The second running boom

 In Running

The second running boom

Fun runs have exploded, and competitor field limits for these runs are routinely over-subscribed. Footpaths are more congested. Fluoro-coloured running shoes are everywhere to be seen. Running Lycra graces local cafes and coffee shops. Running shoes are no longer just reserved for use when running, and can now be the perfect accessory to any outfit.  In other words, the rise in running’s popularity is in full swing. The last decade has seen a relative explosion in people’s interest in running, and the sport’s simplistic charms are being discovered and embraced by millions of people worldwide. So large is the increase in participation that trend analysts have termed this current time in the history of running ‘the second running boom’. (The first running boom occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Indeed, not since the first running boom has the world seen such an increase in the numbers of people taking to running. During the original running boom, experts estimated that 25 million Americans took up some aspect of running. Yet many believe that the current running boom outstrips the halcyon days of the first running boom, with estimates of 200 million people worldwide having taken to running in the last five to ten years.

Running events continue to grow every year in participation, with record entry numbers routinely being swelled by new competitors. Sold-out events, race organisers’ websites crashing due to masses of entries and traffic, and a bevy of new and quirky events typify the current running event landscape. The new events offered show it’s not just the traditional road running races that are booming. You can now run with paint being splashed all over you (Colour Run) or in the dark with glow sticks (Glow Run), cover many kilometres in events such as the Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race challenges, or even run steps inside stadiums (Stadium Stomps). All the while, the off-road and trail-running world of events is also exploding with an uptake in competitors and new races all the time. There’s now even a mountain-running world series known as Sky Running.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of runners pound the pavement on any given weekend – not for an event or a competition but, rather, just run for fitness or recreation. These recreational runners constitute a huge part of the worldwide second running boom, and show that not everyone has an interest in running for competition – some people run purely for fitness and health.

The boom in Australia and around the world

People of all ages, shapes and sizes are taking to running as a means of getting in shape and having fun. Running has become fashionable, and being a runner is now considered cool. Gone are the days when running was deemed as being uncool or uncultured. Gone are the days, when among friends, you were deemed a bit obsessive and weird if you classified yourself as a runner. In days gone by you were considered very strange if you paid money to compete in running events. Things are different now. Running has become a mainstream and widely accepted and revered method of exercising and promoting optimal physical health.

The running boom of the 1970s and 1980s initially started in the USA, with American marathoner Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Munich Olympic Marathon credited as inspiring the boom. Shorter’s win made him the first American Olympic marathon winner since 1908. However, it was arguably not the victory itself that intrigued Americans but rather the memorable and dramatic fashion by which a German imposter (a student not even in the race) crossed the line ahead of Shorter that captured imaginations and drew attention to marathon running.

In addition to Shorter’s victory, other factors also acted as a catalyst for the groundswell and momentum of the first running boom in the USA. These included the rise of American track stars like Steve Prefontaine and his acclaimed coach (and Nike co-founder) Bill Bowerman, the acceptance of women as athletes across all sports, the beginnings of athletic scholarships being available at college level for women, a rise in media coverage and new events such as the Chicago and New York Marathons. And so running morphed from the obsession of a few runners to a nationwide fad and accepted form of exercise.

As well as the USA, the first running boom did spread to other countries, including the UK Australia, and New Zealand In contrast, however, this current second running boom is worldwide – it has not been isolated to one nation or even just several. Rather, it appears to have swept all corners of the earth, and appears to be continuing very strongly, even as it heads into its third decade.

In Australia, 8 per cent of people over the age of 15 years identify themselves as runners.[i] In raw numbers, that equates to 1.65 million Australians partaking in some level of running activity at least two to three times a week. Interestingly, the number of Australians running or jogging as a sport has almost doubled since 2005–2006.[ii]

In the USA, since the mid-1990s Running USA (a national not-for-profit organisation) has documented the sport of running’s rapid growth (2). According to their 2013 ‘State of the Sport’ report, every year for the past 20 years (with the exception of 2003) has seen record numbers of race finishers in US running events. The report outlines that 2013 saw 15.3 million finishers in running events in the US alone. This equates to a staggering 170 per cent increase in numbers from 20 years earlier, or an 80 per cent increase since the year 2000. [iii]

Even among some of the world’s most smog-laden cities the running boom is in full swing. When a 10-kilometre road race in Hong Kong recently opened its online registration, the website crashed after 15 minutes as 30,000 people tried to secure registration. Amazingly, once the website was resurrected, the race was full within four hours.[iv]

On average, three marathon races are held each month on the Chinese mainland. The 33rd running of the Beijing Marathon hosted in excess of 30,000 runners, with all race entries submitted within 13 hours of registration opening. In 1981 when the event was first launched, fewer than 200 people participated. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Marathon attracted a record crowd of 35,000 runners just two months after the 33rd Beijing Marathon was held in 2013. Yet on the same day, the Environmental Monitoring Centre reported pollution levels as being more than 10 times the World Health Organization’s threshold. Most telling of the running boom sweeping China is the fact that the Chinese Athletic Association held 12 official running events in 2012 and an astonishing 53 official events in 2014.[v]

Meanwhile in Europe, research reveals that approximately 36 per cent of 15- to 65-year-old Europeans are taking to the streets, parks, forests and treadmills for their running fix. This finding was outlined in the ASICS ‘Reasons to Run’ survey, released in 2009. The same survey also revealed that Europe had approximately 80 million runners, with a third of them starting in the year that the survey was conducted. Staggeringly, 33 per cent of European women started running in the year of the survey.[vi]

The major beneficiaries of the boom are the footwear and running apparel manufacturers. The total dollars spent on jogging and running shoes in the USA alone in 2012 was a staggering $3.04 billion. Compared to 1998’s $1.47 billion expenditure, this represents a 51.6 per cent increase in shoe sales, or an extra 15.2 million shoes being purchased. Sales are expected in the USA to grow to $3.51 billion in the not too distant future.[vii]

Trend drivers

The question being asked is why an explosion of people are taking to running during this second worldwide running boom, with shoe companies, clothing manufacturers, event organisers and industry publications all researching the key drivers. What all this research is finding is that not just one or two drivers are at play; rather, a series of drivers appear to be fuelling the running boom.

Statistics sourced from formal running event participation records have helped identify the following key drivers of the second running boom:

  • Women: A record number of women are taking to running. In the US, female finishers now comprise 56 per cent of the total competitors at any event, compared to 42 per cent in 2000. In 2012, 8.6 million females finished a US running event, and this had increased to 10.8 million women by 2013.[viii]
  • Half marathons: In the US alone, 2012 saw a record increase of 15 per cent (1.86 million runners) for finishers of the half-marathon distance, with 60 per cent of these being female. So far in 2014 in the US, there have been 1.96 million finishers with a 61 per cent female participation.[ix]
  • 5-kilometre events for beginners: In the US, 40 per cent of all event finishers in 2012, or 6.8 million runners, completed a 5-kilometre running event. By 2013 this number had grown to 8.3 million race finishers of a 5-kilometre event, making this the most popular distance.[x]
  • Ultra marathon runs: Ultra marathons are defined as any race greater than the marathon distance (42.2 kilometres). In the last four years, participation in this sport has grown as much as it did in the previous twenty-seven years. In 1998 in the US, there were 15,500 ultra-marathon finishers; in 2011, there were 52,000 ultra-marathon finishers. Furthermore, female participation has increased from virtually nil in the late 1970s to nearly 20 per cent since 2004.[xi]
  • New, cool and ‘hip’ running events: These are increasingly being added to the running calendar and include what could be classified as non-traditional running events, such as colour, mud, stadium, off-road and obstacle-type events. In the US alone analysts estimate that 2 million people participated in these types of events in 2012, growing to 4 million by 2013.[xii]
  • Increases in traditional road running events: New events are being added all the time, including charity runs and women-only runs. In the US in 2012, a total of 26, 370 running events were conducted – representing at that stage an all-time high for the number of US events.[xiii]
  • Decreases in the popularity and participation of swimming. In Australia, ABS figures show fewer people are swimming, and this may have been one of the key drivers of the doubling of participation in jogging and running as a sport or recreation since 2005–06.
  • Technology: Websites, blogs, YouTube, forums, apps and social media have all made it easier than ever to connect with a like-minded community of people who share a passion for running. This community and the technology available provides valuable and often times inspiring information for runners. Pre-technology, such runners would have never been able to connect in such a way.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 ‘Running Into Injury’ page 33-38 Amazon Running & Jogging Bestseller ‘You CAN Run Pain Free!’


Brad Beer (APAM)

Physiotherapist, Author, Founder POGO Physio


[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). ‘Participation in Sport & Physical Recreation, Australia 2011–2012’.

[ii] ibid

[iii] Running USA. 2014 State of the Sport. Part 3: Race Trends.

[iv] Scott Leitch. ‘Hong Kong Marathon fills 30,000 spots in four hours, crashes servers’. Canadian Running. 13 November 2013.

[v] Jeanette Wang. ‘Marathon running is becoming popular on the mainland’. South China Morning Post. 18 March 2014.

[vi] ASICS Reasons to Run Survey 2009.

[vii] Running USA. 2013 State of the Sport. Part II: Running Industry Report. 26 June 2013.

[viii] Running USA, op cit

[ix] ibid

[x] ibid

[xi] ASICS op cit

[xii] ibid

[xiii] ibid


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