Athletes Strive To Be Social

You can tell people that they are competing with nobody but themselves, I’ve learned as an aging weekend warrior and part-time personal trainer, but guess what? That’s just not how we’re wired. We want to know how other folks who have similar physical attributes and natural abilities are doing. We’re egged on -- by the words and actions of competitors and teammates -- to try a little harder. And we love to share our accomplishments and kvetch about our defeats with anyone who’ll listen.

These are the traits that the fitness app Strava — the Swedish word for “strive” — has hardwired into its functionality since its founding in 2009 by Mark Gainey and Michael Horvath. The two serial entrepreneurs rowed crew together at Harvard and missed the camaraderie they shared as teammates, even as they were partnering in startups such as Kana Software while living on opposite coasts.

While it does not divulge actual numbers, Strava’s users are now in the “double-digit millions.” They are primarily outside the U.S., although this country and Western Europe remain the biggest markets, says Megha Doshi, U.S. local marketing director for the San Francisco-based company. Strava launched primarily as a GPS-based app for cyclists, as well as runners, but expanded a couple of years ago into tracking activities ranging from skiing to kite surfing to rock climbing outdoors and a variety of gym activities including lifting, yoga and elliptical use indoors.

“Sport is inherently social. So many of us participate in sports because we know someone else who is an athlete, or we actually work out in a group context,” says Doshi. And that social aspect has accelerated adoption of the app. She says that 80% of users say that they first heard about Strava from a friend, teammate, workout buddy or coach.

“We kind of hit the jackpot,” she says. “People were telling other people about it.” Plus, she adds, the product gets better for an individual as more companions sign on. “Facebook wouldn't be all that great if you were the only person on it,” she points out. “It’s in a user’s interest to build a little community for himself.”

All of the social components of the app — posting workouts, photos, comments and kudos, leader boards — are included in the free version. A premium subscription, which costs $5.99 a month or $60 annually, adds access to features like personalized training plans, real-time feedback on your performance and advanced analytics you can pore over as you down that overhyped protein shake after your workout.

Last month, Strava added a safety feature called Beacon that texts back your location, how long you’ve been active and the battery life on your phone to the phones of whomever you designate. It is also preparing to roll out improvements to its Clubs feature that promise to “make the experience much more social.” There are 130,000 groups, from running or cycling clubs to brands, and numbering from two people to 2,000, already participating organically on the platform, Doshi says.

Among its partnerships, Strava has an ongoing alliance with Parkrun, the low-key 5K events held every Saturday and Sunday in parks and similar venues worldwide, as well as Zwift and Peloton, the indoor cycling brands.

Athletic gear marketers have acquired several of Strava's competitors. Under Armour paid $150 million for MapMyFitness in 2013 and $475 million for MyFitnessPal in early 2015, for example. Strava, which remains independent, announced a partnership with New Balance earlier this year. Strava now powers its MyNB app. And this week the two unveiled a promotion, #StravaBackHalf. If you run a stronger back half than front half in a USATF-certified marathon this fall — a “negative split” — you’ll get yourself a free pair of running shoes.

You’ll also get to boast about it online, of course, because not too many people accomplish such a feat. But after all the comparisons have been made, the goals achieved (or not), and the bantering is has given way to exhaustion, everyone who gets off his or her duff and makes the effort is left with a simple truth. The tagline to Strava’s recent video campaign puts it well: “Strive to be an athlete … and you are one.”

We really are competing against just ourselves. Together.

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