Running Events

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Theme Runs, Mud Runs Losing Ground in New Survey

15 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Traditional Races, Including 5Ks, 10Ks and Half Marathon, Are Gaining Popularity

After several years of a strong uptick driven by participation in non-traditional runs (themed fun runs, obstacles races and others), the sport of running appears to be going through a course correction of sorts. Those outside-the-lines events appear to be falling out of favor while traditional races, including 5Ks, 10Ks and the half marathon, are on the upswing.

So what does it mean for event owners?

The figures, which come from Running USA’s annual U.S. Running Trends Report, tell us a few things. They might not all be pleasant but they’re all important.

The bad news: The number of runners registering for organized races in the U.S. was down slightly in 2018

More bad news: This is the fifth year for a contraction of those numbers.

The better news: It’s not a widespread condition. The largest part of the decrease was a dramatic drop in participation in non-traditional races (the previously mentioned themed runs, mud runs and others). Those races declined 12 percent to 4.96 million from 5.55 million.

Also good news: Traditional distances – including the 5K, 10K, and half marathon – all increased year on year. Participation in 5K, half marathon and marathon all showed some recovery last year while 10K participation further improved versus 2017.

So what factors are at work here? According to Running USA, it’s not just one answer but a combination of them.

“Our belief is that obstacle course events are facing a contraction for several reasons,” says CEO Rich Harshbarger. “The novelty simply is no longer there.”

About a decade ago, every week brought a new influx of unique mud runs (with military themes, zombie themes and others) as well as themed fun runs (the kind where runners wore costumes, were sprayed with color or got into tomato fights at the finish line). These races cost more than the average 5K and temporarily, the industry virtually exploded with them every weekend. Because of their offbeat appeal, they caught the attention of many non-runners who participated as a social experience with friends. This drove the uptick in racing for several years.

Running USA’s report notes that the industry peaked in 2013 when 19 million runners crossed the finish line at U.S. running events over all distances after having been steadily rising from only 5 million participants in 1990.

Over time, however, many of the upstart organizations that had jumped onto the mud and theme bandwagon hopped back off, resulting in fewer non-traditional events being offered, an overall return in the industry to more traditional races, hosted by the companies who’d been in the industry for years and who already had a base of athletes.

“There has been a large contraction in the market for these types of events,” Harshbarger adds. “The industry is really down to only a handful of events/brand experiences such as Tough Mudder, Spartan, Warrior, etc.”

At the same time, many of the non-runners who had been drawn to the offbeat races drifted away to other types of workouts; Harshbarger cites Peloton and CrossFit as examples, and notes there are others.

Running USA’s report notes, “Participation in the [non-traditional race] category has slowed in recent years after expanding sharply over the last decade. Participation in Other Distances races was up only 1.3 percent in 2017, from 5.48 million in 2016.”

Other findings included the following:

Another key finding in the new U.S. Running Trends report is that the majority of runners of U.S. road races in 2018 continues to be women, who made up 60 percent of road race participants. Men only participated more than women in the marathon, making up 53 percent of participants.

In other traditional running races, women made up 61 percent of 5K participants, 59 percent of 10K participants and 60 percent of half marathon participants.

Other findings in the report include:

  • The most popular race is by far the 5K, making up 49.1 percent of all registrants in the nation. That was followed by other distances, 27.3 percent; half marathon, 11.5 percent; 10K, 9.1 percent; and marathon, 2.8 percent.
  • The ages 25-44 are the sweet spot for participation across all event distances.
  • The average age of participants is 37.
  • By season, 32 percent of participants raced in the spring, just behind 31 percent for the fall. Summer races accounted for 24 percent of participants and winter, 13 percent.

The U.S. Running Trends Report is available free to Running USA members; others may purchase it at this link.

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