Barriers to running

One of the great appeals of running is how relatively easy it is to fit around life’s other commitments.

But, as all regular runners know, fitting in the daily miles can be a bit of a juggling act. Family responsibilities, work, study, social commitments and even the weather can all throw a spanner or two in the works. And sometimes that carefully planned run can end up not happening at all.

As part of the Big Running Survey I asked respondents to identify the main barriers they experience when it comes to getting in their runs. The results looked liked this:

Figure 1: Data from Big Running Survey

Barriers to running change with age

The above chart looks at all runners together, but it seems likely that there will be some big differences in the things that get in the way of running for different groups based on their circumstances. As a way into this, let’s look at how the frequency of experiencing these barriers shifts over the life course.

Figure 2: Data from Big Running Survey

In figure 2 I’ve focused on work, study and childcare barriers, all of which exhibit a great deal of change over the life course. We can see that studying gets in the way of running in young adulthood, but gives way to work as the main barrier from about the age of 23. This rather late transission from a life dominated by study to one dominated by work reflects the high number of university graduates amongst runners. Work becomes a less significant barrier around the age of 60, when people start to retire.

In mid-life childcare presents an additional barrier that peaks around the age of 41, before gradually tailing off by the mid-50s. Interesting there is some evidence of a late spike in childcare commitment around the late-60s. Perhaps this reflects the increasing number of grandparents being drafted in to help look after grandchildren with working parents.

Running with mum and dad

Now let’s look a little closer at how the impact of parenthood on running changes as a child gets older, and how this varies for male and female runners.

In figure 3, the orange an blue lines (and left axis) show how the extent to which care for children is seen as a limiting factor on running varies with the age of respondents’ youngest child. The gold and silver bars (and right axis) show changes in the mean running frequency score* at different child ages.

Figure 3: Data from Big Running Survey


The close fit between the two lines shows that men and women are almost equally likely to report childcare as a barrier to running whatever the age of their children.

However, the gold and silver bars representing running frequency tell a more complicated story. Whilst women’s running frequency is significantly reduced when they have young children (gold bars), men’s (silver bars) doesn’t seem to be impacted at all when their children are very young. In fact, if anything they may even run a bit more!

Men do have a drop off in participation when they have pre-school aged children, but their frequency quickly returns to pre-children levels after that.

Moaning men?

What this suggests is that whilst a fairly even number of men and women cite childcare as a serious barrier to running when their children are very young, it’s only women who are actually forced to reduce their running as a result. Men may feel like childcare is placing extra demands on them, but somehow they find a way to continue running just as much as before.

Perhaps this is because very young children and babies are more likely to be cared for primarily by their mothers, so women take a much bigger hit in terms of their freedom to run when they become a parent than men do.

As children get a little older and gain some independence perhaps dads become more involved. This could help explain the drop off in men’s participation when they have pre-school aged children.

… although I’m afraid this still doesn’t explain the somewhat embarrassing finding that so many men (me included) complain that childcare responsibilities get in the way of running when they appears to have little discernible impact on their ability to get out and run!


* Running frequency scores: 0=less than one run per week on average; 1=one or two runs per week; 2=three or four runs; 3=five to seven runs; 4=seven of more runs per week.

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