On the Run

Why Americans are Lacing Up their Sneakers and Hitting the Pavement

Running for leisure is a relatively new trend in the United States. In ancient times, running was necessary for survival, but as life becomes more technologically advanced and sedentary in nature, physical activity is less routine and requires more intention. In the United States, many claim that star athletes such as Steve Prefontaine, the Oregon track star and 1972 Olympian, and Joan Benoit, the first-ever female marathon champion, popularized the sport and brought it to the national stage. Companies, most notably Nike, came in later to transform the sport of running and incorporate it into a lifestyle of fitness. Whatever the cause, running is now a leading activity in the United States, among different ages and demographics, both competitively and for leisure.
“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.” - Bill Bowerman, Nike Co-Founder
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Road races have grown in number and size throughout the United States. The increase in participants in organized running races shows the growing popularity of the sport. From 1995 to 2013, running event finishers grew from around 4.8 million to just over 19 million runners. 

Running seems to be increasingly popular with women; in recent years the number of female finishers significantly surpassed males. In 1990, only a quarter of race finishers were female. Today, almost 60% of all finishers are female. The interest in running among women will likely be a driver of its growth in the future.


Race Finishers in the U.S. in 2014


Running Events in the U.S. in 2014


Growth in Finishers 1995 - 2013

U.S. Race Finishers

1990 - 2014


2014 Race Finishers by Distance

2014 Totals
Unsurprisingly, 5K races are still the most common distance in the United States, with 54% of all races falling into this category. Several communities and nonprofit organizations host 5K races for holidays and special events, oftentimes to raise money or awareness. 5K events attract a large crowd of individuals since they are not intimidating feats and are friendly to runners and walkers of all ages. The second most popular distance is the half marathon, which has become particularly popular in recent years with a 4% growth in runners from 2013 to 2014. This growth is largely attributed to the increase in female participation but a recent USA Running report shows that it is also a favorite race distance for runners of all ages and skill level. The 10K comes in third with 1.4 million runners in 2014, with a 5% decline in participation from 2013. There were over 500,000 marathon finishers in 2014, up 2% from 2013 races. 
Race distances in miles:
  • 5K = 3.1 miles
  • 10K = 6.2 miles
  • Half Marathon = 13.1 miles
  • Marathon = 26.2 miles

Breakdown of Runners by Race Distance

Comparison of Males and Females in 2014

Women outnumber men in every distance category except marathons. Extensive research shows that women are more prone to injuries in long-distance training compared to men, which explains the greater percentage of male marathon finishers. Nonetheless, female marathon participation has grown in recent years.
"Running is about more than just putting one foot in front of the other; it is about our lifestyle and who we are." - Joan Benoit, Olympic Marathon Champion
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Top 2014 U.S. Half Marathons (number of finishers)
  1. NYRR Brooklyn (25,645)
  2. OneAmerica 500 Festival (25,524)
  3. Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas (25,227)
  4. Nike Women's San Francisco (24,448)
  5. NYC Half (20,828)
  6. Disney Princess (20,770)
  7. Disney World (20,243)
  8. St. Jude Country Music Nashville (19,149)
  9. Rock 'n' Roll San Diego (16,890)
  10. Rock 'n' Roll Washington DC (16,767)
"If you want to win something, run the 100m. If you want to experience something, run a marathon." - Emil Zatopek, Long-Distance Olympic Champion
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Top 2014 U.S. Marathons (number of finishers)
  1. ING New York City (43,660)
  2. Bank of America Chicago (33,701)
  3. Marine Corps (23,380)
  4. Honolulu (22,064)
  5. Walt Disney World (20,734)
  6. ASICS LA (19,534)
  7. Boston (17,600)
  8. GORE-TEX Philadelphia (10,909)
  9. Medtronic Twin Cities (8,857)
  10. Portland (6,956)
"You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement." - Steve Prefontaine, Olympian
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People run marathons for a variety of reasons. As this Vox reporter demonstrates, running 26.2 miles is an incredible feat and requires motivation and dedication to cross the finish line. Some run marathons because they love competition or raising money and awareness for a good cause. Others are lifelong runners who, after months of arduous training, derive joy from accomplishing a sought-after goal. One runner featured in this video says that he has completed 160 marathons with the purpose of inspiring the next generation. One thing to keep in mind is that any person, at any age, can finish a marathon as long as they have something that drives them from one mile marker to the next.  

Popularity of Running in U.S. by Age Group

in 2014