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.

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