State of the (Trail Running) Union: Eight Takeaways From a New International Survey
The Trail Ultra Project from the University of Central Lancashire just published their findings on a survey of trail runners from over 30 countries
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According to a new study, the typical trail runner runs between three to four times per week, has a weekly training mileage of around 30 miles, owns five pairs of running shoes, and races four times per year.
While these averages offer a more surface-level cross-section of trail running, a newly released 43-page study from the University of Central Lancashire in England delves deeper in demographics, community, meaning and identity, media consumption, volunteering, sport-related skills, and crossover sport participation of trail and ultrarunning.
The Trail Ultra Project was based on an online survey conducted between April and September of 2022 by the Research Centre for Applied Sport, Physical Activity, and Performance. There were 1,019 respondents, primarily from the UK, the U.S., and Canada, plus additional responses from 28 other countries.
The gender breakdown was 59.1 percent male, 40 percent female, and 0.9 percent who identify as non-binary or third gender. Some of the most interesting observations in the study were differences in responses between genders, said Dr. Carl Morris, the survey’s project director.
“Gender is a high-profile issue in the sport, especially around the status of elite female athletes and the often-low participation rates of women in longer distance ultras. A survey cannot answer all of these concerns, but it can challenge some assumptions,” he said. “It was welcome that women topped the list of most inspiring athletes—Courtney Dauwalter in North America and Jasmin Paris in the UK—and that female athletes in general were just as likely to be picked as men.”
Quick Numbers From the Survey:
- 47 percent: started running in the last 10 years
- 21 percent: runners who have run a race of 100 miles or longer, but 27 percent have never run longer than 26.2 miles
- 17 percent: vegetarian or vegan
- 70 percent: support the idea of elite athletes earning at living at the sport (though only 17 percent believe in the need for big cash prizes)
- 82 percent: are degree educated
- 35 percent: household income of more than $100,000 (notably higher than the national average in the U.S.)
- 92 percent: would either choose or consider choosing an option like Trees Not Tees at race registration
- 50 percent: do regular strength/mobility training (12 percent do none at all)
- Two-thirds: volunteered at a race
- More than half: consider themselves not religious
Here are eight notable findings that showed up in survey:
1) Running Is Social.
The survey concluded that women place more importance on the social aspects of running (38.9 percent important or very important for women) and are much more likely than men to run regularly with others (30.7 percent important or very important for men). This includes running with other people every week (45.3 percent for women, 29.5 percent for men). Women are also more likely to be a member of a running club (54.4 percent women, 45.8 percent men).
2) Our Heroes Are the Usual Suspects.
While respondents are more likely to be inspired by an athlete of their own gender, female athletes topped the list of respondents’ most inspiring athletes. American ultrarunning stalwart Courtney Dauwalter received the most recognition from North American respondents (14.7 percent), but she was overall also considered the most inspirational athlete by all respondents (9.8 percent), followed by Kilian Jornet (9 percent). Given the sizable market of female runners, this reconfirms the importance of equity for sponsorship and promotion of elite female athletes, the report concluded.
Among North American respondents only, aside from Dauwalter and Jornet, the most inspiring athletes (in order of respondent interest/votes) are: Jim Walmsley, Dylan Bowman, Camille Herron, Anton Krupicka, Eliud Kipchoge, Sally McRae, Tommy Rivs, and Harvey Lewis.
3) There Remains a Lack of Diversity.
What will likely come as no surprise to anyone involved in the trail and ultrarunning in North America and Europe, the sport is very white (95.4 percent), based on the ethnicity of survey respondents. Minority ethnic groups have very low representation and are often entirely absent from the survey findings. That reflects the general underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups in the outdoor world in general.
For example, the report says, in 2019 only 1 percent of visitors to English national parks were from a minority ethnic background. In the U.S., a 2010 study by the National Park Service found that only 7 percent of visitors identified as Hispanic and only 1 percent as African American.
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Gender diversity is more balanced, with a 60/40 percent male/female split. (Only 0.9 percent of runners identify as either non-binary or third gender). These figures are comparable to related sports and outdoor pursuit activities. For example, in the U.S., the gender split for high school track and field sports is 55/45, for rock climbing it is 60/40. Women run slightly more often than men (48 percent of women run at least five days per week, compared to 46 percent of men), while 38 percent of men reported having run a race of 100K or longer, compared to about 31 percent for women.
4) Participants Are Mostly Middle-Aged.
The survey determined that the majority of trail and ultrarunners (64.4 percent) are between 35 and 54 years-old. (For comparison, that age group constitutes 38.3 percent of the wider U.S. population, the report states.) In contrast, only 1.3 percent of respondents were aged between 18-24, suggesting that the sport has limited appeal among young adults. This potentially raises questions about the visibility of the sport for younger athletes and longevity among older athletes.
5) International Destinations Are Appealing.
Despite the rise in fastest known time (FKT) culture, respondents are still more likely to be inspired by high profile international races—even though only 29 percent of respondents said they had actually raced internationally. North American respondents said they are most inspired by Ultra-Tour du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) (15.7 percent), followed by the Western States 100 (14.7 percent), Hardrock 100 (9.0 percent), Barkley Marathons (7.1 percent), and the Leadville 100 (5.4 percent) next on the list.
For UK respondents, the Spine Race in England is the most inspiring race or route (10.3 percent), while four non-race routes are in the top twenty for British respondents: the three classic British rounds (Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley, and Ramsay’s) and the Pennine Way.
Three non-race routes are also in the top 20 for North American respondents: Rim to Rim to Rim across the Grand Canyon and back, the Appalachian Trail, and the UK’s Bob Graham Round.
6) Mental Health Is Strong.
The report found that 73.8 percent of runners report excellent or good mental health. By comparison, a 2017 study from the Mental Health Foundation found that only 13 percent of UK adults report high levels of positive mental health.
7) Diets Are More Likely Alternative.
Trail and ultrarunners are twice as likely to follow an alternative diet (e.g., vegan, paleo, vegetarian, etc.) compared to the general population. One third of all respondents said they follow a non-traditional diet such as vegan (6.3 percent), vegetarian (10.5 percent), paleo (1.8 percent), and mainly plant-based (14.7 percent). This is approximately twice the number who follow these diets in the general population of the UK and U.S., the report said.
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8) Crossover Sports Are Common (but Cycling Leads the Way).
Forms of cycling (road, indoor exercise bike, track) are the most popular alternative sports (45.1 percent) for trail and ultrarunners, although off-road riding (gravel/mountain biking) isn’t far behind (31.9 percent). Alpine skiing and canoeing/kayaking/rafting (24.7 percent) are tied at the third spot, while rock climbing (22.9 percent), mountaineering/alpinism (19.3 percent), triathlon/duathlon (18.4 percent), and cross country skiing (15.2 percent) round out the largest sports. Meanwhile, the seemingly booming interest in ski mountaineering (uphill skiing) is well down the list (3.7 percent).
To read more about the survey’s findings, visit www.trailultraproject.com.