Sharing your workout stats with friends on MapMyRun may fire you up to train a little harder. The trick to getting faster: Make virtual friends with runners who are just a wee bit slower than you. These are the takeaways of a study published in April in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers sought to prove something you probably already know: You’re a lot more likely to get out and train when your friends are doing the same.
“On days when I am not really in a running mood [and] I see a friend log a run, then I get up off the couch and go,” says MapMyRun user Tim Bow, likely speaking for many of us. After all, who hasn’t been tempted to take a zero for the day, but then reversed course after seeing a friend get out and train?
The team at the MIT’s Sloan School of Business took their study a bit further. They specifically examined whether exercise was “socially contagious.” In other words, they sought to prove whether or not the fitness activity of your friends influenced what you do in your own training. Researchers poured through an enormous trove of data: the digital running logs that more than 1.1 million people posted to a global social network that tracks workouts. (The scientists can’t reveal which for contractual reasons.) The data spanned a five-year period during which the runners collectively covered about 225 million miles.
The data included the runners’ workout distance, pace and time as reported by an activity monitor like a GPS or smartwatch. Using these wearable devices eliminated one of the common sources of error in studies: self-reporting. Humans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to assessing our own diet and exercise habits. Since the trackers instantly uploaded the user’s workout data at the end of a training session, the scientists could be sure the data was legit. Researchers could also see the social connections between runners.
The findings confirmed that runners were more likely to train harder or longer when they saw that their friends were crushing it. But things really got interesting when the scientists broke down exactly how differently people trained and who most affected whom.
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On the question of “how much,” researchers observed that if a person ran for 10 minutes more than usual on a particular day, their friends extended their workouts by about 3 minutes. The same was true of pace: When people saw one of their connections ran faster than normal, they picked up speed on their own run.
As for who was more likely to make who run, let’s say there are two main reasons a friend’s performance might spur you onward. We’ll call one “motivation,” and the other “competition.”
In the “motivation” model, you’re chasing after someone who’s faster or who runs longer than you do. They post their impressive workout stats, which then inspires you enough to go out and push yourself to be better, too. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The “competition” model is not so pleasant. In this case, a slower friend posts their training data, revealing they’re catching up to you. Oh no!
Guess which one affected the runners’ behavior more? That’s right: competition. When people saw that a friend was nearing their ability level, they were more likely to work harder to “protect their superiority,” as the study put it.
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“A little friendly competition never hurts,” says MapMyRun user Jaimie Sihrer. Other interesting findings about who affects whom:
- People who were close in ability level had a more powerful affect on one another. If a friend was way faster or way slower, the runner was less influenced by what they did. But if the same runner saw someone who was just a bit faster or slower post a workout, the effect on their own training was more pronounced.
- The training data of less consistent runners was more likely to spur more consistent runners into action. So if you were a routine runner and saw one of your happy-go-lucky friends post a workout, you’d get out and go a little harder. But the reverse wasn’t true: Inconsistent runners were not as affected by the training of their more dedicated friends.
- Men were influenced by other men and women, while women were influenced by other women only. The workouts of their male friends had no effect on their training at all.
- The impact the virtual running friends had on one another was significant enough to “go from correlation to causation,” according to Sinan Aral, the MIT professor who was the lead author of the study. When it comes to running and sharing those runs, the more you run and log will likely cause your fellow MapMyRun friends to run (and log) more, too.
How has logging miles made you go farther or faster? When has the performance of a friend made you push yourself? Tell us in the comments below.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN