Average Pace is a Fickle Tool

Strava is the best app since sliced bread. I have been a loyal and devoted Stravan for years. But, as I have matured and progressed in my own training, I have come to understand the utility and benefits of Strava in different ways. Underneath the long list of things I love about Strava, is a short list of downsides, the unmentionables. These downsides are not enough to push me away, but they are important to be aware of, especially for runners using it as their sole activity tracker and as the source for analyzing workouts.

Social Pressure

Strava is THE social network for athletes. According to Strava Co-Founder Mark Gainey, the mission of Strava is to create a community of athletes and encourage people to be more active. Therefore, the emphasis is on the social sharing aspect of the app, instead of a robust, detailed data analytics capability. The latter would likely dissuade some users who are not as scientifically inclined, undermining the intent behind the app in the first place. But since the social/sharing aspect is so attractive, users may begin to place too high a priority on sharing, which may disrupt sound training.

The Flawed Metric

Consider average pace. It is a common perception that average pace is the most important metric in a workout. Why? It is the first and simplest metric that others notice when you post a run. As a function of time over distance, it is a direct reflection of your output (performance), which is important since the object of a race is to complete the set distance in the least amount of time. But, in training, the problem is that alone, without any context or other data, average pace means little and can give a false impression. Too much focus on average pace can lead to training plateau, burnout, and injury because it countermands disparity in training (80% easy, 20% fast, as a loose rule of thumb) and it presents a false-rabbit to chase (i.e. it becomes the primary focus, instead of adhering to a prescribed workout/intensity/effort).

Consider the following discussion with a co-worker, that may sound familiar to you:
Eric: Hey Mike, did you run today?
Me: Sure did man, had a great run.
Eric: How far did you go?
Me: Oh about 8 miles.
Eric: Dang, at what pace?
Me: Average was about 9:15min/mi.
Eric: Oh, you’re slow. [joking, but with an element of judgment behind it]
Me: …

Several problems with Eric’s judgment of my average pace here:
1) Nothing was said about the type of workout or intent behind the workout. Was it a recovery run? fartlek? tempo run?
2) Nothing was said about the environmentals (temperature, humidity, wind, terrain, elevation change, etc). Eight miles at a 7:30/mi pace in 95deg heat/80% relative humidity with hills is much different than eight miles on a cool 55 degree day on a totally flat route.
3) If I were influenced by peer pressure, it may cause me to want to present my runs with a faster average pace to gain approval.

Friendly competition is great, but don’t let that get in the way of the training that will benefit you the most.

Take this to Strava, do you care about the average pace that you present to your followers on Strava? The reality is that you will likely get more Kudos if you upload a faster average pace. It’s not all about the Kudos, but that is a quick indicator of who is noticing your activities and taking an interest in your running, which can feel good. Include pictures, a catchy title, and a story about your adventure, and even more people will take notice–which is the beauty of Strava in action. But don’t let the temptation to present a “faster” run drive your training, just to impress or gain approval of others. In fact, it is important to note, that the average pace that Strava presents on your activity is calculated from Moving Time, not Elapsed Time. So this means that I can go out and run VO2max repeats on the track, at 4:30min/mile pace, stopping my watch after each repeat as I rest, and upload a 3mi run in 13 min 30 sec (my 3mi PR is 18:50). It is too easy for someone to cheat and present a fast average pace, take it with a grain of salt. Also note that segments and activities categorized as a Race present average pace by Elapsed Time, which is a truer picture of your actual performance.

Let race times be the true indicator of your performance, everything else is just investing in your own success.

So if your training calls for an easy, recovery effort, then stick to what that means to you. For me, that means an 8:45-9:15min/mi pace on a flat route with moderate weather. If I am in Leadville, CO, that means probably about a 10:00-10:45min/mi pace. For elite runners, a recovery effort may be a 6:00-6:30min/mile pace (notwithstanding the environmentals, etc). The big take-home point here is: forget about the meaning that you ascribe to average pace. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the average pace of your workout is an important training metric, because IT IS NOT. You have to consider the littany of other factors and variables that are attached to the workout. Let race times and PR’s be the metric by which you judge your own personal performance potential. Or if you must have a quick metric by which you judge yourself against others, use Strava’s new Relative Effort (the new and improved “Suffer Score”).

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