I keep my phone in the pocket of my bike jersey when I ride, so in a way you could say that my descent into Strava servitude happened behind my back. But in reality I did this to myself. I was a daily user and willing accomplice to the popular fitness tracker for 15 months—in fact, Strava is my all-time favorite app. It's also my digital Achilles heel.

Hi, my name is Jeff. I have a Strava problem.

Jeff Foss

Jeff Foss is a former editor at ESPN, Maxim and Freeze, and a frequent contributor to Outside and Men's Journal. He lives in Colorado with his wife, baby and hyperactive Border Collie mix.

It wasn't always this way. Strava, for the uninitiated, is a GPS tracking tool for serious endurance athletes (people like Tour de France stage 5 winner Lars Boom, who has 23,000 rabid followers) and kinda-sometimes-wannabe serious endurance athletes (me, with a tepid following of 16). The word means "strive" in Swedish, and that's exactly what the app encourages its fanatical user base to do. Through an interface that looks like the cockpit of a fighter jet, Strava captures your time, distance, route, elevation, splits and all kinds of other race-oriented metrics, then transposes them against the efforts of nearby users (although you can go private if you want). In my pre-Strava days I hated running and cycling with electronic devices of any kind; suddenly I was so hooked that I couldn't fathom lacing up my running shoes or climbing onto my bike without having it queued up and ready to record. I even purchased a $100 Mophie battery case for the sole purpose of having enough juice on my phone to power Strava during extra-long outings.

This is still a Strava-appropriate activity.

This is still a Strava-appropriate activity.

When did my exercise habit become a habitual exercise in tracking? Much has been written about the "social fitness" apps turning fun activities into cutthroat virtual competitions, and it's no secret that at least one cyclist has died chasing the coveted "King of the Mountain" badge for fastest time on a given Strava segment. (A civil suit against the company was ultimately dismissed.) But for me, an active but undistinguished runner and cyclist with no KOM ambitions, the compulsion seems to lie in the tracking itself—the physical act of starting and stopping the clock. If Strava wasn't active and my numbers were slipping away unrecorded, some small part of the activity felt wasted.

According to Nick Felton, data geek and publisher of a vast personal compendium of infographics, statistics, maps and visualizations called the Feltron Annual Report, I'm not alone in my tracking anxiety—and the sheer convenience of modern tools could be a contributor. "Given the small cost to capture the activity, I've found that it can be hard to stop," he says. The simple fact of the matter is that it's never been easier to quantify our lives than it is right now (not to call out the 94,824 data points in Felton's 2013 report), but the ease of collection makes incomplete data sets that much more annoying. "I started wearing a pedometer in 2008," he says. "Once I uncovered that data stream, I found it very difficult to let it go unrecorded."

From postponing activities due to low battery to obsessively checking a device mid-activity to make sure the app is still running, most of my Strava-savvy friends have experienced this kind of anxiety to some extent. And then there's #StravaFail, the social media shorthand for an activity that somehow failed to record. #StravaFail is a defense and an accusation all rolled into one, and it reveals just how much time, attention and pride some of us invest into maintaining our precious logs. "I've definitely felt this pain," says Felton. "The closer a tracker gets to perfectly capturing behavior, the more frustrating it can be when it fails."

This summer, two episodes brought my excessive tracking habit into sharp focus. The first was on a family hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was carrying my 14-month-old son on my back, and I suddenly caught myself not only tracking our progress (there's a hiking mode) but also pausing and un-pausing the app every time we stopped to inspect a wildflower or wave at a marmot. For this I was duly scolded by my wife, and I began to think more critically about my relationship with tracking. The more I attempted to track every minute, it seemed, the less engaged I became from the moment.

A few weeks later I hit rock bottom. I was on a mountain bike trip in Southern Colorado with friends, and one of the guys decided to climb Mt. Harvard (one of Colorado's most unforgiving 14,000' peaks) the day before our ride—by himself, in shorts and a windbreaker. Naturally he ran into bad weather and got lost. The next morning, as we geared up for an emergency ascent with the local search and rescue team, I had to resist the urge to use Strava. On a rescue mission! Thankfully he stumbled out of the woods about five minutes later, freaked out but okay. I was freaked out too—how had I become so obsessed with tracking?

That weekend was a major turning point, and on the drive home I resolved to reduce my Strava usage. At first it was tough: backing off meant burying all my meticulously-recorded runs and rides under new stretches of zero activity. However, I quickly realized that zero activity on Strava doesn't have to mean zero activity in real life, and after several invigorating Strava-free runs I practically stopped missing it—even the victorious feeling of tapping the checkered flag to mark an activity complete (okay, so I still miss that a little). "The key for me has been to track behaviors that I enjoy or wish to reinforce," says Felton. "By tracking these things I am a bit more mindful of them and tend to encourage behaviors that I value. The risk is becoming too single-minded—for instance, prioritizing one behavior to the detriment of all others."

Today I no longer feel the urge to punch the clock on pastimes like running and biking. I've tried to separate my data from my self-worth, and I derive all the validation I need just by pursuing my passions. But I continue to seek the right balance with Strava. I still use the app to track my commute to work, but I don't get stressed out it switches off after a half-block and I don't get "credit" for the full ride. Occasionally I fire it up for an extra-long weekend activities, but never when other people are around. I still read my daily Strava Activity Report to see what my friends are up to, but mostly for ideas on new places to run or ride. And I never, ever use the app when wildflowers and marmots are involved. So far that's been the best rule of all.