Why Strava is Awesome – A Brief Guide to Analysing Your Training

A lot of people I know use Strava. Either directly on their mobile devices, or by linking their GPS running watches so their activities upload there, and it is a fantastic way of tracking and recording your runs.

But it’s so much more than just an app, but you don’t really know it until you sign into the website rather than the app.

It’s a great social networking tool for runners. I no longer post run information on Facebook, as no-one really cares that I did a 5 mile recovery run. But your “followers” on Strava do.

Some people say its like Facebook for runners, though I think its more closely resembled to Twitter. You aren’t “Friends” with people, you follow them. You can comment on posts they make, but can’t post on a “Wall”, and you can give people “Kudos” which is like a “favourite” (or a “like” I guess).

Your “tweets” are your activities… and that’s where the real power comes in. Strava is EXCELLENT for data analysis.

I’ve heard “But it just means I’ve got to upload my watch there too which is twice the work”, but you needn’t worry. You can set your Strava account to automatically pull data from all the main GPS upload sites like Garmin Connect, Suunto, Tomtom, and Fitbit.

Activity Log

In it’s most basic form, its a training diary and gives you a summary of your mileage on a day by day basis. But it uses subtle little visual aids to help you understand it.

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The circles are sized depending on the volume (time/distance) of your activity, so you can see which days you did the most volume – which is one way to identify hard and easy days (Along with any rest day’s which of course appear blank).

The other way is through the Tagging system. When you upload your runs you can tag them a “Run”, a “Workout”, a “Race” or a “Long Run”. From the screenshot above you can see these are represented in different colours. An ordinary standard easy run I tag as “Run” which is light green. Any “session” I do which I’d consider a “quality run” such as an interval session or tempo run I tag as a “Workout” which is Orange. “Races” are red, and “Long Runs” are Dark Green.

Hovering your mouse over the circles gives you the ability to have a quick overview of the activity, a link to it’s details, and you can quickly re-tag it too. I use the “How did it go” box for all of my runs and type in how it went so I can always check to see how I felt after the run – it can be more useful than looking at pace/heart rate data.

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How does this help? Well lets say I had a terrible race. I could look back on this screen and see that in the build up to the race I didn’t have enough rest days, didn’t taper my mileage enough, or ran back to back hard sessions. It’s quick and easy. I can then hover over the circles and spot where I write in “What a horrendous run I had no energy and I think this is because…”.

Athletes worldwide keep training diaries, magazines publish their importance on a monthly basis… Strava is your training diary… and so much more.

You can then scroll back to look to see how your weekly and monthly mileage increases and decreases to see if you broke the 10% rule, you can see how much elevation you gained in a week compared to others too, which could also explain why some weeks feel easier than others – it may be you climbed a lot less!

Workout Analysis

The feature I found most recently is the “Workout Analysis”. When I tagged my run as a “Workout” and looked at the activity, I saw a screen I’d never seen before.

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Its a brilliantly graphical way to view your sessions. Distance is the horizontal access, pace is the vertical axis. The darker the blue, the faster you went. So looking at the above you can see exactly what the session was. Most importantly you can see how consistent you were. In the example, the session was 2 x 500m at 5k pace, and then 300m at 1m pace. So the first 2 intervals of the 3 should have been consistent, but they weren’t, and you can see clearly every 3rd interval is slight shorter but slightly quicker.

You can also use a neat little tool Strava has called “Grade Adjusted Pace (GAP)”. If you are out road running, chances are that the road isn’t flat and therefore as you rack up the miles you’ll ascend and descend, so your split times will naturally be slightly faster on downhill, and slightly(!) slower on uphills. By toggling the GAP, you can see how all of your splits equate to on the flat. Brilliant for long tempo intervals/runs on the road so you can make a more accurate analysis, especially round ‘ere (in my best west country accent).

Race Analysis

Toggling your run as a Race gives you a brilliant little Race Analysis chart instead. It takes your usual pace/elevation chart and overlays some great information such as your wider split times dependent on what distance the race is.

For example, over the marathon distance it gives me my 5k split times – which brutally shows just how badly I detonated at Manchester. I can see that my 5k splits were pretty even up until 30k where I started slowing. What I deduce from that is that I should have gone out slower, as though I was consistent I just didn;t have any juice at the end. A slower long burn would have hopefully resulted in a more even and complete race. It also highlights my fastest and slowest miles, and I can see in the middle there was a mile where I was much faster than target and also would have jeopardised my race.

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When I look at the same view for a 5k race it breaks it down into my 3 x mile splits.

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I can see here the same thing I saw at Manchester – I faded badly at the end! Again, I can see here I went out too quick and had nothing left by the end and needed to walk, which is that lovely dip in the curve!

Pace Distribution

There are a few golden nuggets of advice I’ve followed over my time running. Firstly, run most of your miles easy. Secondly, run within your training zones, which I always calculate and use from McmillanRunning.com. Using both of these rules you should (In theory) avoid burning out through overtraining in zones your body isn’t ready to reach.

Although Strava doesn’t use McMillan Running directly (That I can tell) to identify these zones, I think it uses a very similar method. Enter a recent race time/distance and it gives you the various zones you should be working out in. Then when you look at an activity, you can see how much time you spent in those zones.

Here is an example of a recovery run. Most of my time is spent in the Active Recovery zone and the Endurance zone. There is some anomalous information but some of that could be attributed to speeding for short periods of time (For example, to cross a road), or that I just was not focussing on keeping my pace down.

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Also, this uses “GAP”, so whilst I know I was maintaining my pace at a solid clip, because I did some climbing the GAP slants this a bit. On the whole though, I am happy with the above as a recovery run. What I could do to improve this or to work at a lower effort level (Which is the purpose of a recovery run), is next time I run the same route to take the hills much slower.

By looking at the activities in this way (Along with the usual elevation chart) you can start to see a bigger picture of your activity and tweak what you are doing accordingly to make sure you really are taking your easy runs easy, and in turn make sure that you are running your hard runs hard enough to obtain the maximum benefit!

What would be really nice is if I could set my pace distribution levels to match exactly what my McMillan pace zones should be, but as they tend to have a degree of crossover it wouldn’t really work – perhaps they could let me set them manually like they do heart rate?

Heart Rate

I use a heart rate monitor, and one of the things I always look at to see how hard I’ve worked is the heart rate stats. Admittedly, sometimes it seems more accurate than others, but that’s more a measure of my ability to wear it properly than anything else. Strava gives you some great ways to see how hard you are working and scores them.

This heart rate chart came from the same recovery run as the Pace Distribution chart above.

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say “Hmm, if this was meant to be a recovery run, surely the heart rate should be in the upper half of that chart rather than in the ‘Tempo’ section“… and that’s absolutely right. If I was recovering properly my heart rate should have been much lower. So I clearly worked too hard, at least according to that chart.

There could be many reasons for this. Maybe you need to consider that your pace zones need adjusting – are you really still fit enough to be running that race time? (This was my diagnosis!) Was it a really hilly route? Were the contacts on your monitor suitably moist? Were you hydrated enough? (Being dehydrated means your blood is a bit thinker and needs to pump more to get the blood around the body). Ultimately, though, did you feel you were running as hard as the HR monitor says is usually a good enough indicator.

If that’s all a bit complicated though, you can get away with just looking at your “Suffer Score”.

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The higher the suffer score, the longer and harder the activity, based upon your heart rate. Your “Points in the red” represent the amount of time you spent at your “threshold” zone or higher and represent really tough running. For your usual “run of the mill” runs you may find that you don;t get a named score. but if you’ve worked hard (A long amount of time, or a high proportion of points in the red to suffer score) you may get rated “Tough”, “Extreme” or “Epic”.

The only “Epic” I’ve had was during the Manchester Marathon, but I have had a few extremes, usually after a very long run or a race, and regularly get a “toughs” after a session.

If you get a “Tough” score after a recovery or easy run, it wasn’t as easy as you think!

Overview

I started out writing this post to evangelise how cool I think Strava is because of its great features, and its turned into a bit of a how-to guide. Please be aware this is how I use it and I’m no trained coach! I’m not advising anyone to do anything, but this is how you could use it.

If you aren’t on Strava, get on it. It’s worth it.

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