I’m a Running Researcher: Helen Quirk

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

Hi there! I’m Helen, I’m a research fellow in the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) at The University of Sheffield. My current research fellowship is funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research.

What is your background?

My undergraduate degree was in Psychology at The University of Sheffield, followed by a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. I then went on to do a PhD at The University of Nottingham looking at physical activity in children with type 1 diabetes. I landed my first post-doc post at Sheffield Hallam University and I’ve now come full circle and am back at The University of Sheffield. Throughout all these experiences my research has focussed primarily on physical activity; understanding the experience of being active, the barriers and benefits of activity and the effectiveness of attempts to promote it. Now I’m wearing more of a ‘public health hat’, I’m interested in the promotion of activity among groups of people who may benefit the most from being more active, but who face considerable barriers to doing so.

How long have you been researching running?

About 4 years, but my whole research career has focussed on physical activity. I’ve always had a tendency to orientate towards my hobbies, choosing PE and psychology at A-Level because quite simply, I liked sport and people! I even managed to focus my undergraduate dissertation on sport by measuring pain threshold in my hockey team mates. I promise that isn’t as unethical as it sounds!

How did you get into researching running?

When I started working at Sheffield Hallam University in 2016, I was introduced to Prof Steve Haake, Chair of the parkrun Research Board who asked if I’d be interested in doing some parkrun research. As a keen runner and parkrunner, this was an absolute no-brainer. Since then, I’ve become Vice Chair of the parkrun Research Board and have been involved in a number of different parkrun research projects, including the evaluation of the parkrun PROVE project. Working with organisations like parkrun, who deliver weekly 2km and 5km run/walk and volunteer events every week across the world, is great because it’s a natural experiment for researchers to explore what works in the real world.

What running research have you done?

I was among researchers at the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University who were commissioned by parkrun to explore the health and wellbeing of parkrun participants in the UK and Ireland. In the parkrun Health and Wellbeing Survey 2018 we set out to ask every registered parkrun participant survey questions about their health, happiness, life satisfaction, physical activity level, motives for taking part, perceived impact of taking part and the social connections made through parkrun. We had a whopping 60,000 responses, meaning we can do some really nice number crunching and look at different sub-groups of the population such as those living in areas of high deprivation and those reporting being inactive at parkrun registration. We’re still finding our way through the mountains of data and have a number of papers up our sleeves, so watch this space!  

How do you research running?

I tend to use methods that are best suited to answer the research question, but my passion and strengths are in qualitative research. I channel the genuine interest I have in other people into qualitative research and really enjoy interviewing people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. I have been fortunate enough to interview parkrunners who have visual impairments and their guide runners, parkrun ambassadors, parkrunners living with long-term health conditions and parkrun event team members.

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

Our recent research (covered in this parkrun blog) found that parkrun registrants who were inactive at registration and from socioeconomically deprived areas reported lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction and poorer health compared to others in our survey sample. This demonstrates ‘health inequalities’ – unfair differences in health between groups of the population because of the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. But since participating in parkrun, the vast majority of previously inactive people from the most deprived areas were found to have increased their level of physical activity and reported greater improvements in fitness, physical health, happiness and mental health compared to others. We’ve been able to show, for the first time, that parkrun has the potential to benefit the least active people living in the most deprived areas – and they have the most to gain.

Do you run?

I’ve run for as long as I can remember! I’ve been a bit of a jack of all trades when it comes to running. I reluctantly did cross countries as a kid, but preferred sprinting on the track (200m was my favourite). When I moved to Sheffield for university I got side-tracked with hockey for a few years before discovering the beauty Sheffield has to offer for runners. I gradually ventured further and further with my running until I discovered the Peak District. In recent years I’ve started to do more fell running and absolutely love the escapism the trails offer. In 2019 I did my first trail marathon on the Jurassic Coast and in February 2020 I did a marathon along the stunning Northumberland coast finishing at Bamburgh Castle. That said, I don’t mind the odd speed session on the road and will be the first to admit I love a cheeky PB!  

Where can I find out more?

You can read more about me and my background here. You can find a list of my publications here. And you can find me using GIFs galore on Twitter as @hquirky.


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