In late 2013, The Wall Street Journal published the “The Slowest Generation,” a scathing critique of millennial runners, suggesting that members of this particular generation are all too happy to “participate” in untimed events, like The Color Run, and thus “races are turning into parades.” As a dedicated runner, health and fitness writer interested in the limits of human performance, and a millennial myself, this article bothered me. I thought that while Color Runs, Tough Mudders, and other untimed events have indeed emerged over the last few years, it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about an entire generation as a result. The plural of anecdote is not data. Fortunately, now we have data.
For “The Millennial Running Study,” released earlier today, researchers from Achieve and Running USA surveyed a representative sample (over 15,000) of runners ages 18 to 34 to learn about the generation’s attitudes and perceptions toward running. According to Running USA, millennials account for over 40 percent of all runners and thus are shaping the future of the sport. So, are we really destined, as The Wall Street Journal suggested, to see the degradation of competitive running as we know it? Do millennials really prefer circus-like “events” to traditional running races?
Put simply: no.
For starters, in 2015, significantly more millennials finished marathons (30 percent), half marathons (65 percent), 10Ks (48 percent), and 5Ks (64 percent), than they did fun runs and other untimed events (23 percent), and by a long shot. And while millennials did report that they plan to increase their participation in fun runs in the future, they plan to increase their participation in traditional events even more so.
Moreover, over 80 percent of millennials run frequently to improve their health and fitness or consider themselves serious competitive runners. Only 16 percent reported that they participate in events “mostly to have fun,” and just one percent aspire to participate in events that “require them to get muddy.”
According to the researchers the data suggest, “millennial respondents are more interested in participating in races that are focused on the run than fun or untimed events such as the Color Run or Zombie Run.” Millennials, the researchers concluded, “run for running’s sake.” They are drawn to running “because they love to run and challenge themselves” and prefer “no-nonsense, no-frills events.”
This report is refreshing and confirms what I’ve heard in numerous conversations with millennial runners, including even younger runners. Take, for example, Allie Carey, who lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, “Running is one of the hardest things I do in my life but I never regret it after a workout,” she says. “I love the challenge of pushing myself and getting better. I’m only 18-years-old and have a long life ahead of me that I hope includes a couple of marathons.”
At the other end of the millennial generation there is Robert Reznick, a 29-year-old runner who lives in New York City, who says, “I love running because of the rush I get. I don’t run to have people throw paint at me. I run to push my limits.”
Meredith Storton, a 27-year-old runner from San Francisco, California, told me “running is an opportunity to think unencumbered by incoming text messages and emails, and it provides me with a chance to set and achieve measureable goals.”
Conclusion: while there are plenty of serious concerns at the top of the sport (e.g., doping), the chance of millennials ruining the sport probably isn't one of them.