stay in your lane, strava

What Strava Got Wrong


By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer

Last weekend, I received an email from Strava with the subject line: “You don’t need to hire a coach.” I’ve been a Strava member from the beginning. I think it’s a great app for tracking activities, creating personal and interpersonal challenges, and connecting with other athletes. I don’t think it is a replacement for a professional coach, and neither does Strava. How do I know? When they really wanted to accomplish challenging goals, members of Strava’s senior leadership team worked with CTS Coaches.

There’s no shortage of training resources available to athletes via websites, forums, static training plans, books, and magazines. My coaches and I produced a lot of that content. But even as artificial intelligence makes its way into endurance training I firmly believe working one-on-one with a professional coach is the most effective way for athletes to reach their goals and exceed their expectations.

Am I biased? Of course I am. I’ve been a coach for 30 years and helped develop hundreds of top-notch coaches who either still work for CTS or who have moved on to leadership positions in sports science programs, professional teams, and national governing bodies. I spent more than 20 years creating and refining a process for developing the best professional coaches in the world. Some of them have coached World Champions, Olympians, and National Champions, but the most athletes we work with are non-competitive athletes, amateurs and age-groupers. The aforementioned content and tools have a place in an athlete’s journey, but there are aspects of performance and development that call for humans working directly with other humans.

Filter out the junk

These days there is training, nutrition, and recovery advice available free from all directions. Some of it is good, a lot of it oversells the potential benefits of some tidbit from sports science research, and a whole bunch of it is just utterly wrong. A coach helps you filter out the noise to align your goals and personality with fundamental and proven strategies. That doesn’t mean either you or your coach should reject new ideas just because they are new, but a coach can provide context and perspective about how new information integrates with what is known to work.

Identify strengths and weaknesses

Self-coached athletes gravitate toward their strengths (climbers climb and sprinters sprint, for instance) because it’s fun to do what we’re naturally good at. A professional coach helps you become a more well-rounded athlete by identifying and addressing weaknesses, which in turn further enhance your strengths. Athletes often fear that shifting focus away from their strength will reduce their performance in that area. In reality, you’ll be a more effective climber if riding in the wind on the flats doesn’t take as much out of you. You’ll be a better sprinter if you can get over the climbs with more energy left. You’ll perform better in varying environmental conditions if you train your gut and learn how to adapt your nutrition and hydration strategies based on factors like exertion, ambient temperature, and the duration of the event.

Gain a competitive edge

Performance depends on more than training data. This is a big part of the reason I say coaching is an art that happens to leverage science. Your best performance is not necessarily a reflection of what your training graphs and charts say. That’s data; you’re a human. As a human athlete, you have choices about how you respond to challenging situations and how you recognize and take advantage of opportunities. These choices are how you create a competitive advantage that is unique to you.

As coaches, we create a series of progressively more challenging situations for an athlete and guide you through the process of making better decisions for yourself, gaining the skills necessary to succeed, and building the confidence that comes from incremental success.

To gain a competitive advantage, the best athletes in the world work with professional coaches. Tadej Pogacar works with coach Iñigo San Milán, not a computer-generated training plan. Jumbo-Visma and 2022 and 2023 Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard is guided by Mathieu Heijboer. Every UCI World Tour team has a performance director, as does every Olympic team. These coaches, and great coaches throughout the profession, use the best tools and technologies, but at the end of the day, coaching is a human-to-human enterprise.

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Align with your purpose

Some athletes crave competition and the social engagement associated with events. Others pursue personal goals in solitude and use the alone time to recharge mentally. Particularly with endurance sports, athletes’ reasons for participating can change as their lives, relationships, and careers evolve. There’s no right or wrong way to be an endurance athlete. You don’t have to compete. You don’t always have to go big or go home. On the other hand, the urge to compete can arise at any age. A coach can help you align your goals with your values, so your training is a part of your personal growth rather than an obstacle in its path.

Voice of reason and accountability

Goal-oriented athletes can be their own worst enemies. Their passionate pursuit of training and competition goals can be disruptive to other priorities in their lives. We’ve seen athletes prioritize training over relationships, become hypervigilant about food choices, or sacrifice career opportunities to squeeze in another event. A coach can provide the perspective and accountability to help an athlete rebalance priorities for physical health, mental health, relationships, and career.

Software does not know you

Designing a training plan isn’t rocket science. Apps and artificial intelligence can do it, and they can analyze power data. Over time, they’ll only get better at it. The information is out there and there are great tools and technologies to help, but for the nuanced and important aspects of your life, who do you trust? You can find online generators to create legal documents, but when you’re in trouble or your business is on the line you hire an attorney. When you’re sick, you can Google your symptoms, but hopefully you go to a doctor. When you want to change your lifestyle and pursue a challenging and meaningful goal, you work with a coach.

As my longtime colleague, Jim Rutberg, wrote in this article on our coaching philosophy, “A coach’s value increases exponentially when the going gets tough. When things go wrong, you want someone who has seen it before and knows how to get back on track. That’s what education, experience, and repetition give a professional that you don’t have. It may be your first broken collarbone, layoff, divorce, or new baby, but we work through those with athletes every season. And similarly, it may be your first time racing Leadville, or La Ruta, Western States, Ironman, or National Championships, but we prepare athletes for those every season, too.”

Strava doesn’t know you. It can’t hear the fatigue in your voice. It doesn’t know you’re worried about your job or that your kids have been sick all week. None of the apps knows you’re nervous about taking your hands off the handlebars to eat during a race, or that you’re terrified about descending on a gravel bike. Strava isn’t going to talk to you about the tactical decisions you made during last weekend’s race or about how to adjust your nutrition so you don’t bonk during long mountain bike races. And when you get sick or injured or stressed out, Strava is not going to call you or stick by you or guide you through the recovery process.

So, yeah. Strava and apps like it have a role to play in an athlete’s journey. But to Strava you’re a number, or more accurately, a vast collection of numbers. If you’d rather be treated like a human, work with a coach.

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Comments 16

  1. Just the interaction with other cyclist helps your performance so what will coaches with years of experience do for you! Makes no sense how a data app can inspire you.

  2. All of the above is completely true and is expressed in an accurate way with common sense and balance. Who sang the song, “Are we human?”. Yes we are. Use the data, but with the support of a coach, not an android.

  3. Strava is a great app for tracking rides and also tracking the rides of my buddies, but it’ll never replace the value of a coach.

  4. Absolutely! I climbed mont ventoux 3 times and got the cingles after working with a coach. Strava is fun and engaging and that’s about it. Thanks for the articles!

  5. I’m sorry for my bad english. Strava is only useful for social connections and segments in my opinion. I previously received coaching assistance in a system other than CTS. But I got tired of artificial intelligence and automated messages and gave up. I wrote this to them too. This is not possible with artificial intelligence.

  6. When I went back to more serious training with CTS (yay Renee!), I realized I should lose the QOM addiction. Strava toolbox had me at close to 1000 QOMs and it was fun, but I found it very distracting compared to TrainingPeaks and a real live coach! Thank you for being there and helping me keep my true focus.

  7. I agree completely and was surprised to see the Strava email. They could have easily made it a win-win for the app and CTS. I am a big fan of both. Even though I have not used a CTS coach I have used their simple training plans and found that they are excellent. I have used a coach and could not agree mire with the added benefit a coach provides

  8. I am a coach. Once you get well versed on high end training platforms that analyze data deeply, to me, strava data is rather rudementary. Kind of like trying to carve a Turkey with a butter knife. I prefer a steak knife.

    1. I’m a recreational cyclist with a reputation for being a strong rider since the 2016 cross country ride I completed with the training guidance I received from my long time coach, Renee. Since then my goal is mostly to maintain a modicum of fitness. Renee is always adjusting my training to whatever my definition of fitness is – that day, that month or how I see myself in the future. In her work with me, she addresses every one of the points made in the article. I’ve tried online coaching for weights and there too, it takes a trainer for me to get results. I just don’t have the bandwidth to crunch the data or summon motivation from a program that just looks at numbers.

      1. Spot on Sabine. Josh Whitmore, my coach, trained me well for Tour d’Afrique too. Not just the cycling and gravel skills but he got back to me within a couple hours when I was in Sudan and lucked out with Wi-Fi, on how to mend a cracked bike carbon frame (rock thrown!) and oh so much more that only a human coach who knows me well could help me with!

  9. Strava is usually over rated when it comes to giving personal fitness advice. In most instances it is just wrong, and for all the reasons mentioned in this communication piece.

  10. So a tidbit here – the only reason that I know about CTS and the Time Crunched cycling book is because of Strava. The free training plans that come with the Strava premium subscription are CTS plans. For me this has been a great into to structured training as a complete beginner. Having said that I totally agree with Chris sentiments here – would have been great to have a coach to talk to about when and how to use these plans.

  11. Chris,
    CTS works! After doing structured training locally for two years, I became slow to improve. I attended a CTS Camp in Brevard, NC. I decided that CTS Premium coaching would work for me. This last year I’ve seen an improvement of over 30% in my cycling. My coach Tracey is not only knowledgeable, she gives me the same level of individualized attention, as she would to a younger cyclist. (I’m in my 60’s)

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