Last summer, I decided to stop posting my paces on Instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I love a watch selfie—maybe it’s a little braggy, but I feel like a badass when I post proof that I ran 18 miles before 9 a.m. But as those stats proliferated across the app, I found myself starting to compare myself to other runners too often.
If my pace wasn’t comparable to that of someone I considered on my fitness level, I’d find myself making excuses (“the altitude in Colorado makes running so much harder!”). If I wasn’t logging as many miles over the course of the week, I’d start to wonder if I needed to up my volume. I was getting so caught up in other people’s training, I was forgetting that my training was programmed the way it was for a reason.
The Positive Role Social Media Plays in Motivation
Social media can be wildly motivational—even contagious—when it comes to fitness. An oft-cited study published in the journal Nature in 2017 analyzed five years of running data uploaded to a global social network of more than one million people and found that when someone you follow runs an additional kilometer or an additional 10 minutes, you’re more likely to run an additional three-tenths of a kilometer or three minutes longer. (Interestingly, less active runners influence more active runners, while the reverse is not true, and both men and women influence men, while only women influence other women, according to the research.)
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While running isn’t just about numbers, seeing someone’s stats can push you out of your comfort zone in a good way. Take the Olympic Trials in 2020, for example, says Kirstin Ritchie, a sports psychologist and running coach. “All those women who hit the Olympic standard—someone saw another person do it, and thought, ‘oh, look, if they can do that, maybe I have that in me as well.’” (Women were so successful in hitting that standard, by the way, that USA Track & Field dropped the qualification time by eight minutes for 2024.)
Maybe it’s not about the numbers at all, but the sheer fact that someone else got out the door that day—that can be the kick in the butt you need to get out, too, Ritchie adds.
Sharing your running experience (metrics or otherwise) also creates a sense of community, says Ritchie. Whether that’s on a platform like Instagram, where you’ll find watch selfies and screen grabs of fitness tracker apps abound, or on a data-based app like Strava, Nike, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal where you can see details of others stats, it’s like you’re running together even though you’re not actually together.
When I first started sharing my run workouts on Instagram, I found that showing my watch selfies held me accountable—like, “look, world, I did the training I was supposed to do today!”
The Downfalls of Sharing Run Stats on Social Media
The problem with all this sharing comes when you start playing the comparison game, says Victoria Sekely, a doctor of physical therapy, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and running coach who has spoken out about not using Strava. On one hand, it can be interesting to see what your peers or favorite pros are doing. But one data screen is not the whole picture, she explains.
“When I see a watch pic, I have no idea what this person has done before, or what their training is like,” she says. There’s no nuance to it: How can you compare yourself to someone when you don’t know their training background, how much sleep they get, how well they fuel, what stressors they’re dealing with—you know, all the things that affect your running on a daily basis?
“Every runner is totally different,” says Sekely. “Your training is your own, and you have to focus on the progress you’re making as an individual. I always try to remind my clients that they’re on their own journey.”
Plus, there's a proven toll on your mental wellbeing. People who shared health-related data on Instagram felt pressure to perform as a healthy role model, which led to compulsive tendencies, a 2021 study published in the journal Social Media & Society found.
Why You Should Assess How You Use Social Media for Sharing Workouts
It’s not right or wrong to share your running data on social media. But what you should do is consider how you interact with your own data and data shared by others, says Ritchie. “You have to have a really strong sense of your ‘why’, a.k.a. the reason you run, to look at that kind of data objectively,” says Ritchie. “If you’re not internally motivated to get out there and you’re instead thinking ‘I need to run today because so-and-so did’ or ‘I need to run today because I want to run faster than so-and-so,’ that can lead to a downward spiral.”
For example, if you’re using a social media platform to give support and encouragement to other athletes, that’s great. However, if you’re using social media solely to receive praise and public endorsement, then that could lead to some negative effects: A January 2020 study published in the journal Information Technology & People found that if you’re using these platforms for social recognition (read: Strava kudos or Instagram likes), you’re more likely to develop an obsessive passion for exercise and suffer higher stress levels.
If you do notice you’re having a negative reaction to these platforms, “reframe how you look at the data,” suggests Ritchie. Instead of thinking ‘so-and-so ran a certain pace, I’m not as good as them,’ rewrite those negative self-beliefs in a way that either celebrates them or encourages you. Bring it back to why you run, and why you’re using these platforms to begin with. (FYI: If you’re just using Instagram for the dopamine rush you get with a new notification, that’s a red flag you need to reassess.)
For the record, it is possible to use these platforms without focusing on other people’s metrics. I found that when I stopped sharing my own pace (by scribbling over that data on my final run screen), I stopped paying as much attention to other people’s stats. (FWIW, it was only ever pace-sharing on Instagram, my preferred social media app, that got to me; on Strava, I almost never look at a friend’s metrics before tapping that thumbs up icon.)
“When you stop sharing your own data, you’re taking the emphasis off of it,” explains Ritchie. “You become less worried about what other people are thinking about your pace, and that makes you less likely to worry about what other people are doing as well.”
Setting up your own boundaries around data sharing is really important, says Sekely. Maybe you stay on Strava to support your friends, but make your runs private (or choose to hide your pace, heart rate, power, and/or calories burned). Maybe you set a daily time limit on an app so you can’t go down the comparison rabbit hole, or log off the app for the entire duration of a training cycle. Maybe you mute or stop following certain influencers you know you compare yourself to.
Whatever you do, “it doesn’t make you any less of a runner to not engage in any type of data sharing,” says Sekely. “You can still go out and run just for you.”