Age and Gender Maps of Running

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).

Key to motivations (red points): ‘Looks’ = strongly agree with ‘I run to improve my appearance’; Weight = ‘to lose or maintain weight’; ‘Social’ = ‘to socialise with friends”; Explore = ‘to explore the outside environment’; ‘Races’ = ‘to do well in races’.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Childhood, School and Running

There’s been a long debate in this country about how children’s involvement in and experiences of sport during their school years shapes their personalities and habits. The debate often revolves around how experiences of sport can instill certain character traits that, in adult life, effect individual and wider social well-being positively or negatively. Alternatively the focus is on encouraging deeply embedded ‘active lifestyles’ that, it is argued, improve quality of life and reduce pressure on the NHS as active children grow into active adults.

Running is the school sport par excellence. It’s the first sport children can participate in competently, and the instinct to run around for the sheer pleasure of it is apparent on every school playground across the country. The ability to run fast is also a transferable ability. It gives fast runners an advantage in many other school sports, from football to lacrosse. This has made it the cornerstone of many school sports programmes – even the ubiquitous and universal sounding school ‘sports day’ is really a ‘running day’ for the most part.

The Roots of School Running

Running has a long history on the school curriculum. Citing as role models those perfect knights of antiquity, Alexander and Achilles, Sixteenth Century educationalists, Sir Thomas Elyot and Richard Mulcaster argued for running to be included on public school curricula as a counterbalance to intellectual work that could easily weaken the constitution and soften the spirits of gilded youths. Running was recommended as ‘both a good exercise and a laudable solace’ that ‘maketh the spirites of a man more stronge and valiant’ as well as ‘adapting his body… to helpe therwith hym selfe in perile, whiche may happen in warres’ (Elyot, 1531).

After a lull in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, running returned to the upper-class educational agenda in Victorian times, gaining impulse from the Muscular Christianity movement and the government’s Clarendon Commission, which recognised the value of sport in character building. Physical exercise was also commonly perceived as a way of preventing immorality in schoolboys, particularly in the forms of homosexuality and masturbation! Steeplechases, hare and hounds contests and cross-country races became popular at many of the famous public schools at this time. For the Victorian upper-class, the notion of sport as a form of training to develop boys into ideal soldiering material was back, as manifested in the poetry of Henry Newbolt and the quote that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’, which is often attributed to Wellington but probably originated some years after his death, at a time when public school sports were burgeoning.

Sport and running have been on the agenda ever since, filtering through to state schools – and eventually even to many preschools today. In recent times, however, the competitive element has been challenged for its potentially detrimental effects on the confidence of less successful participants.

What the Data Says

As part of the Big Running Survey, I included a couple of questions to help explore the relationship between experience of sport (and running in particular) at school, and people’s later relationships with running.

Whilst we can only draw limited conclusions because the data only includes people who do run (not the majority, who do not) we can look for the ways early experiences are linked to the forms of the sport people participate in, what they get from running as adults, and why they participate.

First, let’s find out to what extent being a good runner is connected with enjoyment of sport in general during school. Here is a chart showing the mean enjoyment score for people who rated themselves at different levels of naturally running talent.

How perceived level of running talent impacts enjoyment of sport
How perceived level of running talent impacts enjoyment of sport

Clearly self-perception of running talent is a very important factor in whether or not children enjoy sport at school. The relationship is strikingly strong. This is probably because being a fast runner is a great advantage in many of the team sports popular at school, as well as offering opportunities to win races on sports day. Presumably being good at sport makes you more likely to enjoy it.

Now let’s look at how experiences of and attitudes towards sport at school relate to running behaviours now.

First, involvement in races. The below chart shows how groups with different experiences of sport at school (high, medium or low enthusiasm for sport at school) differ in terms of the the percentage of them that participate the least (blue) and most (orange) frequently in races.

Race participation's relationship with enjoyment of school sports
Race participation’s relationship with enjoyment of school sports

This chart is easiest to think about by looking at one colour at a time. Blue represents very low frequency races (once or never in the last year). You can see that 21% of people who had ‘low’ enthusiasm for sport at school rarely race, whereas only 13% of enthusiastic participate this little. When it comes to the most frequent racers (orange), 26% of high enthusiasm at school runners fall into this category, compared to only 13% of low enthusiasm runners.

Perhaps this is just because many people who participate in races do so for competitive reasons, so being a talented runner is linked both to enjoying sport at school and being likely to do well (and hence be more motivated to participate) in races.

So let’s look at simple frequency of participation in running, ignoring race involvement.

How running frequency in adults varies depending on school sports experiences
How running frequency in adults varies depending on school sports experiences

There’s not a huge difference here at the low end of running frequency (blue), but the difference in the likelihood of running a lot between low and high enthusiasm school runners when they become adults is stark (orange). A quarter of people who enjoyed school sports and run, run very frequently, whereas only 11% of people who didn’t enjoy school sports run this much.

Perhaps this is because their motivations vary. Perhaps as people who enjoyed sport are generally faster runners, they are more likely to be motivated by gaining distinction as athletes in later life, so train harder as a result. Those who have never enjoyed sport may be running for other, extrinsic reasons, such as to get fit or lose weight. Let’s see.

motivations by school enthusiasm
Percentage of runners with different levels of enthusiasm for sport at school who rate ‘doing well in races’ and ‘losing weight’ as key motivations.

Again we can see a clear relationship. Those with low enthusiasm for sport at school are much less likely to be motivated by doing well in races, and significantly more likely to be running to lose weight.

Conclusion

So we’ve seen that being a good runner is a good basis for enjoying school sport, and that this is linked to how much people run in later life, whether they participate in races, and what motivates them to take part. In fact, the figures above probably paint a very conservative picture of the differences in involvement in running between those who enjoyed sport at school and those who did not. This is because it’s likely that non-runners, who do not show up in this data, are more likely to be those who didn’t enjoy sport at school than those who did.

This has only scraped the surface really. The causal relationship between enjoyment of school sport and participation patterns in later life is difficult to unpick. Factors like gender could be playing a role here, quietly structuring the data behind the scenes. What is does point to though, is the way that even in an open and inclusive sport like running, which offers open entry mass races that encourage all kinds of people to participate, it’s still the ‘sporty’ ones from school who are most likely to take part. From a public health perspective this could be a problem, as unhappy experiences of sport at school appear to leave a legacy of inactivity that can last a lifetime.

The question of whether to adapt school sports in ways that remove the competitive element so that less ‘talented’ children still enjoy them remains a thorny one. Personally I loved the competitive element of sports at school and got a lot from it, but I was a fast runner. Many other children who are not are left with a negative view of sport that stays with them long after they’ve left their childhoods behind. Also, we have seen that there is a very strong link between being a fast runner and enjoying sport at school. Perhaps this is because so many school sports involve running. If this is the case it might be wise to include a broader range of sports on the school curriculum, including some where running is a less central element. We need to find ways of engaging less naturally sporty children so that they can build a positive relationship with sport and exercise, as well as offering more talented ones an opportunities to shine.

Mapping Running Culture

In this post I’m going to take a look at how overall running culture can be divided into a number of distinct sub-cultures based on the motivations and needs of those participating in them.

The basis for this is the chart below, a ‘cultural map’ of running, showing how different types of race relate to each other in terms of the reasons people participate in them.

I’m aware that looking at people’s motivations is just one way of thinking about the cultural meaning of the different forms of the sport, but I think it’s an important one. It helps us to understand how each form of running taps into different personal needs and values. Because such needs and values vary between social groups (e.g. men and women; old and young; rich and poor) we often find that different kinds of people tend to be associated with different areas of the cultural map. But I’ll leave exploring that until later.

Understanding the Chart

The closer together two forms of running are on the ‘map’, the more similar they are in terms of the motivational profiles of their participants.

The map is defined by two axes (dimension 1 along the bottom, and dimension 2 along the side). These have been identified through correspondence analysis as the two most powerful underlying factors that help explain the spread of motivational profiles across the different forms of running.

Correspondence analysis is a statistical technique, so it doesn’t tell us what these underlying factors are, only that they exist, and that they differentiate between the forms of running in a specific way.

As an example, if we were using the same technique to differentiate between different sorts of foods based on people’s descriptions of their tastes we might get a map that shows chocolate and various desserts at one end of an axis and meat and bread at the other. In this case we could work out that the underlying factor the axis represents is sweet versus savory. The other axis, however, might position chocolate, meat and bread close together at one end, with curry and Tabasco sauce at the other. This second axis might be interpreted as relating to the level of spiciness. So in this imaginary example we would learn that spiciness and sweet/savoriness are the underlying or dominant factors differentiating between food tastes.

In the case of running we need to do something similar – try to interpret what the axes might mean for ourselves. We’ll have a go at that in a moment. First though, here is the map.

Correspondence analysis of running forms
Correspondence analysis of running forms discriminated by motivation

Key:

Track(s/m/l): Track distances, sprint, middle distance, long distance
<5k, 5-10k: Road races, by distance
HM: Half marathon
Mar: Marathon
Ultra: Ultra-marathon
Fell, mud, obstacle, adventure, trail: Named forms of race
Tri: Triathlon
None: Runners who never race

Initial thoughts

Straight away we can see four distinct groupings. Track racing, fell and ultra, joggers (i.e. ‘never’), and all the other forms in a central cloud. Adventure racing appears to sit a little away from the main cloud and a little closer to the fell/ultra pairing (see below).

Motivational clusters
Motivational clusters

 

These groups represent the forms of running that share a lot in terms of participants’ motivations.

The central cloud though, merits a bit more exploration. A closer look reveals that it is quite well structured internally. Mud and obstacle races occupy their own corner, somewhat removed from a tighter area of clustering that contains all of the road distances up to half marathon. We can also see that as the road distances increase the motivational profile shifts down and left (black arrow on chart). In fact, this pattern can be seen to extend through marathon right down to ultra marathon distance.

Interpreting the axes

So, what are the underlying factors that explain this spread of motivations across running?

To help us answer this question we need to look at the counterpart to the cultural map above. This is the map of motivations, which shows how closely the participation profiles of the motivations correspond to each other. A motivation’s ‘participation profile’ is the rate at which it is associated with each of the different forms of running.

Running motivations map
Map of the associations between running motives

 

This helps a lot. We can see that the track distances occupy much the same area of the map as competitive motivations ‘times’ (i.e. getting fast times) and ‘races’ (i.e. doing well in races). The ultra/fell pairing is close to ‘explore’ and other motivations related to discovery. Joggers are close to motivations around appearances and weight management (‘looks’ and ‘weight’) and far from competitive and experiential motivations. And the central cluster of road runners and (just off to the right) mud and obstacle runners, is associated with motivations around challenge setting, well-being and fitness. Charity and IID (overcoming illness, injury or disability) seem more closely related to mud and obstacle type races than to road races.

Of course this doesn’t mean, for instance, that there are no road runners chasing times. Many road runners are highly competitive athletes. But taken as a whole, people who participate in road races tend to be less focused on times than track racers, or on exploring than fell-runners. This is probably because road running takes in a much wider range of people than track running, many of whom are not focused on speed. So, competitive road runners, don’t take these associations personally!

Interpreting the Axes

Looking at the map of running forms and the motivations map together my stab at interpreting the two axes would be as follows:

x-axis (dimension 1)

This appears to be to do with the degree of engagement with running as a sport. On the far right we have joggers who focus on something external to the sport, i.e. their weight or appearances. To the left we have highly competitive runners, those who enjoy the experience of running and people who enjoy the social scene associated with the sport. These all suggest an enjoyment of participation in various forms of the sport rather than simply using running as a means to an ends.

The motivations closer to the centre also capture this pattern, albeit more subtly. To the right we have managing injury, illness or disability, running for charity and trying to stay feeling young. In different ways these are all about using running for an external benefit (i.e. external to running itself). Move to the left of this sub-group and we find psychological benefits, escaping worries and spending time outdoors. Here the benefit is more closely tied to the experience of running but not to the organised sport, racing, club membership etc. Further to the left we get ‘to challenge myself’ and ‘to give myself goals’. We’re moving towards more running focused motivations now with achieving running related targets providing the motivation. Next come community and social motivations, which would be associated with people who run with groups or clubs – another sign of integration into the cultural world of organised running.

At the far left, along with competitive motivations we have those related to the enjoyment of the experience of running – running is not practised for some external benefit, the goal is intrinsic to the sport.

y-axis (dimension 2)

As I mentioned before, this dimension appears to run from short distances at the top to long distances at the bottom. It seems that long distance running is motivationally distinct from short distances, and this becomes more true the longer the distance competed at.

If we look at the extremes we see fiercely competitive runners at the top, and runners focused on exploring and enjoying the outdoors environment at the other. Both of these sets of motivations are at the far left end of dimension 1, so both are associated with highly engaged runners. I think dimension 2 seems to be about whether your goals are to do with external validation or personal experience. Let’s see if this fits the rest of the data.

Working down from the ‘external validation’ end of the spectrum we find competitive motivations followed by social and community motivations. I think this fits as social motives probably often relate to club membership, which assumes a certain amount of desire for inclusion and participation in a social structure that provides meaning. At a similar level are weight and appearance motivations. Could this be understood as some kind of competitive / external validation motivation too? In some cases I think it clearly could, in others (for example those motivated to lose weight for health reasons) less so. We then move through motivations such as psychological well-being and escaping worries and on developing self-knowledge. These seem to be very inwardly focused and much less on social judgement than the motivations above it on the axis. Then comes the desire to have great experiences, and finally on to the ‘environmental’ motivations of spending time outdoors and exploring. This last set appear to be less about inner life and more about interaction with the wider non-social environment.

I’m not so sure about my interpretation of this axis. It’s hard to place competitive, social, internal and interactional motivations on a continuum. They seem qualitatively different in some ways that don’t fit well within this system. However, it’s a decent working framework for the time being.

What does this mean about running cultures?

It seems like we can divide running into four or five distinct sub-cultures based around their preferred racing form, as follows:

  1. Track athletes, who value athletic performance, are highly integrated into the sport and into running communities. We have seen from earlier posts that male runners are more likely to be in this group than female runners. They also tend to be younger than average.
  2. ‘Extreme’ runners, by which I refer to fell- and ultra- racers. These runners are highly integrated into running as a sport, but are not usually focused on performance. They value experiences, and contact with the outdoors environment. They have very little interest in running as a way of ‘staying in shape’. This group is quite strongly male and older than the other groups.
  3. Joggers, who have very low integration with running as a sport or with organised running groups or clubs. They participate in running as a means to an ends, normally to do with how they look or their weight. Women are more likely to be joggers than men, and they tend to be younger than the average runner.
  4. Road runners are a diverse group, sitting in the centre of our map, which probably reflects the fact that different sub-groups within this larger cluster tend towards different motivations, and average each other out. However, there is a strong relationship to motivations related to well-being – psychological as well as physical. This group has, on average, a middling degree of integration with the sport as a whole. The longer the distance raced at the closer road runners become to ‘extreme runners’ in their motivations. Shorter distance road runners tend towards the track athlete profile. Road runners are mixed gender and cover a wide range of ages.
  5. Challenge racers, covering mud, obstacle and to an extent, adventure racers, are fairly similar motivationally to the less committed, less athletic road runners. I think we can justifiably split them off into a sub-category though, as their cluster on the cultural map is distinct from the road racers, although it sits close by – just lower on the engagement axis, and closer to the experiences end of the y-axis. It’s likely that there is a strong overlap between less competitive road racers and challenge racers. Women are more likely to be challenge racers than men, and the group as a whole is younger than average.

With any kind of categorisation like this it’s all about interpretation and deciding where to draw the lines. In reality the groups are fuzzy, overlapping and contain many exceptions.

However, one of the benefits of doing something like this is that it provides good evidence of what the underlying cultural meanings of these different ways of ‘doing running’ are relative to one another. And this can help us understand why people from a particular social group may be more drawn to one form of the sport than another.

The Runner’s Life part 1 – Parenthood

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.

How old are starter runners?

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:

Years of running so far
How many years have you 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.

How having children impacts running for women
How having children impacts running for women

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.

How parenthood impacts men's running
How parenthood impacts men’s running

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:

Body perceptions and motherhood
Body perceptions and motherhood

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.

Thanks!
Neil

The Meaning of Running

In my last post I described the ways in which different forms of running were more strongly associated with particular motivations than average. Those involved in fell-running, for instance, were shown to have higher levels of motivation around competitiveness and desire to engage with the outdoor environment, and lower levels of aesthetic (i.e. to do with shaping the body) motivation than the average runner.

I mentioned at the end of that post that the motivational profiles of each form of running were often quite different for men and women. In this post I want to unpack that a little.

First, a word on the statistics. In the first post the numbers I gave for each motivational score was based on the correlation between the motivation and level of engagement with the type of running in question. This gives us an idea of how much difference there is between non-practitioners and practitioners, but doesn’t reflect the overall level of motivation.

For example, fell-runners might score 5/10 for competitiveness and non-fell-runners 3/10. This shows a significant difference, so the score in the previous post would be high for the relationship between fell-running and competitiveness. Here, fell-runners are significantly more competitive than non-fell-runners.

However, what this doesn’t show is that the level of competitiveness even for fell-runners is actually not very high. In this example it’s 5/10, whereas environmental motivations (the desire to get out in the outdoors and experience and explore the environment) might be 8/10. If this motivation is also high for non-fell-runners (say, 7/10) then the ‘effect’ of doing fell-running (compared to not doing fell-running) is marginal, and hence a lower score on the previous post – despite environmental motivations being more often cited by fell-runners.

Really we need to supplement the correlations with another measure to help build a more complete picture. So in this post I’m going to compare the average (mean) scores on different motivations for different forms of running. This isn’t as good at showing the distinctive profile of each form, but gives a clearer picture of the motivational profile of the typical runner from each variant of the sport.

As promised in the last post, I’ve also split the profiles down by gender, so you can see there are significant differences in the ways that men and women see the key benefits of the forms of running they are involved in. This may help provide part of the reason why men and women are attracted to different variants of running in different proportions.

I’ve selected a handful of running variants that offer a nice contrast in motivations. The below charts indicate the mean motivations for runners who participate in these kinds of races. The motivations are explained here. The only addition is ‘charity’ which refers to the degree to which participants report raising money for good causes as a motivation.

Track runner's motivations
Above: Track runners’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road runners' motivations
Above: Road runners’ motivations (5-10km)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The motivations of half-marathon runners
Above: Half-marathoners’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ultra-marathon runners' motivations
Above: Ultra-runners’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The motivations of fell-runners
Above: Fell-runners’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The motivations of mud race runners
Above: Mud racers’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The motivations of non-racing runners
Above: Non-racers’ motivations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above charts are useful for looking at motivations within each variant of running and for comparing men and women, but aren’t so good when it comes to comparing the different types of running. There’s just too much to take in! So below I have created a further set of charts which allow you to compare how levels of each type of motivation vary across the different forms of running.

 

charity mot soc mot bod mot psych mot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Env Mot

 

comp mot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does this tell us?

Clearly there’s a lot of information here, so what are the key takeaways?

On gender differences in motivation:

  1. Across all variants of running, men are motivated by competition (doing well in races, getting fast times) significantly more than women.
  2. However, in almost all other motivations women score higher. It appears women run for a wider range of reasons than men.
  3. The exception is environmental motivation, which appears quite even (and high) between genders.

On motivational differences between forms of running:

  1. Competitive motivations are highest for track athletes.
  2. Among road runners, including half marathoners women are significantly less competitively oriented than men. On the other hand, women in this group are significantly more motivated by managing their bodies’ appearances through running.
  3. Ultra- and fell-runners are highly motivated by interacting with the outside environment and the former are relatively noncompetitive on average.
  4. Mud racers are the most likely to be motivated by raising money for good causes, and are the most motivated by aesthetic goals of all the racers. Among women, they are the least competitive racers.
  5. Non-racing runners are the most motivated by aesthetic goals of all types of runner covered here. Their competitive, social and charity motivations are all low.

Obviously these are average scores, and within every group there is a wide range of runners, each with their own unique set of motivators. However, these scores do provide evidence of the meaning behind the practice of each form of the sport. People are drawn towards the particular variant of running that meets their personal needs. Needs that are generated by their unique experiences, tastes and personality. We’ll be exploring this later on.

Next time though, I’m going to look at the ‘life course’ of runners. We’ll see how runners’ relationships with their sport change as they get older, and as they build up years of experience. We’ll see how life events (having children, getting married, starting work) impact on runners, and how different groups are impacted in different ways.

Thanks so much for reading. I’d love to have any feedback or questions – please just use the comment box below.

Neil