For the past 20 years, the running industry has seen an explosion of growth as runners of all ages, sizes and abilities flocked to the streets. But now that growth has begun to peter out. And according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, millennials are to blame for the decline. But ask any runner out where the rubber meets the road, and they'll tell you the same thing: The running community is stronger — and larger — than ever.
Over the last 50 years, lots of people and events have influenced the growth of running, but perhaps the two most significant contributing factors were the 1966 Boston Marathon when Roberta Gibbs snuck onto the course and became the first woman in history to complete a marathon, and the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon when Oprah Winfrey ran and showed the world running really is for everyone.
What did those two events have in common?
Title IX (the law that opened up school sports to women) didn't even exist until 1972. So prior to Gibbs running the Boston Marathon, it was unheard of for a woman to run that distance. Doctors advised against it for fear that if women ran on a regular basis, it would jumble their reproductive equipment. Gibbs proved them wrong and showed what a perfectly normal 20-something woman could do.
By 1994, the world had seen the light, and female runners were taking their place alongside men. But it was still an intimidating sport left to the elites of both genders. However, when Oprah finished in a respectable and now infamous time of 4 hours, 29 minutes and 15 seconds, women everywhere realized running could be enjoyed by everyone.
And so the running boom began, marked by a furious growth spurred primarily by women. As Kim Watkins, owner of inShape Fitness and a coach for the New York Road Runners put it, "Americans are so prone to fads, and the desire to drop weight led many to running. Shoe, apparel and other companies did a great job inventing and marketing a dizzying array of products that motivated people to try running and participate in local races."
But two years ago, that growth reached an apex, and last year it cooled ever further. The WSJ suggests millennials — with their attraction to less competitive sports — are to blame. However, the leveling off of the running boom seems like a natural side effect in a world where the number of athletic options increases every day.
Sure, you could sign up for a 5K this weekend or even a half-marathon, but you could also participate in an obstacle race, an untimed color run, a triathlon, a mud run or something entirely different like a boot camp class, CrossFit or ballet barre group. It's not that millennials are averse to running, or even competition, rather they just have a lot more choices for how to get fit.
I'm a member of several runners groups on social media. Over the last decade or so, the number of participants in these groups has grown by the thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands. There may be more ways to get fit these days, but there are also more ways to connect with like-minded exercisers than ever before.
I recently asked folks on these forums if what the WSJ reported coincided with what they were seeing on their runs. I received hundreds of responses (which, granted, is only a small sample of the 19 million or so runners who lace up on a regular basis), but the overwhelming majority of runners responded with incredulity at the thought that there are fewer runners today than just a few years ago.
I tend to agree. All of the major races — from Boston to New York to Chicago — are harder to get into now than they were even just a few years ago thanks to the sheer number of runners trying to enter. And every day I see runners of all ages, genders, shapes and sizes out pounding the pavement. If millennials are slightly less represented among runners, I think that's more due to age than a sign of the times.
The 20s and early 30s are tumultuous years — they always have been. Between college, work, marriage and possibly kids, life is up and down. Running — or any kind of exercise — doesn't always fit into the plan.
That was the case for Laura Arnold, a 28-year-old runner from Cincinnati, Ohio, who ran competitively in high school but then explored other forms of fitness — everything from Pilates to belly dancing — in college before lacing up her running shoes again in her late 20s. "I ended up back with running, I think, because it's so accessible. No yoga mat required. You can do it alone without an instructor, or with a group."
So maybe the crazy explosion of growth in running has leveled off. But that's to be expected with the sheer number of athletic pursuits available today. And maybe there are fewer millennials running than other age groups, but we runners know that when the time is right, they'll be back.