I apologise for the change from the advertised topic for this post. I was planning to talk about the relationship between childhood experiences and involvement in sport, but have been sidetracked by writing up my PhD thesis which is now taking up most of my time. Part of this process has been to crunch some numbers from Sport England’s Active People Survey, a massive survey of over 150,000 people across the country, which tracks sports participation changes from year to year. I’m using the data to contextualise running within the full range of sporting and active leisure activities popular in the UK today. In particular I’ve been looking at how running compares to other sports in terms of participant demographics.
First of all, here’s a chart showing the relative gender balance (x-axis) and mean age (y-axis) of participants in a number of popular sports. The dark red lines indicate the mean age and gender for the sample. The fact that the mean gender is just over 0.4 indicates that more women than men responded to the survey. Sports to the left of the dark red line are more popular with women, sports to the right more popular with men. The further they are from the red line the stronger this bias is. The mean age of the sports (on the y-axis) runs from 22 (basketball) to 60 (golf).
The next two charts show occupational category data sorted in two ways. Each shows the percentage of participants in a selection of popular sports that have professional or managerial jobs (NS SEC 1-2, shown in blue) and the percentage that have traditionally working class jobs or are currently unemployed (NS SEC 5-8, shown in orange). The first chart shows the sports sorted by the percentage of ‘higher status’* occupations, the second is sorted by ‘lower status’* occupations.
I’m not going to comment on these findings at this stage, other than to say that they reinforce a strange fact about running. On the one hand it is a highly accessible sport with low barriers to entry that attracts men and women in almost equal quantities; on the other it attracts a disproportionately high level of middle class participants. In fact running sits above golf, tennis and mountaineering in terms of its proportion of higher status occupation participants. This is a paradox my research seeks to shed light on, and something I will come back to in future posts.
* The use of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ here is related to the typical level of income and education of holders of these jobs – i.e. the socio-ecomomic status. They are not meant o imply that managerial jobs are inherently superior to working class ones.
In a previous post I showed how different forms of running (road runners, fell-runners, obstacle course racers, ultra marathoners, track athletes) attracted different socioeconomic groups. We visualised the way in which participation was structured by plotting the mean income and education ranks for participation in each sport onto a chart with axes of education (x) and income (y). This was the result:
A quick look at the relative positions of the different forms of running suggests that the longer the distance of the event, the higher the average income level of those attracted to participate, and that education level is somehow connected to the type of environment people like to run in; lower education levels are associated with highly constructed, artificial spaces like the obstacle course and running track, and higher education levels are associated with participating in unstructured, natural environments and the wild. Perhaps there’s also a suggestion of a link between education level and preferences for communal or solitary running experiences.
But of course education and income can only explain so much. In fact there are other, more powerful drivers behind the choice of running form that need to be looked at.
In terms of their influence over our choices around sport, two of the most important social variables of all are gender and age. And of course these two factors are strongly linked to income (men and older people tend to earn more), so perhaps some of the effect we can see in the above chart can be explained simply by the age and gender of those taking part.
Below I have plotted the same five forms of running onto a similar chart, but this time with axes of gender and age. The age axis is self-explanatory, it’s simply the mean age of participants for each point plotted. The gender axis shows the relative proportion of male and female participants in the sport. The pink line marks the sample mean gender balance, so points to the right of this have more male participants than average, points to the left have more female. The further from the central line the more lopsided the gender balance gets.
I’ve also add some extra plots for key motivations (red) and included two extra running forms: Jogging [Jog] (non-competitive runners), and Orienteering [Ori] (for which I have just collected a booster sample of 300 respondents).
Interestingly the locations of the five forms we saw in the first chart are broadly similar in this one, even though we’re ostensibly measuring different things. This suggests that there may well be a relationship between gender/age and income/education.
We can see that the motivations associated more strongly with women are those around managing weight and improving their appearances, as well as social motivations. I should say that this is absolutely not to say that these are priorities for all female runners, the positions on the chart represent averages from my sample of almost 3,000 runners surveyed. Men are more likely to be motivated by competition (races) and exploring the outside environment.
To an extent these motivational tendencies are reflected in the forms that men and women participate in. Men are more likely to appear at a fell race or ultra marathon, both of which would often involve both competition and training in remote outdoor environments. Orienteering is the most male dominated of all the forms on the chart. Again we have a strong element of exploring the outside environment.
Women are more likely to go for OCRs (obstacle course races), which foster team spirit and camaraderie (i.e. feeding social motivations), and jogging, which is often practised to lose weight and involves no athletic competition. The location of sprinting is gendered female is harder to explain, but this may be because the sample of sprinters is relatively small, so the data may not be so reliable.
In terms of age, sprinting (unsurprisingly) attracts the youngest participants, with OCRs the second youngest group. Orienteering again stands out as by far the oldest of the forms.
Almost in the middle of it all sits the half-marathon. I think this reflects the open, easy access nature of this event. For many people it may be their entry point into running, and can be run as a motivation to stick to a weight loss plan or as a highly competitive race. It appears to be the one-size-fits-all event of running, attracting a gender and age balanced participant base.
Behind the Structure
How can we explain why different sports attract different social groups? This is a difficult question, and is key to anyone interested in promoting particular forms running and broadening their appeal. There are a number of possibilities:
People prefer to join up with sports that are already populated by ‘people like them’, be that class, gender or age. This is certainly true, and would help explain why social differences harden, but not how they formed in the first place. This may require a historical account of how each form of running came into being.
Some groups have greater physical access to the right infrastructure for a particular form of running, or have higher practical barriers to overcome to take part. For instance perhaps parents don’t have as much free time, so can’t fit in the training for doing ultra marathons, or self-employed people have more flexibility to fit in the large volumes of training for such events.
Some forms of running cultivate an image that puts off or favours certain groups. Forms such as Ironman triathlon and races such as the Man versus Mountain appear to be masculinised through their names. Could this make them less appealing to women? Are they positioned as symbols of masculinity?
People choose a form of running that suits their particular motivations, so competitive people choose more competitive forms, and people concerned about body image choose forms that they think will best address this. Again, this is certainly a factor, but sociologically speaking it’s quite a superficial answer. It fails to address why certain groups are more likely to have particular motivations than others. What is it about being a woman that makes you more likely to be motivated by losing weight; why are more educated people more interested in exploring?
People’s life experiences, linked to their age, gender, social class and other factors lead them to develop particular tastes and identities that make some forms especially appealing and some less so. This is an important perspective. It pulls together ideas about motivation and taste and the demographic variables we’ve been looking at. By understanding how people’s class, gender or age result in different life experiences, and how these experiences lead to particular preferences or tastes, we might be able to get at the underlying cultural reasons for the structuring of the forms of running.
Picking up on the last point, in my next article I’ll be looking at some real examples of the ways in which running participation is influenced by people’s life experiences. In particular I want to look at how different experiences of sport and running in childhood are influenced by the kind of school people go to (state/private, rural/urban) and their gender. These differences, which we can explore using the interview data I’ve collected over the last year, show how variations in the opportunities and experiences of childhood can lead to quite different orientations to running in later life.
As always, any comments, ideas or suggestions would be very welcome! Just use the box below.
Today, running is one of the most inclusive of sports. Athletics clubs are open to all, and mass races such as the London marathon offer anyone with the bottle the chance to test themselves in one of the world’s great sport events. But running hasn’t always been so democratic. Victorian hang-ups about women and professionals (the latter a thinly veiled euphemism for working-class athletes) lingered well into the twentieth century. Women were barred from long-distance races for decades, and anyone who had ever accepted payment for participating in any sport was banned for life. This left the way open for a clique of self-funding male athletes to dominate the sport for years.
As the twentieth century wore on however, social attitudes were changing, and running’s draconian rules began to look old fashioned and unfair. But any change was resisted by the privileged elite of former athletes who controlled the sport. Frustrations built, and some excluded runners, feeling like they had exhausted all routes to participation, decided to take direct action.
Two key figures in this struggle were John Tarrant and Kathrine Switzer. Tarrant was a tough and talented, working-class runner from Derbyshire. He was refused entry to official races in the 1950s because as an 18 year old boxer he had received £17 in expenses, inadvertently stigmatising himself as a ‘professional’ for life. Switzer was an aspiring American marathoner who was barred from the 1967 Boston Marathon simply because she was a woman. Both decided to fight their exclusion in a similar way. They would gate-crash a race incognito, simultaneously achieving a sporting ambition and drawing attention to their plight.
Tarrant became a regular sight at road races in England, running without a number, hiding in the crowds at the start so as not to draw attention. Once the race was underway he was too fast for the officials to stop, and with the crowds roaring him on, he became more famous than many of his officially sanctioned rivals. In fact, so popular was he that race organisers started asking him to gate-crash their races, advertising the presence of the fabled ‘Ghost Runner’ in advance to boost crowd numbers!
Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as ‘K. Switzer’ dressed in an inconspicuous grey tracksuit. Although she couldn’t rely on her speed to escape angry officials she did have the advantage of being accompanied by her burly, hammer-throwing boyfriend, Thomas Miller. When one of the race’s organisers leapt onto the course to physically eject her, Miller brushed him aside. Switzer ran on to complete the race that was supposedly ‘too tough’ for women.
The Court of Public Opinion
The media played an important role in both stories. Tarrant was an exceptional athlete whose David versus Goliath story was mana from heaven to the newspapers. He built up a powerful group of supporters, including many fellow runners, and eventually the pressure told – he was cleared to compete nationally. Unfortunately his international ban remained, barring him from the Olympics, his greatest goal. However, he went on to win many official races and broke two world records at ultra-distance before his tragically early death at just 42.
Switzer wasn’t the only female runner to gate-crash the 1967 Boston Marathon. She wasn’t even the fastest (that was Bobbi Gibb, 3 hours 27 mins). Her good fortune was that the incident when the race official tried to grab her was caught on camera. The picture created a media sensation and generated the sympathy and support that eventually led to the opening up of the Boston Marathon to female runners in 1972. Switzer went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974.
Thankfully for runners today, the old barriers have been broken down. The accessibility and diversity of mass participation running have become some of the sport’s most attractive features. Trailblazers like Tarrant and Switzer played a small but important role in helping this happen.
In some ways the Victorian age was a golden one for running. Track and field athletics as we know it was born, accurate records started being kept and, towards the end of the period, the first modern Olympic Games were held. It was a time when running was set on course to become the sport we know and love today. However, the same period looks quite different when viewed from the perspective of women’s running. In fact, it could easily be viewed as a big step backwards.
During the Victorian era women – especially of the privileged classes – were increasingly seen as little more than ornaments, far too frail and delicate for anything more than the lightest of exercise. The exertions of running were not only seen as ‘unladylike’ and demeaning, but also potentially disastrous for a woman’s health and fertility. As a result women were excluded from official competition for more than fifty years.
These attitudes lingered on well into the twentieth century. Even after women’s running was finally introduced into the Olympics in 1928 the sight of exhausted women crossing the line in the 800m caused such an outcry that the event didn’t return until 1960. Unbelievably in the light of performances such as those by Tirunesh Dibaba and Paula Radcliffe, it was not until 2008 that the women’s and men’s track programmes finally reached parity with the inclusion of the women’s 3,000m steeple chase.
Running before the Victorians
Today at last, women’s running has recovered from its collision with Victorian values and is flourishing. But this isn’t the first time in history women have had opportunities to win fame and fortune as athletes. Before the Victorians spoiled the party women could compete and even make good money running everything from short sprints to gruelling ultra-distances.
The mainstay of competitive running from at least the sixteenth century in England was the tradition of rural sports days. These were multi-sport events attached to religious festivals, market days or village feasts, and included running races in which women could compete for prizes. Often, the prize was an item of clothing such as a new dress or smock but money was offered for some races too. Contestants were usually young and unmarried women, but there were occasionally age group races that included a veteran’s category for over 35s.
Running up the profits
At least 20 of these races were held each year in the country of Kent alone during the eighteenth century. They included the famous ‘Running Lands Race’, qualification for which required victory in earlier heats. It was a tough race to win, but worth the effort, as the winning woman could pocket the equivalent of just under £1,500 in modern money. It would have been a huge sum for a peasant girl at the time.
Successful women would often be barred from competing at the same race twice, so would trek from village to village in search of new races and more prizes. There’s no doubt that the fastest women would have been able to make a very decent income and earn a great deal of local prestige this way.
Of course it wasn’t all glamour and glory. Running in those days hadn’t been tamed by codes of rules and sanitised by notions of ‘fair play’. So races could involve tripping and pulling at clothing to slow a rival, and of course the women had to endure the leering and jeering of ranks of inebriated male spectators.
Most of these races were probably long sprints, but by the late eighteenth century the real money in women’s running lay in ultra-distance. In my next historical article we’ll take a look at some of the forgotten athletes who made a name for themselves two hundred years ago in extreme endurance challenges – many of which would make most modern runners wince.
So far we’ve been looking at motivations, and how they relate to different forms of running and gender. For this and the next couple of posts though, we’re going in a different direction. The key variable here is time. More specifically, we’re going to look at how the way people participate in running, their goals and the rewards they get from the sport change both as they get older, experience life events such as having children and as they become more experienced in the sport.
Again it’s worth bringing gender into the discussion. Men’s and women’s trajectories within running are not the same. Without looking at these differences we are missing an important part of the picture.
First then, let’s get the basic outline in place by answering some simple questions about when people take up running and how long the typical running ‘career’ lasts. Then we’ll move on to look at how having children helps explain some of these patterns.
The survey questions divide runners into two groups: Those who regard themselves as having been runners without a break since childhood, and those who took up running as an adult.
The below tables shows the mean age at which those who started as adults began running, and the proportion of runners within the survey sample who reported being a runner since childhood.
So straightaway we can see some significant differences between male and female runners – at least within this survey sample. Women are half as likely to have continuous running careers going back to childhood, but start running as adults 8 years earlier on average than men.
Next let’s look at how long runners from these four categories stick with the sport. First, here’s a chart showing the number of years the individuals in the whole sample have been running:
The low number of zero years responses (it should be the highest given that all runners have to start at zero) is probably because many people involved in the sport for a few months rounded their response up to a year.
We can express typical ‘career’ length in a number of ways, but the simplest would probably be to take the median of the career lengths so far in the survey data. So we’re asking how long has a typical runner in each category been participating in the sport. This will be a lower figure than the mean, which is pulled upwards by the few runners who have very long careers, but is closer to the experience of most runners.
Median career lengths of active runners are:
Male, stated as adults: 6 years
Female, started as adults: 7 years
Male, runners since childhood: 28 years (after the age of 16)
Female, runners since childhood: 15 years (after the age of 16)
Women in our survey then, who start running earlier as adults, tend to have stuck with the sport a little longer than men. However, male runners since childhood tend to continue running much longer than their female counterparts.
Interestingly, well over half of female runners since childhood stop running before their mid/late 30s. Could this be related to the increased demands of becoming a mother, which happens on average around this age?
Let’s explore that possibility.
The below chart shows data for women only. It shows how running frequency score (out of 5) and ‘childcare prevents me running’ (out of 1) varies depending on the age of the runner’s youngest child.
Clearly having children limits opportunities for running (and remember this data only includes women who managed to continue running after having children – many may have given up at this time). In fact, running frequency only returns to pre-children levels once a mother’s youngest child reaches secondary school age!
The fact that men who identify as runners since childhood have much longer running careers suggests having children has less impact on their running. We should bear in mind, however, that men tend to have children a bit later than women, so this would give them a longer period before parenthood begins in which to run.
Let’s look at the male data on the impact of fatherhood and see how it compares.
Oh dear. This doesn’t look good. And probably confirms what my wife has been saying since our first daughter was born, 6 years ago!
If I was being uncharitable I’d say this data could be interpreted as saying men complain as much as women about not being able to run because of increased childcare duties, but there is very little evidence for it actually impacting their (already relatively high) levels of training!
There is a dip in training levels when children are at the pre-school stage, which suggests this is the period in which fatherly duties are at their most intense (I can relate to that), but babies and older children appear to be being looked after by someone else – at least to the extent that men are free to continue their running unfettered.
Anecdotally we know that a lot of women who do manage to start or continue running after having children do so in order to ‘get back into shape’ and regain muscle strength and fitness. This suggests a change in body image that appears to be reflected in the survey data. Body satisfaction score is out of 7:
Needless to say, we don’t see the same effects in men.
In summary, the data reflects how gender and the particular experiences linked to having children are key factors in shaping (particularly female) running careers, as well as their wider lives.Female runners tend to give up running younger than their male counterparts, and are much more heavily impacted by parenthood. Becoming a mother impacts opportunities to run much more significantly than does becoming a father, and for much longer.
Motherhood is also linked to changes in body image that may affect women’s desire to participate in running either positively (as a way of losing weight) or negatively (not feeling fit or slim enough to want to run in public).
Overall, this is a powerful example of how differences in biology and, more importantly, in social conventions around male and female roles and expectations, can reach into all aspects of our lives. Gender and parenthood impact our opportunities and experiences in different ways, helping to generate and reinforce differences between groups in terms of behaviours, priorities and lifestyles.
The biological facts around having a baby may lead almost inevitably to changes in women’s bodies, and hence their body image, but it’s social conventions around who does the bulk of the parenting (especially with very young children) that limit opportunities to use running as a way of addressing these issues.
As I’ve said, this analysis strikes a chord with me – and my wife. I’d love to hear from you if your experiences can help shed any more light. Please just use the comment box below.