Strava Fitness and Freshness

The last blog explored the statistics that Strava calculates for each ride. These feed through into the Fitness & Freshness chart provided for premium users. The aim is to show the accumulated effect of training through time, based on the Training-Impulse model originally proposed by Eric Banister and others in a rather technical paper published in 1976.

Strava gives a pretty good explanation of Fitness and Freshness. A similar approach is used on Training Peaks in its Performance Management Chart. On Strava, each ride is evaluated in terms of its Training Load, if you have a power meter, or a figure derived from your Suffer Score, if you just used a heart rate monitor. A training session has a positive impact on your long-term fitness, but it also has a more immediate negative effect in terms of fatigue. The positive impact decays slowly over time, so if you don’t keep up your training, you lose fitness. But your body is able to recover from fatigue more quickly.

The best time to race is when your fitness is high, but you are also sufficiently recovered from fatigue. Fitness minus fatigue provides an estimate of your form. The 1976 paper demonstrated a correlation between form and the performance of an elite swimmer’s times over 100m.

The Fitness and Freshness chart is particularly useful if you are following a periodised training schedule. This approach is recommended by many coaches, such as Joe Friel. Training follows a series of cycles, building up fitness towards the season’s goals. A typical block of training includes a three week build-up, followed by a recovery week. This is reflected in a wave-like pattern in Fitness and Freshness chart. Fitness rises over the three weeks of training impulses, but fatigue accumulates faster, resulting in a deterioration of form. However, fatigue drops quickly, while fitness is largely maintained during the recovery week, allowing form to peak.

The example chart above shows how my season has panned out so far. After taking a two week break before Christmas, I started a solid block of training in January. My recovery week was actually spent skiing (pretty hard), though this did not register on Strava because I did not use a heart rate monitor. So the sharp drop in fatigue at the end of January is exaggerated. Nevertheless, my form was positive for my first race on 4 February. Unfortunately, I was knocked off and smashed a few ribs, forcing me to take an unplanned two week break. By the time I was able to start riding tentatively, rather than starting from an elevated level, my fitness had deteriorated to December’s trough.

After solid, but still painful, block of low intensity training in March, I took another “recovery week” on the slopes of St Anton. I subsequently picked up a cold that delayed the start of the next block of training, but I have incorporated some crit races into my plan, for higher intensity sessions. If you edit the activity and make the “ride type” a “race”, it shows up as a red dot on the chart. Barring accident and illness, the hope is to stick more closely to a planned four-week cycle going forward.

This demonstrates how Strava’s tools reveal the real-life difficulties of putting the theoretical benefits of periodisation into practice.