For hundreds of thousands of Americans, now is the time to start preparing for four months of blistered feet, chafing nipples, and hitting the wall. And the industry serving this population is more than prepared to help people pound the pavement.
It’s training season for fall marathons in cities like Chicago, Washington, New York, and Minneapolis. Thanks to a confluence of new interest, new technology, and rich runners, the running business is defying other economic troubles.
“Running is at an all-time high,” says Bart Yasso, who has the honor of being Runner’s World magazine’s chief running officer. He would know — he has worked there for 25 years and is a bright star in the running universe, with a popular marathon workout (the grueling “Yasso 800s”) named after him.
“Marathons are selling out in record numbers. Running stores are doing so well. So, yeah — it’s a fun time to be in the sport,” he says.
By many measures, running has seen astounding growth. According to Running USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes the sport, the number of marathoners is setting new records every year. In 1976, there were around 25,000 marathon finishers. By 2000, that figure had broken 350,000, and it hit an all-time high in 2011, at 518,000.
According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America, year-over-year growth continues across the spectrum of runners. 50 million people ran at least once in 2011, up 7.3 percent from 2010, and the population that ran 100 or more days grew by 9.3 percent.
Even in the sport’s mega-distance fringe, popularity has soared. According to UltraRunning magazine, runners completed nearly 52,000 ultramarathons — races longer than a standard marathon’s 26.2 miles — in 2011. That’s a remarkable 12 percent growth over 2010, and triple the number of such runners just 10 years ago.
Even for people steeped in the sport, like Yasso, explaining the boom is a matter of conjecture, but everyone has their theories. “I still am under the assumption that women are driving the sport,” says Yasso, referencing figures that show a surge of women marathon runners during the 1990s. In 1980, just 10 percent of marathoners were women, according to Running USA. Women’s share of marathoning grew to 26 percent in 1995, and by 2005, women made up 41 percent of marathon finishers, where the figure is today. Women have also taken over the half marathon, at 59 percent of participants.
It may also be that Americans see the sport as more accessible than it was 20 years ago.
“In 1990, I think the community here in Chicago, or across the country really, looked at marathon running as kind of an extreme sport,” says Carey Pinkowski, executive race director at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Now, he says, “It’s become really a social phenomenon and an activity.”
Yasso adds that people are simply discovering that it’s an easy, stress-busting activity for people with busy lives, and can be done with minimal time and equipment.
While minimal equipment can mean minimal bumps in profits, Marshall Cohen, chief retail analyst at market research firm NPD Group, says that’s not the case. “Just because running goes on the rise, it doesn’t always translate to running business in certain products to be better — you can run in whatever shorts you have,” he says. However, he says that boosts in running technology have meant bigger boosts in running profits.
Running shoe sales totaled $2.46 billion in 2011, a record high and up 6 percent from 2010, according to Running USA, with sales expected to grow another 6 percent in 2012. Market research firm NPD has an even higher estimate for annual growth — in a 12-month cycle ending in May, running shoe sales were up 15.2 percent over the previous year, more than triple the total athletic footwear sales growth rate over the same period.
Step into your local running store and you’ll see what the plethora of advances in running looks like. GPS watches tell runners how far, how long, and how fast their workouts are. Energy gels with varying levels of proteins, sugars, and electrolytes line the walls. Sticks of BodyGlide, an anti-chafing balm, entice sore runners. And salespeople play matchmaker between shoes and runners of all types — be they flatfooted, overweight, or underpronators.
“When you have this new technology, you have a lot of questions. So where do you go to get those questions answered?…Service has now become an important part of the equation,” says Cohen.
Even runners who eschew complicated shoe technology can be enticed to open their wallets — so-called “minimalist” shoes, with flexible soles and minimal padding, are all the rage. Sales of Vibram’s Five-Finger shoes — the odd-looking, toe-separating shoes that resemble gloves more than sneakers — have exploded, with 2011’s figures doubling their 2010 level. Even these stripped-down shoes can run over $100.
All of this is a far cry from the experience of runners of eras past, says Yasso.
“I remember going into running stores 35 years ago, and there were just running shoes on the wall, and a little bit of apparel and maybe some running watches,” he says.
And it’s not just gear. Runner’s World has managed to survive in a faltering medium. Though the magazine does not discuss its financial specifics, a spokesman reports that 2011 was a record year for ad revenue, and the publication’s circulation was up 6.1 percent year-over-year — particularly impressive compared to total magazine sales, which were down by 4 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Association of Magazine Media.
How does all of this gear sell so well amid a prolonged downturn? Loyal and rich adherents certainly don’t hurt.
“It’s a very educated group of people and a very wealthy group of people, so they can afford this stuff and take advantage of it,” says Yasso.
As of 2011, Running USA reported that 77 percent of “core runners” — active, competitive participants who train year-round — had a college diploma, compared to around 30 percent of the U.S. population. And 72.9 percent reported a household income of more than $75,000 per year, compared to around 32 percent for the total population.
That disparity seems to grow as distance grows: 93 percent of UltraRunning magazine readers have college degrees, according to publication figures, and 54 percent have post-graduate education. Altogether, its readership’s median household income is $122,000.
Running has seen steep growth before. The first boom was in the 1970s, and is credited in part to Frank Shorter’s gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, which inspired Americans to lace up their sneakers. Some in the running community refer to the current growth as the “Second Running Boom.” And a third may be close behind.
“The ‘Third Running Boom’ is going to come from the baby boomers’ kids,” says Ryan Lamppa, researcher at Running USA. He believes that the echo boomers, having grown up on the sidelines of their parents’ races, will be inspired to join the pack.
Then again, there are hopes that the current uptick could continue.
“Think about this: there’s more than 310 million Americans,” says Lamppa. “We still have a lot of Americans that still haven’t done a road race of any distance. There’s plenty of room for growth.”
Runners may want to stock up on the BodyGlide while they can.
(Source: U.S. News & World Report, 07/16/12)