This year, over 40 percent of the riders in the Tour de France uploaded their stage results to Strava, the most popular app for cyclists and runners to track their activities. Strava records and uploads physical activities and provides stats like distance, elevation gain, pace, heart rate, etc. -- and compare your results to other members. 

Yep: In the midst of one of the most grueling events, after racing a bike for four to six hours and then trying hard to refuel and recover and rest... many riders still took the time to upload each day's ride.

Even though the toll the race takes on their bodies -- and their emotions -- can look something like this:

Why? Partly because they love sharing their rides with family and friends.

But also because it makes them happier.

A new study of over 8,000 people conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University showed  89 percent of respondents were happier because they exercised regularly -- and 83 percent were more motivated to exercise because of Strava and its community. 

Another study showed that while traditional social media sites "contribute to a generation of young people with body image and body confidence issues," which surely makes them less happy, 44 percent of respondents said using Strava had improved their social life because they were able to offer encouragement to fellow athletes, congratulate them for their efforts... and get encouraged and congratulated in return.

In addition, 64 percent said using Strava improves their self-confidence, and 47 percent said the Strava community helps them feel better about their bodies.

"Since our founding, we've been on a mission to build the most engaged community of athletes in the world," says CEO James Quarles. "Training is hard, it's intimidating, it's lonely... People love how our product connects them with other people, lifts them up, challenges them... and helps them go further. That's where the social aspect of our community plays such a huge role."

But unlike "Instagrammed" images of sunsets and vistas and perfectly-framed downward dog poses, Strava uploads tend to be different. People show their best sides. People show their worst sides. The numbers don't lie: Record an activity it's there for people to see, warts and all.

Which is the point.

No matter what your results, the fact remains you did something -- something real, something hard, something that took time and effort and sweat. That's an accomplishment in itself, one that is natural to want to share.

Even so, some people (like me) use Strava primarily as a journal. I work in "single-player mode." I don't belong to any groups. I don't follow other people. 

Yet I know plenty of people that are in groups and that do follow other people. Many of them bridge their virtual and actual lives, meeting regularly for group rides or runs.

Strava served as the online spark for real connection and real communities -- and remains the way people keep in touch and encourage each other when they're not together.

In large part that's because Strava resisted the temptation to branch out into devices or wearables.  

"When the big wave of new devices hit the market in 2013 and 2014," says co-founder Michael Horvath, "we decided to be an open platform. Manufacturers can focus on building great devices, can get some lift from exposure to our community... and their customers get a great experience. And we get to do what we do -- make great software -- and not something foreign, like making hardware."

To date nearly 400 hardware devices from manufacturers like Garmin, Suunto, FitBit and Apple Watch integrate with Strava, and over 27,000 developers have built apps on Strava's open API, keeping it at the center of connected fitness.

"From the beginning we've focused on serving the athlete," Horvath says. "There are lots of other ways to make money and build a business, but focusing on the athlete keeps us true to what athletes wanted from Strava in the first place. We have shareholders, but really Strava is owned by the community. People like you hold us accountable to make sure it serves you."  

That's why, even though I've downloaded and later deleted dozens of apps, I've been a Strava member since 2012. I like the data. I like the history. I like the segments, the member-created portions of roads or trails where everyone can compete for time.

I've never had the top time on any segment ridden by more than 20 people, but that's okay. I like to compare myself to better riders. I like to try to beat them. Even though it's not really a competition -- in the end I'm only competing with myself -- it feels like a competition, one that helps keep me motivated.

And occasionally I get kudos from people that follow me, even when a terrible performance makes it clear I hadn't ridden for a while. Why would they?

They're congratulating me the effort, not the result -- which for non-professionals is all that matters.

"People on Strava don't curate their experiences as they might on other social networks," Quarles says. "It's unfiltered. Because their efforts are real, and the activity itself is the content, people put on their best faces and their worst faces."

Which leads to a genuine source of motivation and true sense of community and belonging. 

All of which makes people happier.

Can't beat that.

Published on: Aug 7, 2018
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