Ever since I graduated high school and stopped running competitively, my relationship with the sport has changed for the better. I’m not able to run a 5k in 21 minutes anymore, but I am able to avoid physical therapy, gain pleasure from my runs, and feel energized instead of drained from my workouts. Though I loved being a part of my cross country team more than anything, I knew that I needed to chill with my running when I got to college. Joining the club running team at William and Mary allowed me to schedule my runs around my other commitments, and not the other way around. After quarantine started, running became the thing that got me away from my zoom screen, allowed me to clear my mind, and pushed me through some really hopeless days. The endorphin release was like nothing else, and whether I was running a quick two laps around my neighborhood or a long run in the park, I was able to find so much clarity and joy from my runs. I would track my mileage and set goals for myself, but never get bogged down on running slower than I wanted to on off days. Though my runs wavered when school started up again in the fall, I’ve been running 4-5 days a week for the last two months, and it has been the best form of self care I could ever recommend. I think I’ve found a really good balance when it comes to my relationship with running, and I believe this gives me credibility in talking about the toxicity of a certain part of running culture.
A few months ago, I saw someone post about the app Strava. For those who have never heard of it, Strava is an exercise tracking app with the additional aspect of social media. You can post your mileage, distance, and how you felt on any given run. Cyclers and other athletes use this app too, but I’ve stuck to examining its aspect on the running community. As a big fan of running, I found this app really exciting, but the more I heard about it, and the more I analyzed this kind of exercise mindset, the more I was appalled by the app’s implications.
“Comparison is the thief of all joy”, and this saying couldn’t be more true in discussing Strava’s negative implications. One of my favorite parts of running is how individual it is. In most cases, you are focused on beating your own best times instead of outrunning a teammate. You (and your coach, if you’re on a team) set realistic goals and do whatever you need to achieve them. Sure, you know your friend’s general pace, but your focus is on yourself. Strava switches this around. Whether you know it consciously or not, when Strava becomes a main part of your runs, the focus becomes sharing, bragging, and running for everyone but yourself. You start to compare your distances to your friend’s distances, and you get down on yourself for not running ten miles one day like they did. This app thus tampers with all the mental health benefits that running provides. While the endorphin release makes you feel strong and powerful, the second you see that someone else ran longer than you, the good feelings diminish, and you somehow end up feeling worse.
Everyone’s bodies are different. Some bodies can run those 10 miles and feel great, while other bodies cannot move all day after running that kind of distance. Some people have plenty of time to dedicate to intense training, others are content when they get a free hour every week to run. Some people are in a great place mentally and can motivate themselves to do a long morning run, others are struggling to get out of bed to even jog a mile. By posting about how easy that 10 mile run was, you are bragging about something that is a result of not only hard work but also of natural ability, socioeconomic restraints, and genetics. Allow me to compare it to SAT scores, something we all avoid reminiscing about. Your SAT score is a product of the work you put into studying, but those who are naturally good at Math and English and who have had the privilege of a strong education will usually do better than those who aren’t as fortunate but still put in as much hard work. However, we don’t have an app to brag about SAT scores because we recognize that there’s so much that goes into that number.
Many argue that Strava is used for motivation, but I would argue that seeing everyone brag about their stats only diminishes any inner motivation and increases an ego-based, insecure, extrinsic motivation. In my Personality Theory class this past semester, we discussed the differences that psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan noted between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When one is intrinsically motivated, they engage in a task for its own sake. It brings them enjoyment and is interesting. When one is extrinsically motivated, they engage in a task for its consequences. The spectrum of extrinsic motivation is wide, ranging from compliance solely for promised reward to compliance for fulfilling personal values. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of this spectrum, but essentially, you can run because you don’t want your coach to yell at you, because you value fitness, or because it’s genuinely fun for you. The first two are extrinsic, and the last is intrinsic. Most people who choose to run don’t necessarily find it fun, and that’s okay. However, when the social media aspect comes into the picture, the runs become focused on impressing others and getting an inherent ego boost, making motivation much more extrinsic. Why is this bad? Studies show that the likeliness to engage in a behavior completely dips after a reward is taken away. You’re less likely to engage in the event after the reward is gone than you were before you even knew a reward was possible. Because you were so focused on the reward, you lost sight of the reason you engaged in the activity in the first place, and that’s really hecking sad. If Strava magically disappears one day, or even if your phone just won’t connect to the app on an occasion, your likeliness to run diminishes. This dependence on extrinsic motivation destroys the love for the sport, and that’s why I believe that Strava is one of the most covertly toxic apps out there.
I am not saying you should not be proud and show off your accomplishments. If you ran your first half marathon and want to tell everyone, go for it. Likewise, if you want to post about how great it felt to finally beat your PR, do it! There’s a difference between celebrating your successes and being boastful consistently. Strava encourages constant tracking and unceasing comparison, making it either hard to be modest or hard to feel proud of yourself…or both.
I don’t think the app is going anywhere, but I think that at the very least, there needs to be a conscious rewiring of the way that its users approach their sharing. Ask yourself who you’re really sharing your times and runs for. Ask yourself why you need to share that information in the first place, and if it’s ultimately helping or harming you. At the end of the day, you picked up this sport for a reason– don’t let our natural need for attention, validation, and comparison be the thing that takes from that initial calling.