Why running has become a ‘social’ sport

27/11/2017

“This younger generation… definitely isn’t lazy,” explains Caitlyn Pilkington, web editor at Women’s Running. “We go to yoga, barre class, CrossFit and we are responsible for the massive rise in untimed events – fun runs – that have taken over multiple cities in the past several years. But with the inevitable increase in competition between running events, which seem to pop up by the handful every weekend, comes the rise in city costs to host those footraces – driving registration price tags often through the roof. We Millennials, can’t afford it.” [3]

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It’s not all doom and gloom though; less traditional running formats, where beating a personal best is not a key motivator, are thriving. In the UK, there are numerous sport charity events that promote fun for a good cause, including MoonWalk London, now in its 20th year and Race For Life, a women-only event organised by Cancer Research UK that has had over eight million participants since it started in 1994. [4] As well as running a traditional 5K, 10K and half- and full marathons, Cancer Research UK also offers the Pretty Muddy obstacle course and a relay race, and emphasises that its events “aren’t competitive so there is no pressure to finish in a certain time.” [5]

There has been a huge growth in ‘fun runs’ on both sides of the Atlantic, with events which focus on adventure, team work and creating memories on the rise. Events which shift their focus from individualistic pursuits of a personal best to team activity where collaboration and community are the main attractions, but what’s behind this makeover? And is the future of amateur sport more social in general?

‘Ultra-social’ events

“There is something cool about the team aspect, and I think it gets really hard to experience that elsewhere,” says ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek. “That team building and team bonding, and social aspect is very unique.” [7]

According to Dr. Kevin Dixon, senior lecturer in the sociology of sport at Teesside University, a team dynamic and the focus on cooperation rather than competition are responsible for the success of social running. “Events such as the Race for Life, various mud runs, and even park runs are appealing because they are achievable and the competitive element gives way to an atmosphere of support and encouragement from all concerned,” he explains. “The idea of people of all ages running side by side and in harmony is one that naturally appeals.” [9]

Are social runners different?

‘Fun run’ enthusiasts aren't turning their back on other competitive running events quite just yet, with an average participant taking part in 4 other running events per year.

Is there a subset of runners who favour cooperative events, or is the whole running community moving away from competitive races to favour more sociable ones? Statistics point to the latter scenario.

In the US, Inga Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Ragnar tells us: “The team make-up varies greatly – from unknown runners, to family to run clubs. Ragnar is almost split equally between men and women. Our average runner tends to skew slightly older – 35.” [6] 

Johnson attributes Ragnar’s high rate of return participants (roughly 70% of teams) to its ‘social’ ethos, where the accomplishment is shared and end times are not important. “Running is an event where there are very few team-driven options. Our continued growth is partly because of the unique offering, but also the result of individuals seeking deeper connections in their lives.” [6]

Sports festivals

Something less tangible that sets fun runs apart is the participants’ creativity; people often dress up in costumes or cross the line with fun celebratory props - Race For Life runners typically wear pink outfits! One Ragnar trail even sees runners camping outdoors as the weekend essentially become a scaled-down Coachella or Bestival, complete with campfires, music, yoga classes, even less-than-healthy beer.

These festival-like aspects are definitely part of the appeal and contribute to the online popularity of social running events. For instance, Ragnar has over 280,000 likes on Facebook, while Race For Life has more than 680,000 – exceeding the 224,000 for the London Marathon page, or 270,000 for the New York Marathon. With research from photo marketing platform Tagkast finding that sports and large music events yield the most shares on social media, it’s not surprising that posts that showcase the atmosphere at fun runs are so successful online. [10]

“If we were cynical, we might think that social running events are used as a means to improve social capital via self-promotion,” says Dixon. Indeed, colourful shots of a running team in costume and amusing tales of camaraderie add to participants’ social media status more than the social output of a traditional race. On the other hand, he believes that regardless of people’s motives, this behaviour is to be encouraged; “Social sports events provide opportunities for people to meet with friends and strangers. Moreover, such events provide opportunities for people to engage with others to combat loneliness, depression and mental health issues.” [9]

Insights and opportunities

The success of non-traditional running events is likely linked to the ‘fun factor’. According to a sport psychology study published in 2013, people are happier exercising and enjoy their fitness regime more when they are with someone they know, compared to when they are alone. [11]

One example of the fun side of running is the beer mile, in which people run four laps around a standard track, but have to drink a full can of beer before each one. Ben Bloom, athletics correspondent at the Telegraph, believes that while the beer run may not be a serious sport, “this is serious business, attracting major sponsorship, a large global audience and mass participation.” [12] ‘Beer miling’ went from a mostly underground activity to a notorious one in April 2014, when former 5,000m national title winner James Nielsen broke the five-minute barrier, with the YouTube video recording the event quickly gaining over 1.2 million views. [13]

While the beer mile has a competitive element, other fun running events highlight a desire for more cooperative sports. According to research from the London School of Economics, team sports boost life satisfaction and overall happiness in a way that individual sports do not. “When competing and succeeding in sport, this study shows that the social environment of the team is important in terms of overall life-satisfaction,” says Dr. Chia-Huei Wu, assistant professor of management at LSE. “We found that this can be explained by the social interaction and feelings of identity that come from being a team member, which are not as present when an athlete pursues their own individual goals.” [14]

Other solo sporting disciplines are also getting social; cycling is championing not only the cooperative relay format but also festival vibes at events such as the Velopalooza Cycling Festival in Canada and Revolve24 in Australia. Virgin’s Festivals of Sport, meanwhile, brought a mixture of running, yoga and other fitness classes outdoors, aiming to add some community and culture to mass exercise. “The Coachella of sport is what we are looking to create, where we have a series of challenging experiences that we’re going to wrap in a whole lot of fun, to encourage people to come on out,” says Mary Wittenberg, CEO of Virgin Sport. “And to come with all their friends and family, and actually have the chance for everybody to participate and really get the same charge that is often only reserved for those involved in events like distance runs, rides, or triathlons.” [15]

Another thing people get out of these events is meaningful connections, both offline and online. “In today’s world, it is hard to make meaningful connections, and we do fill that role for a large number of runners,” says Johnson. However, she highlights that “it seems clear that social by itself is not enough. There has to be an element of challenge to really trigger the transformative feeling within groups and individuals.” [6] This aspect of social sport may be particularly appealing for Gen Yers, with Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, noting that because they’re less likely to be married or living with a partner than older generations at the same age, they have fewer social connections. [16]

Social media is helping facilitate this cooperative behaviour. Activity tracking platform Strava, which caters to individuals but connects them to other people, is turning itself into a sport-based social network with a million new users signing up every 40 days. “We want to create more ways for the community to share their interests and expertise,” says CEO James Quarles. “Posts and the new feed make Strava the best place to tell a story about someone you met on the trails, ask a question or to seek kindred spirits.” [17]

A version of this article was first published on the Canvas8 website

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