From Jailbirds to Presidents: The Extraordinary Rise of Running for Fun

Today, running is part of the fabric of everyday life. Yet only fifty years ago the sight of someone running down the pavement without a very good reason could cause a minor scandal. Pavements, after all, were for going about your business or for dignified promenading. Jogging seemed as inappropriate and inconsiderate as cycling on a busy pavement might seem today. It also seemed inexplicable. One jogger in 1960s New Zealand was jailed overnight by local police because they could think of no legal reason for a grown man to be running down the road after dark!

So how did we get from there to here? How has running on the public roads gone from being an activity practised by a few eccentrics to the mainstream, highly popular sport of today?

Preparing the ground

As with many cultural changes during the second half of the 20th century the emergence of running as a mass participation sport began in America. During the 1950s and 1960s the country was experiencing an economic boom. This prepared the ground for the growth of running in two ways. First, young people became wealthier and were more likely to stay in education longer, giving them the space and funds to develop their own separate cultural identity. This new ‘youth consciousness’ challenged many existing conventions and placed great value on youth and appearances, and had a profound effect on American culture over the coming years. Secondly, more affluent, luxurious lifestyles were linked to rapidly increasing rates of illnesses relating to obesity and inactivity, causing great public concern.

All this generated a receptive environment for the promoters of healthy living. Anything that could keep you young (i.e. slim and toned) on the outside and healthy on the inside found a willing audience. Fitness entrepreneurs pushed all manner of regimes, from the short-lived ‘Dance of Socrates’, which involved slow motion jogging with a ‘completely limp’ upper body and rolling head (in the privacy of your own home, thankfully) to activities that remain popular today, such as aerobics.

Bill Bowerman goes jogging

At around this time Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach and future founder of Nike visited New Zealand to meet fellow coach Arthur Lydiard to discuss training techniques. Whilst he was there he was invited to attend one of Lydiard’s jogging groups which, Lydiard explained, were like normal training sessions, but stripped of their competitive element and attended by non-athletes, many of whom were recovering from heart attacks. Bowerman joined in, and was shocked to find he couldn’t keep up with even the slowest group. A 74 year old man graciously slowed down to keep the 52 year old Bowerman company as he slogged to the finish.

Bowerman was an instant convert. Modified, low intensity training sessions could transform the health of even elderly heart attack victims. As soon as he returned to the US he began setting up jogging groups at his university and writing his million selling book, Jogging, which brought the concepts to a wider audience and is widely credited with sparking the running boom.

Respectable at last

By the mid-1970s, as a result of the work of evangelists such as Bowerman and the success of American long-distance runners such as Steve Prefontaine, jogging had become a fashionable pastime and an everyday sight in cities across the US. Soon after, the rest of the western world followed suit. Mass races sprang up, tapping into competitive motivations and providing grass-roots runners with access to prestigious events in a way unparalleled in any other sport.

Such was the transformation in the status of running that even President Nixon was keen to have a go. He entered a 10k race in 1979, but was unable to finish and needed medical attention. For his opponents this was seized on as evidence of his lack of the ‘right stuff’ for the highest office. Once worrying evidence of a subversive streak, running had become a symbol of presidential qualities. In just two decades the transformation in the cultural status of running had been complete.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, August 2016.


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


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.