Running Boom Helps Sport Defy Economic Downturn

A booming population of wealthy runners and new technology help running to defy the downturn

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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.

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"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 salespersons play matchmaker between shoes and runners of all types—be they flatfooted, overweight, or underpronators.