Numbers don’t lie: Women are fueling the explosive growth of endurance sports

I’ve never participated in the Color Run or similar races, but after seeing photos from these events, I came up with a theory.

The last one here in Tulsa had somewhere north of 20,000 people participate. And that number is probably a little low. In terms of participants, it was by far the biggest running event in the city ever.

I know several people who ran in the Color Run. They were all female.

I saw tons of photos on social media from the Color Run. Overwhelmingly, the participants photographed in this one were female.

And given the explosive growth in endurance sports overall, I believe that the fuel behind that growth is an increase in women participants.

Seriously, a couple of decades ago, this was the popular image of a fitness-minded woman:


Nowadays, that image looks more like this: photo photo

My theory is backed by facts.

The number of road race finishers has increased by 170 percent in the past 10 years, up to 13.9 million people in 2011, according to Running USA. That same figure was just under 5 million in 1990. Also in 1990, just a quarter of all road race finishers were women. In 2011, that number had increased to 55 percent. And given that spending on running shoes has increased by 68 percent over the past 12 years, can you guess who is behind the bulk of these new sales? (Thanks to the Imarunnerandsocanyou blog for these figures.)

Many races have become communal events where groups of friends enter and race together. Forget the image of solo male runners focused solely on times and a finish line. What’s become much more common – even ubiquitous – are groups of gals, sometimes dressed alike (or even in costume), having a ball together as they lope down the road. Entire races have been built upon this phenomenon.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of serious female competitors out there to win, and there are plenty of women running some very serious, difficult races. I’d also bet that their numbers are increasing right along with the rest of them.

And I will guess that similar trends are popping up in triathlons (think SheRox triathlon events, all-women races with thousands of participants each), cycling, mud runs, obstacle races and adventure races.

The next question: Why?

Is it fitness? Losing weight? Doing stuff with friends?

Yes to all of that, but I think there is one more really important reason driving this.


If you’ve gone much of our life having never run more than a couple of laps, then train for and finish a 5K, that’s a confidence builder. Next thing you know, you’re running 13.1, 26.2, or more.

Finding the mental and physical strength to do big things suddenly makes the more ordinary challenges of life look much more doable.

Or perhaps it’s reclaiming past athletic glory. Hey, lots of us have been there. It’s empowering to know that the prowess of your younger days isn’t gone forever. It can be reclaimed, in part or in whole, or maybe even improved upon.

These are universal truths, regardless of gender. But somehow I think it’s different for women than men, or at least it has manifested itself differently in the past several years.

I don’t want to presume too much, but you tell me. Am I right? Are there other reasons why we’re seeing such an increase in women’s participation in endurance sports? Let me see your comments below.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


6 thoughts on “Numbers don’t lie: Women are fueling the explosive growth of endurance sports

  1. I wonder if it also has something to do with “permission”? In the 46 yrs since Katherine infiltrated the Boston Marathon, it took another decade plus a couple of years to get women’s marathon into the Olympics. The girls born since then are now in their young adulthood and have no problem asking if their husbands will take care of the kids so they can get a long run in. It IS about empowerment. And marriage equality by which I mean more sharing of household duties. And social interaction. You will never catch me in a Color Run but I get the camaraderie aspect. And crap I’m stealing your idea for a new blogpost. Last year I did one specifically about women and MUDDY events. Dirty Girls. Women are getting dirty. It’s a “thing”.

    • Steal away, Lisa! Great take. Changing times have definitely helped open up opportunities for women to do more things. One only has to look in other sports and activities to see that. I see it a lot in climbing. There are some amazing women climbers out there, and at the top of the heap is Steph Davis, who has done things that are, as far as I know, unprecedented. Would not have happened 20 years ago.

      Going back to endurance sports, another thing I think is encouraging for women is not only can they do these things, but can be competitive regardless of gender. There are plenty of runners out there — and I mean a HUGE number — who can run faster and further than me by a long shot. And that is also not rare.

  2. Nice post! I signed up and trained for my first half marathon to mark my 40th birthday. I wanted to do something memorable. I trained for it on my own. I wasn’t concerned about about pace and time; I just wanted to complete it. I had so much fun on that first long distance, endurance event:-) I also trained for my first (and only) marathon with a group. I walked the entire 26 miles…I was out there for over seven hours, longer than a school day. Did I feel empowered? You bet I did! 🙂

  3. Thanks for the mention!

    The world has changed. My mother is 84 and when she was in school girls weren’t supposed to sweat in gym class! They never did any strenuous exercise.
    Throughout my mother’s life she has never really exercised. She rode a bike and went swimming occassionally, but not like the ladies who do triathlons these days.

    I think it is great that so many women are participating in sports now. It is good for them and it is good for society.

    • I totally agree. There is tremendous good in women gaining strength and confidence in physical achievement. Better yet, if for no other reason, this trend is creating a healthier segment of our society. That’s important stuff.

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