The lockdown running boom has not translated into a rise in entry levels. In fact, a number of events are starting to struggle

If you cast your mind back to the pandemic, you may remember the significant number of people who took up running during lockdown. 

These were individuals that, before Covid-19, hadn’t really engaged with the sport and the hope was that, ultimately, they would take the next steps with their new hobby and sign up to mass participation events when life returned to something approaching normality. 

However, that didn’t quite turn out to be the case. The current trend actually shows that entries are significantly lower than the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. According to Find A Race, events earlier this year were seeing an average of 26 per cent fewer submissions in comparison to three years ago. The two disciplines which have suffered the biggest downfall in participation – a decrease of 30 to 35 per cent – are half marathons and 10km events. 

Participation figures for parkruns, viewed as the gateway event into mass participation races, are also down by around 23 per cent in relation to 2019. 

Find A Race also states that interest in half marathons online has plummeted between 2019 and 2022. Between January and May, when people usually map out which events they want to sign up to in the summer, searches on the internet dropped between 30 and 52 per cent. 

What’s the reason for this? Firstly, the market to host mass participation events in running is saturated. There are myriad options for various distance races next year, often with a number of events taking place on the same day. 

The prime suspect, however, is the cost of living crisis. At a time when people in the UK are concerned about energy bills and mortgages, there is an understandable desire to be more selective about where they spend their money. 

Events such as the London Marathon, which saw 410,000 people enter the ballot for a place in the 2023 edition, appear to have maintained their popularity – though the majors are not entirely immune. 

London 2022 (London Marathon Events)

Organisers of the Boston Marathon recently announced that, for the second year in a row, everyone who qualified and applied for the event will get to run – a far cry from the pre-Covid clamour for places. However, it’s undoubtedly the medium and smaller scale events which are feeling the biggest impact. 

There was the worrying recent story of the Brighton Marathon organisers struggling to pay prize money while race directors of local events who have been in touch with AW point out substantial drops in entry levels to their events.

Interestingly, cross-country races – involving a different demographic and where clubs will usually pay entry fees – are tending to hold up better in terms of numbers. 

One person who knows this industry well is former 1500m world champion and world record-holder Steve Cram. 

As well as being a commentator and coach, he also runs Extra Mile Media + Events alongside his wife and former international sprinter Allison Curbishley. The pair have put on events such as Fast 5k and Durham City Run Festival to name just two. 

Fast 5km (Paul Freary)

“There are a lot of events out there,” says Cram. “We have seen a massive growth in the last 10 years, where the choice for the consumer is huge. The market hasn’t grown in size necessarily but the outlets for that market have grown, so inevitably things get a bit thinner. 

“I think what’s now coming out is that the Covid period of the lockdowns, happening in 12-18 months, has changed people’s habits in a way which we haven’t yet fully understood. Things like the economy are a factor and although this [mass participation entries dropping] started before that, it will still have an impact.

“What’s also fairly obvious, and you could argue this was always going to happen, was that there might not be a situation where just more and more people run any more. We may have topped out around the percentage of people in society taking part in mass participation and organised events.” 

One initiative, inspired by Chris Evans, that tried to buck the trend was RunFestRun, which combined music and athletics in a family friendly way over a three-day period. 

The 2022 edition was cancelled back in May but in previous years it hosted races ranging from 2.5km to the half marathon and involved Paula Radcliffe, Colin Jackson and Cram to name a few. After a long day’s running, the people at the festival then got to watch live music. If an event is to be successful then there has to be a consistent positive trend of entries every year. It’s a tough balance to figure out whether to be more creative or traditional. 

RunFestRun

“You have to be creative about giving people a wider experience than before,” adds Cram. “But we have to make sure it’s affordable and that we aren’t spending money on things people don’t want.

“Once you have the best half marathon time you think you can get then you could go and do a trail run, a marathon in a city that you’ve never been to before or even a triathlon.

“We’ve just got to work really hard in understanding what people want, who are the people taking part and making them figure out what we have to offer. Then we hope they choose to take part.” 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic we now live in a world of working from home, digital dominance and rising costs. Persuading runners to part with their money has never been harder and it would appear there is no definitive answer as to why numbers have dropped. 

Finding it could be the difference between events being able to thrive – or struggling to survive. 

» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine