I was an early adopter of Strava and it broke me*. Long story, short: I used to be a purist when it came to my rides. Riding was just about riding, so I had no interest in how far I’d gone or for how long (I didn’t even wear a watch). I rode what I rode and finished when I’d had enough. My metric for determining the quality of a ride was purely subjective, and the only record I had was my memories.
And then I downloaded Strava. My intention was great: I just wanted to know whether I was getting faster on a particular trail, without having to go through the hassle of using a stopwatch. It started off OK, but I knew things had gone wrong when I had a meltdown after a ride because Strava had crapped out halfway through and hadn’t recorded my “fast” descent.
All of a sudden, I felt invalidated – like my ride had ceased to exist. Sure, I still had all my memories of the ride but, because I didn’t have an objective, external validation of my riding, it didn’t feel like they mattered. Worse, my descending had started to take on a darker side. I was pushing for the sake of shaving off a few meaningless seconds, putting myself (and potentially others) at risk, and getting frustrated at anything that got in the way of me going faster; that tree down over the trail: disaster. My friend getting a flat: what a traitorous bastard.
I’m a little better these days (or at least I tell myself I am). Mostly, I look at Strava after a ride to see if anything has changed, and it tracks my distance for component maintenance. I promise myself that I’m definitely not thinking about Strava times whilst I’m descending, but a small voice always pipes up when there’s an obstacle on the trail, or when I get a mechanical. For all the wonders of its technology, I think Strava has permanently changed me, and I’m genuinely nostalgic for the times that I took my watch off before a ride.
Within all the Strava-wrought changes, I suppose I’m most concerned about the whole distraction trope. Because it’s not just a Strava thing, it’s a modern-world thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-tech (for example, I personally think that e-bikes are the best thing that’s ever happened to mountain biking), but I am concerned that it’s getting increasingly difficult for many of us to enjoy a “pure” activity (i.e., activities that take us into nature, like mountain biking, running, or bushwalking) without needing a device to record our stats for us.
As an exercise psychologist, I’m fascinated by the large body of research investigating the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor exercise. To (massively) summarise: exercising outside is better for us than exercising indoors, and that effect improves when we exercise in green spaces, and is even better under the canopy (i.e., trees). The benefits include reduced blood pressure, increased focus, reduced anxiety and depression, and increased optimism.
So, on the one hand, researchers agree that outdoor exercise is great. On the other hand, there is a strong body of evidence that large amounts of screen time is bad for us, resulting in lowered focus and attention, increased stress and anxiety, and reduced optimism and motivation.
To date, I’ve not found any research on the (potentially negative) effects of device usage on the psychological benefits of outdoor exercise. I’m interested to know whether taking our devices with us to record our outdoor activities (and being distracted by those devices as we constantly check on or think about those stats) negates the beneficial effects of being out there in the first place.
My gut feeling (and, yes, that’s a crap way of doing science) is that the distraction of knowing you’re being tracked (and being invested in that tracking because you want the dopamine rush of knowing you’re faster than other people) reduces your investment in the experience. We’re less likely to enjoy the view, appreciate our companions, or enjoy the moment, in the presence of that external pressure.
Then there’s the other (massively important) aspect of mountain biking: social interaction and community. Most of us don’t really enjoy riding by ourselves and deliberately seek out other people to ride with (there’s heaps of evidence that this makes exercising more psychologically rewarding too), and many of us have made powerful friendships from these connections. As well, as mountain bikers, we can feel connected to a wider community by helping each other to enjoy the thing we love (e.g., building trails, advocating for trail access, or just helping out someone who’s had a flat).
Although mountain biking can make us better community members, I think that apps like Strava can make it more about us: more selfish (“nope, I’m not stopping to help that person because I’ll miss out on a PB”), more competitive (“crap, I’ve lost my KOM/QOM – screw them”), and less cooperative (“that new person on the ride is slowing me down – no way I’m going to take time to help them learn to be a better rider”).
Obviously, if you’re a racer, training for racing, or riding exclusively to improve your fitness, using apps like Strava will be useful. They will help you determine whether you’re getting faster, and let you figure out where you can make up time. For the rest of us, they’re at best a form of self-congratulation and, at worst, a distraction that brings out our dark side.
I propose a behavioural experiment:
What if we all tried three months of riding without a tracking app? (But take your phone as a safety backup.) I’d love to hear what you experience by leaving these apps behind. Does switching them off help you switch on to your surroundings? Does it make you more connected to the people around you and the trail underneath you? Does it result in more satisfaction post-ride? Do you form more worthwhile memories? Are you less anxious overall? If you’re a regular reader here – please come back with your thoughts and comments if you decide to give it a go. For my part, I plan to do the same, and I’ll report back with my experience in the near future.
*Read about how Strava broke me in my Flow article, here.