Researching running? What’s the point?

Why do I spend so much of my time researching running?

I’ve been asked variants of this question on many occasions… I’ve even asked it myself a couple of times at low moments during my PhD!

A big part of the answer, I suppose, has to be the fact that I’m intrinsically interested in running – it’s been an important part of my life since I was a child. But that wouldn’t have been enough to dedicate so much time and effort to researching running sociologically if I didn’t also believe it was a hugely significant social phenomenon.

And significant, it surely is. Our best estimates suggest that between two and three million people go running every week in the UK, with perhaps eight million more running less frequently. Just think what that means in terms of the amount of time, energy and money we, as a nation, expended on running each year.

Rise of the runners 

Running is such an important phenomenon today it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way. Yet until the end of the 1970s, running in public was considered unusual – even odd – and only really practised by serious runners deep in training. Even in 1978 there were far fewer marathon finishers in the whole of Europe than completed the London Marathon in 2018.

Running for the masses really only took off in the UK in the early 80s, following a few years behind the running boom in America. This ‘first wave’ of recreational running saw the inauguration of the London Marathon and Great North Run (1981), and a huge increase in participation rates, although the vast majority of runners at this time were young (or youngish), middle-class men.

After a period of stagnation in the 1990s, running’s ‘second wave’ saw an even greater increase in participation from around the turn of the millennium. Women became increasingly well represented, but runners continued to be drawn mainly from the middle-class. There is some evidence that this second boom is now tailing off, but participation rates remain at historic highs.

From a sociological point of view the explosive growth of running and disproportionately high level of participation amongst particular, privileged social groups begs at least a couple of interesting questions:

  • What precipitated the rapid take-up of running in the 1980s and 2000s?
  • Why, despite running being so cheap and accessible, is the sport dominated by the middle-class?

And this is where it really starts to get interesting for me.

Because answering these kinds of questions means looking beyond running itself, and analysing the wider social and cultural context in which running has taken root and grown so rapidly. It means thinking about people’s changing needs, tastes and identities, and about how the choice to run (and how to run) is influenced by a myriad social factors.

Running down the rabbit hole

Over a hundred years ago, the American environmentalist, John Muir, said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” It seems to me that studying running is a bit like that. Despite my research being focused on a single practice, I’ve ended up exploring a huge range of related topics, from the modern obsession with health and wellbeing and with pursuing ‘authentic’ experiences to the gendered division of labour in families and street harassment.

Studying the sociology of running then, is by no means as niche and specialised as it sounds. In fact, researching running has proved to be an incredibly varied, far reaching and fascinating project.

A bit like the magic rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland,  its narrow point of entry belies the rich and varied world that lies beyond.

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