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.


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