, you won't get all the analysis that you would if you had a power meter, cadence sensor and a heart rate strap, for example.

One measure is Relative Effort which gives you a sense, week on week, of how your activities compare to your previous weeks. This is based on heart rates and can give you a sense of how hard you've been working. It's designed so that harder sessions and lighter sessions can be compared rather than a light walk for 2 hours trumping a 30 minute run with sprints, for example.

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Fitness tracking is an interesting side of the analysis that basically takes your training load and relative effort to gauge your daily training and model the effect it has. This sees fitness going up through maintaining load and recovering over time. While the numbers don't really mean anything, the general trend in the direction of change is what you're looking for, hopefully on an upward trajectory.

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It's a way of getting some feedback that you're training consistently well to bring about fitness gains. With regular activities in a balanced approach you'll see your fitness improving, if you do one hard session and then nothing for the rest of the week, you might not see any gains at all. Essentially, it's a visual representation of how your efforts reflect what we know from the science behind training best practise.

It's a great motivational tool too, because Strava regularly displays this sort of information, so you can see how your week compares to your previous week, whether you're maintaining your weekly average, or are higher or lower.

It's also here that Strava delivers one of its best functions: because you're pooling data all in one place, any activity can contribute. That might be a run from a Polar Vantage, a ride from a Garmin Edge and a swim from an Apple Watch. You're not then having to look over Apple Health, Polar Flow and Garmin Connect to see all this data - it's all in one place and one place that's going to analyse this data in a sensible way.

What does a subscription get you and is it worth it?

Strava restructured itself in 2020 to put a little more of what it offered into the subscription tier - previously called Summit. There's now a free version or a subscription version.

The subscription includes:

  • Routes, planning and recommendations
  • Matches rides and runs with performance analysis
  • Training log
  • Segment leaderboards, local legends
  • Live Segments on compatible devices
  • Monthly activity trends and comparisons
  • Goal setting
  • Heatmaps
  • Training plans
  • Power curve - if you have a power meter
  • Fitness and freshness analysis

For those who don't subscribe, you can still record, share and view activities in Strava, so it still maintains its use as a training log, able to collate data from a range of different devices - and be part of the community. Arguably, some will get that from Fitbit, Garmin Connect or Apple Health anyway, if that's the device you're using.

The subscription costs £47.99 a year - so is it worth it? If you're interested in data and exercise a lot - especially when it comes to running and cycling - then yes, there's a lot here that you'll enjoy. For cyclists, the appeal of Segments is probably worth the price alone and for us, it's the subsciption features that we really enjoy, but we're data geeks.

Even if you don't want to pay, there's enough free in Strava to make it useful - especially if you are using devices on multiple platforms or logged in different ways.

What devices are compatible with Strava?

The list is long, but the following device platforms can be synced to Strava:

  • Amazfit
  • Bkool
  • Bryton
  • Casio
  • CATEYE
  • COROS
  • CycleOps: Joule
  • Fitbit
  • Garmin
  • LIVEROWING
  • Lyzene
  • MIO
  • Peloton
  • Pioneer
  • Polar
  • Recon: Jet
  • Sigma
  • Soleus
  • SRM:PC8
  • Suunto
  • Tacx
  • TomTom
  • Wahoo
  • Zwift

The following services can also sync with Strava:

  • Apple Health
  • Endomondo
  • Garmin Connect
  • Google Fit (only syncs to Google, not from)
  • MapMyRun
  • MapMyRide
  • Runkeeper
Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Britta O'Boyle.