When we look back on dating during a pandemic we might think of a void. A time when singles and sexless couples alike, sick of each other’s company, sat down to watch perfectly simultaneous orgasms on screen in a period drama (Bridgerton, I’m looking at you), forgetting what it was like to chat up a stranger and wake up in an unfamiliar bed.
Or we’ll look back with rose-tinted glasses at wholesome, socially-distanced, outdoor dates. Setting off on yet another walk, the dilemma of how to look cute and show that you have a figure whilst wearing five layers. Occasionally getting a coffee to feel as though you’re “out for drinks”, but worrying all the time that it will count as a picnic.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times, then, that exercise apps are increasingly being used for dating. Courtship is only permitted in fresh air, Victorian-style promenades with not even an ankle on display due to the biting cold, which has given rise to people finding, and documenting, their dates on apps like Strava.
At first glance, Strava — the running and cycling app — is an unlikely candidate for the choice dating app of the moment. Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge have become too obvious (a little like going to a Traffic Light Party dressed in green). Amber-colored Strava helps you mask your real intent while appearing to chase fitness goals.
Most Strava users will remember flybys, a feature which showed other athletes you’d passed whilst exercising (often if they’d followed the same route for long enough you’d be listed as having exercised together). Due to rather questionable privacy controls, Strava’s flybys are now disabled by default, unless the user chooses to opt-in, but this feature of tracking people that you’ve passed in real life is reminiscent of Happn, a dating app that counted 50 million users at its peak and showed eligible matches from people that you’d passed by.
Strava could be said to be much more effective than Happn in that flybys are already showing the user someone with a shared interest.
Runner? Road Bike enthusiast? Inline skater? It feels more organic than wondering whether the stranger from Happn that’s passed your house five times in a day is stalking you or just keeps forgetting items from the corner shop at the bottom of your street.
Using Strava as a way of facilitating romantic encounters is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Almost every Strava user that I speak to has used it to look up someone, whether it’s someone that they had a romantic interest in or simply out of curiosity. What happened to that boy from primary school who struggled to say ‘bonjour, ça va’ and cried in PE? Now he lives in Languedoc-Roussillon and runs triathlons, collecting KOMs like a professional athlete.
Even with flybys now disabled unless voluntarily activated, it isn’t hard to find someone on Strava, as 28-year-old Sofi found jogging around her local park in London. She locked eyes with another jogger, and recognizing him on the second lap, smiled politely and waved. Just minutes after uploading her run she received kudos and comments from someone that she wasn’t following, the jogger from the park.
One person to cash in on the growing trend of exercise apps being used for dating is entrepreneur Izzy Milburn, founder of soon-to-be-launched app ZealMatch. Izzy met her partner through their running club, which got her thinking about how there ought to be a dating app that brought people together through their love of sports. ZealMatch does just this, with athletes choosing their favorite sport to match with people with shared interests.
“Sports are a lifestyle choice,” says Izzy. “So it makes sense to find people compatible with your lifestyle. The first launch will cover the mainstream sports that we’re all doing over lockdown, running, cycling, and walking, but as we grow we want to be able to cover all sports, no matter how niche.”
Strava has been used for several proposals globally, too.
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Jon Blaze and Thao Nguyen from Texas brought together through a shared love of cycling, regularly went out for a spin together. This day was a little different. At the end of the 15km cycle, Jon got down on one knee to an unsuspecting Thao and produced the Strava map of where they’d cycled, which spelled out the words “marry me”.
“She didn’t suspect a thing,” Jon tells me. “We often ride around that area together. She did get a bit frustrated with all of the short turns we were making, though!”
As I run around the headland at home, the route draws something akin to a droopy bellend, a fitting epitaph for pandemic dating. The first person to give me kudos is, as always, my mystery Strava admirer, a man I’ve never met from several hundred kilometers away who religiously praises my exercise attempts, no matter how feeble. He follows my housemate too (the female one, but doesn’t seem interested in the activities of the boys that I live with). Giving kudos on Strava has become the equivalent of sliding into someone’s DMs, with the added bonus that you don’t even need to think up a witty opening line.
Whether our newfound lean towards outdoor dating means that we’ll be ditching traditional dating apps in favor of Strava, ZealMatch, and other exercise apps in the future remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that a chance encounter on a bike ride fits the brief of the perfect ‘meet cute far more than a right-swipe on a selfie. Just don’t spoil the illusion by telling them that the encounter isn’t by chance,
Anna is a writer and avid lockdown Strava user from Cornwall, UK. Her work has appeared in SUITCASE Mag and The Great Outdoors, among others.