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.


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