It must be mean something when a big sports company starts an intense campaign around the launch of a new running shoe meant to appeal to “all runners.” Nike just did it this summer when it introduced its new “Joyride"’ technology.
Apart from having its roots in running (the brand history of Nike goes back to track running shoes back in the ’70s, with running today accounting for about US$4.5 billion of overall sales revenues of US$36 billion), there must be another reason why a big player makes this sport its focal point, especially when the media gives far more coverage to football, soccer and basketball.
Running is also taking on greater importance for Adidas: In its 2018 annual report the company reported sales revenues rose 8% on a currency-neutral basis. This increase in sport performance “was driven by double-digit sales growth in the training and running categories,” said the company. In the fourth quarter an increase in the running category even partially offset a marked decline in football revenues. Overall, running has reached US$33 billion in size in 2018, or a jump of 7% in dollars from the previous year in the global sports market, the NPD Group, a US-based market research company, reported. Outdoor sports such as cycling and walking, hiking and camping were also among the divisions that showed the greatest gains. And there is more to come: Analysts say that the global sports market will be worth US$626.8 billion by 2023–up 33% from the estimated US$471.3 billion in 2018.
1. THE REVIVAL OF RUNNING
Core, easy to perform, almost old school sports are experiencing a revival among amateur athletes, and brands are responding, from giant companies to newcomer labels. Just as cycling has done, running has also reached new peaks. But today these workouts have nothing to do anymore with mere “jogging” or “riding a bike” the way they used to.
As on every level of life today, even the simplest pursuit of sports has a lifestyle (and almost strutting peacock) connotation: community building, sharing results via social media and apps and last but not least the right gear.
On the one hand this offers the opportunity to big names such as Nike, Adidas or Asics or core running specialists such as On, Brooks or Saucony to explore this niche even more deeply. But on the other hand we see a wide array of fairly new labels being launched that understand running as a combination of tough workouts and cool lifestyle, with Tracksmith, Satisfy and Iffley Road coming to mind.
What they all have in common: it’s pretty cool to wear the gear and shoes on the field and off the track, too. Just as Lululemon made yoga pants a sporty status symbol to show what community you belong to, wearing your high-end running shoes and gear in the street has the same effect.
2. SPORTS–AND GEAR–FOR EVERYONE ANY TIME
“Running is hard, so we wanted to create a trainer for easy or recovery runs, a product that is designed for all runners,” said Kylee Barton, Nike’s global senior footwear product director, at the launch of the company’s new Joyride technology (which was first released as the Nike Joyride Run Flyknit model).
This highlights a democratic approach (leaving aside the fact that hardcore runners and marathoners DO want running to be hard and to suffer) and is clearly in response to the growing running community. It took Nike “about ten years of research and development” to come up with Joyride. The newly developed cushioning system made of thousands of TPE beads (made of a copolymer of plastic and rubber) gives the athlete the feeling of running on bubbles or sand. The beads are placed within zonally-tuned pods, which allow the foam to expand in all directions. Apart from the technology the shoes look pretty cool and with their comfy quality will certainly also make their way onto the streets.
The same could happen to Nike’s Blue Ribbon Sports capsule collection that was also launched this year. It’s an homage to Nike’s track and field beginnings in 1964, when the company was actually named Blue Ribbon Sports.
3. HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
But there's more to it: “I think that the growing popularity of running has to do with the general trend among the younger generation to live healthy and do sports and fitness. And then running is of course the easiest and actually least expensive way to do sports. You just need a pair of trainers, and you can walk outside and start, no matter whether in the city or in the countryside,” explains Barton, a passionate runner herself. Just like other sports companies, Nike has also discovered the demand for being part of a community and supports it via its app NRC (Nike Run Club) and by organizing or sponsoring (smaller and bigger) running events such as the Berlin Marathon.
4. THE HISTORY OF AMATEUR RUNNING
So, what exactly is happening out there? To understand the extent and potential of running, it is worth studying this topic more closely: Amateur running has had a dynamic history because for a long time it was an absolutely exotic thing to put running gear on and go out for a run: The first people in the US who took part in running in their free time outside a sports club, stadiums and all-weather tracks were sometimes arrested by the police, and professional athletes who took part in road races were suspended and thrown out of their organized associations. And women? They weren’t allowed to take part at all. From the first Boston Marathon in 1897 (with 15 runners entered), the first non-professionals running along roads to the rich variety of events today was a long and arduous path–but runners are used to that. That is why the running publication Tracksmith says: “We honor the Amateur Spirit upon which the sport was founded.” Despite the rough-and-tumble early days, daring guerilla actions, women who disguised themselves as men to get into races and were forcibly expelled from them, and runs which were somewhere between a political rally and a competition–after things had calmed down again, for decades amateur running was pursued without making the headlines. “It’s funny that even with rebellious roots, running has never really embodied a strong rebel subculture the way skateboarding has,” said Brice Partouche of Satisfy, a Paris-based running label founded in 2015, in an interview.
5. NEW CONSTRUCTIONS, NEW LOOKS, NEW PLATFORMS
For decades runners were predominantly male, wore neon-colored apparel and off-the-peg shoes and trained hard and with little notice. “When we launched On as a company there was a clear and fixed point of view about what a good pair of running shoes was like. Essentially all shoes on the market had the same construction and also looked so similar you could not tell them apart,” says On’s co-founder Caspar Copetti. That was in 2010. Since then, not only are there On products on the market, but a tremendous amount has happened in running: It’s not only people who become runners, associations and clubs, regions and holiday travel companies, food and technology manufacturers, book and magazine publishers and the shoe and sporting goods industry are joining in the program and have helped drive explosive growth in what is offered to runners. Today there’s an almost limitless choice of blogs for and by runners such as Running Shoes Guru, the New York Times Running Blog and Run Society in Japan, as well as YouTube channels providing detailed insights into life before, during and after running, or running apps such as Runtastic, Zwift Running and Strava. Then there’s the choice of races: Even in the relatively small northern German state of Lower Saxony with a border to the Netherlands more than 500 running events were held last year. In addition, running events are offered all over the world by running retailers such as the Brooklyn Running Company in New York City or Laufwerk in Hamburg. Daily newspapers cover the topic and organize running get-togethers, running groups are started–Hamburg Running has been involved since 2016–or they balloon in size like the New York Road Runners, which started out in in 1958 with 47 members and now has over 60,000 signed up. And sportswear labels often organize running events in which participation is free. For example, anybody can take part in Adidas Runners, from beginners to ambitious marathon runners. And everywhere you look–the equipment and performance material worn by runners is breathtaking.
6. THE SIMPLICITY OF RUNNING
But why are so many amateur runners taking to the roads, forest pathways and mountains? “Running has seen a cultural shift over the last five years. As is so often the case in periods of uncertainty (like the so-called running boom in the 1970s), people turn to the sport for its structure and community. Now more than ever, you see running offering an opportunity for people to get offline, connect with others and challenge themselves. Running is an incredibly simple sport, but it can have a huge impact on people’s lives,” explains Matt Taylor, founder and owner of running brand Tracksmith, launched in New England in 2014. Claire Kent, founder and co-owner of Iffley Road, a British label that offers “slow fashion for fast running and anyone with an active lifestyle,” says: “Our customers run to escape, to search, to think. They run for the journey, not for the finish line, they are people who run to slow down.” Nicklas Fenger of Danish label Saysky, founded in Copenhagen in 2013, says about this new passion: “Running is probably one of the most accessible sports with the lowest entry requirements in terms of fitness level and equipment. You just need a pair of trainers and off you go.” Although all that is not really something new. But with more and more people taking up running (especially in emerging markets) and the ever-increasing social media exposure, it is hard not to be inspired and jump aboard the bandwagon. From a social perspective the focus is also changing toward being healthy and taking care of yourself–and again, here, running is one of the easiest ways to achieve this. John Hansen, creative director and owner of running label DOXA, says: “Running is an easy sport to take part in; no need to book sessions and so on. Now, with a focus on a healthy lifestyle and with people who are always busy, running is the perfect match.” The burgeoning drive for self-improvement, the concern about our own appearance and well-being, which are increasingly determining our lives, are definitely one factor driving people, and especially women, to go out on a run these days. “Women’s running, at both the pro and amateur levels, has never been bigger–more women qualified for the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials than ever before–far outstripping men’s representation,” says Taylor of Tracksmith. Coppetti of On is certain: “The future of running is Asian and female.” But most importantly: “Running has no age,“ according to Hansen from DOXA. And so, not only hip, young runners are involved in all running events, but all age groups.
7. SHARING EXPERIENCES & RESULTS
In addition to the desire for self-optimization, a healthy lifestyle and a break from hectic, restless everyday life, technical features that measure and document every meter run, every calorie burned, every beat of the heart also make a significant contribution to the rapid success of running–among men and women alike. Wearables, smartphones or similar apps now analyze data more precisely and faster than many family doctors and provide distances, times, calorie consumption, altitude, heart rate and running forecasts in real time. This makes the effort visible and it spurs people on. They want to tell the world what apps like Strava, which basically do nothing except create networks of the sports-minded, make possible. Just to show how big and global the need for communication among athletes is: A recent national daily newspaper recently reported that Strava brings together 41 million users from 195 countries. “The new age of running was born in the late ’00s, where social media like Facebook and especially Instagram started being very powerful as the way to share your personal life with an audience. A simple like has been a great motivation for many people, no matter whether they had just finished their first 10 kilometer, half-marathon or marathon,” says Hansen.
8. COMMUNITY BUILDING
Testing yourself and showing what you can do is one thing. The other is the desire for shared (sports) experiences. This is now so big that Oliver Brüggen of Adidas says: “Running is changing from an individual to a team sport.” More and more runners are increasingly seeking to connect to a running group. And no matter whether it's an established running label or a newcomer–there is no running vendor that does not promote or live the idea of the community–via Instagram and other social media channels, blogs or virtual running races, as Iffley Road is currently planning for the virtual world; via running events, training runs, presentations and events in the real world. Satisfy regularly presents playlists with the right soundtrack at major marathons like those in Boston and LA and Tracksmith publishes its own print journal. For the Danish label Saysky, Nicklas Fenger explains, “The community aspect is one of the pillars of what we do and believe in. We do loads of events each year, where we physically manifest our relationship with many of our customers, followers and fellow passionate athletes.”
Social media channels are the perfect way to support and promote this feeling of belonging “because you are actually only one step from your customer,” as Hansen says. But these ways also help “to invite others to join in,” as Fenger puts it. “From the very beginning we’ve been focused on nursing and caring about our community and the culture that goes with it.” But he points out: “That wasn’t part of some corporate strategy, but quite simple because we ARE the community and culture that we serve. Sport has always been about connecting with like-minded peers whether as training buddies on the track or competitors come race day.” And he’s right: In the case of running, no marketing storyboards and campaigns need to be constructed by clever people; running writes its own dramatic plot lines: “Running is a sport that is rich in stories–whether it is the one we tell ourselves to keep going in a workout or the ones we share with others about our best race. Social media are a natural vehicle for these stories,” says Taylor of Tracksmith. And that's probably why many runners have become such faithful and loyal, but also ambitious customers–they feel, live and are part of the authenticity of these communities–an increasingly precious commodity that is becoming even more rare in our world.
9. INDIVIDUALIZATION OF PRODUCTS
As important as community and shared experiences are–outfits and equipment are at least as important, and these are becoming more and more individual, more and more a perfect fit: “As a customer you used to get a shoe practically ‘prescribed’ for you, and the consultations in stores resembled a discussion of symptoms with the doctor. On, and other innovative brands, have completely changed this. Today, there are different technologies side by side and the individual experience of the runner is at the center,” says Coppetti of On. “We customize our shoes so that we can offer all runners their preferred running experience.” And specialists such as Brooks, which started with bath and ballet shoes in 1914 and is now among the largest running shoe brands, now have customized running shoes in their product range.
10. MORE SORTS OF RACES & COURSES
With all the new runners not only outfits, shoes and incentives are changing, but also the sort of race and courses, so that runners today can choose among races of all kinds and distances, sponsored runs, cross-country or trail running, samurai running, ultramarathons, transalpine runs and much more. But there are also trends among all these options: “Ultra-running is growing both in terms of participation, competitiveness and media attention,” says Taylor. On the one hand. On the other hand, according to Andreas Ull, vice-president for amateur sports and development in the Lower Saxony Athletics Association: “The trend is toward running shorter distances, which can be handled with less training. At the same time, the novelty of the route you run plays an important role. Participants are looking for special challenges and experiences–often together with friends or colleagues as a way of doing good for others (charity) and or for themselves (health).” This is how the spectacular but authentic images and stories come into existence, which can be communicated very well. Another new development: If until now athletes were leaving the city to work out in parks and forests, or on fitness trails, nowadays they are simply staying in town: “Runners have discovered the urban environment,” says Brüggen of Adidas. Of course, this means different equipment is needed compared to the woods. That is why Adidas is offering more products geared to runners who work out in cities. Under Armour caters this movement by bringing its digital #Runconnected campaign to the analog world and organized a night run in a Berlin car park.
11. MARKET SHIFTS
Not only the running environment, the competitions and the number of running nuts are different today, but also the running business behind all this has changed drastically in recent years: “When we launched in 2014, we saw an opportunity to do something different in men’s running apparel. At the time, most of what you were seeing in the men’s space was pretty homogenous, neon and uninspired,” says Taylor. “Since then, a lot has changed in the marketplace: Not only is running growing in cultural relevance, but the industry’s approach to activewear has changed significantly. Customers are coming to expect more sophisticated running apparel and the market (and its price points) have shifted with this,” adds Taylor. “DOXA still thinks like a new brand as we just started out in 2016, but in this fashion/sport/lifestyle segment everything is changing really fast,” says Hansen. On the one hand, more companies are entering this market–there are regular reports about new labels–but in addition existing brands, which have had nothing to do with running until now, are trying to gain a foothold in this segment–for example, the sustainable sneaker label Veja now wants to launch its own running shoes. And established players are also researching, fine-tuning and releasing new editions, shock cushioning systems, materials and models all at once. The boundaries between clothing for sports and afterwards are increasingly becoming blurred–even in the office, runners want to be recognized from their look (and those who have until now avoided running want to at least look as though they are part of it...). This fits in with what the US label Saucony, which has existed since 1898, a year after the birth of the Boston Marathon, says: “Saucony bridges the gap between the people we are and the people we want to be.” And so, many manufacturers are working on bringing wishes and reality, sports and recreation as close together as possible: “With my own design background in fashion I have a personal need for more lifestyle and athleisure styles for the hours and days that are not spent running,” says Hansen of DOXA.
”The topic of sustainability will continue to increase in importance,” adds Brüggen of Adidas. A high proportion of Adidas running apparel is made from sustainable materials today already. “We focus on producing running wear that lasts a lifetime, so provided we can guarantee that, we’ll ensure that the Iffley Road customer receives an amazing combination of quality and functional style,” says Kent. “We believe that sustainability needs much more focus and we will continue adding styles in this category,” says Hansen. That’s the way it has to be too, because in addition to great equipment, shoes with a perfect fit, quick-drying, odor-control shirts, and seamless underwear, what all the world’s runners need more than anything else is enough breathing room.