Even as pundits try to figure out if the second running boom is on the wane, it’s easy to identify the sport’s fastest-growing demographic: women. And it may turn out that women will run the sport into the future, even if the men continue to move to the sidelines.
Running USA’s survey of race finishers in 2015 found that more than 57 percent are women. And as an article in the Wall Street Journal noted, the trend is rooted in a number of interests and motivators.
Event owners already know that races with cash prizes are a big draw; turns out, they’re just as big a draw to women as to men. So are personal fitness goals. Many non-runners will choose a 5K and train toward that date.
But for event planners, the most intriguing trend may be this: women are driving the destination race industry. According to an article in Sporting Goods Business, the opportunity to travel and run is (ahem) taking flight. And bus and train and car, too, apparently.
Some events are women-specific (Diva runs, Dirty Girl runs, etc.) but others are more general. But whether 5k, 10k, half marathon, full marathon or fun runs, events that want to attract runners are starting to respond with special programming and perks that cater to the ‘girls’ weekend.’ (i.e. Nike’s Women’s Running events that include Tiffany & Co. swag for finishers.)
“For Newton Running and our entire industry, in the last few years we’ve been trying to get more women to events,” Johannes Schmidt, director of events for Newton Running, told SGB’s Jahla Seppanen.
Schmidt added, “I see less guys going away for the weekend to run a race. Destination races have a social feeling which the female tribe is driving.” He added that destination running has the dual benefit of being a great bonding event for women — whether besties, mother and daughter or work colleagues.
And while men seem to want to compete, women are often in the sport for a variety of reasons, including the social aspects. An article in the Detroit Free Press delved into the fact that women find companionship in running groups, and can often form friendships as a result. In addition, the article noted, running groups often act as free fitness coaches by giving positive reinforcement for healthy behavior.
Following their time in high school or college, SGB notes, many former athletes lack the camaraderie that came with sports. Destination running with friends fills that need.
Oiselle Founder Sally Bergesen verified, “women want to get together in more interesting places to run. The industry by and large has an old model of go to a run specialty store for a group run, get your free t-shirt and go home. This has grown and hinged a lot on the increased presence of women in the sport … we have a higher standard for personal meet-ups and the race experience.”
Leaders in the women’s running industry are tapping this social tendency. “Women are so much more uniquely social,” Bergesen continued. “From meals, travel, hanging out, I do think there’s a split between the genders.”
That split also bolsters other aspects of the industry. Running apparel, for example, is far more fashion-driven than that of men. And while sweat-wicking, comfortable clothing remains essential to female runners, they’re also demanding fashionable colors, styles and cuts. In fact, Nike forecasts that sales of its women’s products will roughly double by 2020.
And if women feel attractive while, and because of, running, that feeds into yet another aspect of the growth. Running groups are seen as a form of empowerment. Girls On the Run, an organization that promotes healthy lifestyles in the 8- to 13-year-old sector, has state councils nationwide and offers branded 5K events. Black Girls Run! has about 70 groups nationwide and 200,000 participants of various ages. Some run “virtual” races, where runners register for a 5K or 10K distance, complete it on the honor system and receive a medal in the mail. Moms Run This Town (sometimes also called She Runs This Town), another training and social group, also has about 700 chapters, most in the U.S., according to the Wall street Journal.
Women's participation in the half marathon distance is increasing as well, according to US News and World Report, and so is travel to those races, particularly in the company of a group of friends. In addition, women's use of social media to network about races has increased.
Proponents note that running carries the additional benefit of being a portable sport, something that appeals to women who travel for business. The development of apps such as Localeiki, which lets visitors find running and walking paths in various cities, and with sites such as Active.com allowing users to find races across the nation any weekend of the year, even the most marginally tech-savvy runner can stay on the move.
And the Wall Street Journal article points out that above and beyond its obvious cardio, weight loss and toning benefits, running can benefit the mental health of women, who suffer from depression more than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that both aerobic exercise and sunlight can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression.
So what are the men doing if women are still driving the running market? The Wall Street Journal notes that instead of running, some younger men especially have joined the trend toward weightlifting and high-intensity interval training. Overall participation in road races has dropped in the past two years as millennials have shown less interest in running than older adults. Average finishing times for men and women also have slowed down as race fields have gotten older and grown to include more recreational runners.
But, say the experts, running isn’t going anywhere just yet. In fact, it didn’t die before; like all exercise trends, it gains and loses participants – but it has managed to keep its footing over the years. And with women continuing to drive participation, particularly in the travel sector, it’s not likely to become an endangered species.