Running demographics in detail

This article presents a collection of demographic statistics about running in the UK and beyond. The data is drawn primarily from Sport England’s Active People Survey and its unrivalled dataset, but also my own Big Running Survey, which provides finer detail.

UK Running Demographics

How many runners?

The current size of the UK regular running population over the age of 16 is around 2.5 million (5% of the adult population). This figure is based on a minimum of once per week participation, and is extrapolated from the rate in England alone.

Including occasional joggers in the figures would take us significantly higher, perhaps as high as 8 million (about 16% of the adult population), but differences in the way questions were asked in different surveys in different parts of the UK make this figure less reliable.

Looking just at England, for which we have the largest dataset, figure 1 shows that between 2008 and 2016 participation in once per week running has steadily increased. This pattern is reflected in data from other nations of the UK.

Figure 1: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey 2016

Where are the runners?

Figure 2 shows the level of running participation by UK nation and region. The figures represent the percentage of adults who reported running at least once in the last four weeks.

The figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland are inferred because their surveys bundled ‘jogging’ and ‘running’ together, and came up with much higher rates of 14% each.

Figure 2: Data from Sport England 2016, Sport Scotland 2017, Sport Wales 2018 and Northern Ireland Department for Communities 2018

The Welsh data had separate questions for running and jogging, which gleaned 5% and 11% respectively. The 5% figure is close to the neighbouring regions of England, so is probably measuring the same thing, and can be considered sound. This suggests that Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the combined running and jogging figure was 14% compared to Wales’s 16%, probably have similar, or slightly lower levels of running (as opposed to jogging) participation, also close to 5%.

The age of runners

The next running demographic we’ll look at is age. Figure 3 shows the distribution of English runners (once per week minimum) by year of age. There are two distinct peaks in the data. One is amongst late teenagers, but this drops off quickly after 18 (presumably marking the transition from to work or university). The second, larger peak centres on the early to mid-40s. The mean age for runners is about 40 years old.

Figure 3: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

Gender balanced

Running as a whole attracts a fairly even number of male and female participants. But this disguises some significant differences in the types of running men and women tend to do. I’ll discuss the differences later, but here (figure 4) we can see how running compares to other sports in terms of gender balance and mean participant age.

The red vertical line marks the point at which there are an equal number of men and women in a given sport. It’s not at the half way point (0.5) because more women than men competed the survey this chart is based on.

Figure 4: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

Running is a middle-class sport

Socioeconomic status is an important and surprising variable in UK – and world – running demographics, as I explain in this post.

The big takeaway here is that running is very much a sport of the affluent and well educated. Despite the fact that it has no economic barriers to entry, the socioeconomic profile of running is comparable to traditionally high status sports like tennis and golf.

Figure 5 shows the percentage of senior/middle managers and traditional professionals (e.g. accountants, doctors, lawyers) in a range of sports. Running, highlighted in blue, has amongst the highest proportions of these high status occupations amongst its adherents.

Figure 5: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

Behind this headline figure though, there is a good deal of variety in terms of the typical social backgrounds of runners involved in different forms of the sport. This is illustrated by figure 6, which shows the same table, but with runners split over three categories: Marathon runners, obstacle course runners and ultra runners.

Figure 6: Data from Big Running Survey

A mixed picture on ethnicity

First the good news. As figure 7 shows, the percentage of members of minority ethnic groups participating in running (at least once in the last four weeks) has gradually been closing the gap to ‘white British’ participation levels, and in 2016 Sport England could report equality of participation between white British and other groups.

Figure 7: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

However, there is more to this than meets the eye. If we dig into the non-white British category, we find striking differences in participation between different ethnic groups.

Figure 8 shows that people identifying as non-British and white, and people who claim a ‘mixed’ background are much more likely to run than other groups. One reason for this is that both of these groups are much younger on average than people identifying as ‘white British’, which increases the likelihood of them leading active lives (the average age of ‘white British’ respondents was almost 60, whereas both of these groups averaged around 40). The high participation rates for these groups must be pulling the overall minority ethnic participation upwards significantly.

On the other hand, Asian people (who are also on average much younger than white British people) are under represented in the sport. The same is true of runners identifying as Chinese, but there is insufficient data for recent years for this group to appear on the chart.



Figure 8: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

In figure 9 I have extracted the participation rates for various ethnic groups in 2016 only including people between the ages of 25 and 45. This gives us more comparable figures in terms of the popularity of running with different groups. Note, this is once per week participation rather than once per four weeks in the previous chart. Here we can clearly see the disparity in participation between white and other ethnic groups.

Figure 9: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

Disability a barrier

The last running demographic we’ll look at here is disability. Sadly there remains a big gap in running participation between people with and without a limiting illness or disability. This is illustrated in figure 10, which shows the gap is about the same for people with either a mental or physical condition.

In the six years covered by this data there doesn’t appear to have been any improvement in this inequality. This may represent a missed opportunity. Running has been shown to be an effective way of managing many physical and mental conditions.

Figure 10: Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey

Demographics within running

This post has described some general characteristics of runners in UK as a whole, but it would be a mistake to conclude that these are uniform throughout the sport.

This is because running is actually made up of a number of different communities or cultures centred around different goals, institutions and environments. Track athletics, for instance, is a very different form of running to fell-running or obstacle course racing.

When we divide runners up by these categories, as I have done in my own research, we find quite different demographic profiles for each group.

Fell-runners, for instance, are much more likely to be men than women, and are also significantly more likely to have a high status job when compared to obstacle course racers.

So, the running demographics described above should be understood as the top level headlines. I’ll be unpicking and exploring some of the nuances in other posts.

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