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Why Are People Running Away from Races? A New Survey Has Some Insights

4 Apr, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Why are people running away from organized road races in droves? According to a new study, a lot of reasons. What might surprise organizers: their reasons have less to do with race swag and convenient locations for events – and a lot more to do with the cost/value ratio and the time it takes to compete.

It’s all part of the Runner Retention Survey published by Running USA. According to the organization’s research, since 2014, the running industry has experienced a gradual but consistent year-over-year decline in the number of road race finishers. While nearly 17 million runners still finished a race in 2016, races from marathons to 5Ks across the United States have shared concern as to where runners are spending their time and money instead, as well as how to entice runners back to their respective events.

But according to the survey, there isn’t any one particular culprit. There's certainly no lack of races; every city has several each weekend, and it's easy to find one close to home for the runner who doesn't want a long commute. Running hasn’t gone out of fashion or been replaced by any one sport. What has happened, however, appears to be a shift in priorities – and in budgeting, among other things. Here is a sampling of reasons runners are staying away.

Age: The decline has been more among older rather than younger runners. The youngest and oldest runners tend to be competitive, whereas those of middle age say it’s to be social and remain healthy.

Event owners are concerned about this because many of the stalwarts of racing have been running in fewer races. The exodus, however, doesn’t seem rooted in one cause, such as injuries or the fact that participants can’t post the times they used to (though both those reasons do come into play).

Fees: Cost is such a major driver for race participation  is even more critical to females and younger runners, the key cohorts for longer-term success. An overwhelming agreement was given to the statement, “I would participate in more races if the fees were lower.”

Unfortunately, races do cost more and this is something unlikely to change. As the cost of living has increased, so has the cost of putting on a race. Fewer outside entities have stepped up to sponsor races and much of the increase has been borne by runners who, frankly, are tired of not getting what they perceive to be a value equivalent to their investment.

They’re Bored: Runners are looking for new experiences and it has been recommended that event owners create new themes and experiences annually. This presents a challenge for race directors who, again, are trying not to raise costs. (It's also the reason for the rise in theme races, such as bridesmaid dress runs, color runs, underwear runs and so forth.) Additionally, many event participants stated they were looking for new challenges or liked to mix up their workouts. Men are replacing their runs more with mud and obstacle races, while women are participating in fitness classes.

It’s Easier: For women, fitness classes more than other color, mud, etc. type events are taking the runner dollar. After all, a spin class might be more convenient, close to home, have a specific time and often, will be included in the monthly membership fee at the gym, rather than necessitating a separate race registration – and a trip somewhere else to participate in a race. Which actually folds into the next factor…

No Time: More women than men also cited this as a reason for their decreased participation in the event, but a huge percentage of runners in both genders noted they were pressed for time, and as a result, found it difficult to set aside weekend mornings to do all that was necessary to participate in a race. Family responsibilities were cited as a key factor. To a lesser extent, many said they would rather spend free time with their friends.

The good news – for race directors and event owners – is the survey also captured data on what runners enjoyed about their sport. Among the answers given, the top-ranked were to stay healthy, stay in shape, to train for a race, relieve stress and control weight. The fact that running is fun was also a highly-placed answer.

The full report, which includes breakdown of answers by gender and age group, is available from Running USA at this link.

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