June last year saw me start the epic journey that became my dissertation. After numerous ethics re-submissions to tweak things I was ready to go in December. The large sample that I had hoped for became zero when I had no replies to the letters I had sent out. I managed to find seven willing individuals who generously gave me an hour of their time and by end of January i had managed to transcribe them all and start the results process. While I was going through the process I had to remember that was interviewing women who had never run about running, an activity that I was passionate about. I had to put all my love for running to one side to try and be as objective as I possibly could.
Last week I found out I had passed (hurrah). I will be able to graduate with an MSc in Sports and Exercise Physiotherapy in July. Whoop! I thought though that seeing as this is my running blog and my research was about running I would share some of the insights that I gained from my study.
My study aimed to explore the perceived barriers to running for women. I interviewed each woman for an hour and I am so grateful to each one for the honesty and candour on this subject. What emerged was fascinating. Here’s a brief run down:
Time was described as a barrier by nearly all the women. Lack of time is a barrier to running and exercise that comes up again and again but what interested me with this barrier was the context surrounding lack of time. Women often had a lack of time for running because they were carers, for children or other family members. Work and study responsibilities would also mean women felt they didn’t have the time to exercise. What came across for me in the data was that women had a lack of time to run because of their gender role in society. It’s definitely something that needs more exploring but I really felt that ‘lack of time’ is a barrier that needs way more context and that it isn’t as simple for women as ‘making time’. Research has found that women feel far more guilty than their male counterparts if they make time for themselves and I do wonder how societal expectations of women, with and without children, influence this barrier.
The environment presented as a varied barrier for women in the study: personal safety, poor infrastructure e.g. pavements and lighting, the terrain and weather were all factors that were discussed within the study. If women don’t feel safe then they aren’t going to run. If the lighting is poor and women fear for their safety then they aren’t going to run. If women aren’t familiar with clothing that can compensate for weather conditions then they aren’t going to run. If women don’t know how to run up hill or on uneven terrain then they might not want to try.
Fear of injury and the physical affects of running
Women feared that they were more likely to be injured if they started running compared to other types of activity. There were also quite strongly held beliefs that running damaged your knees. The belief that running can cause knee arthritis has been debunked by research but there is still this myth that running causes damage.
Women feared judgement from others if they went running. Women who felt overweight were fearful that they would be mocked for their size. Being seen in tight clothing associated with running put women off trying to run. One woman was concerned that strangers might take photos of her and upload them to social media with the intention of mocking her. Family opinions about running would influence women about whether to take up running. Women reported feeling anxiety if they tried to run or even thought about running. And in additions there were strong feelings of fear of failure and letting themselves and others down.
Beliefs about running
Women reported strong belief about what they believed runners to be: slim, skinny, super fit. Women believed that they had to be a certain level of fitness before attempting to run. Some women feared that running would be boring and this put the off trying to run.
Alone or with others
Women either feared running alone and would rather be with others. Or conversely they didn’t want to run in a group because of perceived pressures to be a certain speed, fears that they weren’t fast enough or fears of holding people back. Women reported that they would rather not run alongside men and that they would be more open to women only groups.
Previous experiences usually centered around school experiences of running: being made to run cross country, being shouted at by teachers, being left out of teams for not being competitive. One woman stated that if the school didn’t determine you as being capable of being at a competitive level in sport then you would be actively discouraged from taking part and directed to more academic pursuits. Some women also reported trying running but not being happy with the groups they had joined: the groups weren’t always organised well or the women didn’t feel very supportive.
I need to stress that this is the most brief of run downs where my project discussion is concerned. Listening back to the recordings I would find myself becoming emotional: sad and angry that women still have so many barriers to hurdle where running is concerned. Gender roles were a massive factor and even though we have come a long way, women still pick up the slack where children and family responsibilities are concerned. Women still feel more guilt when they take time for themselves and this is what seemed to come across in my study as well as an element of ‘if I don’t do x,y,z then who will?’.
My school experiences of sport were always positive because I thrived on competition and physical activity but women in my study felt rejected by the school set up. In my reading around the subject it was suggested that sport and P.E. in schools values masculine qualities such as the desire to win and the need to compete whereas feminine qualities such as co-operation and nurturing are ignored. This came across in the interviews when some women said that they would have taken more of a long term interest in physical activity if it had come from a well being perspective rather than a competitive one. But if you’ve had ‘get a move on you stupid cow’ being shouted at you by a teacher is it any wonder why some women have allowed sport and exercise to disappear from their lives?
I tried to get some ideas from the women I interviewed about what would help them overcome the barriers. Women only groups, encouraging running leaders, guarantees that they would not be left behind and education about running were all elements suggested by the women interviewed. There was definitely food for thought following my discussion and even though there’s lots that has been done to help women who want to run there is probably still more that could be done to facilitate women who are total novices where running is concerned.
As with any research there are limitations and mine had plenty. My sample was small and from a very narrow demographic. It’s the kind of thing though that I think needs to be explored in larger numbers, a wider demographic and potentially in other sports.
And like that my masters studies have come to an end. I didn’t always love the write up of this project, I’m not an academic, but I loved talking to the women and I am so grateful to them for sharing with me their stories and feelings about running. It was a privilege to speak to them. The last I heard two of the women have taken up running and one has joined a local running group. I passed my course and somehow managed to pass on the running bug to some non runners. I couldn’t ask for anything more.