Experts Weigh in on The Trail Running Boom

Trail running is having a moment. 

Here’s a few of the statistics: trail running is the 7th fastest growing sport in the United States according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Strava recorded 16% growth in logged trail runs according to the 2023 Year in Sport. One of the most popular trail races in the world, Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, had three times more requests for bibs than places available according to their key registration figures.

Friends who once ran the city streets with you have disappeared to the woods and not returned. The mountains beckoned.

Trail running is growing at a faster rate than any other running segment. 

In order to get a better understanding of the growth of trail running, we surveyed hundreds of trail runners and interviewed industry veterans about what they thought were the major factors contributing to the new swell in trail runners.

We also investigated what ramifications this influx might mean for the sport longer term.

A dozen runners along the course of UTMB.

Why Trail Running May Have Lagged

In an interview with Brian Metzler, who has worked in the running industry for over 30 years and now Executive Editor at RUN by Outside Magazine, he mentioned that trail running may have been held back by the longer distance ultramarathons.

“Trail running was synonymous with ultramarathons even though, most trail runners I know have not run a 100 mile race.” 

iRunFar’s Editor-in-Chief Meghan Hicks points out “over the last decade there was much more participation in shorter-distance trail races than in longer ones.” But, when it came to trail races, the media’s focus on the “biggest” “most difficult” “craziest” or “longest” may have intimidated new runners. 

What we’re seeing now is that pandemic trail runners took to the trails to enjoy the outdoors, not necessarily to cover monster distances

On a Freetrail podcast interview with Molly Seidel, the Olympic bronze medalist road runner cited “Trail races are becoming New York City Marathon big” and is where road racing was “in the 70s and 80s and is picking up steam.”

Road Runners Are Finding Trail Running

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about our lives: how we work, where we live, how we socialize, and how we exercise.

With the closure of gyms, more turned to outdoor recreation. A survey of 3,961 runners conducted by RunRepeat found that 28.76% of current runners started during the pandemic.

“The impact of COVID, while brutal at the time, has created an additional tailwind for the outdoor recreation economy, of which trail running is a part. When gyms were closed more people moved into nature for their exercise and mental health. Once exposed to these benefits, it is difficult to abandon them simply because your favorite gym has reopened,” said David Callahan, co-CEO of trail running registration platform UltraSignup. 

When we surveyed runners, one user noted that their pandemic move made running enjoyable for them for the first time thanks to their easy access to trails.

Meghan Hicks cited that road running is decreasing in popularity at the same period that trail running is increasing and we can speculate “some of those road-running-focused runners of the past are transferring to trail running.”

Women Are Finding Trail Running

Hicks also pointed out that women are the fastest growing contingent of trail runners.

“The women’s demographic also prefers to run socially/in groups, much more so than men or other demographics. Trail running is fundamentally community-centric so it naturally meets women’s needs, offering group trail runs, race events with many distances at a single event, and generous cutoffs that allow groups to participate together at a social pace.”

Ultramarathoner Courtney Dauwaulter on a training trail run in Leadville, Colorado.
Photo Credit: @CourtneyDauwalter

Media Loves The Supernatural

The stories that come out of trail running are just so damn good

Take Jasmin Paris, the first woman to complete the Barkley Marathons, with this emotional finish captured by Finn Melanson, host of the Singletrack Podcast.

Or Camille Herron who, alongside lululemon’s FURTHER campaign, set a world record of running 560.330 miles in 6-days.

Don’t forget Courtney Dauwalter who popularized the term “the pain cave” and won the three of the most elite ultramarathons in the same year – UTMB Mont Blanc, Hardrock 100 and Western States.

Media continues the relentless pursuit of finding more heroic stories to pull on our heartstrings.

Running 100 miles is intrinsically heroic.

And what’s totally unprecedented about these herculean tasks? We can actually identify with these heroes. 

“Dauwalter is so ridiculously likable and relatable without actually being relatable,” said one trail runner we surveyed. 

While these runners are accomplishing superhuman feats, the concept of running an unreasonably far distance is more digestible to an average runner than running a marathon in under two hours.

Manufactured Adversity

Finn Melanson, host of the Singletrack Podcast says this might be the very thing attracting runners to the sport. As technological innovations make humans more unhealthy, more unhappy, and more disconnected, we become attracted to “manufactured adversity” as corrective action. 

Trail running’s growth may be caught up in the same ideology that made Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis a sensation.

Trail Running Gets Airtime

These trail running pros are getting more mainstream coverage, too, notes Michael Ambrose, Country Manager at trail running brand NNormal

“Jasmin Paris was the first woman to finish Barkley, and it popped up on ESPN’s homepage [when it happened]. We’re seeing more athletes show up on podcasts like Joe Rogan and Lex Friedman. The Golden Trail series has had a great YouTube series,” said Ambrose. 

“I think extremes definitely play a part in it. I also think that women’s sports are becoming increasingly popular with growing fan bases.” 

A woman trail running in beautiful scenery.

Trail Running is a Totally Different Kind of Running

One common reason surveyed runners mentioned they turned to trail running: there is no longer an ability or interest to run personal bests.

There is a consistent undertone of “faster” in road running. 

“It’s been a difficult journey accepting that I’ll never be able to PR again,” said one runner. “I’ll never be able to train the way I used to and try to, because my body just can’t do that anymore. Running on trails allows me to slow down, and justify it in my own mind without beating my psyche into oblivion.”

Brian Metzler explained it, “If you tell someone you’re a marathon runner, they’ll ask for your time. But in trail running, it’s not about finishing times. It’s about being out there and finishing.”

Trail running has offered alternative routes, distances, altitudes, includes and experiences that, because no two trail races are alike, uncouple racing from a finish time outcome.

Remove the pressures of a goal time, and you just might actually enjoy the process. Fueled by this mentality, trail running bred a welcoming non-competitive community feel.

Jim Walmsley celebrating a finish at Istria 100.
Photo Credit: @istria100

Trail Running Content Is Chasing Down Its Audience 

Metzler, who has worked in running media for nearly 30 years, notes that brands and individual content creators are getting better than ever around reaching new audiences fueled by the rise of better social media algorithms.

“You don’t have to be a stereotypical runner to consume running media any more,” says Metzler. It used to be that you only consumed Runner’s World if you fit the runner archetype. 

Today, the ubiquity of content creators means you can get your running fix directly from your social feeds.

This same mechanic contributes to the success of trail running–it’s more Instagrammable than a neighborhood park run. 

“Outdoors photographs well on social media and draws more people in (sometimes for worse, usually for the better),” said Metzler. 

Dylan Bowman, co-founder of trail running media brand Freetrail, agrees. “You have the inspiration and curiosity inherent in those activities paired with incredibly beautiful landscapes and powerful human interest stories–a potent combination for content creation.” 

The social media glory has played its part in helping globalize trail running. When Wahoo Fitness produced a three part documentary on Jim Walmsley’s trail running training in Mont Blanc with 650,000 views, it attracts new interest to the UTMB series. 

“These races that are emerging like UTMB or the Golden Trail Series create the same trend that the Abbott World Marathon Majors did for marathon running,” said Metzler. 

New Trail Culture vs. Old Trail Culture

With the influx of runners, trail running is starting to look different than it used to.

Bowman points to the old grassroots, counter-culture feel that trail running once had that is beginning to morph into a larger, commercial enterprise. 

“With this growth we are bringing into the sport an entirely new generation of runners that are helping craft the look and feel of the sport–they are living the current culture of the sport,” said Callahan. 

“Sometimes the ‘cultures’ of the sport clash because the sport has grown too large to have one-defined and agreed upon ‘macro-culture.’ So, with growth and the forking of cultures (regionally, demographically, etc.) there are times when the sport feels like it is stretching and pressing at the seams. I think that is healthy, but it can feel uncomfortable at times.” 

Trail races have been criticized for their lack of diversity. 

In a study released by the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, white runners were more likely to consider the field “fun” and “inclusive,” while runners of color were less likely to use those descriptors.So, while the community is stretching in some ways, there is still room to create a culture that welcomes runners from all backgrounds.

Running trip in the Dolomites of Italy.
Photo Credit: Rogue Expeditions

The Growth of The Industry Means New Products & Experiences

Commercialization may have a dirty connotation, but there is an element to that brings trail running to more people in a positive way. 

Niche trail running brands like Nnormal, Satisfy Running, Janji, and Path Projects are bringing improved performance-wear to the sport and appealing to a wider audience of trail-leisure/GORP-core aficionados. Outdoor apparel revenue is up 24 percent compared to pre-pandemic.

Outside of apparel, we begin to see trail specific services for training apps with Vert.Run, trail-ready products for parents Always Up by ultrarunner Jenny Jurek, and trail running tourism.

Trail-related travel has unsurprisingly taken flight. Trail running experiences not only appeal to upmarket runners, but are also an entryway for runners who want guidance and community without the pressure of racing. 

The longest tenured running trip organizers are Run the Alps is one such country, offering self-guided, guided, and custom running tours of the Alps and Rogue Expeditions, with a more diverse offering trail running experiences in the U.S., Patagonia, Ireland, Nicaragua, and others.

Will it Hold?

Will there be a trail running bubble burst anytime soon? There’s no sign that runners will sour on trails as the pandemic trend has kept up even as society has returned to normal. But will the new legion lean into a lifelong affair with trail running? Time will tell. 

1 comment… add one
  • Elana April 19, 2024, 4:29 pm

    I used to run trails in the mountains between the SF Valley and West LA. I loved it. This article gives me pause to consider a trail run over attempting a marathon in under 2 hours for my 60th bday.

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