Will There Be a Coming Participation Boom in Endurance Events?

It’s gonna be a party!

Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Iggy Pop, an icon of 70s rock, said in Rolling Stone Magazine recently: “I know when I do come back onstage, it’s going to feel great. Imagine what kind of party we’re going to have.” The same can be said of endurance events. When we get to come back to races, it’s going to be a party!

Essentially shut down now for nine months now, mass participation events like triathlons, running, and cycling races have been postponed, canceled, or held virtually. The question is what is going to happen when they finally get to come back?—when the new normal sets in, when the vaccine takes hold, and when mass participation events get the green light again.

As dim as the present might look right now, the future looks bright and full of new runners and cyclists. A Sports Business Journal article in November said: “According to a study from several sources, there are an estimated 7 million new runners in the U.S. since COVID hit. Additionally, U.S. cycling sales through all channels grew 75% in April to a total of about $1 billion for the month … for the first time ever.” Walmart not only has had record bike sales, they recently became a member of the PeopleForBikes Coalition, the national bike industry trade association aimed at getting more people on bikes more often.

RunRepeat, an online running shoe focused website, did a 13,000 person study and found that exercise frequency increased by 88% this year among people who generally exercised once or twice a week. More than 1 million people joined Strava’s monthly 5K challenge in May, and 2 million new users joined the free app every month this year.

RELATED: Strava’s Year in Sport Shows the Impact the Pandemic Has On Our Exercise Habits

Statistics like these certainly bode well for an event boom in mid to late-2021. It has been reported that that almost one-third of the 13,000 runners in the Virtual Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon were participating in their first-ever marathon, and the same was true for many athletes participating in the Ironman virtual series this year, according to an Ironman press release. Many of those same athletes, said the press release, then signed up for an in-person Ironman-brand event in 2021. 

“I think we are going to have our best year ever once COVID subsides—a combination of the current athletes wanting to race and compete, along with the new cyclists and runners looking for goals to stay motivated,” said Staci Brode, co-owner of PlayTri, the official triathlon store of Ironman. In the three events they have staged in the Dallas area in the past months, she said, there were many more first-timers than expected, as many as 40-50% of the participants.

Getting all those new riders and runners to races and keeping them riding and running is a focus of many in the industry. Rob DeMartini, CEO of USA Cycling (USAC), is leading two new initiatives aimed at new cyclists. “Let’s Ride” is a series of free one-day camps for new cyclists, focusing on skills, safety, and riding etiquette. DeMartini is asking USAC’s 1,200 certified coaches to commit to putting on two camps in 2021. In addition, USAC is offering free junior memberships to those 18 and under ”to encourage young riders to participate early and often.”

As more people got outside this year, it opened new avenues of activity. Many realized they didn’t need indoor fitness classes.“People have pivoted from gyms and fitness classes to moving outdoors,” said  Kyle McLaughlin, CEO Tough Mudder. He believes these new avenues to welcome people to exercise could potentially lead to welcoming them to event participation too. “Also, virtual events have shown a new way to welcome newbies in a non-intimidation way.” The key, he said, is local race organizers offering small, well-priced good experiences that allow people a way in and deliver a high-quality event that keeps them interested and coming back.

Rocky Harris, CEO USA Triathlon (USAT), agrees. USAT has initiated a “Race Local. Compete Nationally” campaign, also emphasizing support for smaller local races and their organizers. “Whether an athlete is more comfortable with a smaller local race or looking for that ‘A’ race they missed in 2020, they will be able to find a safe race in any community across the country,” said Harris. “As we look toward 2021 and beyond, it will be as much a celebration of the sport as a return to it, and I am excited to see it flourish.”

Our industry of events is well-situated to take advantage of the millions of new active people brought outside through the pandemic. Local grassroots races, which are cost-effective, extremely welcoming to newbies, and create a strong sense of community, will be the precursor to a significant growth in events, most likely beginning in late second quarter 2021 and through the remainder of Q3. 

We are all ready for a party, a celebration of endurance sports!

Barry Siff has been thinking about, writing about, and helping lead endurance events and the industry for the past two decades. He lives in Tempe, Arizona with his wife, Jodee, and awesome dog, Xander.

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.