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I'm An Olympian. Here's How I Use Social Media To Train Better

Joanna Zeiger, M.S., PhD
May 22, 2016
Photo by Stocksy
May 22, 2016

When I was racing as a professional triathlete, stories abounded about the crazy training of other pros. Some of the purported workouts became mythical in nature, many of which were probably just urban legends. Nowadays, with athletes posting their daily workouts straight from their devices to social media, the training regimens of others are no longer fairytales. All of this online data has turned fantasy into fact and exaggeration into reality.

Strava, a social media site specifically for athletes to connect and share their workout data, has been the biggest player in this realm. And I'm a big Strava user; it's been a huge help for me in terms of reviewing my training and performances. But I am not a Strava voyeur.

Most athletes make their Strava account public, as do I. But one of the pitfalls of seeing so much athlete data is the propensity to try to match what others are doing. And with Strava’s tracking of courses and personal records, it is easy to be encumbered with racing yourself and others on a daily basis. This is a potential recipe for overtraining, injury, and disrupting a perfectly well-thought-out training plan.

It's easy for me to put on my social media blinders because I learned years ago that my best training happens when I stick to my own plan and disregard what others are doing. What about other people, though? How do they handle the siren call of social media? I queried athletes, both pros (Lauren Goss, triathlete; and Ryan Petry, mountain biker) and amateurs (Mike Walsh, cyclist; Maggie Fournier, triathlete; and Drew Giacobe, triathlete) to better understand how social media affects their training.

All indicated that Strava has had both a positive and negative impact on their training. Using their responses, I have come up with seven ways to keep your social media habit from getting in the way of your training:

1. Limit your time on social media.

Lauren told me she removed the Strava app from her phone so that she has less opportunity to check in on other people and compare herself to them. Drew primarily looks through his feed to check on what people are doing but only does this on occasion.

2. Determine your reason for using it.

Lauren mainly uses Strava to help inspire age-group athletes, and she feels that the public-ness of her workouts creates some personal accountability. Mike and Ryan both feel that Strava helps keep them inspired by the positive comments and kudos from like-minded athletes; and, during the winter months, it helps with off-season motivation. Mike also explained that it is hard to make excuses when he sees his equally busy buddies making time for training. Ryan finds the Strava segments motivating in a way that helps him push through tough interval sessions, and he unabashedly said, “It all helps self-esteem. Whether it sounds shallow or not, it's the truth; and I'd be lying if after a hard workout I don't look forward to posting my ride on Strava.” Maggie has eschewed posting her training on social media altogether due to a lack of time and to maintain privacy.

3. Banish the social media blues!

“If I am sidelined for illness or injury and I see other people training so much on Strava, then yeah—I get a little anxious and feel like I am getting behind," Lauren told me. "Therefore, I try to stay off of it as much as I can and I also do not follow many professionals.” Drew honestly said that he feels twinges of jealousy when he is injured and unable to race and sees the feats of other athletes. If you know you have the inclination to feel concerned or envious of others when you are unable to train, stay away from Strava and other social media training outlets.

4. Be inspired!

The feats of others can help you plan a new goal. Mike told me, “I noticed a guy committed to doing a century [100-mile bike ride] a month for all of 2015. That motivated me & I'm doing it in 2016.” Ryan revealed that Strava also helps him plan new training routes.

5. Reconnect with old friends.

Much like Facebook, Strava is a unique way to gain insight into lapsed friendships. Mike has been able to track his buddies from high school and college and watch their progression; in particular, one friend has piqued his interest, and “seeing him now crushing group rides, having a blast, and winning races as a master’s racer is really cool!”

6. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Drew summed this one up nicely: “I learned a long time ago not to compare myself to other people—and training is the worst place to do it. Everybody trains differently, and training faster doesn’t always correspond to racing faster.” Maggie tends to stay away from searching out what others are doing, whether it is on Strava or other social media sites, because she fears that the training of others will unduly influence her. She'd rather test herself against competitors in a race than on the computer.

7. But do compare yourself to yourself!

Rather than spending time lamenting the speed and distance of other athletes, use Strava to chart your own improvement. Drew likes to use Strava to compare his rides and runs over time to better understand his own personal progression. Ryan, too, uses Strava for self-comparison, which helps boost his confidence before a race.

Joanna Zeiger, M.S., PhD author page.
Joanna Zeiger, M.S., PhD

Joanna Zeiger, M.S., PhD — Olympian, writer, researcher, lecturer, and coach—has achieved elite level status in three different sports: swimming, triathlon, and long distance running. Her unique teaching approach, which couples decades of personal experience with an unparalleled scientific background (PhD in Genetic Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University), has enabled her to become one of the finest endurance coaches in the world. Joanna’s forthcoming book The Champion Mindset will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2017. She is co-founder of Race Ready Coaching, an online coaching platform for endurance athletes. You can learn more about Joanna at Race Ready Coaching and follow her on Twitter.