Strava… the gamification of cycling.

If I asked you to think of the connection between gaming and keeping in shape, you’d probably mention various fitness and dance games on xbox, playstation and wii. The popularity of these games has made exercising accessible to many who perhaps wouldn’t engage with more traditional forms.

Aspects of gaming culture are being incorporated into more conventional activities like running and cycling, via a new generation of fitness apps and websites. If you’re not phased by the “geek factor”, it’s a cool new way to get more out of your training.

When Gamification came to town.

Modern console games are phenomenally popular, and it’s not because of superficial things like technical advances in graphics capabilities, or compelling storylines. Games designers have mastered the art of creating elaborate rewards systems, which provide a regular sense of progression, achievement and status. Couple it with social sharing and competing with your mates, and it’s pure “just one more go” brain candy.

“Gamification” is a concept gaining in popularity, not only within virtual software worlds, but in the real world too. For example, there are educational programmes, mostly aimed at disengaged boys, with structured rewards systems designed to feel like those in Call of Duty, with very frequent rewards and a clear sense of growth and progression.

How does all this fit in with me and my bike?

The market is awash with bits of tech and/or phone apps for tracking your rides with GPS. From basic cycle computers to full on navigation systems with integrated performance monitoring, you can analyse your ride data with more sophistication than the bridge of the starship enterprise.

It's a ride Jim, but not as we know it

But a new breed of sites are now boldly going where no apps have gone before, and gamifying the experience by applying gaming mechanics on a social level.

Enter Strava

Strava ‘s biggest strength lies within the ingenious “segments” feature.
Upload a gpx track of your completed ride, and Strava analyses the data with all the usual stats you’d expect, plus a breakdown of specific segments of the ride, eg hill climbs.

Here’s the clever bit –
It knows who else has completed those segments, and ranks everybody according to time. The fastest gets a KOM, King of the mountain achievement. (Yes, girls, you get QOM‘s).
Most people wouldn’t bother to go to the trouble of timing themselves on individual climbs within their ride. Way too much hassle! Strava does it automatically, and awards you an achievement when you beat your personal best (PB).

Strava app screenshot (Samsung Galaxy S2)

If a section of your route doesn’t already appear as a segment, no problem – simply define it as a new segment and see how you rank. The premium version of the service also allows you to break the table down by age range and weight ranges.

The “So What? ” question.

Recently, whilst out on a ride, I was aware that a friend had been the first to log a new segment for a particular climb (there aren’t that many Strava users in North Wales yet!) and had the KOM award. Instead of going at my usual pace, the gaming instinct kicked in, and I found myself visiting a very high heart rate zone, and putting in a lot of effort. Later, when I uploaded my GPS data to Strava it was hugely satisfying to realise that I had beaten his time by almost 2 minutes and claimed the KOM. He also got an email from Strava saying I’d beaten his time. Nice.

Silly and childish? Very, I know.
Did it feel good? Hell, yes..
Did I get a better workout? Definitely.
Will I work harder on future climbs because this technology will let me know automatically whenever I set a new PB on specific climbs? Very likely.

Game on

By “gamifying” the app, the developers have introduced what could be seen cynically as mere novelty, but it runs deeper than that. The app doesn’t only change your attitude towards the post-ride analysis of the data, it will change your actual behaviour during your next ride. And isn’t that the ultimate point of training apps? Sure, it’s useful to look at data retrospectively, but to produce such a direct influence on your performance, it’s training dynamite.

Think of all those people who sign up for a gym membership and then only go twice. Gamifying the experience will become a key factor in helping to establish lasting lifestyle changes. The range of fitness titles on xbox, playstation and wii will continue to expand, but the gaming principles behind them are creeping out into apps which allow us to game in a less contrived space – the real world.

It’s time to level up.

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  1. Feel confident about your next big ride
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100 miles
  • Luis

    Alan: First of all, hello from NYC! very useful information in your site; I have been using Strava for just a month and it is quite addictive, as you mention. It makes everything so competitive, that I even purchased a new Cannonadele road bike and got rid off my old Gary Fisher hybrid to try to improve my time, and I did!
    Now I am in the market for a dedicated GPS, and like your review of the Garmin 800. I have been using an iPhone, with WahooFitness speed and cadence sensors, and hear rate monitors, and my results are accurate compared to your experience with iPhones.
    However, I like the feature of the Garmin where you can “race” against a virtual partner.
    In any case, one of the pictures you have in this post shows a “GC Dashboard”. What is it?
    Also, do you know of any affordable power meter compatible with the Garmin 800, or even a standalone one?
    Thank you very much in advance for your feedback, and thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • Alan

      Hi Luis, many thanks for your message. The GC dashboard is a screenshot from the Garmin Connect website. It’s a great way to track your stats and get various monthly reports etc. There is some duplication with Strava, and for some reason I find myself uploading my data to both. Not really sure why! I have no experience of using power meters, sorry! I use the Garmin with the cadence monitor and the heart rate monitor, and find those very useful.
      take care,

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