Running has been something that we’ve loved to watch since ancient times. When the Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, it featured a 600 foot long stadium foot race. Triathlon is the new kid on the block. “Triathlon started in the 1970s in southern California but was very niche and only became more popular in the 1980s and early 1990s,” says David Powell, triathlete, runner and coach, and a founding member of the Brighton Triathlon Club. “The athletes were making a lot of money compared to today. Budweiser in the US and other beer brands in Australia and New Zealand were key sponsors. The professional sport attracted athletes from running, swimming and cycling who probably couldn’t make it in their individual sports but they turned into the new breed of amazing multi-sport professionals. The standards of fitness were high for amateurs, too.”
Show me the money
With the fifth Triathlon Industry Association survey (2017) revealing that the average triathlete spends £2,970 per year on the sport, it’s no surprise that triathlon is the sport of the white collar. Running is more accessible for those with lower incomes, but spending is on the up. In 2016, Sports Insight revealed that consumer spending increased by 50 per cent in comparison to 2010 and since then the running category has shown consistent year-on-year growth. And there has been a transformation in terms of the product mix, says Gary Roethenbaugh, Director at MultiSport Research. “Brands such as Tracksmith and Iffley Road, are forging ahead in a similar way that Rapha has in cycling and triathlon. There’s a clear sense that premium run brands can flourish.”
Running is the training ground for triathlon. “Typically, over 50 per cent of triathletes were runners before they took on triathlon (56 per cent in 2016) So, running remains a key recruitment area for triathlon governing bodies and race organisers,” says Roethenbaugh.
Running may not have the sales opportunities that triathlon has (i.e. bike sales!) but there are new marketing and sales opportunities which overlap and feed both sports, for example, from online training apps such as Strava and Zwift. Zwift Run, has taken the training app designed for cyclists to a whole new audience. And building on Zwift Run, a triathlon academy for those targeting Kona has been launched. “Now more than ever, Zwift is poised to be the ultimate training tool for triathletes,’”said Eric Min, Zwift cofounder and CEO.
The Bigger Picture
Running has recently received a boost as health technology brand, Abbott pledged to renew its sponsorship of The World Marathon Majors Series (Tokyo, Boston, Virgin Money London, BMW BERLIN, Bank of America Chicago and TCS New York City Marathons) in April 2018. Since 2015, Abbott have been in a strategic partnership with Chinese private conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group Co., Ltd who also acquired the IRONMAN brand as part of its World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) take over in 2015. At the time, Tim Hadzima, AbbottWMM General Manager said: “Our Race Directors look forward to working with Wanda to introduce the Series to new audiences in new territories, and to involving our runners in new initiatives.”
As well as taking running to a bigger global stage, just as Wanda have with IRONMAN, it would seem that the success of age group championship races in triathlon has not gone unnoticed and the Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Rankings provides an exciting opportunity for older runners to qualify for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Championships, set to be held in the spring of 2020.
The ‘Parkrun effect’
Running still has a big advantage over triathlon in terms of scale. “Running has been able to leverage the ‘parkrun effect’, which has driven grassroots participation massively. The parkrun format has yet to build a large base in North America. However, both the US and Canada have recorded significant growth in parkrun participation – more than doubling year-on-year in 2017 (from a low base). Other more established parkrun countries – such as the UK, South Africa and Australia – all saw continued growth in individuals engaging with parkrun. In these three countries, growth in participation rose 20 to 30 per cent year-on-year. The end result from this is a mass of engaged runners, enjoying their free 5K parkrun experience but also inspired to take on other running distances/formats,” says Roethenbaugh. “Running events can take over cities and build a resonance via TV and significant social media exposure. The scale of participation equates to a significant base of fans/followers on social. In turn, the social media engagement for running is further amplified. The knock-on effect is that that the larger events inspire people to participate. They want to be a part of the run experience.
“Large scale is something that triathlon has yet to leverage fully. Many tri events have participation in the hundreds rather than thousands. Although, in Germany, triathlon has certainly managed to build some very large scale events through a close co-operation between race organisers and towns and cities. For example, Challenge Roth remains one of the world’s largest long-distance triathlons in terms of participant numbers and spectator support. Also, Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon, which is billed as ‘the world’s biggest tri’ has remained a major event. Here, by being part of the ITU World Triathlon Series, Hamburg has benefited from TV exposure and heightened social media engagement. By keeping the city authorities on board, Hamburg has been able to build and maintain scale. This, alongside the scale achieved in the run event marketplace, is something for triathlon to adapt and emulate.”
What Runners can learn from Triathletes
When it comes to technique, strength and conditioning, and nutrition it appears that triathletes are leading the way. “Triathletes are always looking for the shortcut, the edge, something new to try. They have a big sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out),” suggests Powell, who offers one-to-one coaching to a number of triathletes. TIA research found that male triathletes spend money on bikes, but women spend more on training camps, coaching, and nutrition, all of which could be a consideration for runners.
Runners (and those selling to runners) can always learn from information-hungry, time-poor triathletes. “Triathletes spend more time fine-tuning technique. They are in that mindset as swimming is all about technique,” he explains. ‘And they’re also always looking for a shortcut to getting faster – and preventing injury.” And given that injury is one of the biggest gripes for runners, it would serve them well to pay attention. In a tongue-in- cheek piece for online Competitor magazine, one writer says triathletes are gadget obsessed and eat everything. “The sports nutrition companies target triathletes for training nutrition as well as racing,” says Powell. But he adds: “Most runners racing marathon and shorter distances don’t have as good an understanding of nutrition as triathletes but would benefit from understanding this more.”
What Running can do for triathlon
Running clearly leads the way in terms of numbers taking part and fund raising for charity, with runners almost twice as likely to raise money than the average eight per cent of triathletes. (However, if triathletes get involved with fundraising TIA research show they raise more individually). With Abbott/Wanda’s partnership and plans to expand running into new global markets, new opportunities will emerge. Triathlon (with an average participant age of 42 in the UK) shouldn’t wait for runners to get injured – they need to get new participants on board now with initiatives such as GO TRI (small triathlons run at local leisure centres designed to encourage newcomers to try the sport). And to make big events work, organisers and race directors need to take a leaf out of running’s book on co-operation. All triathletes are runners, but not all runners are triathletes. As we live longer and have more leisure time, and as brands target both markets, there’s more opportunity to suggest runners cross over to triathlon, or even participate in both sports – and triathlon should make the most of this opportunity.