This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.
Who are you?
I’m a Senior Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. I also host the Physical Activity Researcher Podcast, where I run a thematic series on Meaningful Sport.
What is your background?
I studied a Master’s degree in Theology and then did another Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology with my thesis research focused on the spiritual dimension in running. I then moved to Denmark for my PhD and then held postdoc positions in China and the UK. My research has been interdisciplinary and explored topics including meaning and identity in sport and exercise, ageing, career and life transitions, and informal learning in sport. Many projects included runners as participants.
How long have you been researching running?
I started with my Master’s thesis around 10 years ago and much of my PhD and first postdoc focused on researching runners. My current research is not focused on any specific sport, but I am still fascinated by running and doing phenomenological investigations when I run myself.
How did you get into researching running?
My first two running studies were much about my search for meaning in running that was triggered by boundary situations. After finishing the MSc, the first study of my PhD was autoethnography that focused on runner identity disruption in transnational migration; it was a bit eclectic mix of existentialism, Buddhism and cultural imaginations of running. In my PhD, I also wanted to explore how the meaning of running shifts across a runner’s career and I am very grateful to my research participants, all experienced runners, who shared their stories with me in life story interviews. While not intended, that research became much about ageing because that is the big existential threat to the running life project if it is framed around modernist narratives of progress (see Ronkainen, Ryba & Nesti, 2013 and Ronkainen & Ryba, 2017). I had wonderful supervisors who helped me in finding existentialism, narrative theory and cultural sport psychology as useful perspectives to theorise the phenomena I was seeking to understand.
What running research have you done?
In addition to this work I already mentioned, in my first postdoc in China I used narrative inquiry to explore runners’ identity constructions in Shanghai, a city which had witnessed a massive running boom in the past few years. With my colleagues, we were interested in how Chinese runners draw on global and local (sub-)culture narratives in constructing runner identities. We focused on turning point narratives as they can be particularly powerful in revealing how we have constructed meaning and identity in our life projects. We also did another analysis which focused on women’s narratives of running and how they navigate gendered life scripts and sometimes conflicting narrative resources when making running meaningful for them.
How do you research running?
My running research has been qualitative and drawn on existentialism and narrative inquiry. I have used (auto)ethnography and life story interviews.
What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?
There were quite a few cultural differences in how runners in China, compared to European countries, thought about running and issues of health and safety around it. In general, there was a lot more attention to potential dangers to health from (excess) running than in the Western countries, where public messages around running are almost exclusively about physical and mental benefits.
However, for me the most significant findings from my research are related to running as a part of a meaningful life. Health and performance discourses are so prevalent in our culture that they could easily colonize a runner’s lifeworld. Yet, I have found that the significance of running in many of experienced runners’ lives didn’t necessarily come down to becoming healthier or achieving a new personal record (although these things can be important, too). For many participants, running had been about having something that gives meaning to the dark winters, about having something to strive towards (even if you might know that the goal is trivial), or about moments in running when you feel that you are connected to something greater than yourself. If anything is taken from my work and developed further, I would hope that it is the notion of running as an activity that can contribute to a meaningful life.
Do you run?
I have been running for almost 15 years now. In the first years, I did more road running events including marathons but then started to lose meaning in it. I moved to trail and fell running and also explored track running a little bit (e.g., 1500 and 3000m). I would love to run all the time but have found out that my running body is fairly fragile. Due to injuries, I partly moved to the “safer” sport of Thai boxing around five years ago. Since then I have been injury-free and practised both of these sports. They also complement each other well.
Nowadays, our favourite run with my partner is the “cake run”. We pick a coffee place which is typically 5-10km away, run there for a coffee and cake, and find another route back. You can do it in nature or the city. In places like Oslo’s Nordmarka where you have these cabins or huts all around the forest, this is the best way to spend the weekend.
Where can I find out more?
My website https://meaningfulsport.com/ includes a blog, podcast and resources. You can message me via the website or on Twitter @NooraRonkainen or @MeaningfulSport. My research articles can be found via ResearchGate.
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