I’m a Running Researcher: Katy Kennedy

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

Who are you?

I finished my PhD a year ago, since then I’ve been working as a psychology lecturer for the Open University, writing papers from my thesis and working on a book proposal related to my beginner runner research

What is your background?

My first degree was in chemistry and I worked as an analytical chemist until I had kids. When they were young I needed some intellectual stimulation in my life so I did an Open University degree in Psychology, followed by an MSc in Psychological Research Methods at Reading, then a part-time PhD in Psychology at the University of Surrey. I find psychology the most fascinating subject there is, it’s so diverse and there are so many different methods and topics you can look at.

How long have you been researching running?

My PhD took 6 years, so 7 years in total, it’s still a fantastic and interesting research topic to me

How did you get into researching running?

During my MSc I became interested in health psychology, and I also took up running as the most time efficient means of exercise to squeeze in alongside studying, commuting to uni and looking after two young children. Although I’ve exercised all my life and love it, I really didn’t enjoy running! So after a disastrous half marathon that someone else signed me up for, I decided to find out how to enjoy running more. I started logging my mileage, I listened to podcasts about running, and I invested in the social identity of being a runner. I made friends with other people who ran, and slowly I started to enjoy running. I decided that I would like to help people start running in a less ridiculously uncomfortable way than I did, and to research how people can feel better during exercise. My supervisor at Surrey came from the perspective of someone who hated exercise and had only started when his doctor told him he would die if he didn’t exercise. So he was interested in how people could hate exercise less and I was interested in helping people to love exercise as much as I do.

What running research have you done?

My PhD thesis consisted of four studies.

The first one (Running Commentary) was a crazy mixed methods one on beginner running groups. I followed these groups over their beginner running programmes, asked people how they felt during running and why, and followed them up with a physical activity questionnaire 6 months later. I was interested in how people felt during running and whether this was related to their future physical activity behaviour (yes!) and also in finding different ways to help people to feel better during running. There also wasn’t much research on outdoor running for this research question, it was all lab-based. So I wanted to know if the lab-based results transferred to everyday environments (sort of!)

The second one (Resolve to Walk) was a study of New Year’s resolutions to walk more, as I’ve always been fascinated by resolutions and there is almost no research on them. Obviously, this was not a running study, but despite being a walking study, many of my participants took up running instead over the six months of the study. So I decided that my next study should be an intervention for beginner runners.

The third study (Walk Jog Smile) was a study of a beginner run-walk programme that I developed from my findings from the Running Commentary study. I took the things that people complained about or enjoyed about the beginner running programmes, and I added some other evidence-based stuff from the literature and I incorporated all this into a podcast series. Then I asked people to follow either my Walk Jog Smile podcast or the Couch 2 5K podcast and give me feedback on how they found them.

The final study was a qualitative synthesis of my findings from the previous 3 studies, since there were lots of interesting findings across the studies and loads of practical applications from them too.

How do you research running?

For the Running Commentary study, I gave people audio recorders to wear round their necks as they ran, to report how they felt (using a scale) and why. This sounds easy but was actually ridiculously difficult. Aside from the puffing and panting and giant grass cutters and overhead plane noise and all the attendant noises, people were in large groups and trying to keep up with them or find them was sometimes impossible. One participant even got lost in the woods. My data from that study were unsurprisingly messy and difficult to transcribe, but were a fascinating insight into real time experiences of beginner runner groups. I sent participants online questionnaires 6 months after they’d started their programme to see what exercise they were doing, to answer my main question of whether feelings during exercise predict future physical activity behaviour. Then I did thematic analysis of the qualitative data, as well as a super interesting mixed methods affective timeline of different types of responses to running.

Walk Jog Smile was a completely online study and I used some great technology to track people’s runs and get feedback from them. My participants downloaded the podcasts to their phones and then used Strava to record their runs. I set up an automated email once they’d uploaded each run, linking to a feedback questionnaire asking them both quantitative enjoyment questions and qualitative questions about their run that day and about the podcast. I also interviewed people by phone after they finished their programme, and used their Strava records and feedback answers as a jumping off point for the interviews. My participants gave me stacks of data beyond just feedback on the programme, so I had lots more qualitative data than I expected, so I analysed all this thematically too.

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

Gosh, this question is like being asked to pick your favourite child! My most significant finding is that how people felt during running (but not walking) did predict their future physical activity behaviour, so people who felt better (or less bad) were more likely to be physically active six months later. The implication is that we then need to help beginners to feel as good as possible, and I have lots of different data about how to do this. Hence I’m writing a book about how beginners can start running and enjoy it as much as possible. I’m hoping it will be a very practical but also evidence-based book that people can use to help them start running or return to running. I’m planning to ask running experts from different areas to contribute their expertise too, so if anyone would like to write a few lines for me, let me know.

Do you run?

I do lots of exercise but running is central to my life and probably the basis for my social life. When there’s not a pandemic on, I tend to run places (you know, when things are actually open), whether that’s to the shops or the bank or the station or the gym. I usually run at least twice a week with friends and we put the world to rights and laugh a lot and take silly photos. I usually have a goal of running a certain number of miles a year, it’s usually 1000, though I’ve found that having a goal of 80 miles a month is more successful and doesn’t result in having to run 200 miles in December. I love racing, but usually trail races are my favourite as the views are better and you can walk up the hills. I’m not motivated by speed in the slightest, I will happily walk if I fancy a break or to admire the scenery. I took up adventure racing about a year and a half ago, and I absolutely love it. It’s basically orienteering and even though I can’t read a map to save my life there is something addictive about getting lost and unlost and making your own route up and faffing about taking photos and chatting and then having to sprint like hell to get to the finish before your time is up and then heading to the pub for a pint with your mates, covered in dirt and sweat and full of the joy of running.

Where can I find out more?

You can follow me on Twitter @katyleighk

You can email me at k.kennedy@open.ac.uk

I also have a scandalously neglected blog that slipped into the abyss of finishing my PhD followed by covid blasting our lives apart. I have lots of stuff to write on there so you can follow it in case I ever get round to updating it: https://katyleighkennedy.wordpress.com/

I’d really like to take the Walk Jog Smile programme further somehow, as I had really good feedback on it from participants. So if anyone would like to collaborate with me on this, or has any suggestions on getting the programme to a wider audience, I would love to hear from you!


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