Social running improves performance

Date Published: 18.10.2021

Social running improves performance says a new study by Wadham Fellow Dr Emma Cohen.

Parkrun by Colin Philips via Wikimedia Commons

Oxford University research has revealed that socialising with others can help boost running performance.

Researchers at Oxford and the University of Limerick looked at participants taking part in free, weekly, community-based 5km parkruns. Parkrun began in London but now takes place in over 2,000 locations worldwide.

The research team found that the social element of parkruns has significant benefits. Their findings are published in peer-reviewed scientific journal, PLOS ONE.

The research involved a longitudinal study of 143 parkrun participants, the aim of which is to ‘promote physical activity and community spirit, by providing supportive opportunities to exercise’.

Dr Emma Cohen, Associate Professor in Cognitive Anthropology in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, said that the team was “interested specifically in how the socially supportive and rewarding environment at parkrun affected participants’ exercise experiences and performance”.

“Over several weeks, study participants received a survey link immediately after they completed a parkrun,” explained Dr Cohen.  “The survey asked participants questions about who they attended the event with, their social interactions before the event, and feelings of support and belonging in the parkrun community.”

“Participants were also asked about their run experiences – how much they enjoyed themselves during their run, how difficult the run was, and how energised they felt. We then linked these survey responses to participants’ run times, which are published on the parkrun website,” she said.

Dr Emma Cohen

Analyses of over 700 survey responses revealed that parkrunners’ social experiences were strongly associated with their exercise experiences and performance times. Feeling included in the parkrun community and being social before the event (e.g., chatting with friends) were both associated with higher enjoyment and increased perceived energy levels during the run.

Further, the study found that increases in energy levels linked to feelings of social support and inclusion led to 5km run times that were between 3 and 12 seconds faster, on average, with no corresponding increase in perceived effort.

Lead author of the study, Dr Arran Davis of the Social Body Lab, Institute of Human Sciences at University of Oxford, explained: “Humans evolved as a social species, where safety and access to resources are closely tied to social relationships. Feelings of support and inclusion at parkrun may act as a subconscious safety signal, indicating that increased physical outputs are safe."

“This changes how the body self-regulates during exercise, thereby affecting perceived energy and fatigue levels, and, ultimately, 5km run speeds. The results of this study suggest that socially rewarding experiences can give participants an emotional – and energetic – boost,” he added.

The research supplements traditional emphases on the social benefits in sport and exercise psychology, and offers new avenues for understanding the deep connections among psychological, social and physical function in everyday health.

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