Molly Seidel Strava Use – Digital Privacy on Social Running Apps | #socialmedia | #cybersecurity | #infosecurity | #hacker


Since 2019, Molly Seidel has established herself as an open book when it comes to sharing her training on Strava. When she made an account on the running and cycling social media platform, Seidel wanted to use the app as a way to connect with her friends. But after she made the Olympic team with a surprise runner-up finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, her activity on the platform became a notable example of transparency within the pro running community.

Suddenly, anyone could log onto Strava and see the daily runs, including location, time, pace, and distance, of an Olympic marathoner. In the span of three years, her following exploded from 30 to nearly 70,000 people.

“[Strava] kind of became a cool thing to be pretty transparent, be a little more open than pros usually are about their training. I have nothing to hide and if anything it shows and makes it a little bit more relatable for the average runner,” Seidel told Runner’s World. “Over the course of the last two years since the Trials, it kind of changed around.”

By the time Seidel arrived at the prerace press conference for the 2022 Boston Marathon, the Olympic bronze medalist was considered a podium contender and well known for sharing her training buildups online. So, it came as a surprise to reporters that prior to the race, Seidel went quiet on Strava for one week. Seidel said she experienced privacy concerns while using the app, including people showing up to her runs and followers determining where she lives based on her activity. In response, Seidel decided to pause her public posts.

It turns out, Seidel is far from alone in her experience. When Fast Women reposted her interview on Twitter, dozens of fellow runners shared similar concerns and some incidents that went further, including stories of stalking and harassment while using Strava.

When Runner’s World reached out for comment, Strava responded with this statement:

“We fully support Molly and are impressed by how she is using her voice to raise awareness for the importance of controlling the information and data you share publicly. As evidenced by the nearly 40,000 kudos on her medal-winning marathon from the Olympics, it’s great for fans and the sporting community when she shares inspiring activities on Strava. We care deeply about athlete safety and fully support athletes using privacy and map visibility controls to customize how they share information and tell their story.”

In the social media age, Strava and similar running platforms like Map My Run and Garmin Connect give users an opportunity to log their miles, share their training, and connect with global communities online. But with increased accessibility and shared information, runners are also faced with the added challenge of protecting their digital privacy. So, how are tech companies centering safety on their platforms, what can the running community do to create safer spaces online, and how can individuals protect themselves while using these apps?

Put mental health first

While Seidel still enjoys Strava’s training log features and the benefits of connecting with friends, the public-facing platform and increased following started to weigh heavily on her. “I’m not that creative. I usually run in the same places on the same days of the week,” Seidel said. “I was just having some problems with it personally, and then just the realization of this will only keep happening because I’ve become a more public figure in this sport.”

Last fall, Seidel shared on Twitter that a stranger, unaware of who he was sitting next to on a flight, pulled up her own training log on his phone to explain how she should approach her training as a marathoner. “In the moment, it was deeply upsetting and I posted on [Twitter] to process a little bit,” she said. “It’s that creepiness aspect of like, you have a lot of people with a lot of eyes on you and you don’t know what their intentions are.”

Seidel also felt the pull toward online sharing and struggled with the pressure and competitive nature of Strava users who try to out-perform one another on the platform.

While she declined to share specific details about her experience, Seidel said she’s endured online and in-person safety concerns related to her activity on the app in recent months. As a result, she decided to shift how she engages with the Strava community to not only protect her safety, but also to protect her mental health. “For my own personal sanity, I gotta dial it back,” she said. “I can’t be putting everything on there.”

Kate Sanborn came to a similar conclusion after experiencing a mental health setback and safety concerns on Strava.

After qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a 2:44 debut at the 2018 Richmond Marathon, Sanborn dedicated her 2019 season to marathon training. After moving to Durham, North Carolina, the West Point graduate wanted to get connected with the local running community, so she joined Strava in 2019. “I saw the app as a really good opportunity to get embedded in this running community, and I also wanted to be able to share the journey of training for the Olympic Trials, but very quickly ran into two problems,” she said.

““For my own personal sanity, I gotta dial it back. I can’t be putting everything on there.”

Kate Sanborn

Kate Sanborn

For Sanborn, Strava became an online environment that encouraged overtraining. “I felt the need to always validate why a run was slower or compare myself to myself a week ago or someone else on the platform,” she explained.

The second issue was security concerns. Between her busy schedule of work and grad school, Sanborn often found herself running similar routes at the same times throughout the week. But a few male runners started to follow her on runs, occasionally stopping her, and sending her direct messages on social media to talk about her routes. “It raised the concern on my end of if they can nail my routes, nail my time, this could be a lot worse and someone could just know where I live and know when I leave my house,” she said.

In response, Sanborn changed her routes and stopped posting as much on the platform. The shift also coincided with the onset of the pandemic, which gave Sanborn more flexibility to explore new areas at different times of the day. Sanborn also realized she wanted to keep the bulk of her training between herself and her coach and shift away from the desire to receive “kudos” from others in order to validate her progress.

Understand the platform and its privacy policies

Dana Cuomo, Ph.D., assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Lafayette College, has dedicated much of her research to technology-enabled abuse. When it comes to centering digital safety, she pointed out that there are multiple parties that have a role to play when it comes to protecting privacy. “[Digital safety] is more than just the user’s responsibility,” Cuomo told Runner’s World. “Tech companies and these platforms have a big responsibility too.”

Cuomo noted that individuals should be aware that most tech platform’s default settings make users’ information public, and it falls on the individual to figure out how to change their privacy settings if they choose to. At the same time, It should fall on the platform to create user-friendly safety tools that are easy to navigate. But if you’re under 18 and you create a Strava account, the privacy control defaults to provide enhanced safety and privacy for minors on the platform. “It’s interesting, right? In an effort to protect minors, they recognize that one’s digital safety and privacy is important, and yet that’s not the default for everyone,” Cuomo said.

She said that these apps are often free because tech companies can make money by selling users’ information for advertising. “The more information that users are giving, the more that the companies are making as a result, and so the tech companies have incentive to encourage, whether implicitly or explicitly, their users to share this information about themselves,” she said.

Depending on the platform and its privacy settings, it’s not always a guarantee that users’ information will be kept fully private, Cuomo noted. And it’s important for individuals to understand what information is still going to be made available for other people to see, even if they utilize the privacy controls.

In addition to stalking and harassment from strangers, Cuomo also pointed out the varied reasons for individuals to protect their digital safety, including the issue of social media tracking being used as a tool by domestic violence abusers. For example, some apps don’t offer a two-factor authentication process, which can allow abusive partners to enable live tracking on their partners’ phone without them knowing.

For those who use Strava, the platform offers several privacy control options that aim to increase safety while using the app. In addition to the feature that allows users to hide their start and end points (up to a mile from the location), the app offers the option of hiding entire routes and specific addresses. Users can also choose to make activities private or for public view and select whether or not they want their activities to be included in the metro and Global Heat Map, a cartographic representation of Strava users’ GPS-tracked activities.

On Map My Run, users have the option of setting their profile to “public,” “friends,” or “private.” A profile set to “friends” appears in search results, but displayed data only includes account creation date, the total number of maps and workouts, and mutual friends. They can also receive friend requests. “Private” profiles are not viewable to other users, won’t appear in search results, and can’t receive friend requests. For every profile setting, a users’ height, weight, and age are always private. Map My Run also provides the option of making individual workouts and routes private. On the Map My Fitness feature, maps with an “accessible” privacy setting appear anonymously without the creator’s username.

Garmin Connect users have the option of selecting individual privacy settings on activity details and daily summaries, including location, step data, and all-day heart rate, among other data points. The “custom” option allows users to set different privacy levels (“only me” or “everyone”) for different activities. Activities that are selected as “only me” are not visible in leaderboards and active group challenges.

Cuomo noted that most social media platforms have updated and evolved their privacy settings over the years due to increased critiques from individuals who are more vulnerable to safety issues, which calls for a “rethinking of who is sitting at the design table.”

“If you don’t have women, people of color, or queer people at the table, then you’re missing out on a lot of what your user experiences are,” Cuomo said.

Molly Seidel training in Boston, July 2020.

Maddie MeyerGetty Images

Set an intention when posting

Since Boston, Seidel’s tried to find a balance with posting publicly on occasion rather than sharing all of her activities. “I’m going to be a little bit more intentional with what I post, whether it’s a big workout, long run or just an easy run that’s notable,” she said. “If it’s going to be a public thing that’s out there, tell a story with it.”

For example, when she dropped out of the Boston Marathon on April 18, Seidel shared the activity on Strava, which included her thoughts on the difficult race. Seidel said ultimately she wants to open the door for athletes to be more genuine with the realities of training for a marathon and the variety of experiences that come with it, rather than focus solely on the data behind every performance.

When asked what advice she’d share with runners who aim to protect their privacy while using running social media platforms, Seidel encouraged an intentional mindset with an understanding that most users focus on sharing highlights the majority of the time. “You need to be smart with it and know like, am I doing this run fast today because I want to run fast, or am I doing it because I want people to see that I’m running fast? That’s the crux of it,” she said. “Remember why you’re doing what you do and if it starts to become a presentation to people, then that’s a problem.”

Today, Sanborn still has a Strava account, but she only posts every few weeks, now focusing on sharing runs on busy, public trails, performances that share the highs and lows of her training process, or moments that inspire humor, like her first hard workout of a training cycle. When she does post her activity, Sanborn said she has to be in the right headspace—focusing on internal as opposed to external motivation—while also feeling secure in maintaining her privacy. “Otherwise, I don’t find [Strava] to be a platform which serves me in my journey,” she said. “I am confident internally, and that’s the main tool you need in your pursuit of excellence.”

In recent years, Sanborn has chosen to share more of her journey face-to-face through interactions with local run groups and in her work at a running store. Through Instagram and Strava, she still maintains an online presence in order to stay connected with the global running community, but she filters more of what she shares.

“In order to [have a social media presence], you have to authentically be yourself, and you have to be cognizant of the information you share,” Sanborn said. “No one is entitled to your life story and all of your personal information. You should take stock in knowing that you are the captain of what you share.”


If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you or someone you know is a victim of stalking, you can reach Safe Horizon at 1-800-621-4673.


Taylor Dutch is a sports and fitness writer living in Chicago; a former NCAA track athlete, Taylor specializes in health, wellness, and endurance sports coverage.

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