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Participation in running events has fallen in recent years, study finds

Twin Cities Marathon
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
Data for the study comes from more than 70,000 road races held in 193 countries between 1986 and 2018, including 96 percent of U.S. races held during that period.

The world appears to be in the midst of a “running recession.” Global participation in race events — 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons — decreased by 13 percent during the past two years, according to a new report.

Most of that decline has occurred in the United States and Europe, the report notes. In Asia, the number of runners entering races is on the rise, but not enough to compensate for the drop in participation elsewhere.

That’s not to say that running isn’t popular. The number of people around the world who run races has increased by 57 percent — from 5 to 7.9 million runners — over the past 10 years, the report points out. But that top number is down from 9.1 million runners in 2016.

“Any sport, as it attracts the masses, will have a period of decline. We cannot say if this is a short-term trend or a long-term one,” the report states.


The report is based on a study led by Jens Jakob Andersen, founder of Run Repeat, and done in collaboration with the International Association of Athletics Federation. Data for the study come from more than 70,000 road races held in 193 countries between 1986 and 2018, including 96 percent of U.S. races held during that period.

Only traditional running events were part of the study. Nontraditional running events, such as “walk-runs” for charity and obstacle course events, were excluded from the analysis.

Possible explanations

The study was not designed to determine why fewer people are entering running events, but Andersen and his colleagues suggest one reason may be because completing a marathon doesn’t have the cachet it once did.

“Ten years ago, running a marathon was the ultimate goal for many athletes,” they write in their report. “Not many did it. It attracted a certain audience. Then a group of less experienced athletes joined the pack and proved that they could do it as well. The trend kept going, and at some point, the extreme athletes did not find the marathon extreme anymore.”

Those extreme athletes now tend to enter ultra marathons, trail endurance races and Ironman triathlons — events whose participation has exploded in recent years, the report says.

Another reason fewer people are signing up for traditional running events might have to do with motivation, the report adds. More runners appear to be entering races to have a social experience rather than to claim a personal achievement. Indicators of that trend include the report’s findings that significantly fewer people are running races at milestone ages (30, 40, 50, 60) than in the past and that finish times are slower.

“With people being slower, it’s not the individual who’s getting slower, but the average of all runners, meaning that the ‘demography’ has changed,” the report explains. “More slow runners participate.”

The United States, by the way, has the largest number of runners — and the slowest.

Other findings

Here are some other interesting findings from the report:

  • The average age of runners entering races has increased significantly over the past three decades, rising from 35.2 years in 1986 to 39.3 years in 2018. This trend may be because people are having longer racing careers or because more people are starting to run at an older age. Indeed, the average age of 5K participants has jumped by 25 percent over the past seven years, from 32 to 40.
  • Many more women are running than 30 years ago. Women made up only 20 percent of race participants in 1986. That figure climbed to just above 50 percent in 2018. More than 60 percent of 5K participants are women. The countries with the most women runners tend to be the ones with the most gender equality.
  • Although marathon runners over age 70 tend to have (not surprisingly) the slowest finish times (5 hours 40 minutes, on average, in 2018), being younger doesn’t always guarantee better times. The average finish time in 2018 for marathon runners under age 30 was 4 hours 32 minutes. That’s only slightly better than the average time for 50- to 60-year-olds: 4 hours 34 minutes. “This could be due to lack of experience or training, or maybe because a lot of young participants are just “trying” marathon running and are participating mostly for social benefits,” the report says. Runners aged 30 to 50 performed best, with an average finish time of 4 hours 24 minutes.

FMI: You can read the full “State of Running 2019” report on the Run Repeat website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/17/2019 - 10:43 am.

    I’ve been a slow runner all my life, have never enjoyed running, and – after major back surgery decades ago – would never willingly enter a marathon, or even a 5K, as a runner. I have, however, entered several 5K “Run / Walk” events, always intending to walk the 5K distance. The first of these was a dozen years ago, when I was 63 and lived in Colorado. I’ve participated in a few other similar events since then – the most recent one being the “Autumn Classic” at Elm Creek Park in the north metro last October, in which I finished 2nd-to-last. I’m looking forward to walking the 5K in this year’s event, as well.

  2. Submitted by Greg Smith on 06/17/2019 - 01:20 pm.

    Every see a runner smile?

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/17/2019 - 06:03 pm.

    The human body was not designed for long distance running. It is not a healthful activity, and should be discouraged.

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