Can Social Media Improve My Running Motivation?

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Many runners can attest to the power of a running group in boosting performance and motivation. From beginner runners to elite marathoners, the peer pressure and competitive spirit that runners experience when running with others can push them to run harder and faster.

But what about runners who typically run alone, and then share their workouts with virtual friends on social media? Do they experience some of the same motivational and performance-enhancing benefits as those who are running with others?

Social Fitness Trackers

A 2017 study in Nature Communications found that using a social fitness-tracking apps such as Strava or RunKeeper may actually help motivate you to run longer and faster. The study offers some hard evidence that health-related habits can be contagious and spread through social influence and peer pressure.

Researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management recorded the daily exercise patterns, geographical locations, and social-network ties of more than 1 million people, who ran more than 350 million kilometers over 5 years. They found that if one person ran for about 10 minutes more than usual on any given day, their social network friends would increase their workouts by approximately 3 minutes, even if the weather conditions weren’t ideal. The results also showed that if a friend ran faster than usual, his or her friends would tend to pick up their pace in their runs that same day. Researchers also found that those with a bigger social network run more. The more virtual running friends an exerciser had, the more motivating others’ logged workouts were to that exerciser.

Another study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports found that the influence of social networks can be a powerful motivator to exercise more. Researchers created a website where 217 graduate students could enroll in free exercise classes at the University of Pennsylvania gym. Some study participants were placed into social networks with six of their peers. While these peer groups remained anonymous to one another, the participants were regularly updated on each other's fitness achievements and could monitor each other's progress on the website.

Participants in the peer groups were compared to another group who just received promotional, motivational messages about exercise and another group that received no further follow-up. By the end of the 13-week study, researchers found that the promotional messages caused an initial bump in class attendance for that group, but had almost no long-term effect on class participation. Participants assigned to a social network were much more motivated to exercise than both other groups. As the weeks went by, the motivating effects increased, producing a substantial growth in enrollment levels.

How to Benefit From a Running Social Network

If you haven’t yet joined a social fitness network such as Strava, RunKeeper, or FitBit, it’s definitely worthwhile to give it a try and see if you like it. If you’re already onboard, but use it infrequently or you only have a handful of friends, try to be more active on it and establish some more connections.

What type of online running buddies should you be looking for? The MIT researchers found that men are motivated by both men and women, whereas women are motivated by other women. The study also found that runners are actually motivated more by those who are less fit than they are. Despite how inspired we may feel when we watch Olympians racing around a track, runners are actually more interested in staying ahead of those who are already behind them. The fear of their running friends catching up to their fitness level and run times can push them to work harder and run faster. You don’t have to connect with just runners who you're faster than, but you’ll definitely be more motivated by those who are your closest fitness “peers”, whether they’re just slightly below or above your fitness level.

If you’re not interested in using a fitness social network to record and share your workouts, you can still get similar benefits and more from other social networks such as Facebook or Instagram. Sharing your goals or progress with your virtual friends can definitely help you maintain your commitment to your running since you’ll feel more accountable.

And seeing posts from other running friends will keep you inspired and motivated.

Getting Started on Social Media

So, if you're not already sharing some running photos or accomplishments on social media, don’t be shy. Add it to your list of ways to keep up your running habit. It may feel weird or uncomfortable at first to brag about how much you ran or how early you got up to do your workout, but once you get some "likes" or positive comments from your virtual friends, you'll get addicted to the little motivation boosts. And, who knows, you may even inspire one of your slacker friends to get up off the couch and join you.

You can use social networks to connect and develop relationships with other runners, as you provide support and encouragement to one another. Social networks can also give you a way to seek out other runners with a common interest or niche within running. For example, while it may be tough to find a group of other marathon moms or gluten-free runners in your small town, you’ll be able to find plenty of those groups on social media.

Social networks can be an excellent place for runners to share information and advice. Many runners like to research specific races on social media, and connect with other runners doing the same race as them. You can pick up tips about the race course, expo, or restaurants in the area from other runners who live locally or have done the race before.

Be Cautious With Advice From Virtual Friends

One word of caution: Make sure you evaluate and carefully weigh any advice you get from your virtual friends, especially if it’s regarding training-specific questions, running injuries, and illness. Something that works for one runner doesn’t necessarily work for another and it’s always best to get specific advice from someone who knows you and your history, such as your trainer, running coach, or health care professional.

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Article Sources
  • Aral, S. & Nicolaides, C. Exercise contagion in a global social network. Nature Communication. 8, 14753 doi: 10.1038/ncomms14753 (2017).
  • Zhang J, Brackbill D, Yang S, Centola C. Efficacy and causal mechanism of an online social media intervention to increase physical activity: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Preventive Medicine Reports, 2015; 2: 651 DOI: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2015.08.005