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.


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.


Why do we run?: what the data says

Why do we run?Those of you who took part in the Big Running Survey may remember that it included a lot of questions about your motivations for running, and also a large section asking about the forms of running you took part in.

To non-runners I understand that the running community can look pretty homogenous – lots of people running around in shorts and t-shirts whatever the weather with slightly uncomfortable expressions on their faces. But of course as runners we know that isn’t the case. Running is an activity that encompasses a range of different sub-cultures and practises. From track sprinting to mountain marathoning, about the only they all have in common is running itself.

People run for a wide range of reasons, and these motivations (along with other factors) help to dictate the form of running they choose. So I thought it might be interesting to look at how motivations and ways of running related to each other statistically to start building a more nuanced picture of why we run.

Identifying key motivations

First of all, in order to manage the large number of motivational variables I have combined the scores for motivations that are strongly related to each other and make intuitive sense as clusters. Doing this we end up with these motivational clusters:

Competitive motivation
A combination of scores on motivations such as ‘to get the best possible times’ or ‘to do well in races’.

Psychological motivation
Includes questions like ‘it’s good for my psychological well-being’, ‘to escape my worries’ and ‘to have time to think’.

Aesthetic motivation
Focuses on questions around improving appearance and losing weight.

Social motivation
Combines questions on being motivated by social and community aspects of running.

Environment motivation
Includes motivations around enjoying being outside and interacting with the environment.

These categories don’t take in all the motivations examined in the survey, but these appear to be the most important and distinct categories. Using the data I can now give each runner who participated in the survey a score in each of these five dimensions.

Just as a summary, here are the average motivation levels (score out of 2) for men and women. I won’t comment on the differences we see here for now!

running motivations by gender
Table 1: Running motivations by gender

Identifying different ways of running

There were a lot of questions about specific details of how runners participate in the sport in the survey, but for now we’re going to stick to looking at the kind of races they like to take part in.

I used a similar process as for the motivations to identify clusters of related forms of running (types of race that were often attended by the same people) and generating over-arching categories of participation that each runner could be allocated a score in. They turned out to be:

Track running
Including all track races – whatever the distance.

Road running up to half-marathon
Self explanatory I hope!

Marathon and Ultra-marathon
It was difficult to draw a line between this category and road running because there is a high level of correspondence between half marathon and marathon runners. However, this pairing has some distinct characteristics and makes intuitive sense as a separate category.

Fell and trail running
Again, self explanatory. Quite a big overlap between this category and ultra-marathon too, but on balance it made sense to keep this pair in their own category.

Obstacle and mud running
A relatively recent phenomenon, this category is very distinct in terms of participation base.

Those who run but do not participate in races.

Again applying the theme of gender differences (which are important in running) we can see the level of participation in the last 12 months for one example of a form of running from each of these categories below:

Forms of running participation rates
Table 2: Forms of running participation rates

The above table deserves a couple of comments. First, the number of non-racing runners is probably an underestimate because less engaged runners may have been less likely to participate in the survey. I will address this later in the analysis by drawing on data from a huge survey by Sport England that will help measure the extent of this effect.

And secondly, I think the number of fell-runners and ultra-marathoners is probably a significant overestimate for the general running population. This is because these groups have been especially helpful in disseminating the survey and filling it in (thank you!). So these participation rates should be seen as reflecting the survey sample, not the overall running population.

Putting it together

Now we have scores for each runner in terms of their key motivations and their level of engagement with different forms of running. The next step is to combine these two sets of data to see how the different motivations correspond to each form of running.

In statistical terms I am looking for the degree of correlation between each type of running and each motivational cluster. Conducting this analysis gives us the following results, which I have simplified by giving each motivation a score to show the strength and direction of the relationship:

Running motivations by form of sport
Table 3: Running motivations by form of sport

A negative score (in red) indicates that the MORE someone is engaged in a particular form of running the LESS likely they are to be motivated by the relevant motivation.

A positive score indicates that MORE engagement with the form of running concerned is connected to a HIGHER level of the motivation.

The value of each score indicates the strength of the relationship.

What does this tell us?

I think the type of runner that stands out most clearly here is the ‘non-racer’. They really don’t seem to enjoy running much at all, and appear to be taking part mainly to lose weight – the stereotypical ‘jogger’.

mud runningMud and obstacle racing (despite the hype that surrounds it) appears to attract those with fairly low levels of all of our motivational variables, and is by far the least competitive form of racing. Interestingly given all the mud and mess, it’s also the only form of racing to be connected to the motivation to lose weight and look good.

Track racers and shorter distance road runners seem to have a lot in common in terms of their motivations. They are a competitive bunch who also enjoy the social side of the sport – being part of a community of runners.

The really long distance runners and the fell- and trail- runners also share a lot of characteristics, although the ultra/marathoners appear to value the inner experience of running whereas fell-runners favour the experience of engaging with the world around them.

A missing variable

Earlier I touched on the fact that men’s and women’s motivations are quite different (see table 1). This is really important, as it changes the picture a bit when we conduct the same analysis on each group in isolation.

In the next post (next week) I will break these results down to show how each form of running has a subtly different meaning to men and women.


Data Analysis / Perceptions of Talent

Data collection has finally come to an end for the Big Running Survey. I’m pleased to say that we’ve exceeded our targets, obtaining a total of almost 2,500 responses. Thank you so much to everyone who participated.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to be embarking on the data analysis and will publish updates on this blog to let all of those who took part have access to what we’ve found. From beginning to end it will take a few months as I’m simultaneously writing the PhD thesis of which this is a part, so expect a drip-drip of findings rather than a deluge!

I’ve already done a bit of exploratory analysis on the data just to get a feel for where interesting patterns and relationships are likely to appear. I’ve already discovered some quite surprising relationships, and I’m looking forward to exploring them a bit more when we move on to the interviewing stage of the project.

For instance (and in the spirit of International Women’s Day) the little table below tells us something very interesting about one of the differences between men’s and women’s relationship to running.

The table shows the mean scores for runners’ self-perceptions of their running talent. Scores were on a scale of 1 to 7. As you can see I have split them down by respondents’ gender and by their frequency of winning a medal for running in the last year (not simply for participation, but because they finished high up the field).

Running talent by gender

The medal winning frequency is a rough indicator of how good the respondents really are at running. You would expect frequent medalists to be amongst the most talented runners.

What I find really interesting here is that men are significantly more sure of their natural talent than women. Even those men that don’t medal at all rate themselves as being (on average) only marginally less talented than medalling women, and not much less talented than the top female runners. And men who win the occasional medal rate themselves considerably more talented than the top women’s group.

What does this tell us? Is it a reflection of women’s tendency to underestimate themselves or to want to avoid appearing boastful or competitive? (something that men, perhaps, are less reticent about!) Or is it something to do with the fact that in a mass participation race the average woman will usually finish a little way behind the average man, giving the man the impression he has done better because his finishing place appears to be above average, with the woman having the opposite experience?

At this stage I’m not in a position to say, but more data analysis and the interviews might help to shed some more light on this. It’s important, because whether or not we consider ourselves good at something is one of the factors that determines whether and how much we participate. Could women’s lower self-perceptions of talent be one of the factors that contribute to their lower levels of participation in running in general and in competitive running in particular? (more on this in later articles)

If you have any other thoughts or ideas on how this gender difference could be interpreted I would love to hear them. Please let me know using the comments section below.

This really is just the tip of a rather massive (and intimidating) iceberg in terms of what we’re going to be able to get from the data. Future posts will cover a lot more ground, but I thought it would be worth posting this to mark the start of the results coming through.

If you haven’t done so, please sign up (using the form at the top of the sidebar) to receive regular updates on the research.

A Brief Social History of Running – Part 1

Mud, Sweat and Cheers: The Rural Roots of RunningPhotographer: Derek Voller

Although they are likely to have had an informal presence in rural communities for centuries before, the earliest reliable evidence of running races in England is as part of rustic festivals, beginning in the sixteenth century. These ranged from tiny local contests to famous and prestigious events such as Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpicks, a hugely popular multi-discipline event held annually over two days starting in around 1612. Hated by the puritans who saw the games as pagan in origin and beloved of their libertarian supporters (including the king) the Olimpicks drew large crowds of spectators from across the social spectrum – a rare gathering of everyone from farm labourers to royalty. Similar, though smaller scale, rural sports days were the mainstay of competitive running well into the nineteenth century and significantly later in some parts of the country, with cash prizes and opportunities to gamble on outcomes drawing runners and spectators in large numbers. With the odd ‘eccentric’ exception, rural sports events during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a completely working-class phenomenon, offering an opportunity for local fame and modest fortune to talented runners, as well as opportunities for betting and excitement to their often unruly spectators.

Rural sports seem to have been relatively egalitarian and inclusive compared to the athletics meetings that superseded them in Victorian times. Both men and women competed, and there is even evidence of age group races, allowing children and veterans (over 35s) of both genders a chance to compete in their own contests. Races took place on ‘saints’ days, church festivals, local feast days, at horse races, market days, weddings and cricket matches’. Research by Peter Radford has unearthed 20 different annual women’s races in villages in the county of Kent alone throughout the eighteenth century. The biggest of these was the Running Lands Race, held at Old Wives Lees, which required qualification via victories at less prestigious races and specially arranged heats. The prize money could be significant; up to £10 for the winner (the same amount as for its counterpart men’s race) at a time when a servant girl would only earn £2 plus lodgings annually. Because winners were often excluded from competing at the same race twice talented men and women would travel around the county looking for opportunities to compete at different races and earn as much money as possible. We do not know all of the distances competed over, but some were recorded as long sprints of between 200m-400m.

In the early part of the nineteenth century opportunities for working-class runners to earn (or at least supplement) their living through the sport peaked. Race purses could be generous, and the money staked on races by gamblers could be huge. Talented runners would ply their trade itinerantly, sometimes running in disguise when people became wise to their ability and thus unwilling to bet against them. As tourism and ease of travel increased through the advent of the railways, villages in rural regions such as the Lake District that had a pre-existing running tradition (rooted in the ‘guides’ races’ in which mountain guides would compete to advertise their prowess to potential patrons) began organising annual events and keeping written records of their victors (e.g. the races at Lothersdale, inaugurated in 1847 and Grasmere, 1868). At this time even relatively modest races could attract thousands of spectators, with some contests watched by football sized crowds.

Throughout this period many local running traditions were established, each with their own idiosyncratic rules, and no formal over-arching organisation or record keeping. Some races were held over specific distances, but many were simply ‘out and back’ races to a local landmark or circuits around local streets or fields; everyday places of work and life temporarily transformed into a kind of theatre of drama and excitement, free to anyone who cared to watch. Some incorporated treasure hunt style elements, chasing and catching, or overcoming obstacles. Physical contact, including barging and tripping appear to have been acceptable in many races. Cheering and jeering from noisy and often inebriated crowds, as well as occasional physical interventions in races by spectators (and stray dogs) were par for the course. Runners (both men and women) sometimes participated in states of undress that would have been shocking to society’s more ‘civilized’ elements, but delighted running’s more earthy crowds. Early running contests were vital, raw and rowdy; closely associated with seasonal and religious festivities at which workers could ‘cut loose’ after months of toil in the villages and fields. German scholar, Henning Eichberg, argues that in these early forms, running was part of a European ‘culture of laughter’ that acted as a kind of social safety valve by providing an opportunity for the common people to get together and let off steam by poking fun at their privileged ‘betters’ without fear of reprisal (rather like at carnival in other contexts). In this light the naked runners could be understood to have been cocking a snook at their easily offended, puritan masters. In their rural context, running races were part of the rhythm and ritual of the agricultural year, woven into the fabric of social life.

Money was an important part of running before the mid-nineteenth century in the same way it is to horse racing today. It was central both as an inducement to participate (often in the form of valuable prizes rather than cash) and, more perniciously, in the form of wagers and gambling. Huge amounts could be staked on the outcome of a single contest – by spectators and the runners themselves – so the temptation to cheat or throw races often proved irresistible. This generated doubts about the authenticity of races that made rural running vulnerable to those who, during Victorian times, wanted to centralise and regularise running, eventually leading to traditional rural running contests all but dying out in most parts of England.

Interesting further reading:

Gotaas, T. 2009. Running: A Global History. Reaktion Books.

Askwith, R. 2004. Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession. Aurum Press Ltd.