Rich set of features. Strong emphasis on community. Supports many fitness trackers.
Privacy concerns. Expensive Premium membership.
- Bottom Line
Strava is the go-to fitness app for competitive types, but the company needs to do more to address privacy and security concerns.
Strava is one of the most popular fitness apps for those with a competitive edge. The app not only records your runs and bicycle rides, but also creates a competition between you and people who travel the same routes. To get all the benefits of the app and what it promises to deliver, you have to give up a lot of personal data, which has never been handled as well as it should have and quite frankly has put people at risk. Strava syncs with a variety of other fitness trackers and running watches, so you don't need to carry a phone with you to use it. Although the app (which is available for Android and iOS) offers some privacy settings, you must be willing to make some personal information public, specifically your geolocation data, to get the full Strava experience.
For Strava's unwillingness to fundamentally change how it treats potentially sensitive information, and for requiring members to opt out rather than opt in to data sharing, PCMag has revoked Strava's former Editors' Choice award. It remains a fine app to use if you take the time to go through the setting options deeply and inform yourself as to the risks of making your data public. But an Editors' Choice-worthy product would not put so much onus on the user when it comes to protecting their privacy, as we'll explain in detail later.
Pricing and Plans
Like many fitness apps, Strava has a freemium model. You can use the app for free with some limitations. If you're primarily in the market for an app that records the basic data of your workouts and helps you find new places to run or bicycle, you can get by just fine with the free version. You still get to compete with the free version, but you don't advanced stats and a number of other features.
Strava Premium adds functionality that many running and cycling enthusiasts may want, but at a fairly high price. It costs $7.99 per month (which works out to nearly $100 per year), or $59.99 if you pay for an annual subscription upfront.
The most alluring bonus feature is the Suffer Score. Note that you need to wear a compatible heart rate monitor to get it. The Suffer Score is Strava's own calculation of the difficulty of your workout, taking into account not only time and distance, but also how much effort you exert.
If you're a Premium member, you also get Beacon, the ability to share your location with trusted sources while you're doing an activity. You also get the ability to create and track goals, indoor training videos, filtered leaderboards, discounts for some sports-related goods and services, plus a few other benefits.
Whenever considering the price of a premium membership, it helps to ask: How much do other fitness apps charge, and do they deliver similar value?
MapMyFitness, which contains a whole family of apps for tracking various types of fitness, charges $5.99 per month for its MVP members, or $59.99 per year. Similarly, the upgrade gives you heart rate data, live tracking, advanced leaderboards, and a few other perks.
Runkeeper charges $9.99 per month or $39.99 per year for its Go upgrade, which adds live tracking, premium training plans, insights about your progress, the ability to compare workouts, and a few other features that to be blunt are not so impressive. Weather insights are fine, but not really what I'd call a premium addition.
Fitbit charges $39.99 per year for its Premium account, and while you do get some more detailed statistics with this type of membership, the feature that sells it is the collection of Fitbit Coach workout videos.
Signup and Setup
When setting up a new account, you can create a login with an email address and a password, or authenticate using Google or Facebook. After that, you can provide your full name, birthdate, gender (male, female, other), and photo. You can give Strava access to your various address books so that it can suggest people to follow.
From there, the app presents a few succinct screens with guidance for using the app, such as how to record an activity. You're also shown where to tap if you want to learn more about connecting a GPS watch or computer. What you don't immediately see are the settings for privacy and security, which I explain in greater detail later.
What Does Strava Do?
Like any other app for tracking runs and bicycle rides, Strava clocks your time, distance, speed, and other relevant factors about your activities while you're doing them. The activities are meant to be done outside. You can record activities with the app and your phone directly (iOS or Android) or by syncing your Strava account with a supported activity tracker, whether it's a or a bicycle computer.
If you use the Strava app and your phone to record runs and rides, you can see in real time your stats, such as time and distance. At the end of an activity, the data uploads to your Strava account, where analyze it in greater detail. A web app makes it easier to get deep into your data because you can see more detail in the charts and graphs provided.
The hook for most Strava users is competition. After your activity stats finish computing, they go into a pool of other stats, and you get ranked among others in the Strava community. For example, let's say your running route goes the entire length of Townline Road, a popular running destination. Strava will likely create segments along Townline Road, such as from mile marker one to two. Then the app will look at how fast other people ran that same segment and create a leaderboard showing who has the best time and is King or Queen of the Mountain, with everyone else ranked in descending order.
Leaderboards are a big deal in Strava. Early in the company's history, more than one lawsuit alleged that Strava's competitions encouraged illegal and dangerous cycling behavior, such as running red lights and stop signs. In another case, the family of a man who died while cycling on a dangerous stretch of road while trying to reclaim his top position on a leaderboard sued Strava, though the case was dismissed.
Of course, it's entirely possible to use the leaderboards as a source of motivation to push yourself without endangering your own life or others'. You can also filter leaderboards to compare yourself against only other females or males, or people in your same age range, which will boost your position anyway.
Leaderboards aren't the only feature based on information from and about the community. Strava lets you explore segments near you, a wonderful feature for finding popular places to run and ride your bike when traveling or after moving to a new area. Another area of the app helps you find nearby clubs to join, both live and virtual.
Who Uses Strava?
Strava is for people who are competitive and enjoy the social aspects of fitness-tracking apps. If you're not into leaderboards and personal records, you might be better off with an app that doesn't focus so much on community competitions.
Those who enjoy rich statistics but plan to opt out of the community features might prefer Runtastic for running and Cyclemeter for bicycling. You get plenty of data from those apps. I'm also a big fan of the Wahoo Fitness Tickr X heart rate monitor, which doubles as a recording device for runs and bicycling, including indoor cycling, and comes with its own apps for tracking those activities. You can also pair it with Strava if you ever change your mind.
Strava Under Fire
In 2013, when I first reviewed the Strava app (at the time, Strava had separate apps for running and cycling), I criticized it for not providing information up front about how to protect your personal information, including your geolocation data. The app made too much personal data public by default without informing users what others could see. If you used the app to run to and from your home at the same time each day, and you set up the account with your name and profile picture (as requested by the app), it wouldn't take long for someone to link your identity and your patterns of movement.
In the years that followed, the company changed the setup process for new users so that they would be more informed about options for their privacy and protection sooner. Though these changes were improvements, there was no fundamental shift in how Strava treated the data it collected.
More recently, Strava came under fire when it released heatmaps of outdoor activity so that popular routes were highlighted, which led to the location of a secret US military base being revealed. Military personnel had apparently been using the app to track their workouts, and Strava made the aggregated data public. Once again, if Strava members, including the military personnel, had wanted to prevent their data from being used in this way, they would have had to actively opt out of it, which is not the way it should be. Sharing data should always be on an opt-in basis.
Privacy and security are important within the context of Strava for a few reasons, which I elaborate below; Strava provides adequate tools for keeping your information private if you choose. It does not, however, do enough to make the security and privacy issues known to new users up front.
Remember that Strava records and publicly shares a history of where you have been and when. Many people run and bicycle to and from their homes or places of business, or they run and ride predictable routes. Anyone who can see your routes might be able to figure out very quickly where you live, where you work, or what time you will be in a particular location. If you are concerned about your privacy at that level—not everyone is, but many people are for a variety of valid reasons—I recommend not using Strava at all. I would also recommend not capturing and sharing geolocation data in any app (including social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook), and turning off geolocation services on your phone and laptop when they are not in use.
As I said, Strava has privacy settings that let you keep some information private. For example, you can set a Privacy Zone around your home and work locations with a radius distance of your choosing. When this feature is enabled, other users don't see your actual starting point or destination, but rather a point somewhat near it that's outside your selected radius.
Another option is a one-click Enhanced Privacy mode, which hides your surname, requires other users to request your permission before they can follow you, and hides from public view most of your activities otherwise. "Most" doesn't mean all, however, as there are some exceptions (read the info via the link).
Better is the Private by Default option, which makes all your activities visible only to you, unless you explicitly change the setting for each activity after it uploads. It does not apply to any activities you previously recorded, however. While this option does provide clear-cut security measures, it renders the point of Strava moot. You really don't get the full Strava experience with all these security measures in place.
The Go-To App for Competitive Types
Strava remains the go-to app for competitive types who love running and cycling. The Premium membership is a little pricey, but it adds some elements that many cycling and running enthusiasts will want to track. To get the full experience, you do need to be okay with making your geolocation data visible to other people. I wholly recommend new and existing members exercise abundant caution regarding their privacy and data, as well as use common sense and take safety precautions. Many people don't have a problem with making their data public, but ultimately that is a personal choice.
About the Author
Jill Duffy is a contributing editor, specializing in productivity apps and software, as well as technologies for health and fitness. She writes the weekly Get Organized column, with tips on how to lead a better digital life. Her first book, Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life is available for Kindle, iPad, and other digital forma… See Full Bio