Running Slowing Down, Obstacle Races Battle for Participants

June 20, 2016

  • by
  • Peter Reese

Millennials likely won’t find the podium anytime soon in sanctioned amateur distance races in the United States.  According to industry group Running USA, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, participation took a face plant in 2015 with 29-34 year-olds disappearing at a rate of 19% since 2013.

The projection that 20 million women and men would cross the line figuratively hit the wall as millennials discovered the world is bigger than a three-foot wide strip of hard pavement. Retailers such as Foot Locker are fitting more athletic-inspired styles than ever before – with customers calling for elevated style instead of fewer grams per pair. 

Books such as coach Chris Carmichael’s The Time-Crunched Cyclist point to a desire to participate and achieve, minus the grueling high-mileage training plans.  Interval training, where bursts of effort are followed immediately by short recovery periods, is an old-is-new-again phenomenon.  More central to the decline in run-focused competitors, beyond the training time required, is the growth in multi-sport lifestyles.  

Obstacle races are evidence that putting one foot in front of the other is no longer enough.  Climbing, crawling and struggling through mud has grown to numbers over 500,000 or more for both Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.  Still, this fast-emerging activity is stalling out, forcing organizers to add more short-form events.  Taking up the slack:  Indoor and outdoor cycling along with cross-fit and other training-as-sport disciplines.

To wit, over 7,000 affiliate gyms dot the landscape, up from only 13 in 2005 (Source:  Channel Signal).  The uber competitive Cross Fit Games log annual growth rates well over 100%.  Orangetheory, sporting over 325 locations, equips clients with monitors that turn working out into a public display of fitness on electronic tote boards at the front of the room.

At Active Junky, we’ve made running part of cross-training for other, adrenaline-based activities for a long time.  The Concept II Rower in the corner doesn’t collect dust even as the 35th World Indoor Rowing Championship, held in Boston, put nearly 2,500 entrants to task over 2000m.  Five records were set among athletes from over 30 countries.

Closer to the hearts of outdoor lovers, “skyrunning” is taking to the trails, putting close to 50,000 participants in perilous, inspired events currently numbering 200 (Source:  skyrunning.com).  Born from fast approaches to alpine climbing problems – and distance runners with Bighorn sheep DNA in their double-helix – the new discipline sits somewhere between traditional running and a hypoxic truth-or-dare pursuit.

What’s next is most probably a hybrid of novelty activities, ultra distances and fitness-as-entertainment.  With no slowing of athletic options, there’s bound to be some that become the “cupcakes” of training.  And, perhaps among them, the next Cronut (or is that Cruffin?).

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