Sunday, 15th December 2019
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Strava and Schrodingers Cat

by @garyfallsover
Monday 1st December 2014

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton wonders whether we are more concerned about how our training stats look than how they affect our fitness or well being

 I was going to title this post ‘Are you a #Stravawanker ‘ but it was kindly pointed out to me that maybe I didn’t want to alienate a fair proportion of the running community before I had even started the article. My point was best to get your disappointment in me out of the way first but I’m nothing if not flexible.

Now I’m sure we all know the basic theory of quantum mechanics behind the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment.  A cat, sealed in a box with a Geiger counter,  a small amount of radioactive material and a bottle of poison. The radioactive material has a 50/50 chance of decaying sufficiently in one hour so as to set off a mechanical reaction with the Geiger counter smashing the bottle of poison and thereby killing the cat. Therefore at the hour point it could be said that the cat is both alive and dead.  Pretty simple yeah?

However Schrodinger didn’t design the experiment as a physical experiment but rather as a thought experiment, he wanted firstly to demonstrate the the futility of applying traditional thinking to quantum physics but he also wanted to demonstrate that by merely observing the experiment we fundamentally change it. While the box is closed the cat is both alive and dead, by opening the box we answer the question but we change the experiment. In gaining information we’ve changed the parameters.

Probably about four sentences ago you started wondering what the hell this had to do with Strava? Or indeed running?  Well those who know me in person know how much a fan I am of software applications like Strava, or Movescount or indeed whatever run sharing application you use to record and share your runs.  The hashtag #stravawanker is becoming more and more popular to describe the type of runner who records every trip to the shops purely to increase their monthly mileage, who records bike journeys as runs and segments obscure pathways solely to play a game of one upmanship over their fellow #stravawankers. My issue is that people are moving away from running for pleasure and instead using it as some kind of scorecard, a fitness top trumps as it were. The very design of the Strava application trumpets your successes and almost laughs in your face when someone steals your course record. It’s design turns every  run into a race, to be consumed and regurgitated onto the site with the sole aim of accumulating ‘trophies’ and thereby bragging rights over other virtual runners.

But runners have recorded their runs since recreational running  began, we used to have a well worn notebooks detailing in almost illegible sugar deficient scrawls our daily totals, broken down into stopwatched seconds and carefully tallied into weekly, monthly and yearly columns.  So why is this modern medium any different and why do I think it’s actually detrimental to our training?

Because like Schrodinger, and further explained by the Hawthorne effect, I think we unconsciously change our behaviour when we know we’re being observed. And by observed I mean the observation that comes by being a part of the wider Strava or similar community. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen on social media little semi joking flame wars over lost segment records, or fkt’s ( fastest known times) between friends, little barbs flying back and forth about mileage counts and tapering weeks not counting.  Tables are drawn up and constantly referred to, leaderboards are jealously scanned at the end of every week and the forums are full of allegations of nefarious deeds and dirty tricks.

I fear Strava addicts are in danger of becoming the head down smartphone scanners of the running fraternity, too busy looking at their watches to fully appreciate the very reason they started running in the first place. Instead of focusing on their bodies and their surroundings during the course of the run there’s a real danger of allowing the thought of how far this will push you up the rankings to overtake the purpose of the run.  

I run nowadays for the enjoyment of it, I’ve learned over time that my only motivator is me, if I want to be capable of doing the kind of races I love doing with any degree of success - and I mostly measure success by finishing on my feet rather than in an ambulance - I need to get my slovenly arse out of my flat and onto the trails.

So don’t get me wrong, I understand that sites like Strava and Movescount and  any number of others provide a very useful motivational tool for those who need it, and quite frankly I’m sure we all struggle for motivation now and again. But I worry that some people are getting caught up in the needless accumulation of miles and stats to the detriment of their training. It’s human nature to want to see how you measure up against others when you join such a group, to see where you stand amongst your peers. But it’s also very easy to extend yourself beyond your comfort zone when you’re trying to keep up with the running Jones’s. To extend that mid week run by a few miles because it’ll push you one place up amongst your running friends. To change your mind about cutting short a run and tending to a niggle because you know it’ll affect your weekly total.

We sometimes can get so caught up concentrating on how something is going to look to others that we forget to ask how it feels to ourselves. We get drawn into posting more and more miles and bigger and bigger climbs because that’s what everyone else is doing aren’t they? And instead of asking ourselves honestly how a run felt, we’re more concerned about how it’ll look when it’s posted. After all, if it’s not on Strava it doesn’t count right? And we all know that to win in life means you have to be record holder for the back straight of the local park?

For the most part I run to quieten my mind. My life, like I’m sure many of yours is, is full of demands. Work pressures, family and a hundred other little distractions tug at my sleeve, begging that they be given my undivided attention. I run to free myself of them, if only for a short time. I run because that’s my time, where I choose where my thoughts  tread. The last thing I want is the incessant beep of a gps, or the knowledge that someone somewhere will judge my run and assign it worth. Am I fast enough. Have I gone far enough. Is my post box to corner segment safe?

So every now and then why not break the habit. Leave the watch at home, turn your phone off and stick it in your bag. Run for the sake of it without worrying about your split times. Revel in the sound of your lungs trying to escape through your throat and that annoying heel clip thing we all do because we can’t be arsed doing the core exercises the physio proscribed us years ago. In other words let your head fill with whatever it fills with when you’re released, whether it’s the wonder of the scenery you’re running through or wondering how the hell someone got a pair of trainers that high over an electricity line. It doesn’t matter. Just take whatever you can from the fact that in this here, in this now, nothing else matters. Not even Strava.


About The Author

Gary Dalton

Gary Dalton is a rugby loving, crime fighting, white Irish Muslim ultra runner. Despite all this he's not a complete eejit. 

Gary is originally from the west of Ireland and can't actually remember when he moved to London - he blames a heavy diet of being tackled by prop forwards and potatoes for the memory loss. He hates going out for runs, canals and borderline hypothermia and loves ice cream and going out for runs. 


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