Arecord total of 253,930 people entered the ballot for the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon. With 50,000 runners accepted and, with a proportion of entrants dropping out due to illness, injury or other reasons before Race Day up to 45,000 runners finally completed the race.
There is no doubt that the popularity of this event continues to grow, and, in fact, since the event first started 36 years ago it is true to say that the profile of running as a sport has seen a huge evolution and has grown to be a mainstream form of exercise.
However, in recent years, it is not running in its purest form that has been attracting more and more participants - the sport of running and its industry alike have undergone a metamorphosis of sorts, where for many runners, the main goal of competing in events is finishing a race - and having fun doing it - rather than breaking records. This shift in the sport is due in large part to the growth of popularity of non-traditional races, such as the Tough Mudder, The Colour Run and Rat Race.
What’s driving the growth?
But what is driving the growth of participation in non-traditional running events?
On the one hand, the sport of running as a whole has experienced unprecedented growth. Sports Marketing Surveys Inc (SMS) estimates the UK’s running population has reached an impressive 10.5million runners, with one in five adults running four or more times a year, while 25 per cent of under-18s also qualify as active runners under these criteria.
Yet, leaders in the running industry are quick to note that it is not just the growing participation in the sport that is driving interest in non-traditional events. Many of these leaders believe that society’s shift toward a more localised lifestyle is at the root of the growth of non-traditional running events.
In the US, for example, Mikal Peveto of adidas America said: “There is a sea change going on in the world, where we are embracing our smallness and local communities. Whether it’s fresh foods and farming or stores becoming a more vital part of the communities they’re in, we are seeing a natural reconfiguration of our values in terms of localness. The same applies to running. Today, the fastest growing events in the sport aren’t established marathons, but things like obstacle course races and the Tough Mudder, which are all very community based.”
Many market commentators also believe that there are economic reasons behind the growth of running and the associated Extreme Events.
Running is accessible. Equipment requirements are low. There is no coaching required, rules to learn, clubs to join. Simply put on your shoes and off you go.
Certainly growth in running has accelerated since 2008 – perhaps directly influenced by the challenging economic period that has presided since that time.
Along with economics, another interesting aspect is the unique role that women’s growing interest in running has played in shaping the sport.
Many of the women signing up for ultra marathons and marathons today will take for granted their right to compete. But only 40 years ago, it was not an option.
As recently as the Eighties, it was thought to be too dangerous for women to run long distances. It wasn’t until the late Seventies that big city marathons began to allow women to compete.
And women were not allowed to take part in the marathon at the Olympics until 1984.
Since then, women’s participation in marathons, ultra marathons, and adventure races has flourished.
There are likely a number of key reasons behind this evolution but certainly it does seem that a lot of women are using endurance races and events as a target to help motivate them to lose weight or improve their fitness.
Social Media is undoubtedly a driver with many women using posts as a self motivational tool - much in the same way that those attending weight loss groups traditionally used their peer group within the circle to “compete against” they are now able to reach out to their wider peer group to help encourage them to achieve their goals.
It is also true that this “social” side has been the driver towards increased participation in nontimed, but fun, events.
Impact and opportunities for the industry
With the growing participation of women in the sport of running and a shift in the types of events interesting runners our own industry is seeing some changes and some opportunities.
Extreme events have driven both the growth in specialist products (think innov8 and the cross over products from trail running) as well as more “informal” running apparel (think leggings, performance t’s etc).
In fact, the latter category (in particular leggings) has seen the boundaries between street fashion and sport once again become blurred.
Brands such as Sweaty Betty and Lululemon have driven demand and several online retailers have launched sportswear verticals, such as Boohoo Fit, Missguided Active and Net-a-Sporter.
Likewise, as retailers recognise the “local/community” element to many of these events, the proactive dealers have created bespoke printed apparel options to further enhance both the fun and (often) team element of the race.
Given the fast and sizeable growth of participation in the sport of running recently and the non-traditional races facilitating that growth, where is the sport of running headed?
As we have already established, running isn’t an elitist sport in terms of costs. On top of that, research shows that most participants are of a higher educated, higher income bracket and professionally employed base. Therefore, they have the means to travel and pay entry fees and other associated costs with running.
The interesting shift is going to be watching and paying attention to the next generation.
How will millennials and their approach and attitudes towards life - whether it’s how they’re employed, where they live and how they spend and donate - impact the sport? Will the popularity of nontraditional events continue to grow with the millennials?
My own conclusion is that, as today’s consumer continues to search for experience-based events these sorts of activities will indeed grow. Perhaps we will end up with a sliding scale of events from the very extreme (think multi-day/multi discipline) through to the more traditional 5/10k as the consumer continues to demand more choice.
It does seem that participation numbers look set to continue to grow and thus, as an industry, the opportunities will continue to become available.
I’m off to get my old running shoes on and get dirty…