Age, Gender and Sport in England

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.

I have posted a simple ranking of sports in terms of the occupational class of their participants before, but now that I have analysed more up-to-date data that includes extra sports as well as taking into account gender and age, I thought I’d come back to it again in a bit more detail.

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).

Sports participation by gender and age

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.


Active People Survey:

Sport England. (2016). Active People Survey, 2014-2015. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8038,


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.


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.

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.