For this study, we analyzed 107.9 million race results - by far the largest in history. They include participants from 209 countries and a total of over 70 thousand events. The time frame is between 1986 and 2018.
Our dataset covers 96% of US race results, 91% of the race results from the EU, Canada, and Australia and a smaller sample from Asian, Africa and South America.
The study was done in collaboration with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and presented in China in June 2019.
You may use material from this report as long as you refer to this original report.
- Event participation is in decline for the first time
- Male runners have never been slower
- Runners have never been older
- Motives for running 5K vs Marathon are different
- Milestone ages (30, 40, 50 years old) matters less nowadays
- For the first time in history, there are more female than male runners
- In the US, the 5K is the most popular. In Asia, Africa and SA it's 10K. In the EU it's the half marathon
- Running is generally more popular in temperate climate countries
- Traveling to race has never been more popular
- Racing in non-English speaking countries is on the rise
- Motives for running are potentially changing
- ... and many more
The trends of mass participation running
Running is huge and has quite a big following, but as we can see from the chart below it's declining in the last two years. This is mainly due to a decline in participation in Europe and the US. Participation in Africa and Asia is very much on the rise, just not enough to compensate.
The participation in running races has peaked in 2016 with a total of 9.1 million results and then it declined to 7.9 million (a decline of 13%) in 2018. If we look at the change in participation in the last 10 years there is an increase in participation of 57.8% (from 5 to 7.9 million participants).
5-kilometer races and half marathons have the highest numbers of participants (2.9 and 2.1 million participants in 2018, respectively). But also have suffered the biggest decline in participation in the last 2 years. Half marathoners have declined by 25% (from 2.9 million) in the last 2 years. and 5K participants have declined by 13% (from 3.4 million).
10Ks and Marathons have a more modest following - 1.8 and 1.1 million participants respectively in 2018. But it's quite stable over the last few years - the participation rates have fluctuated less than 2% the last 2-3 years.
It's also interesting to see which do people prefer - smaller or bigger races. We have chosen 5,000 participants as the boundary.
Our analysis shows that almost equal amounts of people enter small races as do big races, with a slight preference for the bigger ones. On average big races attract 14% more participants.
Also, the participation trends for both types of races follow a similar trend. The participation in big races is on the rise until 2015 and for small races, it's on the rise until 2016. But the decline in participation in the smaller races is more pronounced - 13%, compared to the one for the bigger races - 9%.
When we talk about running races we usually think about marathons, however, in the last few years, they account for just 12% of the results (shrunk from over 25% at the beginning of the century). This has led to growth in half marathon participation, an increase from 17% to 30% of total participants
The proportions of participants in 5Ks and 10Ks are quite stable, but still experiencing some growth - 5K participants have increased by 3% on average, and 10K participants by 5%.
Trends in finish times
Marathon finish time trends
The world is getting slower. But runners are slowing down much less since 2001. The marathon finish time had increased by 36 minutes - from 3:52:35 to 4:28:56 (an increase of 15.6%) in the period between 1986 and 2001. And since 2001 it has increased by just 4 minutes to 4:32:49 (an increase of 1.4%).
When we look and the finish time trends by gender we see that men are continuously slowing down, even though to a smaller degree after 2001. Men finish time had increased by 27 minutes - from 3:48:15 to 4:15:13 (an increase of 10.8%) by 2001 and after that, it has increased on average by 7 minutes (an increase of 3%).
On the other hand, women were slowing down faster than men by the year 2001 - by 38 minutes (14.8%), but after that have actually become faster. Women's finish times have declined on average by 4 minutes (a decrease of 1.3%).
Finish time trends by distance
For all other distances, we see a stready increase in finish times for both men and women, and only for the marathons, we can see that this trend is tapering off.
Pace comparison by distance
When we look at the average pace for the 4 distances we see that runners from both sexes perform best at half marathons - at all ages. Their pace at this distance is significantly smaller than the pace for the other distances.
The average pace of male half marathoners is 5:57 minutes per kilometer and for female half marathoners, it is 6:40 minutes per kilometer.
The average male pace for marathons is 6:43 (13% slower than for half marathon), and the average female pace is 7:26 (11.5% slower than for half marathon).
The average male pace for 10Ks is 6:36 (11% slower than for half marathon), and the average female pace is 7:50 (17.5% slower than for half marathon).
The average male pace for 5Ks is 7:21 (23% slower than for half marathon), and the average female pace is 8:44 (31% slower than for half marathon).
This could be due to the increased proportion of participants in half marathons - it is possible a lot of the good marathon runners to be switching to half marathons, or maybe adding half marathons to their repertoire.
Also, the slowest average pace corresponds to 5Ks, because this is the entry distance for almost all runners who race. This means that this is the distance with most novices.
Best and worst performing countries
The United States is the country with the biggest number of race runners but from the countries with most participants, it's the slowest. And consistently.
On the other hand, after the year 2002, Spain has consistently been the fastest marathon nation.
It's quite surprising that Spain is the fastest marathon nation, but it's among the slowest nations in 5Ks. For 5Ks, the fastest nations are Ukraine, Hungary, and Switzerland. Switzerland is number 3 for 5Ks, number 1 for 10Ks and number 2 in marathons, which places the Swiss among the best runners in the world.
Luxemburg is rocking the mid-length distances, with 2nd place in 10Ks and 3rd place in half-marathons. Portugal is also performing very well in 10Ks and marathons, taking the 3rd place in both distances.
On the slow end of the spectrum, Thailand and Vietnam are among the slowest nations in 3 out of the 4 distances.
Russia tops the chart for half marathons, and Belgium is second - it's no surprise that European countries make the top 3 in this distance, given that the half marathon is the preferred distance of Europe. On the slow side, Malaysia is the slowest in half marathons and marathons.
The top 3 marathon nations are Spain, Switzerland, and Portugal.
It is also worth noting that Swiss women are the fastest in the world. They are faster than the men from 63% of the countries we've analyzed.
Swiss women have an average finish time of 4:04:31, which is faster than the finish times of the men from United States, Japan, South Africa, United Kingdom, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Russia, India, China, Mexico and many more.
Runners on average are getting older - the average age of runners in 1986 was 35.2 and in 2018 it is 39.3. This could be due to the fact, that runners have longer racing careers, and also that people are welcome to start racing at an older age. We can see that in the sharp increase in the average age of 5K participant over the last 7 years.
The average age of 5K runners has increased from 32 to 40 (25%), for 10Ks it has changed from 33 to 39 (23%), for half marathons - from 37.5 to 39 (3%) and for marathons - from 38 to 40 (6%).
Finish time by age group
It is not surprising that the participants over 70 are consistently the slowest ones (average finish time in 2018 - 5 hours 40 minutes), but younger isn't always better.
The participants in the 30-50 bracket perform best (average finish time 4 hours 24 minutes). The participants under 30 are comparable with the participants between 50 and 60. The average finish time for the participants under 30 is 4:32 minutes and for the 50 to 60 year-olds it's 4 hours 34 minutes.
This could be due to lack of experience or training, or maybe because a lot of young participants are just "trying" marathon running and are participating mostly for social benefits.
For marathons, there is an increase in participation of the youngest participants (from 1.5% to 7.8%), but also a decline in participation of 20-30-year-olds (from 23.2% to 15.4%). It's noteworthy that 40-50-year-olds participation is on the rise (from 24.7% to 28.6%), which is consistent with people having longer racing careers.
For 5K's we see that the younger participants are in decline, but more and more participants over 40 are joining in. This is consistent with the fact that nowadays people are free and welcome to start racing at an older age.
The proportion of participants bellow 20 in the 5Ks hasn't changed much, but the proportion of 20-30-year-olds has declined from 26.8% to 18.7%. Also, the proportion of 30 to 40 year-olds is shrinking - from 41.6% to 32.9%. The proportion of participants over 40 has grown from 26.3% to 50.4%
Running a marathon is still a great achievement, but it used to mark milestone ages much more than it does today. In 2018 there are still spikes at the ages ending in 5, but they are much smaller than 15 or 30 years ago.
Age distribution by gender
For women, the distribution of participants is left-skewed and the median age of participants is 36. Women, in general, start and stop racing at a younger age. This is considered to be so because of childbirth and the still bigger obligations of women in child rearing.
Men's participation peaks around 40 and is much closer to normal than it is for women.
Women in running
Running is among the sports that are most open to women. In 5Ks close to 60% of the participants are women, nowadays.
In total female participation has risen from under 20% in 1986 to just above 50% in 2018.
Countries with the highest and lowest female participation
The countries with the highest proportions of female participants are also the ones that have the most gender equality. Here we see Iceland, the US, and Canada taking the lead. It is quite surprising though to see that Switzerland and Italy are among the countries with the least female participation.
How countries race differently
Distribution of participants by distance
The top 3 nations with most marathon runners are Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. France and the Czech Republic have the biggest proportions of half-marathoners. Norway and Denmark have the most 10K runners. And in the US, Philippines, and South Africa, 5Ks are the most popular.
When we look at the distribution of participants by continent, we see that North America is the continent of 5Ks, Asia's preferred distance is 10K, and Europe's - half marathons.
Countries with the largest proportions of runners
If we look at the number of runners as a percentage of the country's population, the most dedicated runners are the Irish, followed by the ones from the Netherlands and the UK.
Climate and running
Based on our previous research we see that temperature has a huge impact on finish times, with the optimal running temperature being between 40 and 50 degrees (F).
For this reason, climate affects how people race - with most participants racing in countries with temperate and polar climates.
More and more people travel to run in a race. The percentage of people traveling to a different country for a race has increased significantly.
For marathons, it has increased from 0.2% to 3.5%. For half marathons - from 0.1% to 1.9%. For 10Ks - from 0.2% to 1.4%. For 5K this percentage has actually decreased from 0.7% to 0.2%, which could be due to the increase in the number of events available.
One of the reasons for this change is that the world is getting smaller. First, more and more people speak English, especially at races and also now, there are a lot of the translation apps that make communication easy. As we can see the proportion of people traveling from English speaking countries to not English people speaking countries has increased the most in the last 20 years - from just 10.3% to 28.8%.
Comparison between home and foreign participants
In general, foreign participants are faster than home participants, but the gap is closing in.
In 1988 foreign female participants had an average finish time of 3 hours 56 minutes, which is 7% faster than home female participants (average finish time - 4 hours 13 minutes), in 2018 this difference is just 2%. Home participants had an average finish time 4 hours 51 minutes, and foreign participants had an average finish time of 4 hours 46 minutes.
For male participants - foreign participants were 8% faster. Home participants' time was 3 hours 45 minutes, and the average foreign finish time was 3 hours 29 minutes in 1988. In 2018, the average finish time for home male participants was 4 hours 21 minutes and foreign participants had an average finish time of 4 hours 11 minute, which is 4% faster.
Also, people who travel for a race are older in general - on average by 4.4 years.
Country profile of travelers
Most people travel to mid-size countries. This could be due to the fact that there are plenty of races in countries of this size, and also that travel is convenient.
The people who travel most are to a large degree from small countries. Maybe this is due to the fact that there are much fewer events there.
Motives for running
There are 4 categories of motives to run
1. Psychological motives
- Maintaining or enhancing self-esteem,
- Life meaning
- Coping with negative emotions
2. Social motives
- Affiliate oneself with others
- Recognition and approval
3. Physical motives
- Weight loss
4. Achievement motives
- Personal goals
From competition to experience
There are a few signs that the reasoning behind running in a race is changing:
- Slower finish times
- More travelers
- Less milestone-age runners
This could be explained by people nowadays focussing more on psychological motives rather than achievement motives.
But, it could also be that the sport is more accessible by the average athlete, who has other motivations. This means that motivations haven't changed, but the sport has attracted another group of runners, that have other motivations, which change the average finish time, percentage of travelers and percentage of people running milestone-age races.
Maybe, the achievement motivated runners have transitioned to ultra running. Maybe the average runner today is more focused on a good experience than an achievement than before - not saying it's overshadowing the achievement motive, but saying that maybe achievement means less today, relatively to the experience itself.