The impact of social media on our performance- good or bad?

Nowadays, most runners use some sort of social media as a part of their running lives.  Whether that be posting your runs on Strava, updates on Facebook, or post-run selfies on Instagram, the number of runners who do their thing with an absolute zero online presence seems to be dwindling (but they are out there)!

Over the last few years, I’ve been encountering discussions more and more frequently with the athletes I coach, so I figure now would be a good time to discuss this topic: Is posting on social media about your running a good, bad or neutral thing?

Before I get into some of the research, I would like to preface this article but saying that I don’t have a good answer, as I normally would, with clear science (like how many grams of carbs you should take for optimal performance). The reality is, the use of social media is highly individualized and requires real self-awareness and self-reflection to decide how it works for and against you and your unique situation. 

The pros

There are several athletes I know who love social media and its role in their running with very little downside.  For some, it’s a great way to seek out motivation.  Seeing how hard others are working, looking at workout structures, or even keying off of workout paces of others when you can’t be with them in person is a clear benefit for many.  For me, there are a few runners I follow who have opened my eyes to what is possible, and I honestly would not have hit my PBs in recent years if it wasn’t for their complete training schedules posted on Strava!  

Another positive revolves around getting some props when you do something you are proud of.  It might be embarrassing to admit it, but we are social beings, and recognition feels good when you’ve accomplished something that was hard for you.  This might be to varying degrees from person to person, but it’s true for virtually all of us.  As I will get into later in this article, the athletes with the most success and happiness long-term are typically heavily intrinsically motivated. However, crushing a race and having friends congratulate you can still be a great feeling for all of us.

For me, another thing I really like about social media is the accountability side of things.  Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, but when a solo workout is feeling tough and the urge the drop out is high, knowing that I’ll be posting it on Strava can keep me motivated enough to finish things off.  It also makes it easy to track the athletes I coach: mileage, paces, even the conditions on the day – Strava is an amazing tool!

The cons

Throughout the last few years, while there are many obvious key benefits, I have been encountering more negative outcomes linked to social media use and running with the athletes I coach and communicate with.  While there are many different components to this dark side of social media and running, often the key negative outcomes stem from one origin: exploiting and over-emphasizing extrinsic sources of motivation.  

Intrinsic motivation comes from beliefs and values at the core of who you are as a person.  This type of motivation comes in the form of something that you feel is your purpose or your calling.  For instance, you can be driven to complete that marathon to prove to yourself that you can follow through on something that scares you.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes in the form of seeking external rewards.  For instance, finishing that marathon might earn you some prize money, improve your resume for work, or get you more likes on Instagram. These are all extrinsic sources of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is ideal, but I don’t see anything inherently wrong with extrinsic sources of motivation at first glance.  However, when we look at the research, a different story is told. For instance, check out this study looking at over 11,000 military recruits and their short and longterm success along with the strength of their internal and external sources of motivation.

To no surprise, in the study, those cadets with stronger internal reasons for pursuing their goals were more likely to graduate as well as progress in their career in the military than those seeking extrinsic rewards (referred to as instrumental motives in this study). 

However, there was one extremely interesting and important caveat revealed in this study: The cadet with strong internal and weak external reasons for pursuing their goals consistently performed better in every measure compared to the cadets with strong internal and strong extrinsic motivations.  

Even if two cadets had the same level of deeply personal purpose in what they were pursuing, if one cared about extrinsic motives as well, they were less likely to graduate, last long-term in the military, and get promotions.  Caring too much about a promotion actually resulted in a decreased ability to get a promotion!  

Studies like this one strongly suggest that our primary focus should be on cultivating and pursuing our deeply personal and meaningful pursuits, and the less we care about the extrinsic sources of motivation, the more they will probably come.

The risk of addiction 

As most of us know, there is an addictive aspect to social media.  Post something, get a like and a corresponding fleeting hit of dopamine, come back for more later.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but for many it can escalate to the point where constant checking and posting starts to take away from friends, family, work and other responsibilities, crossing over the line into a diagnosable addiction.  

Many studies have shown this is a very real, and common thing. In studies like this, they found that social media was being used to seek validation and support from others in a way that is so “successful,” that it breeds a repetitive dependency. 

So, why are some more addicted than others? There are several studies out there trying to figure out how and why these addictive relationships with social media develop.  For instance, this study showed that those who were lonely, bored or looking for a sense of achievement were more likely to become addicted to social media or online gaming.  And it’s safe to say that while social media may provide temporary relief, the long-term urge for connection, passion and achievement will never be found online, invariably delaying the pursuit of the real solution.   

Social media addiction v. runners

What does this mean for us as runners on social media?  If we accept that intrinsic motivation should be cultivated while the focus on extrinsic motivation should be limited, then understanding that there is an addictive side to social media is crucial.   This is important because the addictive nature of social media reward-seeking may allow it to insidiously derail your intrinsic goals over time unlike other forms of extrinsic rewards that are more easily avoided.

In other words, you may not start out caring about getting a like, but eventually, the desire to see them may unconsciously snowball to the point where harmful decisions like skipping down weeks or running workouts at a max, unproductive effort might slowly creep into your behaviour.

Another good example involves athletes who have reported doing crazier and more extreme feats outside of what they really want to do or what is best for their intrinsic calling.  This is a tricky one for me to evaluate because I love and believe in the benefits of extreme and challenging goals.  I think there is huge personal value in conquering things that are truly challenging and intimidating for you.  However, the driving force should be an intrinsic reward, not more fleeting online interactions.  If you are going to push yourself beyond what is reasonably healthy in a way that could take away from consistency and performances down the road, you should be doing it for those intrinsic reasons. A key component should be that you would be (almost) equally motivated to do it if social media didn’t exist.

That being said, it’s important to note that there are plenty of super active users of social media aren’t addicted or using it for extrinsic forms of motivation. Some athletes love to post for their friends and family to follow their training, to motivate others, or to keep a log for future training plans or even a journal of positive experiences. For many, it has nothing to do with getting likes and there is no motivation beyond simply being active on social media and it reflecting who they are.  So, don’t be worried if you use social media a lot and feel like it’s a good or neutral thing for you! 

This is undoubtedly different for everybody for a variety of reasons that I won’t even begin to try to get into, but the more I learn, the more I realize that understanding where you fit on this spectrum is extremely important.  

Fleeting likes

As you may have noticed, I keep referring to the extrinsic reward linked to social media as “fleeting” and “unreliable.”  This is based on the evidence of what these interactions mean.

Many factors influence what people interact with, beyond truly supporting and liking the content.  For instance, researchers have shown that we are unconsciously more likely to interact with something that has more likes.  

I can relate to this research on a personal level.  I follow over 300 people on Strava.  The honest truth is that sometimes I’m so busy I don’t even open the app and don’t interact with anything, while other moments I’m super impressed with an activity and I place value on the like I give. Other times, I kudos literally everything I see as I kill time waiting in line somewhere knowing it may make the user feel good.  It’s weird, but it’s the honest truth, and I know it’s the truth for many.  That means, if you get a like from somebody, they may or may not mean it.  If you don’t get a like from somebody, they may or may not mean it.  So why place so much value on these likes?  

Here is a nice, lamens summary of why the likes/kudos we see probably don’t mean very much.

For that reason, many would argue the kudos/likes we get are probably less valuable than many other extrinsic rewards.  When we look at some more concrete extrinsic rewards, like prize money, while it may not be as exciting or as satisfying as a deeply personal pursuit, there’s a definite, universally accepted, consistent benefit that comes along with it.   

Social media, on the other hand, does seem to hold some sort of currency, but it’s much more difficult to quantify.  For some influencers who hold hundreds of thousands of views and interactions, there is a concrete financial and material benefit.  However, for most of us, should we really feel significantly happy or sad based on the level of interaction we get if that interaction isn’t a representation of how impressive your run/workout truly was?

In my mind, this doesn’t warrant denying the small boost you may get from posting a workout.  Like I said, for me, I do think I complete some workouts in large part because I know I am going to post it later.  However, when you start making decisions like running too fast on easy days, avoiding difficult terrain because it makes your average pace look too slow, or feeling guilty or depressed after a smart run that now feels slow because of what you see online, it might be time to disconnect.  

Practical applications

The bottom line with all of this is that it takes real personal insight and self-awareness to piece together a plan that is right for you with how often you use social media in relation to your running.  Not only that, but the amount you use it might also change depending on factors such as injuries, other concurrent goals and changes in interest.

I think a major take-home from this is that there is absolutely no right or wrong answer with how much you decide to use social media until it’s negatively impacting the more important parts of your life.  Some of the most confident, successful, inspiring people I know use it all the time while others refuse to touch it in relation to their training.  In fact, with athletes I coach, I have encouraged some to use Strava more, and others to get off it entirely! 

So, use it as much or as little as what is good for you, neither is a sign of strength or weakness.  However, keep in mind that cultivating intrinsic motives should be your top priority. Be aware of the addictive nature of social media. Also, it’s important to understand the meaning (or lack there of) behind much of the interaction that happens on social media. 

There’s a good chance social media could be beneficial to your running! However, there’s a chance that it could steer you wrong if you find yourself being ruled by seeking extrinsic sources of motivation and losing sight of your intrinsic purpose and the deeper meaning to why you train and race so hard.  

Now, drop a like on this article so I know you read the entire thing 😉


  • Brenda Feeney September 13, 2020 6:08 pm

    Hi Sean.. I read your article.. social media definitely debatable.. I sometimes find it overwhelming. As sooo many of the same people post lots of pic and info.. for me I find it overwhelming, as there are lots of runners out there who do awesome running, and don’t post What they do or don’ can be overwhelming sometimes..anyway thanks for article..

    • Dr. Sean Delanghe September 13, 2020 8:37 pm

      Thank you for reading Brenda! You’re not alone, it’s overwhelming for a lot of people. Some really benefit from it, while others find they do and feel way better without it!

  • Diane Lacombe September 14, 2020 7:06 am

    Thanks Sean for this article, so interesting. Do you have more information about the intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators? How to increase your intrinsic motivators? In addition is there any relation with people activities on social media and personality type (introverts vs extroverts)? Thanks so much, Diane

    • Dr. Sean Delanghe September 14, 2020 10:52 am

      Hi Diane! Thank you for reading. Those are really good questions. One key with intrinsic motivation is that it should be something that matters deeply to you. This is not a surprise to many. However, what CAN be surprising to some is that intrinsic motivation is most often cultivated, not something that you passively wait for. I think a good place to start is to make a list of things that you value most in your life. If you can match up longterm goals that enhance these things that are most valuable to you, you can then focus on intermediate goals to help you get there. For instance, a dream of running a 5K with a grandchild to create memories and show them what healthy living can achieve long-term. There’s way more to it, but that’s a place to start. The personality type thing is a good question too…definitely personality plays a role..but I would need a lot more space to address that properly! If you want a good read on cultivating intrinsic motivation with good science to back it up, try reading GRIT by Angela Ducksworth!

  • Rebecca Kruisselbrink September 14, 2020 7:24 pm

    I post on Strava purely to keep track of my running year to year. How terrible is it that I don’t simply post for the likes? 😂😊💕

    • Dr. Sean Delanghe September 24, 2020 5:11 pm

      I think a lot of people are in the same boat as you there! It is a great tool for that for sure.

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