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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"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.

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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 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.

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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.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.