The time has come for the yearly update of The State of Running, a report put together by Run Repeat.com and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The report has analyzed more than 70,000 running events that took place between 1986–2018; including almost 108 million race results. The latest report — adding events from 2018 — found that for the first time in history, there are more women runners than men.
THE STATE OF RUNNING
Globally, women now make up 50.24% of runners — and Iceland (59%), the U.S. (58%) and Canada (57%) make up the top-three countries with the highest number of female participants. The report found the median age of women runners is 36 and the numbers noticeably to decline once women hit 40. Participation for men actually peaks at 40.
So how did we get from less than 20% of runners being women in 1986 to just above 50% now? In the U.S., at least, there have been a few milestones that have paved the way for more and more women to lace up their shoes and run — even as race participation in general has slowly declined.
THE RISE OF WOMEN IN THE SPORT
When it comes to racing, women were once thought of as too fragile; women weren’t allowed to run marathons because it was literally believed they would die. In the ‘60s, two women — Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb and Kathrine Switzer — raced head on into the history books, challenging those who were trying to keep them from doing what they loved. Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon in 1966 (and was retroactively named women’s winner in 1966, 1967 and 1968), in an era where women had to run the famed race as unregistered participants. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to run with a bib, which she illegally obtained by registering with her initials. Men tried to chase her off course and rip her bib off mid-race, once they realized. Both Gibb and Switzer finished that race in 1967 and paved the way for women to be allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon five years later, in 1972.
“I think since the legendary race with Kathrine Switzer, women’s running and competing has been on an upswing,” acknowledges Mary Maleta Wright, one of the founders of the Arete Women’s Running Club. “Over the years, women have become increasingly empowered by the confidence and strength that running brings them.”
It was those long-distance running pioneers and the advent of Title IX in 1972, where women were no longer allowed to be discriminated against in college and university sports based on gender, that truly started to create change. Because of Title IX, women’s programs flourished and female athletes began to get the support they needed to hone their craft at a younger age than before. This also helped pave the way for after-school programs across the country to introduce girls to the sport — such as Sole Girls and Girls on the Run — so young women could get a taste of the positive impact sport can have in their lives.
“Running is a very low-barrier sport in terms of cost, ability levels, equipment and location,” shares Ashley Wiles, founder and head coach of Sole Girls, which provides running programs for young girls across the country. “You can run almost anywhere at anytime (obviously being aware of neighborhoods and cultures and weather). At Sole Girls we talk about finding your Happy Pace, which for each individual is different. It’s a way of being inclusive to all abilities and bodies and fitness levels. When someone is new to a sport after the age of 8, it can be mentally challenging to feel good enough and/or included, so low barriers are vital.”
THE FUTURE OF WOMEN’S RUNNING
Those young women being shaped by an early introduction into running are absolutely going to be the future of the sport. Of course, there is a national and global discourse going on about the rights of women; this is happening not just in sport, though the United States women’s national soccer team has helped propel that conversation forward, as well.
“There is a lot of great attention right now on women in running at the professional level, so that’s great for the sport at every level,” adds Wright. “Women like [track and field champion Alysia] Montaño are advocating for maternity leave for pro runners, women on social media are talking about their journey toward races, and brands are making clothes that cater toward women. Women are realizing that running — and specifically running with other women — adds so much joy and accomplishment in their lives and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Wiles agrees, noting the continued rise of visibility women have not just in running but in sports in general, (just this year an NFL team became the first to add two female coaches to its staff). Now, girls and women of all ages can imagine themselves joining the ranks of those champions. In fact, they are doing more than imagining it — they are registering, racing and finally outnumbering men in the sport.