How Social Media is Changing Our Stride

Even if you train alone, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are helping create group experiences for plugged-in runners.

Even if you train alone, blogs, Twitter and Facebook are helping create group experiences for plugged-in runners. Speed no longer limits who can be in your running community.

Daniel Riou, a recent graduate from Laval University, returns from a 13-mile run in Quebec City: sunny, no wind, near-perfect conditions. He ran alone, but he’s still excited about sharing the experience with his online running community. As soon as he’s home, he writes a quick update on his blog, courseapied.ca. He notes the weather and describes the euphoric feeling the run has left him with, while encouraging his readers to do the same and enjoy the clear day. Riou also adds a few links to his favourite blogs, directing people to inspiring words that helped him get his mileage in that day.

Runners are easily stereotyped: obsessive, strange and sometimes anti-social. It’s a well-documented theme. But is it really the case? The post-race beverage and the chat on the Sunday long run are strong social traditions in the running community. Sunday is often the day when everyone from the club can get together and spend a good 90 minutes to three hours talking, joking, debating, and even flirting, with others on the run. Once it’s over, many of them retire to a coffee shop or bar to swap stories. That community is where we used to get most of our information, both good — “maybe you should take a couple days off and rest those cracked ribs” – and bad — “I’m telling you, red shorts make you go faster.”

This sense of community is no longer the sole domain of group runs and coffee dates. It extends to blogs, message boards, Twitter and Facebook. The centrepiece of the running community is online, perhaps more so than the pub once was. It’s where we find race results, photos, and reports. We look for training plans and tips, the latest sport science and pseudo-science, and, of course, steeplechase blooper videos.

On the run, your choice of conversation partners is limited by the pace of your run, and by the members of your club. Social media brings everyone together, regardless of ability. In the mid-70s, Canadian record holder Jerome Drayton trained mostly alone before and after work, earning fame through the limited reach of newsletters and running magazines. Now, Reid Coolsaet, Canada’s top runner today, has garnered support and fans through his blog, “Float On,” and through his Twitter account @ReidCoolsaet, where he amassed hundreds of followers within a few weeks and now has more than a thousand.

Social media has created links in the running community that didn’t exist in the past and work on a variety of levels. There are elites talking to elites, such as marathoner Dylan Wykes tweeting about going for a run with former top high school miler Mike Woods, when Wykes was visiting Ottawa. Recreational runners are also connecting with elites: marathoner Rob Watson has gained a following because of his blog, “Le blog du Rob.” Recently, while on a run in Guelph, another recreational runner noticed him on the trail. They ran a few steps together, then parted ways. Watson overheard the runner say joyfully to his partner, “I just ran with Rob Watson and he just ran at the world championships!” Watson’s online persona as well as the rising profile of the Speed River club has made him recognizable on runs and races. He’s no longer just another skinny fast guy.

At the grassroots level, there are recreational runners, ranting to others with similar passions – an angry blog post about poor race organization can get dozens of comments, generating compelling discussions and responses from race directors. The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon’s baggage claim disaster received significant coverage on Kenny Yum’s blog “A whole lot of soles.” Race director Alan Brookes even took notice, sending out an apology and incorporating suggestions from the blog into his proposed solution for the next year.

Digital Age Connects Runners and Fans

Blogs and message boards were just the start of the online transition of the running community, a decade ago. The latest movement is with social media. Twitter serves an important function when it comes to building a running community. Although some decry the medium for dumbing down discussion, due to its 140-character limit and sometimes echo-chamber character, at its best, Twitter is an index for all your online running needs. Twitter helps focus your searches for running-related materials, telling you where to look. When it comes to finding the latest in sports science, for example, Riou calls it “very useful for filtering information through the noise” of online charlatans. If he sees a workout that London coach Steve Weiler (@LRDC) is using for his group, or if he reads that sports nutritionist Trent Stellingwerf advises 250ml of beet juice the morning of a marathon, he knows it’s credible.

Just as it’s helpful for people looking for good information about running, Twitter is great if you have a message to get out yourself. Nearly every big name athlete, coach, and sports writer out there has a Twitter account. IAAF agent Kris Mychasiw (@sprint_mgmt), who represents Canadian Olympic medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep (@GoPriscilla), says shoe companies ask athletes to be active on social media for major events. “Nike asked all of their athletes to hashtag their ‘Just do it’ moments to get the slogan trending across North America,” Mychasiw says. Hashtags are a highly searchable way of streamlining posts on Twitter, using the “#” symbol prior to a subject.

There is a common cry that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to elite distance runners in the media. Some might even suggest that this is hindering performances: if elites got more exposure, they would have more sponsorship and motivation and be able to train better. Have a look at some of the elite blogs and you’ll notice their sponsors usually have an image and link prominently displayed. Shoe companies feel there is an advantage to teaming up with an athlete who blogs. Arnold Tse, sales and marketing supervisor for Mizuno Canada, says the partnership benefits both sides.

“We have set up relationships with a variety of athletes who perform at various levels,” Tse says. “Many of them may not be your top elite performers but many are running at a fairly high level, and also exhibit extraordinary qualities that may enhance our brand image and expose our brand in a variety of channels.” Mizuno hasn’t made it mandatory, but the Mizuno-sponsored Wykes tries to update his blog regularly and have public conversations on Twitter. It’s already making athletes more popular and enhancing sponsorship opportunities. With Smart Phones making it easier than ever to stay connected and engaged, the digital shift could have an impact on the quality of distance running in Canada, not only by helping the current elites, but also through a trickle-down effect on developing athletes. As they get better access to role models, up-and-coming Canadian runners can learn from experience of the elites who are sharing their wisdom every day through social media. It’s not quite the same as training with them, but it provides value that didn’t exist in a previous, non-digital age.

Though some elite bloggers have suggested they hold back information about their training to avoid giving the competition an edge, most agree that there are really no secrets to training. The communal nature of blogs creates an environment where there is far more sharing than hoarding of information. The act of going in a public space and writing about your running, even without giving details, humanizes the top athletes, who can run 42.2K at a pace many of their readers would love to be able to run a mile.

For example, when Riou gets back from his long run, he checks Coolsaet’s blog to see if Canada’s top marathoner has an opinion on any of the topics discussed out on the road that day. He goes on his Twitter feed to see if any of the top sport science bloggers have posted anything new – his favourites are Steve Magness @SteveMagness and Pete Larson @Runblogger) – and avoid any of the others who spin “contradictory information.” When Riou writes his blog and Canadian marathoning legend Jacqueline Gareau posts a comment, it’s an indication that he’s part of the greater running community – it’s not just friends and family reading him.

Dave Emilio, who runs with the Beaches Running Club in Toronto, has a popular blog and writes occasionally for The Globe and Mail. He recognizes that there are some key similarities in all runners. “They are all the same as far as setting goals, achieving them, setting new ones, striving to do better,” Emilio says. Everybody hurts at the end of a race and elite blogs can create a sense of vulnerability that brings them closer to the common runners among us.

Gatekeeper Removed

The online community isn’t a new phenomenon, but the reach of the network has widened. Prior to the social media boom, there were the message boards such as TnFNorth, Trackie.ca, and the U.S.-based Let’s Run. Recently TnFNorth and Trackie have cooled in popularity, perhaps due to the growth of individual runner blogs and social media. Instead of signing in to talk about the latest race on the message board, runners will go directly to Simon Bairu’s, Dylan Wykes’s or Leslie Sexton’s blog – often directed there from Facebook or Twitter – to get the story. Adam Stacey, creator of Trackie.ca, suggests that a lot of discussion now goes on through the Facebook pages or Twitter accounts of different clubs. Being able to follow big name athletes through social media has eliminated the gatekeeper for certain types of running news and discussion.

Before the Twitter boom, message boards helped to promote the sport, giving the passionate athlete and fan a sense of community, keeping the interest alive long after the competitive days are done. “Sites like TnFNorth or Trackie.ca may bring a high school runner, who isn’t that into track, into the community and make him or her that much more excited about the sport,” says Chris Moulton, TnFNorth’s founder and assistant coach at the University of Guelph running teams. When that kid has finished university, Moulton says, and decides his competitive career is done, he can stay in touch with his school’s results, talk about the old times with other alumni, and remain part of the running community, even if he can’t maintain the training like he used to.

When you hit the couch after your next local road race, or Sunday morning long run, go on your computer and put your thoughts down on the screen. You’re just a few clicks away from the global running community, no matter what your pace, no matter what your goals. Moulton comes back to the story of the recreational runner being so excited at seeing Rob Watson on the trail. “That type of excitement is something that I think can be created. When we talk about becoming financially viable as a sport, it’s got to be a grassroots initiative. We’ve got to connect to those people on a personal level. So when you go to a road race in Guelph, the guys working the finish line are probably Olympians. And they know them, our guys are not on a pedestal.”

Without his blog, Watson is just some skinny fast guy, running on the trail, or a name too far up the results to matter to the average runner. With his Twitter and blog following, he has a much closer connection to runners of all levels. The growth of social media continues to enhance the running experience, not only connecting beginners and elites, but also making it easier to share race results, training advice and motivational tips – expanding our running communities far beyond the neighbourhood group run and local pub.

John Lofranco is the coach of the Concordia University cross-country teams.

Running Blog Roll

John Lofranco posts a daily digest of running blogs at MontrealEndurance.com. Here are nine of his must-read blogs:

Recreational

Dave Emilio of Toronto blogs about his runs at www.beachesrunner.com. He has the charm of a runner who works hard, but knows there’s always someone out there working harder. He balances running with everyday life and it comes through in his posts.

Daniel Riou is based in Quebec, and blogs in French. If you’re not bilingual, it’s worth pulling out your French-English dictionary and checking out www.courseapied.ca

Dave Cavall is an American who writes about running with a deep philosophical slant. He’s taken many old newsletters, bits of correspondence and out-of-print books and shared them with the world on his blog. www.torunistolive.blogspot.com

Elite

Reid Coolsaet’s “Float On” blog is one of the most widely read, by both aspiring elites and recreational runners. Now that he’s heading to the London Olympics in the marathon, he’s only going to get more hits. It’s updated regularly on the Canadian Running website at www.runningmag2.wpengine.com

Rob Watson’s blog is for adults only. His profanity-laced rambling, open and brutally honest style, can be off-putting. He takes running seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. www.leblogdurob.blogspot.com/

Jane Cullis doesn’t claim to speak for all women, but the blinding pink theme, plus her posts that combine running and style make “Shoeless Coolis” the Cosmo of the running blogosphere. www.janecoolis.blogspot.com

Science/coaching

Steve Magness is a sport scientist working with the Oregon Project. His blog examines the science of running (hence the name) and much of what he has to say flies in the face of commonly accepted practice. www.scienceofrunning.com

“Sweat Science” is Canadian Running senior editor Alex Hutchinson’s blog. He takes a sceptical look at the most recent endurance science studies in the “blogs” section of www.runningmag2.wpengine.com

Steve Weiler is the coach of the London Runner Distance Club. His blog, each post infused with some tunes to listen to as you read, focuses on his ideas of how to get better at running and have fun doing it. Find it at www.runfasthavefun.blogspot.com

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