Social media: Motivator or Monster

Runners World Podcast.pngI was recently asked by Runners World to talk on their podcast about how runners use social media. I love this subject (and spend far too much time on social media myself) so really enjoyed the chat. I haven’t been brave enough to listen to it yet so don’t know if they kept the bits in where Peppa Pig started playing in the background, my daughter wandered in for hugs and when the postman rang the doorbell! I should not attempt to multitask!

Anyway – I usually work with athletes on using social media for their personal promotion, sponsorship and reputation but it was interesting to think about when as amateur athletes we can use it to benefit our sport – and when to consider staying away.

There tend to be lots of extreme views on social media: Either it is amazing or dreadful. I’m actually in the middle – sometimes it can be brilliant, other times not so much.

It can be brilliant for motivation, for reducing loneliness, for finding exciting challenges, for analysing our data to make improvements and for keeping in contact with coaches or other athletes. But it can also increase our risk of exercise addiction, mean we get overly competitive, compare ourselves too much (and usually negatively), become less honest with ourselves and others about our sport (we end up giving a highlights reel rather than honest information), not do sessions properly (as it might make us look slow) and get goal creep where we try to hit online goals instead of real ones.

Community

One of the huge benefits is the feeling of community. I did some research a few years ago into Ultra Endurance athletes (Runners, Cyclists, Swimmers and Triathetes) and found that in order to do the training required (at the right distance and intensity) they often need to train alone and that gets very lonely. They enjoy having social links and a community to engage with afterwards. There is a theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory and it says that in order to be truly motivated and perform well you need three pillars in place: Autonomy to make your own decisions, Competency (i.e. good skills to know what you are doing) and Community (to know you are not alone). Social media can give you this community is you are regularly training alone.

Expanding horizons

Social media is also a great way to expand horizons – and increase your belief that you could attempt new things. Not only to see amazing races talked about but we might see people who seem a bit like us doing them, we get some vicarious confidence from this and maybe more likely to enter. All the posts about fairly new mums like Jasmin Paris and Sophie Power racing ultras while breastfeeding certainly inspired me to get entering my own races. But, if I’d been in a bad place with my own running, or struggling with a newborn, then actually seeing these amazing runners ‘doing it all’ may have just made me feel like a failure. So how we interpret what we see if usually not based on the content itself but our own perceptions, traits and current life situation.

Holding yourself to account

Social can be a good way to holding yourself to account – and many athletes have talked about how they know they have to finish because they know people will be looking out for their results. So they may well be more compelled to stick with it.

But… sometimes it can be an additional pressure we don’t need. I have spoken to athletes for research who have gone out for a run and been actively relieved when their Garmin ran out of battery as they could just enjoy the run knowing it wouldn’t be uploaded so couldn’t be judged by others. Also, sometimes sticking with a goal is not always right for us. We could be injured, have a period of illness, have a big setback in another part of our life and it makes perfect sense to abandon the goal for a while. Why should we have to explain that on social to everyone. A good rule of thumb is to remember you own your data and you own your story and you don’t owe these to anyone else.

Additional pressure

Some people will certainly find social media inspiring. Seeing amazing races, brilliant venues, fantastic courses and medals can make you want to join in. But it can also cause lots of pressure to be inspiring. And some days we aren’t, we are simply trying to shuffle our way through the day till bedtime. If we are on a ‘shuffle’ day then what we sometimes see as inspiration can become comparison. Comparison is so dangerous and yet it is so hard not to do it. We are all on different journeys. We all have different genes, backgrounds, environments, goals, personalities and preferences. Comparing ourselves to others – especially when we are usually comparing our warts and all self to someone else’s highlights – will only make us feel rubbish.

We need a large amount of scepticism when scrolling through social – and to always remember unless the person you are comparing yourself to is your identical twin, you have had a very different background and journey from them!

Data demons

Sites like Strava can be fantastic for storing your data. You can learn from it, spot patterns and increase your self-awareness of how you cope in your sport. It can be great to look back over to see what you were doing prior to a step up in improvement, or before an injury. But – it can mean every session becomes a competition. If you are naturally competitive then instead of competing weekly you end up competing with yourself or others every day. This means you don’t do the right type of training. You end up going too fast, or with too much intensity or lifting higher weights as you are worried about how people (or yourself) will judge your data. This increases risk of injury – and reduces performance gains. In fact, do it too much and you’ll get burnout and your performance will actually fall.

We can also start to focus on numbers rather than feelings. I interviewed someone who was training for a marathon and in the build up started joining in an online running group who were all aiming to get their weekly mileage up to 100 miles a week. The athlete hit the mileage but got a stress fracture from overtraining and was unable to perform at her best in the marathon.

This can be similar with online groups where you all sign up to a streak of training. They can be really good for some people – I have done a month long run streak (running at least 30 minutes a day, every day) when I knew I was in a busy period and would need additional motivation to exercise. But telling everyone means it is harder to stop when you may need to (with a niggle or injury) and this can cause longer term harm, and ironically reduce how much you can exercise.

When to turn off the social

When you find social media is sucking the joy out of your running turn it off. I remember interviewing a fantastic runner about her use of Strava and she said after a long period of injury she was getting back to fitness and went for a run. She said she loved it. She was by the river and took it easy and came home with a big smile on her face. She uploaded the run to Strava and instantly saw her brother had run faster and her friends had run further. She said she then felt like a failure. That wonderful morning by the river doing the thing she loved the most and it was the data afterwards that sucked all the joy from it.

So use it to make friends, find great races or courses, learn about running from experts but don’t trust everything which is said (or shown) and don’t make yourself vulnerable by giving away too much info.