Fast10’s Jack Gray has written a thought-provoking piece after talking to female runners about their experiences of running, and how the lockdown has affected them. 

Since the Coronavirus pandemic began, we’ve been repeatedly told that Covid-19 does not discriminate and that we, as humankind, are “all in this together”; however, if you scratch the surface, you’ll find this discourse is a thin veil, behind which inequality festers. 

But how does this relate to running? Well, whilst the lockdown restrictions are universal, our experiences of them are unique. 

In this article, I consider how the current ‘lockdown’ is disproportionately affecting how women experience the sport we love. I argue that rather than being an ‘equaliser’, the lockdown is exacerbating existing inequalities.

I specifically explore how lockdown has stripped away some of the ‘coping strategies’ female runners use to ‘deal’ with the discrimination they face every time they lace up their trainers (and before they even get out the house, if they can).

Privilege disclaimer

Now, I should acknowledge that I am a white, middle-class man who will never be able to fully understand the lived experiences of female runners, and also that women’s experiences will be further separated by their race, sexuality, class, age and religion. 

To improve the quality of my understanding, I have spoken with a number of brilliant women who participate in our sport, in order to understand how lockdown has shaped their training. Furthermore, I believe that making our sport fairer and more welcoming is the responsibility of us all.   

My conversations with inspiring women, of differing ages and abilities, broadly revealed two types of “Covid constrictions”; those that reduce the opportunity to train, and those that degrade the experience of running itself. 

The famous picture of Kathrine Switzer being forced from the Boston Marathon in 1967.

During the run

Regardless of the lockdown measures, if you’re a woman who runs, you are likely to experience public heckling and other intimidating behaviours far too regularly.

You are also more likely to be ‘judged’ more frequently and harshly than your male counterparts, whether it concerns what you wear, how your hair looks or even what kind of ‘game face’ you pull. 

Talk to any female runner, and they’ll have most likely been inappropriately sexualised: “nice arse, love”; fat-shamed: “thunder thighs”; or judged for the kit they were wearing within the last week “put it away, you slag”.

These are just some of the insults that female runners, within my peer group, have experienced in just the last few weeks. 

I thought I knew about the challenges that women face when out running, but speaking openly with my friends showed the quite staggering amount of crap they have to deal with on a regular basis.

How we react

The way we respond to such afflictions falls into a number of different types of behaviours. These behaviours are typically reactive: ‘responding or escaping’; or proactive ‘avoidance and employing safety behaviours’:  

  • Responding: lashing out in response e.g. putting your fingers up to a cat-caller;
  • Escape behaviours: leaving or escaping from a situation; this might cause you to end your run prematurely after a negative experience, or change location mid-session;
  • Safety behaviours are designed to limit your experience, enhance your control and increase your protection from a given situation; this might include running in a group or carrying a deterrent; and 
  • Avoidance involves the complete avoidance of the feared situation. Ultimately, this may mean choosing not to run alone after a negative experience or a perceived threat. 

It’s worth noting that these behaviours are not isolated and can manifest simultaneously and sequentially.

For example, one might justifiably respond aggressively to a cat call, and then cut short a run because you feel upset and vulnerable afterwards. Alternatively, these events might occur sequentially; here, you may feel intimidated running on a certain route, and choose to avoid it in the future.

Credit: Tom Craggs

How has lockdown affected this?

So how does lock-down come into this? After speaking with several female runners, I’ve identified two themes associated with the lockdown:

  1. A reduction in natural surveillance: when usually busy locations are quiet, and runners feel more ‘exposed’; and,
  2. The inability to run with a partner or group: when spaces that once felt relatively safe in a pair or group, become potentially threatening to an individual. 

I have included some of my respondent’s experiences below: 

Respondent 1 (mid-twenties, lives in suburban area and is a club runner):

“Although there are a lot less cars around, I feel like the number of idiots (in cars) has gone up. People seem braver, they think it’s okay to speed and cut you up, and I’ve definitely had more people shout stuff at me when I’m out (running) too…”  

“Has it made me change how I run, well, err, it’s nothing that new, and I wouldn’t say I had actively made a choice, but I suppose I have stuck to the routes in my local area where there are more people around”

Respondent 2 (mid-thirties, lives in a city centre area and is a recreational runner):

“it’s just so eerie in town, don’t you think? It sought of makes me feel uncomfortable and I know it sounds silly, but I just think all the dodgy characters might still be around, and if you’re on your own, well it’s, it’s a bit less safe!

Respondent 3 (late-twenties, lives in a suburban area and is a club runner)

“For me the biggest thing has been running alone, it’s so hard and I’m less motivated… but, well, well you know I’m pretty confident and loud, and stuff, but there are places I don’t run when I’m on my own… 

I know that’s not much to complain about, if you compare it to what some people are going through, but it’s not fair that I should have to change my behaviour, because of, well, things I shouldn’t have to think about in 2020” 

Barriers to running 

In the preceding section of this article I explored some of the challenges that women face when out running. Next, I consider how entrenched stereotypes and the imbalance of caregiving combine with life under lockdown to restrict training opportunities. 

Entrenched stereotypes insist that men are breadwinners whilst women are homemakers and caregivers. As a result, women across the world spend up to ten times more time doing unpaid care work than men, according to a United Nations study. One of the most time intensive elements of unpaid care is, of course, raising children.

So, we know that in two-parent households’ women generally tend to bear the burden of childcare and household admin, but, as one of my correspondents highlighted, this time constraint is further exacerbated in single-parent households and for her has become “virtually all consuming”.

Impact on single parent families

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the proportion of families with children headed by single parents is approximately 25% in the UK. Importantly, a staggering 90% of single parent households are led by women.

Firstly, I should state that single mothers are amazing, and there is little evidence that growing up outside of the ‘nuclear family’ has a detrimental impact on children’s cognitive development, it’s more the dearth of financial support that’s the problem! 

One of my single-parent respondents expressed her frustrations at being trapped in her house, with an ability to find any time for herself, let alone run:

“My training has virtually ground to a halt because:

1) The children are home all day and they are not old enough to be left home alone while I run;

2) I will always choose to use my daily permitted exercise to go out with the kids rather than run solo;

3) When the kids go to their Dad’s house, I need to use that child-free time to get my work done. I’m self-employed and charge clients by the hour, so if I don’t do the hours, I don’t earn! 

4) In the rare time that I’m not mothering or working, I have other essential tasks that need to be prioritised above training – shopping for food, housework, planning home-schooling, admin, cutting the lawns, calling friends/relatives (essential as I have no adult contact during lockdown) or just recharging my batteries”

Take a minute to think

Women are supposed to gratefully embrace the toils of childcare, because “that’s what good mums do, right?”, but imagine being isolated from adult contact, still working to earn your keep and also being a full-time carer. Another respondent expressed how stressed she was feeling, and how deeply she lamented the inability to feel the exhilaration and stress busting qualities of training:

“The lack of time for training has had an effect on my general wellbeing and mental health. Training is the one thing that was ‘mine’ and it’s pretty much gone, for the foreseeable future” 

Lockdown is tough for all of us, and everybody is feeling some form of stress whether it’s from job insecurity, loneliness or being at risk of infection; however, many groups in society feel the current social and financial pressures more keenly. 

Ultimately, running is not a big issue, but it does offer a form of escapism and a valuable stress-busting activity that you can call your own; the fact some people cannot ‘run free’ because of who they are is something you should be angry about. 

Jasmin Paris after winning the Montane Spine Race overall. Photo: Montane Spine Race

An appeal

Finally, I’d like to make an appeal, if you think lad culture and sexualised banter is, well, just banter, you’ll be disappointed to find that it’s actually a form of verbal assault that changes the way people live their lives.

Countless studies have shown that ‘lad culture’ can be directly associated with sexual harassment and violence. It’s your responsibility to extinguish it, not just abstain from it. 

Normally we have an appeal to support Fast Running at this point, but how about supporting the great Women in Sport charity instead? Learn more about their work or make a donation here.