Let's be friends on Strava

Next-gen communities are forming on and around fitness apps.

Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.🧩

Today’s post is brought to you by Embedded subscriber Annie, who responded to my Nike Run Club Instagram Story with, “You should write about this.” —Kate

On November 7, 2020, my dad was riding his stationary bike at home while using the fitness app Zwift. Runners and cyclists use the app to train in a virtual world, chatting with and supporting fellow users who happen to be riding in, say, Paris (or rather, “Paris”) at the same time. Suddenly, according to my dad, the chat feature exploded with celebratory messages. That was how he learned the election had been called for Joe Biden. 

This was pre-vaccine, in the middle of another deadly surge of the coronavirus, and opportunities for IRL celebration were still thin on the ground. I myself heard the news while descending a mountain in upstate New York, finding myself helpless to channel the relief that had just been injected into me. The power of virtual community had perhaps never been more widely felt.

There’s been plenty of talk about how communities manifested on apps like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok during the long months of lockdown, but for some, fitness apps like Zwift, Strava, and Nike Run Club may have presented even more of a lifeline. Not only could you feel like you were interacting with people, but you were also motivated to move—something that felt at best, difficult, and at worst, pointless, during the middling months of 2020.  

But even as vaccines are administered and the Western world opens up, the use of community-based fitness apps doesn’t appear to be slowing. I’ve seen a few funny TikToks about Strava—a GPS-based fitness app with an emphasis on social media features—pop up in the past few months. There’s this one, about writing “humbling” comments on your friends’ runs, or this one about treating Strava like your close friends Instagram Story. Commenters on both keep asking the same thing: “What’s your Strava????”

I only got into one of these apps just this past month: Nike Run Club. It not only tracks your run, but also has seemingly endless running plans to choose from, with the option to have a virtual, Ted Lasso-type coach guide you through them. While Nike Run Club doesn’t have a social element in-app, each run ends with a social media-friendly breakdown of your run: your route, pace, and total time. It was seeing screenshots of these breakdowns on Instagram that prompted me to finally download Run Club.

In my case, the screenshots were posted by Refinery29 fashion writer Eliza Huber. “I’ve had roughly four or five people post about NRC after asking me about it, but truly tons have asked me about the app and told me they wanted to try it based on my posts,” she tells me over Instagram DM. “I have a running Q&A in my highlights and a lot of the questions were around the app I use to track my runs and why I like it.”

I’ve only posted my own running screenshots once or twice, but without fail someone asks me about the app whenever I do. Many of the guided runs end with the coach encouraging you to share your run with other people. The community forms in passing, seeing a fellow user share their run on social media, or wondering if the person next to you in the park is using it, too.

Today’s plan is a 33-minute speed run. If you don’t see me out there, don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll catch it online.