I am nearing the end of a 100-day break from social media and I am beginning to understand the impact that the online world has on our lives, specifically in regards to athletes.

What I observed over the course of my online detox was the extent to which social media has the potential to impact confidence and competitiveness — two attributes I think are crucial to athletic performance.

For that reason, as a runner, I felt vulnerable to social media's pulls. In the running community, you don’t have to look very far to find the Strava-obsessed runner, posting only their best workouts to the platform and lurking on their idols', competitors', and running buddies' posts. This is actually the reason that I have never created a Strava account in the first place — I recognize how detrimental the impact could be if paired my competitive nature with the stimulus. I thought that it was in my best interest to stay away, but (until recently) I hadn’t considered that other social media platforms were no different.

Worse yet, the comparison and competitiveness that is magnified on other social platforms (like Instagram and YouTube) are not limited to our physical abilities. They’ve become lifestyle platforms that integrate every aspect of our daily lives. As the limits to how and where we apply social media disappear, the potential for social comparison heightens.

Here's an example — to get an idea of how social media impacts our behaviour and gets us to comply with current trends, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Did you jump on the bandwagon and try to make sourdough (or just regular homemade) bread when the pandemic began?
  • Did you attempt a social media challenge such as the handstand t-shirt challenge, koala challenge, or some version of a push-up challenge?
  • Did you use a “national day” hashtag for a picture that you’ve been wanting to post (e.g., #NationalRunningDay)?

These questions help us reflect on how the excessive sharing of our lives online can impact the actions of others in a domino effect.

100 Days Disconnected
I was injured, in lockdown, and spending upwards of three hours a day staring at others’ training on Instagram. So I decided to walk away from social media. Here is what I’ve learned

It hijacks our competitive muscle

In a competitive environment, we begin to observe the same patterns of behaviour playing out on a more extreme scale. Maybe the fact that one of your followers never takes a day off makes you question your weekly rest day, and then potentially leads you to injury or burnout. Or maybe an athlete who posts “what they eat in a day” influences you to change your diet and leads you to under or over-nourishment. Or the latest fitness fads (like the five-minute abs circuit) that you begin to incorporate into your workout routine — under the distorted belief that it will make you a more toned athlete — slowly burns your candle at both its ends.

The examples are endless, but the idea remains constant; social media — despite the positive feelings it can elicit — can lead us to compare ourselves and compete for attention. I think that's especially true in highly competitive people. So while I believe that competitiveness is crucial for athletic performance, it can also be detrimental when it fuels such pervasive social comparison.

It makes us second-guess our hard-earned confidence

The other attribute that I view as being a natural performance enhancer is confidence - the internal belief that you are prepared to face whatever challenges that game/race day will bring. Within the running community, this confidence is built upon the miles that we endure, the lactic acid that we tolerate, and the splits that we have hit in practice, indicating preparedness.

Despite having control over our internal confidence, that we have trained well and are ready for race day, we cannot control our competitors’ preparations. So why open ourselves to what other people are posting online? Or better yet, why post about our own preparedness?

Much like how competitiveness is associated with social comparison, so too is confidence. During my social media detox, I trained more purposefully because I was running workouts and recovery runs based on the coordination between how my body and mind felt, free of the external influence of how my run might stack up against those of others on the internet. The only comparison that I could make was with my previous self, which lead to an unwavering trust in my training.

When we are active on social media, we expose ourselves to the potential for social comparison, which can impact confidence. Sometimes too much information can be just that — too much. We stack our preparation on a leaderboard based on where other athletes appear to be with their training, without having even run the race. In my experience, we’d be better off keeping the specifics of our training independent to our close circle. We are all unique in our needs and abilities and dictating our training based on these idiosyncrasies leads to an optimal performance state, far more so than does comparing yourself to where you fall on a social-media-facilitated “leaderboard.”

The bottom line

While social media can have significant impact on us as athletes, I don’t want you to come away from this article with the perception that it is all bad. I have endured a break from my personal accounts but have maintained activity on the podcast account that I co-founded, @keepitrunningpodcast . I use this platform to inspire, motivate, and spread positive messages within the athletic community (with a focus on student-athletes). I realized that when I take the personal side of social media away, eliminate scrolling through the feed, and only share mindful content, social media has a more positive role in my life and training.

While social media is not going anywhere in the near future, I discovered my ability to craft my own virtual world that is as private or public as I desire. It adds value to my life offline, rather than taking away from it.

Going forward, I plan to use my social media account (@courtneyhufsmith) to post mindful content that challenges the status quo. To fill my feed with relevant information that educates and entertains my unique interests. To use it as a tool to stay in touch with the world and build offline relationships. Because I’ve realized that my personal life (and training) thrives when it is taken offline.

Call to action

Of the many books that I have read during my time away from social media, Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism helped me to develop a better understanding of the impact that social media has in our lives and how to carve out a new way forward. Newport suggests beginning with a 30-day digital declutter (which I had a significant head start on) and then he outlines best practices to successfully adopt his philosophy of digital minimalism. He encourages social media users to critically evaluate the underlying intention of features such as the "like" button and how it can undermine mental health. He also suggests prioritizing methods that fulfill the need for human conversation as opposed to constant connection.

Whether or not you decide to investigate the topic further or pursue a digital minimalist strategy; my call to action is that we all begin to integrate intention and mindfulness into our social media behaviours.

You can also visit my personal blog for a piece related to the topic of mindful social media usage here.