If you favour tarmac over the treadmill, chances are you're already familiar with Strava. But there are so many hidden features to this superb app that it's easy to miss a trick that could take your training to the next level.
So much more than a basic fitness tracking app, Strava lets you transform every inch of the planet's navigable terrain into a racetrack and turn boring sessions into competitive time trials.
Essential reading: The best running apps
The app's success is owed not so much to the wealth of data it shows about your training but to the community it has created – and it even rivals the best GPS watches for accuracy and data. We're not talking about friendly Facebook Groups of affable athletes; these people aren't your friends, they're your adversaries. By chalking up each of its 1.2m active users' successes and failures on virtual leaderboards Strava has achieved gamification on a grand scale, encouraging even the most casual partakers to turn their local multi-use towpath into a time trial.
You'll find everything you need to get started at strava.com. We'll get into hardware later on - for now, the free smartphone app is all you need to record a basic route and pit yourself against the community.
Build better run and cycle routes
If you're struggling to find new places to run the Route Builder can do it for you. You pick the start and finish points on the map and Strava will suggest routes based on data where most users run, helping you find those paths and trails that don't show on Google. You can even find flatter routes by hitting the Min Elevation tab on the toolbar, which is great for people whose home is sandwiched between hills, although not so good for your basal metabolic rate.
Hook up a heart rate sensor
To get the most from Strava you'll want to use a heart rate sensor to add in all that lovely biometric data. If you're running or cycling with your phone, you'll need to invest in a Bluetooth chest strap or optical heart rate band. To pair it start a workout from your phone, choose settings and then External Sensors. Turn on the Bluetooth sensors control and then pair up.
Check your Suffer Score
One for Premium users, the Suffer Score shows how hard you worked in your session. It's a neat feature, as it's one of the few tools that crunch the numbers of your heart rate and feed it back in a positive way. To access it you'll need to have a heart rate sensor hooked up to Strava, which will then gauge how much of your run was spent in specific zones. The higher the number, the more you suffered.
Try amazing new features in the Lab
Just like the good old days of Google, Strava has its own Labs section for beta features and cool moonshot ideas to try out. Just head to labs.strava.com and login and you can access a bunch of funky tools. Notable features are Project Kudos, which measures all the thumbs up you've ever received and Clusterer, which shows popular routes on a mad-looking Tron map.
Hook up socially
A big part of Strava is its social aspects, and with so many global users, the chances are a fair few of your existing, real life human friends will already be using the service. You can add them by heading to Profile and clicking the Search friends icon. From there you can connect up Facebook or search your contacts for Strava users. Alternatively, type someone's name in at the top. When they're added their activity will appear in your news feed, and you can give them kudos on activity and leave comments.
The Segment Explorer lets you discover new places to run or ride, anywhere in the world. Segments aren't long routes - they're generally short 1 to 2 mile stretches created by Strava users that get fused together as you progress to form a single activity containing multiple mini races.
Discovering a well-contested segment in your local area can be exhilarating, though as with anything user-generated, quality varies wildly - it can take rattling down an unpaved road round the back of an industrial estate to appreciate the veiled sarcasm in a segment's "scenic speed run" title. If you're looking for true inspiration, head to Strava's Classic Segments microsite – it'll have you googling "bicycle flight bag" in no time.
Break your own records
Race the same segment twice and Strava will automatically award you a virtual trophy for your fastest attempt. Each segment has its own Personal Record (PR), so it's not uncommon to walk away with multiple gold trophies after a particularly long and successful slog.
If the challenge of beating your own times loses its appeal, Strava Challenges provide monthly trials such as 'run a 10k' or 'climb 4,810m (the height of Mont Blanc)'. Join one from the app's Challenges menu and any activity you record for that month will count towards your total. If you succeed, that challenge's badge will be added to your Trophy Case for all to see.
Break someone else's
That quiet stretch of road you thought only you frequented? Bad news - you're 46th on the leaderboard, and the only way to climb that mountain is to fight your way to the top. Each segment, no matter how short or mundane, offers its own fiercely-contested seat: KOM/QOM (King/Queen of the Mountain).
Taking a KOM/QOM isn't actually as difficult as it sounds - especially if you choose your target carefully. Watch out for the same names cropping up on multiple segments; you may have more luck on a road less travelled. Once you've got to know the segment and taken a few trial runs, wait for the wind at your back and go for it.
Got your little gold crown of pixels? Congrats! Now it's time to watch your throne, defending it from "KOM Hunters" - roaming cowboys breezing through towns on their carbon fibre steeds, pillaging top spots and racking up thousands of KOM/QOMs each. Maintaining the top spot can easily become an obsession, creating heated one-on-one battles that quickly turn personal or push users to throw caution to the wind; in 2010, one poor soul was killed during a desperate attempt to retake his crown from a usurper, prompting a (failed) lawsuit against Strava from his family.
The free version of Strava provides all you need to get competitive - but if it's sinewy speed-demon status you seek, upgrading to the Premium edition will give you a host of extra features designed to help you train, from customised plans to detailed power analysis. Premium also adds a number of real time advantages - segment times are displayed as soon as you finish them (rather than being calculated at the end) and you can view an active map of your friends should you wish to head out and show them who's boss.
Those subscribing to the 'no pain no gain' school of athleticism will delight in Premium's killer feature - the ability to gamify your own suffering. Connect a heart rate monitor and you'll be rewarded for how much pain you put yourself through in the name of exercise. Of course, we'd always recommend a professional cardio assessment before you start torturing that ticker too hard.
Connect to other services
Buried in Strava's Settings menu, the 'link other services' option enables the app to share data with a host of other services. Connecting calorie counter MyFitnessPal ensures any activity gets offset from your intake, while hooking up to Google Fit or Apple Health ensures your Strava activity counts towards any daily goal you've set.
If Strava's own analysis of your ride just doesn't do it for you, desktop app Veloviewer gives you all the detail you'll ever need. Here you can scrutinise your lap times (if you're training on a track, as we were in the above image), see exactly how far behind the KOM you were for each segment and explore your route's elevation in 3D.
If you're already tracking your exercise through another app, Tapiriik will synchronise your activity data between a long list of services, including Garmin Connect, RunKeeper, Endomondo, RideWithGPS and Smashrun.
While the app will suit many users' needs, a smartphone isn't the only way to get your activity data into Strava's hands - it plays nicely with a range of more lightweight or dedicated devices.
If you're a runner averse to strapping your smartphone to your body, a GPS-enabled smartwatch or band such as the Fitbit Surge, Garmin Forerunner or Suunto Ambit 3 can record your route instead. Some will automatically sync with Strava, others may require some tinkering with GPX files to import your data correctly.
Meanwhile, cyclists after a weatherproof heads-up display may opt to swap their smartphone for a GPS-enabled cycle computer; the Garmin Edge 25 $169.95 is a great entry-level option that synchronises with Strava automatically.
And if it's KOM at any cost, Garmin's new Edge 520 (above) $299.99 (ships in September) lets you pit yourself against the reigning champion as if you were racing in real time - so you know the moment you fall behind. The 'bundle' edition comes with its own sensors for heart rate, speed and cadence (the number of crank rotations per minute) - useful if it's your pedalling technique holding you back.
Access training plans and challenges
Another reason to fork out for a Premium sub, Strava has tonnes of built in training schedules for all manner of events. Head to strava.com/athlete/training-plans/running, from where you can access a bunch of plans for everything from speedy 5Ks to full on marathons. Once you sign up to the schedule, it will feel into your own personal calendar.
If that seems a little bit like hard work, you can also compete for shorter challenges in the Strava app. The Challenges tab at the bottom reveals options for running a 10K or contributing to large scale groups charged with running 2.5m collective miles. This is an area we'd like to see expanded, especially given so much emphasis on social, it's surprising that more one-on-one challenges don't yet exist.
See the bigger picture
Made it this far yet still struggling to muster the will to get competitive? We've another option for you - get creative instead. A small subgroup of Strava users have dedicated their time not to beating times and opponents but to creating enormous virtual Nazca lines.
Self proclaimed 'GPS artists' such as Stephen Lund, owner of GPSDoodles, have elevated this activity to an art form - spending just as long poring over Google Maps searching for the appropriate road layouts than they do riding the route itself. The masterpiece above is thanks to David Taylor from Salisbury and his eight-hour, 231km ride around the New Forest. Dedication's what you need, as they say.