The Strava website states that Strava is “Designed by athletes, for athletes, Strava’s mobile app and website connect millions of runners and cyclists through the sports they love”. However, is it any use to help you build your cycling fitness?
So, is Strava good for beginners cycling training? In my opinion as a professional cycling coach, yes it is an excellent tool that combines elements of social interaction, manageable competition and challenges, and features that allow you to track and direct your progress according to your needs.
Let’s have a look in more detail
Strava state that their top 5 features for training are:
- The Training Log, which is a diary/calendar that shows you what you have been up to
- Matched Runs that show you how your pace has changed when you ride (or run) the same routes
- Challenges, which you can choose from a very comprehensive list according to your fitness level and interests
- Route Builder, which allows you to plan routes for your training and adventures
- Gear Tracker, which allows you to track how much you are using your bike, or bikes if you have more than one
I agree with this to some extent but I think there are some more useful features to help you develop your cycling fitness, that when combined with some knowledge and a bit of planning can take your training to the next level. I will explain how I think you can use the features to develop and track your fitness as a beginner onto more advanced use of the features, depending on how nerdy you want to be.
Train for endurance first
As a beginner, you will develop fitness but just riding your bike. As long as you don’t do too much or ride too fast for too long you will get fitter and that means you will go faster for any given level of effort. A good way to measure how hard you are working is to use a heart rate monitor to make sure that you are working at the right intensity. You don’t need a heart rate monitor though, just ride at a pace you could chat with a friend and you will be at the right intensity. Better still, ride with a friend and chat with them as you go; one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling is riding with friends and sharing the odd cafe stop, as you have earned that piece of cake!
The Training Calendar in the free version of the software tells you how many hours you have trained for each month and how far you have ridden in that time. These are the most important things to keep an eye on as you build up your endurance and your fitness. It also tells you how many activities you have done and how many personal records you have achieved, which can be very motivating.
If you want to get more information and learn about the various parameters that are used to track fitness, you can try the subscription version, which gives a lot more analysis options that will help you learn things that could be useful in the future. However, when you first start out, all you need is to track the amount of training you do and build up gradually.
Set some goals
It is a good idea to have some goals, so you could set these yourself like being able to ride for 20km or more at the end of your first month, or sign up for one of the Challenges that are built into the Strava environment. It doesn’t matter what you choose but having a goal is motivating and will help you stick with your training when things are a bit tough to keep going.
Tell some like minded friends what you are doing – join the community
Strava has a lot of social features like the activity feed, so you can share and encourage friends that you may already have or ‘meet’ new people by following them on Strava and then you will see their activity feeds. As you build a social network you can get encouragement, known as kudos, from your followers.
Having social and competitive elements has been shown to be the most motivating environment for exercise and Strava provides both these
When you have build up some endurance you will probably want to think about getting faster and this is where the paid version of Strava becomes useful. When you consider how much time you are putting into your training and the cost of cycling equipment, the cost of a subscription seems very reasonable if it will enhance your enjoyment and help you get fitter and faster.
Useful features here are the
- Matched runs/rides
are where the software will automatically notice when you have done a route several times and give you a graph of how your performances vary over time. This can be motivating if you want to do some hard rides around a circuit and track your personal best but also as you do your general endurance rides.
As you do more and more riding, you will naturally get fitter, as long as you don’t over do it. This means that even at your relaxed pace you will be getting faster and the matched rides are a great way to see how effectively even easy, enjoyable riding can be. Don’t get carried away because doing too much fast riding can be the road to fatigue and possibly over training syndrome, which you don’t want to have.
Once you have built your endurance from the conversational pace rides and done some faster rides round similar circuits, you may want to take the next step to building your speed at higher intensities. At this stage you will probably have noticed the segments and that you are getting faster at the various segments on your usual routes. You may even have had a look at the Leaderboard to see how you rank in the various categories and I guess you will have tried to improve your ranking on some of these segments.
Riding hard all the time is a dangerous game and counterproductive, so it is best to pick the days when you will aim to do hard rides and make most of your rides at your endurance (conversational) pace. This allows you to ride faster on the hard days and therefore also make the biggest gains in fitness by combining hard, easy and rest days. As you get fitter you will be able to do more riding days and fewer rest days but in general it is better to stick to just 2 hard days each week.
You can use the segments for your hard days – pick a few segments that you like and want to improve on then ride easily until you get to a segment. Ride the segment at the best effort you can and see what your time is. After each segment you will need a rest and so, just ride easily to the next one. Keep doing this until you are tired and then go home. This is an interval workout, it isn’t as structured as more formal workouts but it is great way to build your fitness and start getting used to higher intensity workouts.
Create a schedule with all the training elements you need
I like to work with a weekly schedule because it fits most people’s routines and by doing similar things on similar days each week, it is relatively easy to see what is working and what isn’t. For instance, if you plan your hardest workout on a Tuesday but you are always tired on Tuesday because you haven’t recovered from a big weekend of riding, shifting the hard workout to Wednesday could be a good idea, giving you extra rest and improving the quality of your training.
Think about how much time you can commit and when, then you can fill in the time slots with workouts.
A good format for when you are able to do some harder rides in with your endurance rides might be:
- Monday: rest day or something very easy like light stretching and yoga
- Tuesday: HARD day where you do some segments and try for some best times
- Wednesday: rest day or something very easy like light stretching and yoga
- Thursday: endurance paced ride of 1 to 2 hours, or more if you have time
- Friday: rest or easy day
- Saturday: HARD day – ride hard round a short circuit that you do regularly and see how your time compares (only do this once or twice a month)
- Sunday: Long ride to build your endurance – remember that long rides are also hard because they test your endurance, so you need to allow proper recovery.
- Train for endurance first, ride at a conversational pace or if you have a heart rate monitor, in your recovery and endurance zones, building the number of hours you can ride each week.
- Use Matched Rides to see how you are getting faster as you build your endurance and then start to try doing some harder rides on circuits of maybe about 20 minutes to build your fitness further.
- Use Segments to introduce some higher intensity training and push your fitness to the next level. Try segments of 1 to 12 minutes for this and watch your fitness build.
- Don’t over do it – two hard sessions each week is plenty. Many elite athletes only do 2 hard sessions and a longer ride each week.
- Create a weekly schedule to add structure and routine to make your training most effective.
That’s it, all you need to start out and get a long way along your road to fitness.
Let us know how you get on and if you have any questions, please get in touch by commenting or on social media at @bikeandruncoach.
Can I use any bike to get fit? Yes, you can use any bike, it is all about getting out, riding and enjoying yourself as you watch your fitness build. Once you have an idea what sort of cycling you enjoy you may want to get a more specific bike to meet your needs but the main thing is to get out and ride.
Do I need a helmet when riding a bike? In some countries, such as Spain, it is illegal to ride a bike without a helmet but in many other countries it is optional. I recommend that you alway wear a helmet while riding. I have seem some very bad crashes where people would have been much more severely injured if they hadn’t been wearing a helmet. Modern helmets are very good and lightweight so don’t cause and encumbrance so there is no reason not to wear one.