Endurance sports are dominated by white-collar workers

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Cycling, running, and obstacle course racing are dominated by white-collar workers:

Participating in endurance sports requires two main things: lots of time and money. Time because training, traveling, racing, recovery, and the inevitable hours one spends tinkering with gear accumulate — training just one hour per day, for example, adds up to more than two full weeks over the course of a year. And money because, well, our sports are not cheap: According to the New York Times, the total cost of running a marathon — arguably the least gear-intensive and costly of all endurance sports — can easily be north of $1,600.

No surprise, then, that data collected in 2015 by USA Triathlon shows that the median income for triathletes is $126,000, with about 80 percent either working in white-collar jobs — professions such medicine, law, and accounting — or currently enrolled as students. Running USA surveys conducted in 2015 and 2017 found that nearly 75 percent of runners earn more than $50,000, and about 85 percent work in white-collar, service, or educational settings. A 2013 report published by USA Cycling shows much the same: More than 60 percent of individuals who compete in cycling events claim household incomes above $75,000. And though it doesn’t track employment, the same USA Cycling report shows that 66 percent of cyclists have at least an undergraduate degree.

There are a handful of obvious reasons the vast majority of endurance athletes are employed, educated, and financially secure. As stated, the ability to train and compete demands that one has time, money, access to facilities, and a safe space to practice, says William Bridel, a professor at the University of Calgary who studies the sociocultural aspects of sport. “The cost of equipment, race entry fees, and travel to events works to exclude lower socioeconomic status individuals,” he says, adding that those in a higher socioeconomic bracket tend to have nine-to-five jobs that provide some freedom to, for example, train before or after work or even at at lunch. “Almost all of the non-elite Ironman athletes who I’ve interviewed for my research had what would be considered white-collar jobs and commented on the flexibility this provided,” says Bridel.

Research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that low-income neighborhoods were 4.5 times less likely to have recreational facilities — like pools, gyms, and tennis courts — than high-income neighborhoods. In some low-income areas, less than 20 percent of residents live within a half-mile of a park or within three miles of a recreational facility. Compare that to the 98 percent of New York County residents and 100 percent of San Francisco County residents who live within walking distance to a park.

This is why poor Kenyans have no chance at marathon success.

The salient point is that the voluntary suffering of endurance sports attracts the Upper Middle Class:

One hypothesis is that endurance sports offer something that most modern-day knowledge economy jobs do not: the chance to pursue a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” most knowledge economy jobs suffer from “a lack of objective standards.”

Ask a white-collar professional what it means to do a good job at the office, and odds are they’ll need at least a few minutes to explain their answer, accounting for politics, the opinion of their boss, the mood of their client, the role of their team, and a variety of other external factors. Ask someone what it means to do a good job at their next race, however, and the answer becomes much simpler.


Another reason white-collar workers are flocking to endurance sports has to do with the sheer physicality involved. For a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research this past February, researchers from the Cardiff Business School in Wales set out to understand why people with desk jobs are attracted to grueling athletic events. They interviewed 26 Tough Mudder participants and read online forums dedicated to obstacle course racing. What emerged was a resounding theme: the pursuit of pain.

“By flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness,” write the researchers. “When leaving marks and wounds, pain helps consumers create the story of a fulfilled life. In a context of decreased physicality, [obstacle course races] play a major role in selling pain to the saturated selves of knowledge workers, who use pain as a way to simultaneously escape reflexivity and craft their life narrative.” The pursuit of pain has become so common among well-to-do endurance athletes that scientific articles have been written about what researchers are calling “white-collar rhabdomyolysis,” referring to a condition in which extreme exercise causes kidney damage.

“Triathletes who I interviewed for my research talked about how the pain that they experienced during training and racing was one of the primary reasons they did it,” says Bridel. “To overcome this pain and get across the finish line served as a significant form of achievement and demonstrated an ability to discipline their bodies.”


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    It is notable that the SWPL activities require little or no athletic ability or skill.

  2. Albion says:

    The increase in gravity-assisted sports is telling. Most modern people want to fall or slide gracefully and successfully rather than put the effort in using energy to make something happen.

    Skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, parachuting and others like that may all require a certain bravery, plus balance and timing — no question — but modern ‘fashionable’ sports involve a lot of gravity.

  3. Random Observer says:

    If that Cardiff thesis is true, I fear that our OCD ruling class is also insane.

    Historical ruling classes tested their physicality with horses and swords and prided themselves on the ability to endure pain. It would seem sufficiently few sought pain for its own sake for those who did to inspire literature.

  4. Grasspunk says:

    “pain helps consumers create the story of a fulfilled life”

    The article calls them “consumers”. What a put-down!

    Bob: Interesting, I’ll watch out for the no-skill angle. Never noticed that before.

    Albion: “gravity-assisted sports” is hilarious!

    Random Observer: I wonder how much pain is endured for sake of Instagram or FB. Inspired literature for the 21st Century. No point in putting the effort in if you can’t signal about it.

  5. Carl says:

    If these people are really looking for a clear, measurable goal they should be lifting. “Gravity-assisted sports” are clearly inferior to gravity resisting sports. Unfortunately lifting is viewed as being prole. It would be terrible if you could no longer fit into your hipster skinny jeans because you built a more masculine body.

  6. David Foster says:

    Interesting that Alan Turing was a serious runner, to the point of trying out for the Olympics

  7. Senexada says:

    “Relief from self awareness” is reminiscent of Carlyle’s remarks on the value of physical labor:

    Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!

  8. Thibodeaux says:

    I’ve noticed that a lot of women (and low-T men) claim to enjoy running for psychological reasons: endorphin rush and also mental “quiet” (their words, not mine)

  9. Chedolf says:

    I concentrate more on resistance training, but I love running. If you have a good natural stride, which seems kind of rare, you can get into a groove where you feel like you’re floating and your feet barely strike the ground.

  10. Random Observer says:


    It applies somewhat to the aristocratic leisure modes too. Somewhere in the corpus of Victorian literature is the notion that aristocrats pursued all these things to “rid themselves of the day”.

    I can’t remember the source. The idea sounds like a way of life.

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