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.
It’s no secret that many people take up running to lose a a bit of weight. And provided you’re fit enough to sustain a few miles a few times a week there aren’t many better ways of shifting fat and burning calories.
And for those who stick to the sport long-term, running can gradually – but profoundly – alter body shape and composition. Regular racers often have greyhound-like physiques with ultra low body fat and toned muscles. Committed runners in their 50s and 60s are able to maintain physiques that many 20-somethings would be jealous of.
The running ‘look’ has become highly desirable in wider culture in recent years, partly because of the success of running in promoting itself as the sport of successful, fit, healthy, attractive people. As a result lean, toned running bodies have become status symbols. They give off signals about a person’s fitness, energy and perhaps their mental toughness. As many runners attest, they make us feel good about ourselves. They are outward signs of who we are, and of what we are capable of.
The data collected via the Big Running Survey offers the opportunity to look at how running involvement alters people’s self-perceptions around their bodies over time. By looking at how likely respondents are to apply different body descriptors to themselves depending on how long they’ve been running we can see how body image changes qualitatively with running experience. We can also look at changes in the scores of body satisfaction over the time, helping us quantify the positive impact of running on body image.
Key body descriptors
So first, here are the frequencies of three key body descriptors that are associated positively with running experience. The black line indicates the overall trend:
It’s clear from the black trend lines on the above charts that there is a strong relationship between people’s self-descriptions as ‘slim’, ‘lean’ and ‘athletic’ on the one hand and years spent running on the other. Looking a little more closely at the individual means for each year (the blue dots) we can see that there is a steep rise in these descriptors over the first 5 years of running and a steady increase thereafter.
The wider spread of blue dots at higher numbers of years is because there is less data at the really high numbers of years, so less opportunity for means to even out.
Next are two descriptors that are negatively associated with increasing running experience.
Again we see an especially steep change in these descriptors over the first few years of running, and a steady change after that. Whilst 24% of people in their first year or so of running describe themselves as ‘overweight’, by year four it’s down to 9%. This could be for a couple of reasons: Either running is helping these people lose weight rapidly over the first year, or perhaps overweight people tend to give up running after a year or so if it doesn’t seem to be helping them lose weight. It’s probably a bit of both.
The gentler descriptor ‘carrying a few extra pounds’ shows a much smoother slope with a clear downward trend.
So what do these changing perceptions of body characteristics mean in terms of runners’ body satisfaction over the years of their involvement in the sport? We can find a strong clue in the self-rating of current body satisfaction (out of 7) provided by each respondent.
Here I have broken the data down into male and female respondents, and the line represents the overall trend across the first 32 years of involvement in the sport.
We can see that there’s a clear and strong relationship between years of running and body satisfaction. For women this starts around 4/7 and rises to around 5/7. For men it goes from 4.4 up to 5.4. This is a significant jump as most of the body satisfaction scores cluster around the 3 – 5 range. Few people give themselves a 1, 2 or 7.
What’s driving this change? There are a few possibilities:
Runners’ ‘ideal body shapes’ remain the same over the years, but their bodies are shaped by running in a way that brings them closer to this ideal.
Time spent involved in running, seeing runners, aspiring to be a better running, reading running media etc. subtly alters the runner’s body ideals in ways that make them closer to their existing body shape.
A bit of both of the above: Long-term runner’s have been immersed in a running culture that both shapes their bodies to be more like ‘running bodies’, and also celebrates running bodies as attractive and healthy.
Perhaps getting older makes people more at ease with their bodies irrespective of how much running they do. Long term runners are, on average, older than short term runners (the latter haven’t been alive long enough to amass decades of running experience).
Older runners may become more satisfied with their bodies because running helps them maintain certain valued characteristics that their contemporaries increasingly lack as they get older. So older (more experienced) runners feel happy about their bodies because they compare them to less active people of the same age.
Unfortunately the data doesn’t allow us to unpick this. However, I am currently conducting interviews that should throw more light on the stories and lived experiences over time that could help explain these changes.
I’m sure that the precise reasons for improving body-esteem in runners over time vary hugely from person to person, but the overall picture is a positive one for runners. The big picture shows a strong relationship between long-term participation in the sport and positive body image.
Because running bodies are also active, healthy bodies this has to be a good thing.
Celebrity endurance challenges certainly seem to be in vogue at the moment. Recently, Eddie Izzard’s marathon challenge across South Africa for Sport Relief has been compulsive viewing. There’s something fascinating about watching a familiar face putting mind and body through the wringer. Perhaps as runners we find it particularly easy to empathise with Eddie’s struggles, doubts and blisters – and his exhausted elation at the tape. But this fascination isn’t new. We’ve been enjoying watching people running themselves to exhaustion for centuries.
The first detailed accounts appear in the 17th century. Samuel Pepys described the excitement around ‘footman races’ in 1660s London, with aristocrats pitting their footmen against each other to see who could run the furthest. Footmen were servants who ran ahead of a coach to clear the way or prepare lodgings before their employer’s arrival. They must have been extremely fit young men, and were often chosen for their athletic physiques, good looks and height. Betting on whose man could keep running at coach pace for the longest was an exciting diversion for the idle rich, and a great spectacle for those they passed along the way.
Anything but Pedestrian
By the later 18th and 19th centuries endurance running and walking, known collectively as ‘pedestrianism’, had become popular throughout British society. Such was the interest it was possible for talented athletes from all walks of life to make a living – even a fortune – as professional runners. Because their incomes normally came from winning wagers, it could be an advantage for runners to look much less capable athletes than they really were. This created the opportunity for some far from stereotypical athletes to make a name in the sport. For example, people were all too happy to bet against Mary Motulullen, a frail looking Irish woman in her sixties, or Emma Freeman, a girl of just eight years old, when they arrived in a new town and announced their latest challenge. But appearances can be deceptive. Mary ran over 90 miles to win one wager, and little Emma covered an incredible 40 miles to help feed her family.
The most famous pedestrian of all though, was Captain Robert Barclay. A Scottish landowner of ‘ancient family’ whose feat of walking a mile in each of 1,000 consecutive hours to win an astronomical bet of 1,000 guineas (about twenty years income for a labourer) had the national enthralled. Barclay’s incredible physical and mental strength appeared to confirm the natural superiority of the ruling class, and fed a craze for endurance sports amongst the privileged during the early 19th century.
The Shifting Meaning of Endurance
However, as the century wore on endurance began to lose its social cache. Perhaps ‘enduring’ was too closely associated with the drudgery of the factories that were springing up across the land. The wealthy turned their attentions to shorter distances and the sanitised world of the athletics track. Endurance running was left to the workers of the growing industrial cities, where runners with awe-inspiring names like North Star, the Gateshead Clipper and Young England still drew enormous crowds.
An indication of just how social attitudes had changed around endurance comes from the treatment of William Gale, a Welshman who smashed Captain Barclay’s record by completing 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours in 1877. If Gale had hoped for a similar reception to Barclay he would be disappointed. He was described as having the ‘determination of a dog’ and as an ‘over-worked horse’. One article dismissively states: ‘of what particular benefit it may be to the world at large it is utterly impossible to imagine’.
Thankfully things have moved on. Endurance sports once again capture the imagination, inspire and enthral us. And in terms of ‘benefits to the world’ the millions raised by Eddie Izzard for Sport Relief make a neat retort!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Track(s/m/l): Track distances, sprint, middle distance, long distance
<5k, 5-10k: Road races, by distance
HM: Half marathon
Fell, mud, obstacle, adventure, trail: Named forms of race
None: Runners who never race
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).
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.
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:
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.