Antoine Fitzgerald is like many of us. He doesn’t like running in the heat. He hates sliding around in the snow. On days where the 35-year-old accountant has to make a four-hour round-trip commute from his home in Virginia to his office in Washington D.C., simply finding the motivation to run at all can feel daunting.
For those days Fitzgerald has a plan. He opens his phone or logs onto his computer. He clicks on Strava or Instagram. And within seconds, a mental switch gets flipped.
“I wake up to see so many runners have gotten their run in no matter how bad the weather is,” he says. “Seeing my competition not making any excuses motivates me not to slack off.”
Social media helps Fitzgerald get out the door on tough days. But can websites like Strava, Garmin Connect, Instagram, and Twitter really help you become a faster, more focussed version of yourself?
The Social Facilitation Effect
Stand on the starting line of any local track or road race and you’ll find many similarities. People are nervous, excited, bouncing up and down as the adrenaline floods through their systems. They’re here to run fast, faster than they could alone. Competition brings out the best in most performers, a phenomenon known as the social facilitation effect. For the last 120 years, psychologists have studied this effect and found that people want to be judged favorably by others. This leads to a state of arousal. As the body releases hormones and the brain narrows its focus to the task at hand, your ability to perform at peak levels increases (as long as it’s a task you’re well versed in). Ideally, this leads to more praise and less criticism.
In the digital age, you don’t need a crowd in the bleachers or thousands of competitors in a corral to experience the effect, though. Athletes who log their workouts on platforms like Strava or Garmin Connect are subject to spectators every day. The digital audience can see where you ran, who you ran with, how quick your splits were, and even how high your heart rate was. Though this occurs after the fact, knowing your run is going to be viewed and analyzed by others can produce some of the same physiological and psychological responses that would occur in a competitive arena.
“I definitely push harder on my quality days knowing that it will be shared on Strava,” says Fitzgerald. “The workout warrior within me truly comes out due to social media.”
Certain aspects of sites like Strava further promote this competitive spark. Users can create “segments” (a designated section of a road or trail) that runners can compete on for the fastest known time (FKT). The “matched runs” feature pits you against your historical self, telling you if you’re trending faster or slow. The ability to comment and offer “kudos” on other people’s runs only adds to the jocular interactions that normally occur in a team setting. And for runners who mostly train alone, “kudos” are a welcome interaction.
“It’s fulfilling to nail a workout or race and then get the affirmation of congratulations, likes, and kudos from people that see it,” says Tyler Pake, a Fleet Feet employee in Cary, North Carolina. “When it’s a bad race, it’s good to have the same people put it in perspective and say it was just an off day.”
#motivationmonday. #tracktuesday. #workoutwednesday. Love them or hate them, hashtags and the runners who use them are constantly creating new content geared at pumping up their audience. Many apparel companies require their sponsored elite athletes to post regularly. Instagram and Twitter accounts from these elites offer snippets of life as a professional runner, complete with videos of weight training sessions and still photos from their best races. They also allow viewers to glimpse behind the curtain, Wizard-of-Oz style, and see the athletes as regular people. This is how we know New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan recovers from a long run with beet hummus and a quinoa salad and that Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager’s wife is from Sweden.
Eavesdropping on the lives of elite runners, though, isn’t what ultimately gets you out the door. It’s catching a glimpse—if only a highly orchestrated one—of how the elite go about their business that gets the motivational wheels spinning. Sheila Kohler helps explain this fascination with celebrity in an online column for Psychology Today:
Part of our curiosity is a way of learning what makes the great great in our own search for knowledge, fame and fortune. We copy the famous, buy dresses that are similar or even the same, we wear our hair the way our idol does in an attempt to capture the glamor we admire. But we can also read the great writers or study the great painters and musicians to learn their tricks of the trade in an effort to emulate, and in some rare cases to surpass, what came before us.
Learning that World Championship bronze medalist Emily Infeld loves her cat Boots is cool. Learning that Emily Infeld owns a cat, completed an intense track workout followed by a weight training session, and will soon be traveling to an altitude training camp to log high-quality aerobic miles is inspiring.
Social media helps Fitzgerald get out the door. It helps him stay focused on hard days. It also sabotages him from time to time.
“It's almost like I treat my workout like a race and feel like I should perform to the best of my ability,” he says. “The downside to this is that I sometimes go too fast and don’t hit the correct prescribed workout paces.”
Running too fast in a workout to impress a virtual audience is a negative checkmark for social media. So is saving face and running through an injury or illness. Chasing segment records and FKTs at the expense of a planned workout or recovery run is deleterious to your training, but the yearning to drop the hammer can be hard to ignore. After all, everyone wants to present the best version of themselves online. Unfortunately, this can lead to unrealistic expectations or a tendency to distort reality to fit what we think others expect from us. This modern twist on the looking-glass self (a theory that states people see themselves as they believe others see them) can lead to body image issues (“Why am I not as lean as that elite runner?”) and lowered self-esteem (“I’ll never be as good as Shalane, so why even bother?”). That you might post these concerns on social media in an express effort to garner emotional support from others only complicates the matter.
Recreational runners are not the only ones experiencing this. Those same elites on Instagram and Twitter are also making conscientious decisions to post pictures and stories that make them look good. They may be promoting their brand or their upcoming race. They may also be trying to intimidate future competitors or inspire themselves through their words and deeds. Viewers of these accounts are only granted select access to a few snapshots, and these snapshots are almost always distorted. The isolation, fatigue, and boredom of an elite runner’s pursuit are not what get clicks; those moments are hidden from view.
Figuring out the best use of social media in the world of running is all about striking a balance between what truly matters and what’s window dressing. If looking at what other runners accomplished on Garmin Connect today gets you motivated, use that as a tool. If seeing your competitor just ran 20 miles at a quick pace fills you with dread, don’t look. If seeing elites do pistol squats motivates you to do your core exercises, that’s great. If it makes you feel inferior, look the other way.
Whatever your motivations, the best way to get “kudos” in real life is by running. So, finish reading this article, put down the phone, and go for a run.
Oh, and feel free to share this on Facebook.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).