James Turner

We’ve all been there haven’t we?  All ready to go for a run with a mate, but you have to wait, because their GPS watch hasn’t connected with the satellites and they won’t start running until the watch says they can.  Finally, after a minute or more, you can get going. Most of us have been that mate too!

looking at your wrist like an idiot.
Is he OK?" "I'm not sure... but he keeps asking me to pause his Garmin."

And then, back at the desk, uploading everything to Strava, and wasting time browsing through the sessions and routes your other mates have been doing. 

Of course it wasn’t always like this. In a world in which GPS watches and the associated online infrastructure are so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget just how recently this world has emerged. Before about 2010, unless it was in a race, on the track or on a route you did regularly, to know how far and fast you’d run, you needed to work it out on a map. Training distances and paces had to be estimated. The first GPS watches arrived in the early 2000s, and were essentially small versions of handheld GPS units, measuring about 60 mm by 25mm, with wrist straps attached. They were pretty clunky and uncomfortable to run long distances with. To become really useful, GPS watches had to start looking and feeling like normal watches, which happened from around 2011. And boom, the world of running (and cycling, and other endurance sports) was changed forever… 

The world of GPS and running – how does it work?

GPS triangulation diagram
GPS Satellite

Now, let’s delve into what GPS actually is. The Global Positioning System (GPS) concept is based on the known position of a bunch of about 30 satellites orbiting the earth at about 20,000km above the surface. These satellites are owned by the US military, and carry very stable atomic clocks that are synchronised with each other and with ground clocks. They are spread out, so that wherever you are on Earth, the sky above you contains at least four of them – and they pump out continuous radio signals saying exactly where they are. Your GPS watch picks up these messages, and by looking at the time they were sent, can work out how far they’ve travelled. By some clever trigonometric calculations, the receiver then determines your latitude, longitude and altitude to within a couple of metres. This all happens in a device smaller than a matchbox, and it does this again and again and again. 

In the main, it’s pretty reliable and awesome technology but it’s not 100% accurate. Sometimes the satellite signals – being relatively weak – are difficult for our trusty little watch to find, basically because of “stuff in the way” such as tall buildings in urban areas and dense tree cover in the wilderness. And even if we assume pinpoint accuracy (which we can’t), the watch can’t know what I did in between two measurement points. It calculates the direct distance between the two, but I might have not kept straight (in fact, as people who’ve run with me will testify, there is no way I would have run in a straight line!) Because of this, the watch can underestimate the distance between two points. And with positioning errors, GPS can sometimes over-estimate distances too. This is why you often see your pace graph bobbling up and down on a consistent run. Even if you follow the perfect racing line – which you won’t – GPS data will always contain errors. In general a GPS will nearly always slightly over-estimate the distance run. This is the case even when running on the track, where for instance my Garmin clocks each 400m lap at about 410 metres. It does not mean, as some people have allegedly (apocryphally?) said, that the track must be measured wrongly! I’ve also known some runners claim Personal Bests based on their GPS data, rather than actual race finishing times. Don’t be that person! The small deviations do mean that you need to keep an eye on the distance markers in a race, whether on the road, track or elsewhere. It’s pretty distressing to be approaching the 10km point of a 10km race (according to your watch) only to find – as you most likely will – that you’ve got another 100 metres to go!


So now we have a means of tracking pretty precisely where we run, and how long it takes. Add in biometric data (age, height, weight, heart rate etc), and you now have a veritable feast of precise and tailored data at your fingertips. And this has allowed the development of a wide range of information sharing and social media platforms, of which probably the best known is Strava. 

Image result for if it's not on strava it didn't happen
Strava segments everywhere

Strava is a distance-tracking and social-media app for runners, cyclists, triathletes and other outdoor enthusiasts. It combines a complex array of maps and routes with a Facebook-like news feed, providing the sort of fitness statistics once reserved for professional athletes. It displays a breakdown of your route with time, pace and splits on a section of road or trail, called “segments.” These segments allow you to compare your times not just against your own personal best, but the fastest times from anyone. Rankings are updated constantly, like high scores in a videogame. Millions of people worldwide use Strava to track their mileage, share workouts and photos, draw shapes on maps, and contribute to a worldwide sporting community. And like other social media apps, Strava has its own form of “likes”, in this case giving “kudos” to any particular workout or session that someone has completed. 

Strava Darth Vader
Strava Cat
These routes might just have taken some forward-planning!

So where did Strava come from? According to co-founder and CEO Michael Horvath, “My business partner and I wanted to recreate that feeling of being on a team even though we couldn’t physically train with our friends anymore. The impetus was trying to recreate that feeling of training with your friends to motivate you to new heights.” For those looking to explore new routes and meet new running partners, Strava presents a world of resources. Like any form of social media, it has both fans and detractors. For inveterate nosey-parkers like me, Strava can be wonderful. I can see what people are up to, find out about running and cycling routes all over the globe, and track the performances of some of the world’s finest athletes. And I no longer need to complete a training diary anymore because Strava allows me to comment on all my sessions, meaning I can look back and track progress over a period of time. 

Many elite athletes agree. GB triathlete Gordon Benson notes: “I like the fact it shows your progress over the last 10 weeks or so; you can see if there’s been a dip in your weekly mileage. Having a graph in front of you allows you to clearly see how well you’re doing.” Strava also breaks down barriers between elite athletes and amateurs, and allows us to be part of a huge community of like-minded people. As Benson explains: “Strava is a great platform for building a following. With Instagram, for instance, is anyone actually interested in the intricacies of your training or are they just interested in a pretty picture from somewhere you’ve travelled to? With Strava it’s much more relevant and my followers are like-minded people who are genuinely interested in what I’m doing.” Many of the world’s top cyclists are on Strava, and it was pretty cool for instance to be able to see the data from Thibout Pineau’s awesome Tour de France stage win atop the Col du Tourmalet.

But Strava – which by the way comes from the Swedish word for “strive” (Michael Horvath is half Swedish) -can be a two-edged sword. As an app that’s designed to help runners compare ourselves to one another, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place. For some it can be tempting to run the same route again and again, just to improve a personal best or even achieve the best ever time on a particular segment. Some people have been known to pop out for a late night short jog, just to earn a virtual badge for hitting an arbitrary monthly distance target. Strava might encourage some people to go too hard too often, and not do enough easy workouts, because of too much focus on how fast you speed through particular segments. One thing I don’t seem to see much of though – fortunately – is the narcissistic search for approval from others; my sense is that most people enjoy giving “kudos” to others, but generally aren’t too worried about how many kudos’s they get for their own sessions. 

Strava has though been linked to some less savoury things.  Some segment records (CRs – course records – for running; KOMs – king of the mountains – for cycling) are just too fast to be true. There is no stopping someone from hopping in a car and wearing their GPS watch; mostly this is done erroneously (a few years ago, former Scottish member Tony Wolken switched on his Garmin for the flight from Auckland to Wellington and was recorded on Strava as running at 900kmh!!). There are accusations that some people are grabbing CRs/KoMs through the use of performance-enhancing drugs or (for some of the cycling routes) through eBikes. And there have even been a few legal cases in the States, where cyclists have died after chasing KoMs on dangerous downhill segments – Stravacide. The company now allows users to mark a segment as “hazardous,” which blocks anyone from claiming a KoM on the stretch. 

But since all segments are created by normal people like you and me, and there are hundreds of thousands of them across the world, it’s not easily within Strava’s gift to “police” all athlete behaviour.  Strava didn’t invent competitive urges; it merely came up with an innovative way to recognise our human imperative to improve, to compare, to win – a common trait among cyclists and runners. 

Well, is GPS a good thing or not?

There’s no doubt that GPS technology has changed running for ever. It has allowed us to be precise in what we do, and to plan and organise our runs wherever we are. Some will say that it’s taken some of the fun away from running. I don’t agree. Yes, it frustrates me on occasion to see runners constantly checking on their watches rather than taking in everything around them. Maybe it’s reduced some peoples’ ability to be able to understand what running at a specific pace feels like, unless they have a watch telling them how fast they are going. But overall it’s a fantastic tool, and has helped to extend and democratise some of the driving forces behind why we run in the first place: competition, improvement, community. It allows us to share in others’ journeys and to share our own. 

But just occasionally it’s also really cool to go without, and just go for a run without your GPS watch. That is, if you can cope with the fact that it didn’t really happen, because it’s not going to be on Strava!