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Tracking Your Climbing Performance, A Strava Review

I recently published a [review of RunKeeper](https://curtismchale.ca/2011/04/26/runkeeper-review/) during which I concluded that it really was mostly useless to me as far as tracking cycling performance.

### Good

Strava’s big feature that set’s it apart from other offerings is their focus on climbing. Strava categorizes climbs on your route and will find out who is the King of the Mountain (KOM) or Queen of the Mountain (QOM). You don’t even have to be on the same ride as the other people (meaning the same day) just ride the same ‘segment’ and Strava will figure out who did it the fastest and award the championship title.

Strava Segments
Strava Segments

One of the issues I had with Runkeeper was its lack of support for cycling power meters, well that’s not an issue with Strava. Just like your cycling computer Strava will read any data from our ANT+ power meter and chart it out.

Even if you don’t have a power meter Strava can produce reasonably accurate power readings of your ride. Because they have enough information about you (weight, height…) your bike (weight…) and the elevation they predict the power output of the bike system. This is different from a Power Tap hub or SRM crank power meter. In the case of the SRM it’s measuring power at the cranks which can be robbed in a poorly lubed chain, low tire pressure…and similar issues can affect a Power Tap. All this really means is that the power readings for the whole system can be different from the readings given by the devices measuring at the specific points in the system listed above. But it’s at least consistently in error so you can compare your power over time. Of course if you get a proper power meter you’re not going to be able to use the numbers from Strava.

Watts and more
Watts and more

For those that don’t have a GPS based cycling computer Strava also provides both iPhone and Android apps. One of the really nice things about the iPhone version (don’t have an Android phone so can’t test that version) is that rides recorded with it don’t count against your 5 ride total as a non-paying member of Strava. Using the iPhone GPS on rides brings up most of the same issues battery issues I mentioned in my [RunKeeper review](http://back2cycling.com/2011/04/26/runkeeper-review/). I did find that over the same 4 hour ride the Strava app left my iPhone with more battery but it’s not enough more to just keep using the phone for a full day or normal use.

The iPhone App
The iPhone App

One of the items I felt was missing in RunKeeper was the ability to track bikes/components. Strava lets you do that. You can set up a number of bikes and then assign components to it so you can track how many kilometres you’ve put on your wheels and how many total miles you’ve put on the bike. Outside of judging the reasonable failure distance of a component I’m not sure what the utility of this is but as a stat junky I like it.

Tracking Bikes in Strava
Tracking Bikes in Strava

As a web designer I greatly appreciated the awesome tutorial videos provided when you log in to Strava for the first time. Way too many applications just leave you to flounder at first but Strava went the extra mile and had a comprehensive tutorial just waiting for you if you had no workouts online yet.

If you haven’t always been using Strava the application also supports uploading of GPX and TCX and FIT files. There are a few caveats, which we’ll address later. Strava also has native support for FIT files (unlike RunKeeper). I’m not really sure how Strava supports it (since they ask for the Garmin browser plugin just like RunKeeper) and RunKeeper doesn’t, really it just seems like an oversite with RunKeeper.

### Bad

If you don’t have an iPhone, Android or GPS based cycling computer you can’t use Strava since it doesn’t support marking out maps of your own. I realize that most people will have one of the above but it’s still annoying if you don’t have it.

Even is you have a cycling computer, if it doesn’t have heart rate support Strava won’t let you upload it. Even if you have a heart rate monitor that’s on it’s own (like an older Polar watch) you’re just out of luck. I’m not sure why Strava makes this choice since it just adds purchase requirements to their potential clients (hence limiting their revenue). So if you want to track heart rate you’ll need to purchase the premium version of the [Garmin 50](http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fs%3Fie%3DUTF8%26x%3D0%26ref_%3Dnb_sb_noss%26y%3D0%26field-keywords%3Dgarmin%2520edge%2520500%26url%3Dsearch-alias%253Daps&tag=strugwithfait-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=3909570) or do without heart rate stats. Of course it is possible to upload the files to another service (like RunKeeper) then export the resulting TCX/GPX file and upload that to Strava. Hacky I know but it would work.

As with RunKeeper Strava has no way to build a workout plan for the future. You can’t set workout types and then put them on a calendar so your training is planned. All Strava does is record your workouts.

Strava is totally focussed around climbing. While it does track your distance all of the goals are to do with climbing. In fact I haven’t been able to find a way to set personal goals. I was able to join a climbing competition which allowed me to set a yearly goal of vertical gain then broke it down in to monthly targets needed to hit the goal but that’s it. I’d love to see the same feature for distance and the ability to set your own goals.

climbing competition
climbing competition

Depending on your region you may or may not find that there are a lot of Strava users to compete/compare with. In my area there seem to only be two others (which is more than RunKeeper). One guy has an impressive 386 watts as a best effort so that’s a good person to try and beat but I’d love to find more local users, climbs, and rides. Again this issue will change depending on your area, when I was in Seattle I found a number of rides/climbs that I could try out.

Unlike the RunKeeper iPhone app Strava just tracks the rides. It offers no ability to program workouts nor does it support other activities like running or walking, this is a straight up cycling application and site. I suppose they assume most people using the site will also have an advanced cycling computer like the [Edge 500](http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fs%3Fie%3DUTF8%26x%3D0%26ref_%3Dnb_sb_noss%26y%3D0%26field-keywords%3Dgarmin%2520edge%2520500%26url%3Dsearch-alias%253Daps&tag=strugwithfait-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=390957) and will be doing all their workout planning on it.

Another iPhone app (or mobile app) bug that will affect non-US users is the fact that Strava can’t be 100% sure on your elevation gains when using the apps. While it will count the climbing against your own profile it won’t count any of those rides against challenges. They do this in the interest of fairness and there is at least one longer discussion on the technical issues surrounding the what/why of the issues in their support forum. Sure it’s still frustrating but with a reasoned explanation from staff and the fact that they state what they need to accomplish it it’s not all that hard a pill to swallow, just be aware of the ‘snag’.

My needs only extend to cycling so Strava fit my needs but if you’re a triathlete Strava is not a total solution for your workout tracking since it doesn’t support running or swimming. If you’re still interested in the KOM competitions then just upload the cycling portion of your workouts.

Strava doesn’t track weight over time. Sure you can enter your weight, but there isn’t any graphing of the changes over time (like RunKeeper and Garmin Connect).

While Strava will let you set a monthly goal of climbing distance that’s all the goals it will let you set. If you want to set distance, time…you’re totally out of luck.

While I don’t blame Strava for trying to make money (heck I’m paying for it) I find that the limit of 5 rides per month for non-paying users doesn’t seem like the best way to go about it. If I was making the decision I think I’d make the premium content the KOM stats and further ride stats. That’s just a little quibble on my part and not everyone will agree. Just remember if you’re interested that you’ll need to pick your ride carefully.

### Conclusion

I think that Strava has a number of extra features that put it a class above RunKeeper for tracking cycling. Specifically the KOM competitions are totally awesome. It’s great to have a bit of competition with others in your area and even yourself. The segments are also awesome for tracking your improvement since you can see all of your rides over them and see if you’re faster/slower.

### Realization

I started out reviewing options for workout tracking because I wanted to train more efficiently and know if I was improving. I’m not sure that Strava really fits that and I’m not sure that any app I use will. Really tracking stats on an individual workout does’t show improvement, it’s all about analyzing the workouts over time and I’m just not sure that I know how to do that for myself. Any good recommendations so I can learn how to analyze the my training over time?

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