Whether it’s posting race selfies on Instagram or sharing training routes on Strava, runners are more connected than ever thanks to social media.
For the most part, social networks are a great way for runners to swap stories, get advice and cheer each other on. But runners should be careful about how they interpret those steady streams of images and updates, experts say.
“The information on social media flies fast and hard and people can get stung by it,” says Dr. Keith Kaufman, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in athletes.
Some runners might see what others have achieved and negatively judge their own ability, beating themselves up for not logging as many miles or running as fast. The constant sharing on social media can also create performance pressure, which runners might not even realize until race day.
“It adds a layer of worry that, ‘Oh no if I don’t reach the goal I talked about everyone is going to know,’” Kaufman says. “We want people to perform and train with a sense a freedom. When you know the world is watching, that changes things.”
Be prepared for negative people
Interacting on social media can open runners up to criticism—or downright mean comments—from others.
“When you put something out there, you are going to get a range of responses,” Kaufman says. “It’s important to be aware of that when you make yourself public.”
Runner Latoya Shauntay Snell, 32, knows firsthand how social media can be both helpful and hurtful. Several years ago, Snell was struggling with her weight when she noticed an online buddy had signed up for a half marathon. Even though she had never run before, Snell was determined to give it a try.
She began writing about her training in humorous posts on Facebook and Instagram. She drew so many fans that last year she launched Running Fat Chef, a blog that chronicles her running and life in general. Snell also regularly shares workout photos and videos with some 2,400 followers on Instagram.
“I have followers who have no interest in running, but find themselves through one of my posts where I openly talk about depression or the awkward stares that come to me while working out at a gym,” she says.
Most of the time she gets kind and encouraging notes from people, but she also receives a lot of nasty messages about her weight and body.
“Sticks and stones is probably the biggest lie that we were told as children because words hurt like hell when they pack the right punch,” she says. “I had to learn how to turn my negatives into positives.”
Her long list of completed races is proof that critics haven’t stopped her. Since 2014, Snell has finished 78 running events and obstacle course races, including five marathons and one ultra.
Find the right balance
Despite its ugly side, social media can be a huge help to runners if they embrace a good attitude and healthy habits, experts say. To start, join groups with runners who have similar goals and abilities.
“Converse with those at your level—individuals of your age and who are at the same level—are best to interact with,” says Dr. Harris B. Stratyner, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has worked with professional and collegiate athletes.
And make your interactions about camaraderie, not competition.
Elena Smith, 38, of Orlando, Fla., says she posts to inspire others and sometimes needs a boost herself.
“Hearing about others getting their miles in is a motivating factor to keep me going on the harder days,” she says.
In addition to motivation, runners look to social media for comfort and reassurance.
“Seeing other runners’ posts and following their training ups and downs helps me understand what I go through as a runner is normal,” says Jill Chapman Spangler, 40, of Richmond, Mich.
Know when to take a break
Experts say it’s also important for runners to be aware of how their social media exposure is making them feel. If your newsfeed is making you feel anxious or sad, cut back on your social media time or deactivate your accounts.
Snell says she follows a process for dealing with particularly awful emails, some of which she posts on her blog.
“Once I see the email, I will make a decision of whether I want to respond to it or not,” she says. “Unless it’s shared on a blog/social media, I delete it.”
Erin Leary, a 30-year-old runner from Norton, Mass., also sets limits to keep her mind in check. She knows it’s time to pull back on social media when she starts to feel bad about not running as fast or far as others.
“It helps to adjust the notification settings and adjust highlights from certain groups,” she says. “I print out my training schedule and put it on the fridge to try and stay focused.”