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Strava launches smart route builder

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Today's post probably won't be of much use right now, but it can help you plan what you're going to do as soon as the COVID-19 quarantine period ends.

If you've been following the latest Strava news in the past months, you'll have noticed that things have changed recently. After a few years in which Strava has had little news - they were removing functionality and making the user experience too complicated, both internally and externally - Strava changed the CEO on november 2019.

Strava co-founders have taken again over the company to put a little bit of order and stop allowing Strava to continue drifting, which is what was happening in recent years.

Since the beginning of the year this change in leadership has already been noted. They launched an app for Apple Watch, restored the workouts chronological order, and the latter is that they have simplified the Summit to single option that includes all packages.

The latest function they are adding now is found in the latest versions of its Android and iOS applications. And keep in mind that I specify the apps, because it's something that's not available on the website.

This is a new smart routing feature, very similar to what Garmin offers in its watches, bike computers and mobile app.

Build custom navigation routes on Strava

The first thing you need to do is make sure that you have the latest version of the app installed (142.0.0 on iOS and 90.0.0 on Android).

When you open the app, you should go to the Explore option in the bottom menu.

The first time you open the option you will see a message that tells you that the route suggestion is based on the data they have on the platform, and that it may not be perfect. Basically, they recommend that before starting the route you check it calmly and verify that it is the type of route you want to do (especially if you are cycling).

Creación de rutas de Strava

After accepting this message, the main route creation screen will be displayed. At the top of the map is where we have the controls we need.

Creación de rutas de Strava

Here are the buttons and their different options:

  • Location: We can start the route from our current location or from any other location, either by clicking on the map or by selecting the location by direction or point of interest. A good place to start the route is at any ice cream parlor to ensure good nutrition and hydration during the route
  • SportRight now we can choose between run or ride.

Creación de rutas de Strava - Tipo de deporte

  • Distance: Next you can select an approximate distance to the workout you want to do. It does not mean that if you mark 30km that will be the distance, it will look for options that go in the ballpark.

Creación de rutas de Strava - Distancia

  • Elevation: You can choose between avoiding hills or searching for them specifically. Keep in mind that everything will depend on where you take the route and the characteristics of the terrain. If you are looking for a 5km route through the plains of Florida and you ask for hills... well, that's not going to happen and it will only show you flat routes. And the opposite if you are looking for flat areas and you are in the middle of the Pyrenees.

Creación de rutas de Strava - Desnivel

  • Surface: Finally, you can select that you want a route on paved roads or that you prefer dirt surfaces. Watch out for the type of sport you're going to do and what you select here, because if you're going to go on a road bike, you're not interested in having a road full of stones.

Creación de rutas de Strava - Tipo de superficie

Once you have selected the different options with the parameters you have selected, three route proposals are presented at the bottom of the screen.

Sugerencias de rutas de Strava

In each one of them there are several indications. First the real distance. I had asked for 15km routes, and it returned three options of 11.4km, 12.2km and 17.1km. Below it indicates the approximate time to complete it and the total elevation along with a small graph of it.

To calculate the estimated time, Strava will take into account your average pace of the past few weeks by adjusting it to the hills on the route. And for cycling it will use only your average speed in those same previous four weeks.

Let's look at the details of that first option it gave us, where it shows expanded the elevation graph and the detail of the surface.

It shows the type of surface on which we are going to move, differentiating between asphalted and non-asphalted. Although in this case there is also a 36% surface that is not specified (in blank). The paved part is the one you have marked in plain color, while the unpaved area is streaked.

In this case we are talking about a promenade area in which there are asphalt areas and dirt areas, so in general it makes the distinction well. There are a few unidentified areas, but in general the marking is correct.

Buscador de chollos

This is for running. When it comes to cycling, it's all the same. Although as I indicated before, no matter how much I say I want a flat route, when we are in an area where it's not easy to find such routes (such as Marbella), we end up with options of more than 1,400m positive.

Of course, cycling time calculations do not include the hills that we are going to find. Because at no time would I be able to make this proposed route of 83.4 km and more than 2,000 meters in less than 3 hours. First because of the hills I will face and second because I know that the roads around that mountain area are really bad.

Proposición de ruta de Strava

If you don't like any of the propositions it gives you, you can ask him for another three by slightly changing the starting point to force a recalculation. That is, marking the starting point two meters to the left or right, and it will generate a new calculation.

Route creation is very fast, much faster than the waiting time that we will have on a watch or bike computer from Garmin (the power of the device is very different).

Once you've found the chosen route you just have to click on save, and it will be added to your favorite routes. That's when you can sync them to your device in the usual way: with the Garmin Connect IQ app, syncing it to your Wahoo bike computer by connecting the Strava account or simply exporting the file to GPX or TCX.

Oh, before I forget. Smart routing is available only to premium users (with Summit subscription). Want to try out the feature and have 60 days of Strava Summit for free? Think that you just bought a Cannondale and that you have just registered your warranty

How Strava route creation works

You'll wonder... how does Strava calculate these routes and how does it know they're interesting? Because just like Garmin's Trendline feature, Strava takes into account the “big-data” from the millions of public workouts that its users have been uploading to the platform.

That is, if in the last year there are 600,000 cycling trainings on one road and only 30 on the other, I think it is feasible to consider that the first option is interesting for cyclists.

Strava has created its own mapping based on reference points, which then they have to put together with the actual Mapbox and OpenStreetMaps maps to find out what's what. Because they know that many bikes have passed through there, but they don't know if they were MTB or road bikes.

The route it gives you is done by adding those reference points from the surrounding area, which match the search criteria you've set (which is the way they've catalogued them).

Of course, remember that the most important thing is to continue using common sense. The data may not be perfect and the identification may have not been done in the best possible way. Before starting the route take a look carefully, especially if we talk about cycling. Nobody likes to travel 60km to discover that where there was to be a road, it turns out that it's a neighborhood road closed to traffic...

And most importantly of all, if you get to a point where you can't turn and that's what the route asks you to do... the first thing is to listen to the rules of traffic.

Are Strava smart routes really a good choice?

You have already seen what it calculates and how it calculates, now it remains to assess whether this route is really interesting.

This type of route calculation is intended to create routes in areas we are not familiarized with. That is, you go on vacation to a new place and don't know where to make a route. It is here that such a route builder makes sense.

I don't expect to ever get to the knowledge of a local, especially in large cities where leaving the city in search of an interesting route is something that is full of tricks. Imagine you want to make a bike route from Puerta del Alcalá in Madrid... it can put you on an interesting road, but the exit of the city can have a thousand tricks that Strava can't know about.

Therefore, to assess whether the route offered is good or bad, the only thing I can do is ask for a route from where I am. Let's start with run routes, for about 15 kilometers and regardless of the elevation or surface.

Route number one is pretty good. In fact I myself have done something similar to that route on more than one occasion, although continuing at all times more parallel to the river. But of course, if we want to add distance, we have to take a little detour.

The second route could not be done, because it makes use of a road that is currently closed to traffic or people. It is the problem that we may encounter with these automatic calculations, which will not take into account recent events, works or other similar situations. But with the exception of that closed section, the rest of the route is an area that I have also run before, especially in summer.

The third option makes use of the promenade (an area where it probably have millions of synchronized workouts). The return trip goes through the north part of Puerto Banus. It's not as usual as the promenade, but it is used when locals want to do some hill work.

In any case, all three options are quite valid except for the above mentioned detail of the section closed to traffic. Here Strava should keep in mind that if 2 years ago there were a lot of workouts that went through there, but one year later there are noe... then something must have changed and they should take acknowledge it.

Let's try cycling now. This time I have selected 120km in asphalt and without elevation (which as I say, around here is practically impossible).

The first and second options are quite similar, but you would have to choose that route carefully. It will depend a lot on the day and time when you will be doing your workout, because the whole stretch between Marbella and Fuengirola is part of the motorway, although is a road we can cycle.

On a holiday at a prudent hour (and not in summer at beach time) it could be a feasible option because the traffic is not excessive, but on any other day I would never think of getting on that road (A7) because it has crazy traffic.

As for the third option, is the one I was specifically looking for... but it makes it VERY short. I asked for 120km with no elevation, and that's the usual route I take when I want to do some speed training on the TT bike. But Strava just chose 68 kilometers because it's making the turn too soon.

When I take that direction I complete it by turning to Sotogrande, or following towards Jimena de la Frontera. In fact with what I asked, the route to Jimena would be just perfect both in distance and elevation. But Strava is just showing me almost half away.

Trying successively varying the starting point I managed to get a similar proposal to what I was looking for.

Strava - Ruta de bici calculada

It took me a while to get it, but at last I got something similar to what I was looking for.

Tip: don't stick with the first three options it gives you. When you see an interesting route save it, but do a new search again because you might find an even better option.

Summary

I find it to be a ver good option, but as I said, we have to look very carefully at the option it proposes in each case. But I've also found that the route proposals it gives are better than those I have previously obtained from the Garmin feature which is similar to this one.

The key is when it comes to getting out of cities, in that sense in the case of Garmin I have always obtained more chaotic routes and roads that, honestly, I doubt have been used excessively for cycling.

The routes Strava proposed me have been quite good overall. Of course with objections, because I as a local know things that AI will never know (hello Skynet). However, while I've been playing with the route planner it has proposed very interesting combinations that I had not done before and that I value for spring or summer (if by then we can leave home).

We shall not forget that this is a feature that Strava has just launched, and the most logical thing is that with the usage and information the users provide, it will be polished and improved. But for the first version it has left me a very good impression. You may not use it locally, but you can get ideas about possibilities you might not thought before.

But above all, I'm glad that Strava is finally starting to add features that users think about whether it's worth paying for. Now what I'm asking Strava is a utility to create groups for a particular route and allow users to sign up... something like Zwift's “Meetups” option. Will it be next?

And with that... thanks for reading!

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2 Comments

  1. “[…] aunque sí puede servirte para que vayas planeando lo que vas a hacer en cuanto terminemos el periodo de cuarentena por el coronavirus […]”

    Yo ya tengo planeado lo que voy a hacer en cuanto se termine la cuarentena: vender mi rodillo en Wallapop jajaja, después de este periodo no quiero volver a saber nada del rodillo en una buena temporada.

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