Anatomy of Running, Part 1: Participation

By Sarah Tuff Dunn June 4, 2015
Editor’s note:  This is Part 1 of a three-part series
Part 2: Economy      Part 3: Innovation

You’re not just imagining it: Runners are everywhere these days, from the ubiquitous trails around Colorado, to the rolling roads of Virginia, and the dusty dirt paths on the outskirts of urban areas like Dallas and Atlanta. Lacing up a pair of sneakers and looping a 5K around the neighborhood—or lasting through a 100-mile endurance effort—is becoming as American as waving the red, white and blue.

“Running in America is thriving, attracting new runners from both genders and reaching new highs in participation and economic activity,” says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA. His nonprofit, founded in 1999, furthers the sport in this country, and finds some phenomenal numbers, too. According to Running USA’s 2014 State of the Sport, which collects data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey, among other sources, there are now more than 54 million runners in the U.S.

According to Running USA’s 2014 State of the Sport, which collects data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey, among other sources, there are now more than 54 million runners in the U.S.

That represents a 2.5 percent increase over last year—but a 70 percent leap since 2004, reports Running USA. We haven’t seen this kind of passion toward putting one foot in front of the other since 1970, when the Peachtree Road Race (with just 110 entrants, believe it or not), and marathons in New York and Seattle, sparked a coast-to-coast jonesing for everything jogging. As Running Times explains, road running up until that point was “unfashionable.” But, infused with the creative energy of fun runs, the trend suddenly swept up seemingly ordinary Americans.

Sound familiar? Today’s running boom is riding a similar tide but with broader-reaching ripples into trail running, obstacle-course racing, kids’ clubs and more. Adventure racing is now the top trending activity among all sports, reports the Outdoor Foundation in its “Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2014,” with a 28.4 percent participation change in three years.

“I think the concept of getting ‘fit or healthy’ has changed,” says Henry Guzman, co-owner of and buyer for Flatirons Running, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado. “We’ve seen a huge explosion into the trail running market, and in the Tough Mudder-type of runs, which means people are looking to get off the roads and try something more challenging and different than regular road races.”

Road races are still raging, of course—especially 5K events, which saw a 34 percent uptick in finishers between 2013 and 2014, reports Running USA. The 10K increased 1 percent during that time, along with a 6-percent rise for the half-marathon and an 11 percent change for the marathon. But other running events jumped a whopping 22 percent, indicating an increasing interest in the same “creative energy” that pulled the country off the couch in the 1970s. “Obstacle challenges and themed runs have spiked in the past few years and are already as popular as traditional marathons and half-marathons,” writes Running USA. “While 6 percent of those surveyed had participated in marathons previously, 5 percent had participated in an obstacle challenge and 7 percent in a themed run.”

So, who’s doing all this running? While the numbers vary according to surveys conducted, the short answer is just about everyone from Great Uncle Karl to the kindergartner next door. Americans 25 and older made 2.8 billion running, jogging and trail running outings in 2013, reports the Outdoor Foundation. “Outdoor participation among youth and young adults showed promise,” write the authors of the “Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2014,” putting running atop the most popular activities among young people. According to the report, 24 percent of America’s youth (ages 6–17) are participating in running, jogging and trail running. So, what’s the attraction? According to OIA ConsumerVue research, runners’ top motivations are “physical exercise,” “having fun” and “improving my physical health.”

Meanwhile, most finishers of traditional road races aren’t exactly spring chickens, with the average age of a female 5K participant at 33, and the average age of a male marathon runner at 40.2. This has a major impact on not only who we see on the streets but also what we see in stores. “The single driving force is women between the ages of 35 and 60,” says Guzman.

Will this recent running bubble eventually burst? Track stars such as Mary Cain are blowing away records, and recreational runners are discovering a staggering array of ways to get their sweat on. Which means we, like Cain, won’t likely be slowing down anytime soon.