Strava CEO on wearables, what's next, and why HR accuracy isn't all that important

Plus why he's so interested in what happens *after* you log a workout
Strava CEO on the future of fitness

In the middle of Strava's San Francisco office stands a cabinet filled with every gadget that's ever worked with the platform: smartwatches, smartphones, old cycling computers, and a Google Glass crowning the display. It's a tiny museum chronicling how far both fitness tech and Strava has come since 2009. Strava still isn't profitable, but with the platform adding 1 million new users every 40 days, it's undeniably become a smash success with runners and cyclists.

If you've never used it before, Strava is one big orange ingestion engine, sucking data from different devices and software; you might wear a different running watch or use a different smartphone to your friend, but chances are you'll both be able to share at least some of your workout data with Strava's platform. It's a glue that keeps disparate networks and devices together – and a place where bragging rights are always at stake.

Read this: Best Strava compatible watches

And as fitness tech has become more insightful, Strava has reaped the rewards. Running and cycling are its two biggest areas, but CEO James Quarles tells us it's now looking further beyond that. The company breaks down users into extrinsically and intrinsically motivated athletes, and Quarles says that 60% of the workouts done by intrinsic users are indoors, which is why Strava wants to better represent them. That's why it has just announced a partnership with indoor cycling brand Flywheel Sports to let riders share data with the Strava platform. Integration with Fitbod, a strength training app with over 200,000 subscribers, is another example.

I don't think the swimming experience has been elevated the way we want it to be and it's something we're very actively working on

Swimming too is somewhere the company wants to up its game. With more waterproof trackers on the market, and devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit Ionic getting much more proficient at what they can track in the pool, Quarles sees an opportunity for better integration. "Swimming is a big sport on Strava," he says. "If you look at the cycling experience, if you look at the running experience, I don't think the swimming experience has been elevated the way we want it to be and it's something we're very actively working on." It remains to be seen what this will look like, but Quarles suggests it'll be looking at SWOLF data.

Quarles came aboard as Strava's CEO earlier this year, having run Instagram's business for the three years prior, and in that time he's learned something about his own fitness. "Before I had this watch," he says motioning to the Garmin Fenix 5 on his wrist, "I would go out and do 12 mile runs. As soon as you get your heart rate you see all of that is in the overexertion category, it's all anaerobic; it's a really poor way to train and it's the fastest path to get hurt. That's what I was trending towards prior to getting a watch. I've seen the difference of being in bands three and four – the level of exertion, how much better I feel, how much more quickly I can recover, and how much faster I get. That was unknown to me until I put a heart rate monitor on."

We asked Strava for some of its internal data on how users are tracking their heart rate and the numbers are interesting, if not all that surprising. 20.5% of all uploaded activities in 2014 had heart rate data, while in 2017 it was 37%. The biggest jump was between 2015 and 2016 from 23.9% to 32.2%. As more devices offer heart rate insights, more people are plugging it into their Strava workouts.

I think there's a power score in running we're intrigued by

It's an unsurprising upward trend, but not all heart rate sensors are born equal, and while they're getting better we still see a lot of variation in quality – the New Balance RunIQ being one of the more recent disappointments. Quarles isn't concerned by this, though. "It's a lot less about the sensor and the heart rate variance than it is, say, can you use it in VO2 Max? Or some degree of an algorithm to say you should take three days of rest, or two days of rest. Or say you're in your peak training mode, here's where your fitness level is, here's where your freshness level is."

Read next: Apple Watch Series 3 and Fitbit Ionic big swim test

Quarles adds that Strava sees "great potential" in heart rate data and how it can more closely intertwine with what the company is doing, but in the longer term trends rather than the immediate figures. "The absolute measure is not as important as the longitudinal measure. So if it has a variance and it's incorrect but it's showing you improve over time, I think that improvement is valuable to people, and that's truthfully what matters. I don't think people want the precision as much as they want the self-improvement."

He adds: "I think this is some of the fallacy with wearables in general, the presumption that the data actually matter isn't always the case. That someone wants to really dive in and look lap by lap at their data, isn't always the case."

GPS, however, is another matter. "There's a distance precision that we try to partner with [hardware makers] on, because there's nothing people get more frustrated about in their fitness than running a 10K race and having it be 10% off, plus or minus. Both are bad."

The Switzerland strategy

Strava is often referred to as the social network for athletes, but these are social aspects that pre-date Facebook. "Sports have always been inherently social," says Quarles, "And that's encouragement, it's motivation, it's camaraderie, it's a little bit of ribbing, and it's accountability." Strava taps into this competition with things like leaderboards and running clubs . "Sometimes it's just getting out of bed in the morning when it's dark and still cold, and you have to jump in the pool. People help you to do that."

We asked if Strava would be interested in ever making its own hardware, but Quarles assures us this isn't on the agenda. "It's not our strength. There are so many partners who are doing interesting things, small and large in this space, I think we're much stronger by sticking to the Switzerland strategy of really being an open platform."

But in terms of other metrics Strava could integrate, Quarles says the company is interested in power assessments, looking at data around form and technique from pods that can be attached to shoes or other clothing – like Garmin's Running Dynamics Pod. "I think there's a power score in running we're intrigued by," he tells us. "I think it's going to appeal to pretty serious athletes, I don't know how much that one will trickle down, but it might." Being able to give a coach stride data can be incredibly helpful for efficiency, especially for anyone training for a marathon.

Join us: Get involved with the Wareable Run Club

"I've learned a lot about just trying to stand tall, keeping your core in, having your feet really flat – that whole style of running," says Quarles. "I think there are ways to measure that, but again, how much is that a mainstream focus compared to just a fitness opportunity, that remains to be seen." And there's AI coaching, which has shown up in devices like the LifeBeam Vi. Quarles says Strava is looking to partner with others here, but isn't interested in building its own coaching tech.

And of course, expect more apps, but maybe not ones that looks too different to what we've seen so far. We've lamented before that Strava's apps, like the one on the Apple Watch, are a little bare on wearables. "I think making them bare is the right strategy," says Quarles. "I don't think we want to replicate that full phone experience on the watch. People want to record, they want to pause, they want to stop. They want to have the audio cues. But our view is that these are still companions. Until the camera comes off [of the phone], many people still value having a camera."

Part of the social experience – and those bragging rights – is being able to share a triumphant, sweaty moment with others, and photos have become a big part of that, says Quarles. This is a limitation of those wearables that are breaking free from the smartphone, and something we vouched for when we took the Apple Watch Series 3 running ourselves. "People want and prefer having their camera with them," he says. "The Google Clip – does that become shoulder-worn or, I don't know, a head-worn device, and its AI is getting that perfect moment of the sunset as you turn the corner? Maybe."

But to bring it back to where we started, Quarles sees more immediate potential in improving the post-workout recovery tracking on the platform. "I do look at this Garmin screen, and the rest and recovery, and my training load regularly. It's probably the part of the watch I scroll to most frequently." Strava already offers a Fitness & Freshness score for premium users on the web, but Quarles says he'd like to reimagine that for other devices. "It's here on the desktop, but what is it on the phone, and what is it on your watch?"


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