In the fitness world, it isn't always necessarily a bad thing. For example, you've got a group training run scheduled, but you woke up feeling kind of lazy. Your bed is warm and cozy, and you know the outside temperatures are anything but. You know you need to get in your weekly long run as a part of your marathon training plan, but you really don't want to get out of bed. So you text your running buddy and tell them you aren't sure you are going to make it. Your running buddy texts you back and calls you out for being lazy/a cold-weather pansy/etc., and tells you to show up anyway. So you get out of bed. You put on multiple layers of running gear, and put in your long run. And when it's over, you are mighty glad your friend coerced you out the front door.
As the saying goes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but your running pal's well-meaning taunts will make sure you get your miles in.
But there is a much bigger issue of inadvertent peer pressure that seemingly consumes many people in the endurance community, and it is so rampant that it has been given a name: "FOMO," short for the "Fear Of Missing Out." Research shows that people are often more affected psychologically by perceived losses than by potential gains. This is known as "loss aversion," or the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding a loss to receiving a gain. In the case of the endurance community, this means people are more affected by the idea of missing a race or event than they are affected by the act of actually participating in the event.
FOMO happens like this:
New runner #1 just completed her first 5K. She is excited and looking to do more. The logical next step is to train for a 10K. But new runner #1 logs into Facebook and sees that her friend in another state, also a new runner, signed up for a full marathon--a really scenic marathon with an awesome finishers' medal. And even though new runner #1 knows she is nowhere near ready to run a full marathon and probably can't safely train for that marathon in the short amount of time between now and race day, she feels compelled to sign up for the race too. Why? Well because if new runner #2 can do it, new runner #1 assumes she can too. Plus, the draw to the gorgeous scenery and awesome finishers' medal is too much to ignore, and she doesn't want to miss out. She fears missing out. FOMO.
Example #2: An experienced athlete is training for his "A" race with the goal of setting a personal record. He has hired a coach and planned a very specific training calendar to help achieve that goal. One day the athlete learns that a bunch of his friends signed up for a pretty extreme race that just so happens to fall on a scheduled easy week in the athlete's training calendar. And although the athlete knows that running that race will potentially hinder all of the hard work he has put into his training--and might even affect the outcome of the big race--he can't help but feel jealous and want to join his friends for their event too. So he signs up and runs anyway. FOMO.
The obvious danger in these two examples is that the fear of missing out can put the runner on the path to possible injury from running races they aren't physically prepared for, or even causing a more experienced runner to do too much at one time, inducing burnout.
But FOMO can affect an athlete far more than physically.
One runner I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous in this article, described how FOMO caused her to run up $15,000 in credit card debt over the course of just one year, when she signed up for, traveled to, and ran races that were well outside of her financial means. "It was a combination of things," she said, when asked if she could pinpoint what was responsible for the feeling of FOMO. "It was my first year racing, and there was all of that newbie excitement. Meeting other crazy people I could relate to, where I had never really fit in anywhere before. And it seemed there was always something (a race) bigger and better."
She described how race weekends would fill her with joy and excitement. "Then on Monday or Tuesday the post-race letdown would hit, and someone posts (on social media) about this killer event. I always felt I needed need to sign up RIGHT NOW." Today, this runner is currently unable to race at all, as she is working extra jobs to try to pay off the debt she acquired as a result of caving into the constant FOMO.
Many people agree that FOMO in the endurance community is only exacerbated by social media. "This happens all of the time," says running coach Caleb Masland. "People fill their calendars with race signups, a lot of the time because they see people posting pictures (on social media) from races or sharing links when they sign up. It's great for the business of running, but it makes training for an 'A' race more challenging."
What's more, what we often see on social media shows only the glory of racing and not necessarily all of the hard work that goes into getting to the race in the first place. According to coach Ryan Knapp: "Training isn't sexy. Going and putting in 100-mile weeks isn't sexy. Going out and running a race a weekend to get some bling is. Getting bling or posting cool photos gets 'likes,' so it translates into runners wanting to do those type of activities and do less of the work to get to where they want to be." For example, "People see the runner who ran 30 different 50 milers in 16 hours apiece as being inherently better than the woman who trained her ass off and ran one 50 miler in 8:00."
So when it comes to the racing and running world, how do you avoid the FOMO?
1. Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself why you want to run this race. Is it something you've always wanted to do, or is it simply because everyone else is doing it? How will signing up for this race affect you physically, emotionally, or financially? How will it affect your family and loved ones? If there are any negative answers, then maybe now isn't the time to cave into the FOMO.
2. Plan your running goals before planning your race calendar. "I always walk people through a goal-setting exercise." says coach Masland. "Start with a big goal. Write it down. THEN pick a race, and work backward. When people work in the other direction (choose races, then make some arbitrary decisions about goals for them, which are usually something like 'PR every time!'), that's when they get themselves into trouble and end up getting frustrated or injured."
3. Make your running goals realistic. Recognize and accept your current fitness level and abilities as a runner. If you are a brand new runner, signing up for a 100-mile ultra with only four months to train is probably not a wise decision. It doesn't mean that you won't run that ultra someday, it just means that you need to build up the physical strength, endurance, and racing and running experience over a realistic and safe time frame.
4. Realize that not every race has to happen now. When I was a new runner experiencing a massive case of FOMO myself, my older (wiser) sister--also an endurance athlete--said, "Heather, racing isn't going anywhere." This saying has always stuck with me. What she meant was that there truly was no reason nor rush for me to try to cram in as many marathons as I could as soon as possible, because the sport of distance running will always be there for me when I am ready for it. In other words, there is no sense in running yourself into the ground physically, emotionally, or financially.
I promise, those races will be there when you are truly ready to run them, and chances are you will enjoy the experience that much more when you are running them for the right reasons. Just say no to FOMO.