The Internet abounds with running guides for beginners. Buy these shoes! Download this app! Do these dynamic warm up stretches! And while all of this advice works for getting you off the couch, the most effective trick for sticking to a running routine may be to surround yourself with other runners.
Sinan Aral and Christos Nicolaides at MIT’s Sloan School of Management wanted to explore whether complex behaviors like exercising can be socially contagious. By socially contagious they mean the likelihood that the exercising behavior of our peers influences our own engagement with that behavior. They focused on running, using data from a tracking device app that followed 1.1 million runners over 5 years. Runners who use the app can connect with one another and follow each other’s running routines. Aral and Nicolaides mined 3.4 million social network connections in the app to answer the question of whether or not running is socially contagious.
A difficulty when it comes to investigating social contagion is distinguishing whether the results are due to contagion or because like attracts like: do runners simply have more running friends? To figure this out, Aral and Nicolaides combined the running dating with records of global temperature and precipitation experienced by the runners. They reasoned that if it was raining and cold in Chicago, a Chicagoan would only choose to run longer if inspired to do so by a friend running in sunny California.
Using this mix of tracking data and weather patterns, Aral and Nicolaides found that if a friend runs an additional 1 km, this leads an individual to run an extra 6/10ths of a kilometer. But the contagion effect of running is not homogenous across different relationship types within a social network. Runners are more strongly influenced by the routines of others who are slightly better or worse runners. And, surprisingly, less active and more inconsistent runners influence active and consistent runners more than the opposite relationship. Lastly, gender plays a role. Social contagion is stronger between same-sex peer pairs when it comes to running and, interestingly, while women’s running routines influence both men and women, the running routines of men do not influence women runners at all.
None of these results surprise Justin Burdon, co-founder of Heartbreak Hill Running Company. “I think most runners – and people in general – are competitive,” Burdon explains. “Therefore, having a team helps push individuals to run further and faster, to go beyond what they typically do alone.”
The social networks of tracking devices work as a competitive, long distance running club. So, if you’ve decided to embark on a Couch to 5K running plan, on top of getting out of bed, you’ll probably want to find a team runners who are less active and more inconsistent runners than you.
Special thanks to Justin Burdon, of Heartbreak Hill Running Company, for his insights into running and training.