Running up a bill?

One of the great appeals of running is its accessibility. Most of us can run – at least for a minute or so – and most own a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Really the only thing you might need to pay for before you can get started is a pair of trainers, although barefoot runners would argue that even that isn’t really necessary. Unlike sports like golf, tennis, cycling or swimming, running has virtually no financial barriers to participation. In terms of material constraints, running must be one of the most open and egalitarian sports.

But of course a sport as popular as running was bound to attract commercial interest. Runners are a huge potential market. And of course lots of companies have developed products and services to sell to them. So whilst running can be free, it can also be expensive, and for some the annual running bill can add up. To participate in organised races, become a member of a club, buy branded sportswear, a GPS watch and the latest trainers can set you back hundreds of pounds. Throw in nutritional supplements, physio sessions, the cost of traveling and hotels ahead of big races and assorted books and magazines and a runner’s annual spend can become substantial.

As part of the Big Running Survey we asked runners how much money they spend on running in a typical year. This would necessarily have been an estimate, but the results can help shed some light on how much we’re spending, what we’re spending it on, and who’s spending the most (and least). I’d guess that the actual figures are higher than expressed here as whilst it’s easy to forget things you’ve paid for (or fail to notice they were running related purchases) it’s less likely to imagine things you’ve paid for that you haven’t!

First of all, here is the spread of estimated annual spends across the near 2,500 runners surveyed:

Money spent on running in a year

As you can see, whilst few runners spent less than £100 the majority say they spent between £101 and £500. About 18% of runners fall into the ‘Big Spender’ category that we’ll have a look at next. They are runners who remember spending over £500 in the last year.

So who are running’s Big Spenders? The table below shows what percentage of a range of different groups fall into this category.


For blue motivation categories those included scorde at least 75% for these motivations
For blue motivation categories those included scored at least 75% for these motivations

The figures above show significant relationships between how much runners spend on their sport on the one hand, and gender, age, key motivations and income on the other.

There are relationships between some of these variables, so for instance men may spend more than women partly because they earn more on average. So it may not be gender directly influencing spend, but rather acting through another variable, in this case income.

But when we put together all of the highest spending categories we get quite a clear profile of the biggest spending runners (as shown in the bottom, grey row). Men in their 30s who are competitive and social (suggesting club membership perhaps?) and who have a high income. This data suggests that this is ‘sweet spot’ in the running market, the place where the most money can be made. A third of runners who fit this description spend over £500 a year on their sport, and 11% spend over £1000 – almost twice the average rate.

At the other end of the spectrum is the lowest spending group described below.

Lowest spending groups in running

Only 2% of women under 30 who run to get or stay in shape and are on a relatively low income (under £18,000 per year) spend over £500 a year on running. Unsurprisingly given their income level, none of them spend over £1000. In fact over 70% of this group spend less than £250, with half of those spending less than £100 per year.

What are we spending our money on?

Next let’s have a lot at the habits of high spending runners. This should provide some good evidence of what runners actually spend their money on.

These are the top 4 forms of racing most associated with high annual spend, listed in order from highest spend to lowest:

  1. Marathon
  2. Trail racing
  3. Half-marathon
  4. Ultra marathon

And here are the forms least linked to high spend, started with the lowest spend:

  1. Jogging (never race)
  2. Obstacle racing
  3. Mud racing
  4. Adventure racing

Starting with the lowest spenders I suppose number 1, jogging, is pretty obvious. The cost of racing is a major element of a competitors’ annual spend, so not racing is bound to save you some money. But also it’s likely that non-racers are less enthusiastic about running in other ways, for instance in getting fast times or joining a club, that might induce them to spend more on equipment another other items.

What’s more surprising is that obstacle, mud and adventure racing are also associated with relatively lower spend than other forms of running. After all, many of my interviewees have complained about the high cost of signing up for these kinds of events compared to road races. Perhaps this suggests that people who do sign up for Tough Mudders and the like are often less serious about running as a whole than road, track or fell-runners, and thus spend less across a year even if the races they do attend are quite expensive.

As for the high spend races we can see that they are all forms that take a degree of commitment in terms of training volume, so perhaps people who run these kinds of races are more likely to invest more in their running. Certainly ultra runners will need some additional kit and probably go through more pairs of trainers than most. Half-marathon is probably the hardest to explain, as this is a fairly accessible distance popular with a wide range of runners, but doesn’t require huge training volumes or any specialist kit. Halfs are also often quite cheap to enter – certainly local level events at least. Explaining the link between high spending and half marathon participation needs more work.

Perhaps there are some clues at a more granular level of running practice. Below are some of the ‘micro-practices’ – the activities that contribute to people’s overall running practice – that are most associated with high spending in running. The top of the list starts with the activities most likely to be practised by high spending runners out of the 30 micro-practices surveyed.

1.    Using sports nutrition
2.    Visiting running related websites
3.    Reading books about running
4.    Advising other runners
5.    Using a physio
6.    Reading magazines about running
7.    Getting sports massage

Three of these are about engagement with running media and two are about receiving forms of physical therapy. The use of physical therapy is perhaps indicative of commitment to running, as injuries often come with high volumes or intensity of training, but also it’s expensive. Perhaps this is just evidence that when you’re prone to injuries running – or trying to get back to running – can become a very expensive pastime.

Engagement with running media could be linked to spending because more engaged runners spend more in general (because running is a bigger part of their life) and are more likely to want to read about the sport. There may also be an element of media-engaged runners being subjected to higher levels of marketing around their sport, encouraging more purchases.

Of the remaining two practices in the top 7, advising other runners seems, again, to be related to engagement in running. Deeply committed runners who are recognised as ‘experts’ are likely to spend more to facilitate their involvement in the sport, whether in the form of club fees, race sign-ups, kit or anything else related to the sport.

Sports nutrition is at number one. The most closely associated practice with high spending amongst runners. This is interesting. I suppose a big part of this is that sports nutrition is expensive in itself if you use it regularly and probably contributes a large percentage of annual spend for some people. But also those most likely to use sports nutrition are, according to our data, usually the more serious, competitive runners, who in turn are more likely to spend highly across the sport as a whole. Also sport nutrition appears to be most strongly associated with the very same races that ranked in the top 4 for highest annual spend – half-, full- and ultra-marathon, and trail racing. Not only are these tough, long events that make sports nutrition seem a sensible choice, but they are also the events most popular with the highest socio-economic groups. These are the racers that have the most money to spend, and the races are those that encourage higher spending outlay in terms of kit, footwear, travel and nutrition.

This brings begs an interesting question: Do the ways we choose to participate in running depend on our social and economic position? Do wealthy, high status people participate in different ways to less well off and lower status individuals? And if so, is this down to access and financial differences? or do different forms of running have different images, that attract some people and put others off, in the same way as sports like polo, tennis, football or darts, which have significantly different demographic participant bases?

I’ll be looking at that in next month’s article.

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