Is Strava Useful in the Winter?

StravaWhile this year has been warmer than most and has allowed for road riding much later into the year, by now the trainer has seen its share of miles and for the vast majority of riders will be the only way to log miles until the snow departs. For devoted Strava users this means several of the site’s features become useless for the next two months. Segments and KOMs are meaningless. Trainer miles do not count towards monthly challenges (MTS, Fondo challenge etc.). Heat maps no longer have any purpose (and if they did, it would really just show a big glowing red blob over your house). So without these fun features is there any reason to log miles in the winter?

The short answer is yes.

While miles logged on the trainer do not count towards Strava’s monthly challenges and most of their feature challenges, miles still count towards weekly accumulation. This means that if you have a goal set for the week, you can still get the little green bar to go up. If you’re part of a club on Strava, the leader boards become a fun way to see who can rack up the most miles on the trainer. Perhaps even more impressive is to see who can stand to spend the most time on the trainer in one sitting and take the Longest Ride title. And hey, if you’ve been slacking on a particular week you can always grab the mountain bike and your GPS and ride around the block in the snow. At this time of year even a few meters of elevation can earn you a top spot in the climbing category. So if you’re not part of a Strava club, find one and join it. Most bike clubs have their own Strava club. It helps to join a club with some familiar faces so you have something to talk about in the spring on your first club ride (“You rode 200km on the trainer every week all winter and you still can’t beat me up this hill?”).

While Strava may not be the most cutting edge training software (Training Peaks and TrainerRoad arguably take the cake there), it has recently introduced a number of features that aid in training and allow riders to assess their numbers without getting bogged down by complex scatter plots (e.g. the quadrant graphs in Training Peaks). Since you won’t have to worry about someone stealing your favourite KOM for the next few months (although some brave soul may have the brass to slot into a recently vacant annual KOM) now may be the time to acquaint yourself with some of the less interesting but more useful features of Strava like the Fitness/Freshness chart and the Power Curve feature.¬†These features are essentially simplified versions of what you will find in more complex training applications. If it’s your aim to develop into a better cyclist, be it racing or just for recreation, this is a good place to learn the basics of how training systems work and see the progression of your fitness.

Fitness Freshness - StravaThis chart plots three different data sets: fitness, form, and fatigue. In Training Peaks, these variables are determined by the training stress score (TSS), based on power, developed by Hunter and Coggan. Strava, in addition to TSS, makes use of its own proprietary Suffer Score (SS) based on heart rate values. This makes the chart less accurate but more accessible since heart rate monitors (HRMs) are more affordable and more widely available. Fitness is determined by TSS and the Suffer Score (the greater the TSS and/or SS the more fitness is gained), these same values are also used to estimate fatigue as result of the workout. Form is fitness plotted against fatigue. More fatigue = less form. Less fatigue = more form.

The point of this chart is to show how well you are managing your training load and whether you are overdoing it or not doing enough. It is also useful to determine when your peak fitness is and for timing your training right to be on good form for a race or event. If you start off your training with too much load, your fatigue levels will skyrocket and your form will drop significantly. After a week or two of hard training, you probably notice that you start to feel a little burned out and need to rest. Using the Fitness/Freshness chart will aid in preventing this burnout. By allotting proper rest days to allow your fatigue levels to drop back down (which happens much more quickly than fitness levels) you can regulate the amount of accumulated fatigue and get more out of your training. 

Keep in mind that fatigue is only estimated based on training load. It cannot account for real life variability such as poor sleep, poor nutrition and other strenuous activities. If you go snowshoeing with the family on the weekend but haven’t been on the bike in a day or so, remember that while the chart shows your fatigue levels are low, your actual level of fatigue will be slightly higher.

Power Curve
The Power Curve feature of Strava is only useful if you own and use a power meter. This is an excellent tool for determining what your strengths are as a cyclist. This chart graphs your best power output (or average over several rides) against the duration of time you were able to maintain those outputs. Most charts start high at the left and slope sharply down toward the right tapering off to an almost flat line by the 30min point. There are tests that can be performed using the trainer and your power meter to determine your power profile (the slope of the line on the graph) but it is more useful to limit your testing to determining FTP (see my article on testing). By using the power meter on a variety of rides (endurance, tempo, VO2, anaerobic) a fairly accurate representation of your power profile will begin to develop. Strava even has the ability to estimate FTP based on your power profile if you are adverse to testing.

As mentioned, the power profile is useful for determining what your strengths are as a cyclist, or at the very least what areas are most developed. If you have a very high one second and five second power output (over 1000watts) but your 20 minute power is relatively low, your strength might be sprinting. If your 20 min power is high (300+ watts) but your one and five second power is only marginally greater (e.g. around 500 watts) your strength is probably time trailing. Climbers will typically have a high 20 minute power and high 5 minute power output.

Knowing your power profile will allow you to determine what areas you need to work on in training. If you have an excellent 20 minute power but poor five second power and you will be racing mostly criteriums, you should focus on developing your sprint through VO2 and anaerobic workouts.

Other Features
While these two features are the most useful for training, Strava also has a number of other features which will help make the winter training more interesting. They recently added their own training plans and training videos. I haven’t used the training plans much but the training videos are useful if you have a laptop in front of you while riding the trainer. The videos come from the popular Sufferfest series which are designed to motivate you as you ride through the pain on an otherwise tedious trainer ride.

If you have a power meter, the goals feature is also a good motivating tool for winter training. The goals feature is best used once you’ve determined your strengths and weaknesses using the power curve. If you’re five second power is 800 watts and you want to increase your sprint power, set a power goal of 900 watts for five seconds. Make sure to set a reasonable date to accomplish this goal. You likely won’t be able to hit it within a week but also don’t make it months away. Keep your power goals attainable: not too easy and not too ambitious.

While Strava makes use of the TSS for the Fitness/Freshness chart and will show you your TSS for each individual ride, it will not calculate your total TSS for the week. For those who are dedicated to training with power and have read and utilize Hunter and Coggan’s sage wisdom, weekly TSS is a necessary metric for effective training. While it’s possible to add up the TSS of each ride individually, it’s much better to see this number beside the weekly totals as is found in the Training Peaks software.

The Bottom Line
While the most exciting features of Strava are useless or not available during the winter (for the most part) there are still fun ways to use the software to compete against friends such as weekly totals and longest ride. But since trainer riding is a solo activity, Strava does offer much in the way of challenging yourself to improve and keep riding. It’s simplified versions of more complex training graphs and metrics make it easily accessible to even the most casual rider allowing for useful training feedback. If you’re new to training and have yet to get your hands on (or head around) Hunter and Coggan’s Training With Power, these tools are an excellent way to get started toward using and understanding the more complex training applications out there such as Training Peaks.

Log your rides. Even if they’re long boring miles spent on the trainer watching TV. It all counts for something.

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Human Power Performance