This week someone told me in no uncertain terms that he thought running was boring. I protested vehemently as you might expect from someone who has been running most days for the past 15 years. But that was exactly his point – runners might enjoy running but to many people who don’t run, or haven’t since a bad experience at school, running looks like an unsociable, tough and dull affair. Specifically he was critical of running events that, unlike other sports and new events like obstacle course races for example, haven’t evolved and innovated in the past decades. His hypothesis was that on the whole running events (and the same applies to other ‘traditional’ sports) aren’t catering for the needs and expectations of new audiences who are looking for fun, sharable experiences.
I had to agree with him to an extent but point out that there are exceptions. Many big city races, the London Marathon being a case in point, provide a great experience for participants and spectators alike. And recently I went to the Highgate Harriers Night of the 10,000m PBs – a great, fun, sociable event and an example of running at its best and least boring. (Although it was a shame that Mo Farah wasn’t at the Olympic trial.) But if you look at OCRs and other events of that nature you can see his point – people look like they’re having fun, they are intrinsically social events often done in teams, the visual output is fantastic and ‘fans’, whether online or in person, can also join in the experience.
You could say that as long as people are being active, does it really matter if they choose to do a colour run or an OCR, or take up running, cycling or swimming? The problem is there is no evidence that the former leads to any sustained active habit, and for many people they are one-offs that are readily replaced by other experiences that involve little or no activity. And we have an activity and health crisis that can only be solved by people developing sustained active habits that informal sports like running and cycling can offer.
While participation in these sports is increasing, thanks to innovations from the likes of parkrun and British Cycling, it is happening very slowly as measured by the only credible research in the UK – Sport England’s Active People Survey. Both are readily accessible and there are very few substantial practical barriers to millions more people taking them up on a regular basis. But running especially has a perception problem which current events and marketing do little to rectify. We need to show people who would like to be more active that running, cycling and swimming are fun and sociable, and the experience of those already committed to them is one others could also have.
Running isn’t boring but it does need to project a more positive image and that starts with learning from newer sports and events that have captured the imagination of thousands with marketing and experiences that excite and inspire.