Why Social Media Is Like Distance Running

Dave Fleet running the 2008 Boston Marathon Believe it or not, social media has a lot in common with distance running. I should know; I’m a little obsessive about both of them.

As I’m currently between old (Ontario government) and new (Thornley Fallis) jobs, I was fortunate enough to be able to head up to Georgian Bay recently for a bit of rest and relaxation. Of course, I’m a fanatical runner so when I say “rest” I naturally mean unnecessarily long, blissful trail runs.

During one of those long runs I started thinking about how, in many ways, participation in social media is a lot like distance running.

Wait… come back… let me explain…

It’s an endurance sport

Marathon runners know that a marathon doesn’t really start until after the 30km mark. The first 30km is all about getting to that point while feeling relatively fresh. You can’t just leap in and run a marathon without training. It takes months of preparation for that one race – you need to create the conditions you need for success.

Social media is similar – you need to put in a lot of work up-front – making connections, getting involved in the online communities and helping others, with what can sometimes feel like very little reward. Sure, you may enjoy the scenery along the way (personally, I did) but the real rewards come later once you’ve done that initial work.

You improve with practice

A friend of mine suggested to me the other day that to run a marathon at your best you need to run several races over a year or two first. Why?

  • You make your mistakes and learn from them
  • You learn from observing others
  • You get used to the competitive conditions

You can apply all of these to social media. You’re going to make mistakes – hopefully minor – when you start out. It’s going to happen – it’s part of the learning process. I certainly made my mistakes, but I’m stronger from having made them.

This applies if you’re just using social media tools for yourself, but it’s all the more important if you work professionally in this field. As Joe Thornley wrote recently, “you need to be a creator of social media to truly understand it.” To consult on social media tools without having used them yourself would be akin to consulting on communications strategies without having written one.

You get your best results with the help of others

For my first marathon, I trained solo. It was hell. I finished the race but that’s really the best thing I can say about it all. After that experience, I decided to start running with a group. Guess what? I made new friends, I learned from people with more experience than me and I actually enjoyed my running.

You can ‘participate’ in social media by writing a blog, posting messages to Twitter, setting up a Facebook account or whatever catches your fancy. However, you get the most out of those tools when you use them to communicate with other people – by commenting on other sites, replying to other people or writing on their Facebook walls, for example.

You benefit from variety

Distance runners don’t just head out and run 20km every day. We could, but we’d get bored pretty quickly and we wouldn’t get the best results. My current training program, for example, includes basic runs alongside interval training, tempo runs, hill workouts, long runs, recovery runs and more. I even run twice some days.

While I don’t suffer from the “shiny object syndrome” that many social media types do, I would argue that if you want to get the most out of your social media efforts, it’s a good idea to find a few sites that you like. For example, you might contribute your thoughts via a blog, share pictures through Flickr, build your business network through LinkedIn and network socially through Facebook.


What do you think? Am I way off the mark here? Did I miss other similarities?

  • Excellent post and analogy, Dave. If you ever follow my blog, you’ll know I’ve also hit the wall more than once. Off for some social media speedwork now – otherwise known as Twitter.

  • Dave,
    I like the analogy. Where I am with Social Media and the proliferation of Web2.0 tools is advising people to use them to augment and enrich ‘real life’. I think your parallel with circuit training is spot on. A little bit often with plenty of genuine social interaction is key. For the ‘brand of one’ marketers I would also advise avoiding turning into the ‘brand alone’. There is no shame in being multi-dimensional and indeed I hope this is one promise that Enterprise 2.0 will deliver in the corporate world.

    Another parallel is always wear something loose fitting and comfortable shoes 🙂

  • I wondered why I was running out of puff 🙂

  • Great analogy – I think you should add that not everybody is cut out to be a runner and if you don’t enjoy it, you should stop and find something else you’re passionate about.

    You also have to take your time to learn how to run, which involves going slowly at first. Once you start running, and want to run races, you also have to be disciplined and train on a regular basis.

    With social media, if it’s something you’re doing because everybody else is and/or if it’s something you’re not really passionate about, then it shows, just like it does in running.

    Thanks for sharing your insights Dave!

  • Nice metaphor! I had a friend who was an elite runner and raced marathons. His wife was a pretty serious runner as well but had never run a marathon. His advice to her was to train for five years before running her first one. That pretty much how I look at social media. It’s a lot of training and if you don’t enjoy the training you’re wasting a lot of time.

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