As Winter Begins, Here’s a Look at the Future of Running

Running has been touted as a highly accessible way for each of us to get our sweat on. In theory, all we need is a pair of shoes and a destination. So, it was understandable that when the COVID-19 pandemic began, I noticed more people taking up the sport. Gyms were closed, and many of us wanted an excuse to leave our homes. Getting outside for a run seemed like a safe opportunity for self-care. 

As the pandemic wore on and we learned how to race and run in groups safely, I found myself meeting more people who were new to the sport and excited to hone their skills.  When aSweatLife surveyed their audience about the 2021 State of Fitness recently, I assumed that running would be more popular than in previous years. Much to my surprise, that was not the case. Here’s a look at the current state and the future of running.

The current state of running

According to the 2021 State of Fitness results, running remains in the top five forms of exercise. 27.1% of respondents including running in their fitness routine. Being in the top 5 means that running continues to be a common choice for movement; however, running’s popularity seems to fall each year.

Running’s decline in popularity has been consistent since 2018, when an all-time high of 70% of survey respondents reported running as a staple in their fitness routines. In 2019, only 60% of respondents reported running. In 2020 the number was between 45 and 49%, and an all-time low of 27.1% of respondents reporting running currently.   

Why has running lost popularity?

There are several theories for why running has lost popularity. The pandemic changed the way that we move our bodies. Walking became more popular as we needed a reason to get fresh air. At-home workouts became more feasible with streaming services and home gym equipment, and strength training increased in popularity. 

Additionally, running may have lost popularity as big box gyms and boutique fitness studios adapted to serve customers more safely. While outdoor running was previously one of few fitness options that was safely available, studios and gyms have updated their cleanliness expectations and class sizes to welcome back their patrons. When I was able to return to the yoga studio, I took a break from running because I had missed the experience of practicing yoga in a hot studio. 

A final theory for why running popularity has decreased is the instability of race schedules. Many runners utilize a race as a motivator for their running routine. Working towards a goal is an incentive to move through challenging runs and benchmark progress. When the pandemic started, I felt like I was receiving hourly emails regarding the cancellation of a race. Many race directors were able to offer refunds and deferred entry, but participants still experienced financial and emotional losses.

Though races returned this year, many runners expressed anxiety regarding participating for the fear that it may not occur. Personally, after training for a triathlon this summer, I received a heartbreaking email reporting that the race was cancelled due to lack of city approval. The Tokyo Marathon and Milwaukee Marathon suffered similar cancellations. Runners report not wanting to return to the sport until race cancellations are a thing of the past.

Predictions for the future of running

As we head into the winter months, my curiosity continues to grow about how running trends may change. Below is a list of reasons for why I believe running may increase in popularity:

  • Running continues to be a safe outdoor activity

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has experienced improvements, many athletes feel safer when they are able to exercise in fresh air. During the warmer months, gyms can open their doors and lead outdoor workouts, but this becomes challenging as temperatures drop. With proper attire, running outside may feel safer.

  • Running is a tool to manage SAD

In regions that experience all four seasons, it’s common to experience sadness, stress, or other negative emotions with more frequency. One of the most helpful tools to manage the winter blues is movement and seeing sunlight. Going on a run allows an athlete to stay warm while improving their mood. 

  • Races are becoming more stable 

Many race participants and directors described 2021 as a “transition year” as everyone learned how to host and run races amidst a pandemic. Five of the six World Major Marathons were able to host their events while trying different strategies (like smaller corrals, larger breaks between start times, and mandatory vaccines or negative tests) to keep participants safe. At this point, no data has been released reporting that any of these major events led to a COVID-19 outbreak, which provides smaller races a blue-print for how to host an event safely. 

One caveat about the future of running

Running is less accessible than we think it is.

Running continues to be a sport that can be more inclusive. Some athletes state that they do not want to run as their neighborhoods do not feel safe. The winter months are also darker meaning that running in daylight may not be as feasible. Additionally, running can be expensive. Running shoes currently cost an average of $115 and need to be replaced every 400 miles. These expenses can add up quickly and may turn away people interested in the sport. 

For those of us who run, it may be surprising that running is not as popular as it used to be. However, with improvements in accessibility, inclusion, and stability, I believe that the future of running will see the sport continue to grow.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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