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How Running Has Changed in the Past 25 Years

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Running is one of the oldest, if not the oldest sport. Doesn’t seem like that much can change when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other but that’s not entirely the case. For example, running shoes you wore just two years ago will seem so outdated as companies are always coming up with new technology.

Also, running, in general, wasn’t always as popular as it is now. Most races were a little more grassroots and the field of runners was not as varied in age and gender as it is now. Some changes have been quick and others have been gradual. Just looking at the past 25 years, what has changed in the field of running?

Just the Numbers

In terms of the numbers, the changes are staggering. In the United States in 1990, there were just 5 million runners in road races which increased to around 17 million in 2017. That number peaked around 2014 at 19 million.

In 1990 out of those 5 million runners that finished an event, the field was 25% female. Flash forward to 2016, out of the 17 million finishers 57% were female.


In the early nineties “swag” wasn’t really a word and it sure wasn’t a reason some people signed up for a race.  You were lucky to get a cotton long-sleeve or short sleeve shirt, but that wasn’t always a guarantee. Even well into the mid-2000s, when a shirt was almost a requirement to keep participants happy, your “free” shirt was cotton. Around 2007 tech shirts became the material of choice for many races due to their superior moisture wicking properties.

And who can forget those other running goodies that come in the expo bag: the newest gel being marketed, a one-time use Body Glide or Bio Freeze packet, magnets and koozies galore. The swag bag just didn’t exist 25 years ago. There was the occasional finisher item given out but it wasn’t commonplace.

Having a Voice

With the advancement of the internet and race surveys, Race Directors are catering to the runners. If you have a complaint or compliment Race Directors are listening. Notice a yummy change in post-race food? Add your thoughts in the post-race survey that pops up in your email inbox the week following the race.

Water stops and on-course support is now driven by past participants who were actually out on the course. Organizers are bending over backward not only to ensure returning participants but to steer clear of any negative social media. They are pushing hashtags and striving to provide an entirely positive experience, before, during and after your race.

Listening to runners is part of why themed races have become a staple in the over 30,000 races that are put on each year. Races like the Hot Chocolate Run, The Color Run, and the Ragnar Race Series cater to runners who seek an experience out of their race. There were Turkey Trots 25 years ago but a chocolate fountain after your 5k or 15k might have been laughable.


What could be identified as the single most helpful piece of running gear has become available affordably to the masses: the GPS watch. It was life-changing for a lot of distance runners. No matter the brand you use the ability to step out on the road and have your run tracked in so many ways was astounding. The roads seemed to open up because not knowing the mileage was a thing of the past.

All of the sudden you could track distance, pace, splits (with a distance of your choosing), see the time of day and set parameters to have the watch notify you.   And you can save it,  upload it and post it for the world to see or for you to better track your training. Gone are the days where you have to drive your route so you can know your distance.

The addition of web-based applications like Strava, Nike + Running, MapMyRun and RunKeeper make staying organized and motivated a thing of the past. Now the question is if you didn’t log your run into your favorite app did it really happen?

The Boston Marathon

The pinnacle for most runners, Boston has had a qualification time since 1970. Those times have changed throughout the years. Some advantageous to runners and some not. About 15 years ago the age group “70 and over” was expanded to 70-74, 75-79 and 80 and over. And 25 years ago the qualifying times for people under the age of 44 were slower than they are today. If you were chasing the Boston dream when the times changed in 2013, you remember the sinking feeling in your stomach. However, even though the qualifications times became more strict with the younger age brackets, Boston saw such an increase from 2012-2017, that, with the exception of 2013, the Boston Athletic Association had to turn away people with qualified times, accepting the fastest runners first.

For the most part, the changes in running that have occurred over the past 25 years are fun and sometimes nostalgic. Apparel and training have obviously been affected by all of the advances in research and development, so has how we listen to music and hydrate ourselves. The good news is, no matter how much running changes, lacing up your shoes and running out your front door can be as simple or as state-of-the-art as you prefer. It’s your choice.

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