Where Have All the Runners Gone?

by Benita Zahn

Photo by Bill Meehan

Where have all the runners gone? That’s a question a number of local race directors are asking this season. In fact, it’s a nationwide issue, one that predates the pandemic. Moreover, it’s not just in the U.S. Internationally there’s also been a decline. Some speculate that increasing entry fees are to blame. But even before rates increased to keep up with inflation, the numbers of participants were dropping. In academic circles researchers point to a change in attitude about aging. Back around the turn of the century, Y2K that is, signing up for a marathon, half marathon, even a 5k, was a mark of sneering at the hands of time. See, I can still perform, was the thinking. That’s no longer how folks turning milestone ages 40, 50,60 even 70 are thinking. It’s possible, some who study this theorize that distance runs just don’t hold the same cachet as in years past as the marathon club has swelled. Replacing that distance has been Ironman or any triathlon competition.

I spoke with Jennifer Edwards, executive director of the Falmouth Road Race. That venerable event, considered one of the most beautiful on the east coast, has seen its numbers hold steady. Edwards told me they turned away some 6,000 hopefuls, about the same as last year. She’s well versed in the slide so many races have seen and says that nationally 10 percent of races with fewer than 5,000 runners have shuttered since the pandemic, 20 percent of those normally drawing a field over 5,000 are no longer held and the most recent numbers, nationwide show a 20% fall off in registrations across the board. In short, runner retention is a big challenge.

                Kristen Hislop at HMRRC Labor Day Race 2023

Kristen Hislop, race director for the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k, shared that while their registration matched pre-pandemic numbers, getting there took much more effort and creativity. But what’s striking, says Hislop, is the fall off among younger runners, those aged 20-35. As she points out, the recent HMRRC Labor Day 5k had only one female participant in the 20-29 category, Amanda Aussems -29, and she was the top female finisher. Hislop theorizes that the emphasis on strength programs is giving cardio short shrift, noting that short cardio bursts as embraced in HIIT programs falls short of overall aerobic fitness. Keep in mind that the World Health Organization recommends we get 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity along with 2 days of resistance/strength training. And those are minimums.

In conversation with Paul Loomis, long time race director for the Malta 5k/10K and Roundabout Running Club President, he’s seen a sharp drop in registration numbers for what had been a popular early autumn race. He shared that there were 60 fewer people registered in the 30-39 year old age group compared with last year and 40 fewer in the 20-29 age group. He’s also seen a sharp decline in the Tuesday and Thursday adult running club participation.

                                                            Paul Loomis

Photo taken by Mark Mindel

So, what’s going on? That’s the 64 thousand-dollar question.  What is clear is that the older generation of runners who fueled the running revolution back in the late 1980s has aged out. Jens Jakob Anderson, founder of RunRepeat, a database with all sorts of info on running shoes, has also been tracking those who wear those shoes. He notes in an article, The State of Running 2019, that the running peak hit in 2016 with 9.1 million runners crossing a finish line and it’s been downhill ever since. Edwards, from the Falmouth Road Race, says conversations with race directors nationwide recognize that younger runners are more likely to sign up if the event supports a community program. Charity races are still popular. But not every race can be tied to a fundraiser. So, for the time being, how to engage the next generation of runners, what has to happen with entry fees, how to make the race experience one that’s both exciting and personally fulfilling remains an enigma.

HMRRC Member Response

Select members were sent the following 2-part survey question:

The numbers signing up for road and trail races in our area and around the country have declined. What do you think is responsible for this?
What might local race directors do to correct this?

Ryan Cooper
I think this is because we saw a temporary spike during the pandemic where running and races were some of the only forms of exercise available. Now that people have more options, like going to the gym, sporting events or movies, races have more competition.

One idea for local race directors would be via outreach to the demographics that don’t represent the overall population. For example, if you look at the distribution of runners in their 20s vs. 40s in the H2H HM there is an 83% difference favoring the 40’s age group. (424 participants vs. 174) This data set would suggest that marketing should be targeted towards individuals in their 20s to increase participation.

Tom O’Grady
Great question and topic. I think there are several reasons - 1. Interest in running is cyclical and while we seemed to experience a boom in popularity in the 2010s that level of interest was bound to drop. Now there are too many races and not enough demand. 2. The cost of races has gone up a lot and now especially with inflation represents more of a person’s disposable income. The entry to the major marathons can be over $200 and entries for even small races can be $50 or more. 3. Running just isn’t a “cheap” sport anymore. In addition, race gear - sneakers (especially super shoes which are about 3x as expensive as regular racers used to be), GPS watches (much more expensive than regular watch), shorts and singlets, etc. all make the sport more expensive. 4. The pandemic changed the way a lot of people think about large crowds and many people may want to gather in smaller groups now. 5. The rise in popularity of other sports (triathlon and CrossFit especially) that has attracted many people including runners. 6. The economy. A lot of young people are struggling to find professional jobs that are stable and will provide them with an income that will allow them to live comfortably. The pandemic and subsequent recession have made this even more of an issue. I think things need to get better for many people for them to be interested in signing up for races.

What could race directors do? Race directors could lower their prices to match the demand from runners. Race directors could offer discounted prices to families that sign up together and for faster runners who hit specifics time benchmarks (but may not be elite). Race directors could offer prize money or some other sort of awards. They could also consider teaming up with a charity (if they haven’t already) so people know the proceeds are going to support a good cause. They could poll runners after the race to see what went and what didn’t and work to fix any recurring issues.

Megan James
There are so many races now to choose from, so I think that results in fewer numbers (& maybe quality of runners) at any particular race.

Race directors may find some increase by combining forces to make a certain challenge across a few local races (ex: sign up for all 3 and get a discount; finish all 3 and get a bonus prize), or seeking to be a part of a larger series like USATF GP.

Jon Lindenauer
I think the reason for the decline is the fact that the racing market had been hyper-saturated post-COVID with races that are failing to significantly differentiate themselves. Along with the fact that it feels as though there has generally been a mass-exodus of people leaving the state of New York (the reason for that likely being political, cost and climate reasons coupled with the huge surge in telecommuting).

My thought for improving this would be to make a push to differentiate - live music, good post-race food/meals, solid and maybe unique prizes, and a beer garden, a fun and festive post-race environment- those are things that entice me to do a race year over year

Steven Tinkler

I think sports for the masses goes in phases. My guess is that the number of long-term competitive runners is flat, but those that try running give it up after a year or two. This second group may be losing folks who want to be active but can't commit the time. There are other options, including fads like pickle ball, that don't require the commitment.

I personally like the "event" style races. I.e., the races that are followed by a party. So, maybe bring in the community for that? Tie the race to another community event? I know that's not really an original idea but…

Lauren Carnahan
I think sadly it might be the increase in price of races and also travel costs.

One way to correct this is to give people more bang for their buck or lower the cost of the race.

Todd Shatynski
Cost is a big factor.
Prices for registration have increased a lot. It gets to be a significant investment for a family to do!
We don’t need all the medals, bananas and bagels!

Kelly Virkler
Personally, it is harder to commit so far ahead of a race. I've had to bail on some races in the last couple years because I had signed up too early and then lost interest in doing them for a variety of reasons. So, for the future I may only do races I can sign up for closer to the day. I'm not sure if this is the same reason for other people. I realize this makes life difficult for a race director.

Daniele Cherniak
I think there is a core group that will always be runners, unless severe injury or other health problems force them out. There are also people who get into running because it is the latest trend, or because their friends are doing it, and will move on to another fitness activity when a new trend arises. Some others get into running to accomplish a specific goal - say completing a marathon or half-marathon -- and may not stick with it after their goal is accomplished. There are also other people who don't race regularly, but who may participate in one or a few specific events every year, like the turkey trot or Freihofers. With these disparate populations, with different levels of commitment and interest, it's not surprising that numbers would fluctuate over time. 

Ed. Note:  A look at Darryl and Mona Caron's issue of Adirondack Sports shows that as of August, 51 races were listed for September and  33 for October

BenitaLogo.pngAbout Dr. Benita Zahn

Benita is a certified Health and Wellness Coach working with clients at Capital Cardiology Associates. 
Benita spent more than 40 years as a health reporter and news anchor at WNYT in Albany, NY. She covered issues such as wellness, treatment breakthroughs, aging, nutrition, and the latest health care trends. Benita’s work has taken her around the world and across the USA.  Benita is a contributor to  the weekly “Live Smart” page in the Times Union, the HMRRC Pacesetter and the new magazine 55+LIVING. Benita also created and co-hosts the podcast EVERYTHING THEATER.  

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