Running Isn’t Sexy

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

opinionBack in the 1970’s and 80’s the first aerobic craze hit North America. Kenneth Cooper got people excited about exercise with his bestselling book, “Aerobics” in 1968. Running burst onto the scene as a popular activity and athletes like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers became cultural icons.

My experience in the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s running races from 800 meters to 20 kilometers revealed a depth of competition unlike anything I have ever seen since. For example, our local Jasper-Banff relay team could put together 17 local runners capable of running at least 57 minutes for 10 miles. My father as a masters’ runner had to run in a pre-qualifying race to limit the number of competitors in the Edmonton Journal masters’ mile race. This race for age 40 and over was usually won in less than five minutes. 10 K races were generally won in 32 minutes, but there were at least 30 to 40 people who came in under 36 minutes. This depth of talent was in a city of 500 000 in northern Canada.

The trend I’ve seen over the past decade or so is the steep decline in the quality of the competition. Perhaps the only exception is at the elite level where performances are as strong as ever, but this may be mostly due to the influx of African runners and for the women, Russian runners too.

So what is behind this apparent loss of overall quality of running in North America?

Here are my thoughts:

  1. The obesity epidemic in North America affecting our children. Children are generally less active nowadays. Video gaming, internet, and other sedentary habits along with poor dietary practices are leading to a less active youth. This results in less participation and exposure to sports such as running.
  2. The loss of active children (and adults) to other activities such as rock climbing, triathlon, team sports, adventure racing and so on. This dilutes the pool of aerobic talent into areas other than running.
  3. The acceptance of participation versus performance. In the first aerobic boom, running was all about being fast, now there is more of an emphasis on just being a finisher.
  4. We are all time impoverished. Training properly takes time and planning. Most of us cannot fit in an ideal program. For most people training is a compromise between what you want to do, and what you have time to do.795.jpg
  5. Running isn’t sexy. Role models and sport icons tend not to be from running. Think Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Natalie Gulbis and Maria Sharapova. Not to mention many athletes in team sports that are adored and admired by the public (like this guy, for instance).
  6. Lack of interest by government and private sector in developing running. Private sector funding of professional athletes is a business, running does not have the same marketing audience as say pro football, hockey and so on. In essence, from a dollar perspective it makes little sense to sponsor or develop runners since it does not provide “bang for the buck” in a marketing sense. Governments too, struggle with providing the needs of the nation as a result developing athletes is a low priority as evidenced by their funding levels.

I believe all of these factors (and probably a few more) have eroded the competitiveness of running. In North America, it is a sport that has received relatively little respect and notice.

I miss the days of more competitive running and I think at a certain level all of us do. Competition can only help to develop better runners. Runners who in the future may be the ones we are cheering on in the Olympics or World Championships in Athletics.

About Lee Miller D.C.

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  1. Jeanne on March 30th at 6:13 am

    Running might not be sexy, but it sure can be exciting!

  2. Chris on March 30th at 8:43 am

    Inclusiveness doesn’t erode the sport. Finishing a marathon IS an accomplishment. You’ve got an elitist attitude and it’s discouraging to those considering taking up the sport. If you want to run fast, go ahead, collect your trophy. People run for different reasons besides competition.

    Secondly, you offer no solutions to your “problem,” only whining about it. Nice work.

  3. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on March 30th at 9:03 am

    Chris, I think you missed the point of the article. This article was an observation on what is happening to the competitive side of the sport. Running as an activity to achieve person goals such as fitness and completing a distance race is just another facet of the sport.

    As far as “whining” goes- who is doing the whining here? I am making observations (my opinions) as to the possible reasons that we do not have as many elite athletes.

    These tend to be societal issues that do not have easy solutions (and providing the solutions was not the point of the article anyhow).

    My final thoughts in the article were based on national pride, in the sense that I feel we all like to see our nations’ athletes do well internationally, something that we are seeing less and less of, possibly because of the reasons I mentioned earlier in the article.

    Thank you for your comments though.

  4. Perry on March 30th at 4:58 pm

    Running isn’t sexy? Did you see the front cover of Runner’s World in January? Come on.

    Although, you know what’s sexier than running, joggling. 🙂

  5. Adeel on March 30th at 6:36 pm

    Inclusiveness doesn’t erode the sport.

    Sure it can. If you turn a race into a fun run, it erodes running as a competitive sport and turns it into an activity like hiking or birdwatching.

    Finishing a marathon IS an accomplishment.

    So is finishing an entire bag of Ruffles in one sitting and so is hitting a baseball. Hitting a baseball, however, is different from hitting a 95-mph fastball 400 feet. Running a 2:30 marathon, similarly, is vastly different from running a 4:30 marathon.

    You’ve got an elitist attitude and it’s discouraging to those considering taking up the sport.

    Ah, yes, elitism, the catch-all pejorative of anyone who dares insinuate that running might also be a competitive sport. Do you say the same thing to your buddy who takes games of basketball seriously? What about someone who keeps score in a game of ping pong? Is she an elitist who discourages others from playing table tennis?

    Secondly, you offer no solutions to your “problem,” only whining about it. Nice work.

    Identifying a problem and its causes doesn’t necessarily constitute whining, nor does it make the existence of that problem any less real.

  6. 21stCenturyMom on March 30th at 11:23 pm

    I don’t understand this post. Are new records not being set in running? Is having non-competitive runners in the field making competitive runners less ambitious? Are there fewer competitive runners going out to set records? What exactly is the problem?

  7. Jon (was) in Michigan on March 31st at 8:08 am

    I may have missed the point too. I see some anecdotal information about what races used to be like, but I’d be interested to see a follow-up to this article with hard data with records and average times. I think there’s something worth looking into.

    Is it possible that the field has just become more crowded? If the number of “elite” athletes has remained about the same, wouldn’t you expect the increase in the number of “no-elite” athletes to make it appear as though there are more “slow” runners? I think you can easily make the assumption that the number of non-elites will grow disproportionately to elite athletes.

    I think its possible that the number of races today, compared with the ’80’s has increased dramatically. Consequently, you will not see the concentration of elites at every single race. They will be spread out thinner across the country/world.

    I also think that due to the heavy commercialism of many of the big races (e.g. Chicago, New York, MCM, etc.) they probably attract a large crowd of people who want to just run the race for themselves, not a medal, not to place. This is where you are going to see a very large increase in people who are back-of-the-packers because it takes much heavier marketing to draw them out to an event like a marathon. If you are saying that you have seen a decrease in the “competitiveness” of runners in the last decade, it may be actually an increase in the number of runners running slower times, rather than a decrease in the number of faster runners. The fact that you noted the elites have remained competive suggests this might be true.

    As for the argument between Adeel and Chris, I think that there is an underlying attitude there that those who compete to place may not feel that there is a point to racing if there is no chance you will place and, perhaps, if you run knowing you will never place, then you are not competitive. Is there a point to “racing” if you are not competitive? Is it really a race? I think yes. I’d be interested in hearing what other people think.

    As for running not being sexy, I don’t understand where that comes from. Based on the examples of “sexy” athletes, I think what that really means is that running doesn’t bring in the big money like football, soccer, baseball, golf, etc. That’s mostly because watching people run a marathon for 4 hours will NEVER be as exciting as watching a football game. Being there is cool. Watching it? Not so much.

  8. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on March 31st at 8:13 am

    21stCMom. The word “problem” was never used in this article. The article was an observation on the decline of competitive runners in North America.

    One of the points was that the pool of potential world class runners from North America was not as deep as it had been in the 70’s and 80’s. Just check any major international road racing event results to confirm this.

    I also spoke with one current and one past Canadian National Track team member about this. They both confirmed that the depth of competition in Canada in distance running was not the same anymore.

    The “big picture” of the article was actually about how society has changed. We have a generation of technology addicted obese youth, we spend millions of dollars paying professional athletes to entertain us while most people balk at the cost of a pair of running shoes! This is not just a running issue- it is about where society is headed. The decline of competitive runners in North America is a symptom of these issues.

    I was hoping to write a piece where people could see that the issues transcended running.

    Hope this helps to clarify!

  9. Mark Iocchelli on March 31st at 8:34 am

    Hi Lee,

    We certainly are often misunderstood whenever we (CRN writers) delve into the area of “Elite” running. I am not sure why this is but there are some people who are very sensitive and it seems as though they feel we are saying “elite” means “better”. I know you did not intend that here Lee so rest easy.

    Personally, I think you’ve done a great job of summarizing the possible causes for why there has been a decline on the competitive end of running. My opinion is that, among all the reasons you’ve listed, the biggest one is that there are so many more sports kids can choose from. In Canada, for years and years you were nobody if you didn’t play hockey. How could track and field compete? In the US, you have basketball, football and baseball and then a myriad of other sports to choose from.

    And, you know what? The other sports currently *are* sexier. My hope is that, one day, another “Pre” or Frank Shorter, or Deena Kastor or *Tiger Woods* equivalent will come along to ignite North American’s passion to be the next superstar running hero!

  10. 21stCenturyMom on March 31st at 8:46 am

    Thanks for trying to clear up your perspective. At this point I think your article is just muddled.

    I don’t think the proliferation of casual runners has anything to do with the dearth of professional runners. Track and Field are not an emphasis sport now. Lots of kids who run fast use that skill on the soccer field and the lacross field. They like the team sport camaraderie. I also suspect that football, baseball and basketball are sucking the ranks of athletically inclined kids dry. So I guess we are in total agreement on your points #2 and #6 and I personally think the other points although they may be true, are unrelated.

    Honestly – I think you are either jazzed by athletics or you are not and the fact that lots of ‘are not’ people have discovered running as a way to get fit has nothing to do with fewer ‘are’ people choosing running as their main sport.

    ps – why the picture of the sexy woman with her butt cheeks hanging out in an outfit that clearly has nothing to do with the pole she is holding? Talk about erosion. I look to running bloggers to avoid overtly objectifying women but am so often disappointed.

  11. Jeanne on March 31st at 1:46 pm

    21st: The EDITOR of this piece put that photo there to display one of the points in Lee’s piece. that woman is a pro golfer (if I recall). Apparently that’s how she chose to be portrayed. Lee neither took, nor chose that photo. I did. Sorry you misunderstood the point.

  12. a.maria on March 31st at 3:21 pm

    i think mark nailed it… almost every other sport out there has an icon. soccer has beckham, basketball has… well hell, too many to mention, golf has tiger, even cycling, a sport that is far from mainstream, has lance.

    who does running have? unfortunately advertising’s the name of the game. if there’s nobody to hook a campaign to… there’s no campaign.

    as for “elite” running.. i don’t know that i agree that “just finishers” are diluting the racing pool, but i don’t know that i disagree either. there has been a huge trend lately to just crossing the finishline… and i have to agree with adeel… however much it pains me to do so… saying you’ve covered 26.2 miles isn’t what it used to be.

    but in the same token, i’d rather have people finishing, then never having tried in the first place!

  13. Adeel on March 31st at 8:11 pm

    I think that there is an underlying attitude there that those who compete to place may not feel that there is a point to racing if there is no chance you will place and, perhaps, if you run knowing you will never place, then you are not competitive. Is there a point to “racing” if you are not competitive? Is it really a race? I think yes. I’d be interested in hearing what other people think.

    No, no, no, no. There’s always a point to racing. The best races I’ve run have been ones where I’ve had no chance of placing in any way (25th, 30th, 69th).

    The point of racing is to give your best, that’s all. Two dozen men line up in the Olympic 10,000. Less than half have a chance at a medal. The others want to do the best they can, even if they’re lapped.

    If the best you can do is a 5-hour marathon, great, but the point Lee makes is that no one thinks doing your best matters anymore. If they did, more would run faster, and something like qualifying for Boston wouldn’t be such a big deal.

    Maria, I’m guessing you’ve run a marathon or two (or a few) since the summer? You just about decapitated me when I said that running a marathon really wasn’t that big a deal.

    Running does have icons, they just happen to be foreign. Guys like Geb, Tergat, Bekele and El Guerrouj are the face of the sport. Most people just choose to ignore it in favour of Lance Armstrong.

  14. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on April 1st at 8:12 am

    Thanks everyone for what has turned out to be a somewhat livlier discussion than I had expected.

    It is disappointing that some readership has taken certain points out of context and felt that there was either an elitist, sexist, or other slant to the article.

    I think most people got hung up the participation versus performance point. People, this is not a hit against recreational runners! This is the whole movement of political correctness and inclusiveness. This is where my elementary school age son competes in a bean bag toss instead of a track and field meet and gets a ribbon for it! That’s fine, but where does he have the opportunity to see if he has any natural gifts in events such as hurdles, long jump, high jump and the 800m? He doesn’t, until a much later age, because the powers that be don’t want kids to be competing and end up with hurt feelings. That type of “trauma” may conflict with all the self talk of “I am the best” that all our kids are programmed to have. Do I disagree with participation- not at all! But I do feel that people have the right to be exposed to competition and then decide if they want to pursue it. Again, if you like cheering on our top athletes in major championships, remember they have to start somewhere at a grassroots level. So those of you about to get worked up about me dissing your participation in a non competitive way- chill out! To dismiss competition due to political correctness is ridiculous. We are all free to decide how we want to run.

    The point of running not being sexy. I didn’t say “runner’s”, I said running. As in the sport doesn’t have the mass market appeal of other sports- that’s it!

    Ok final point. It does appear that competitive running by North American athletes is in decline. This is based on placing in major competitions, and times relative to the past. Why is this? My observations point to societal trends. Some of these indicate that we may have a major health epidemic on the horizon, some are just observations, and some indicate that individual sports may be in dire need of alternative means of funding to support developing athletes.

    Agree or disagree. I’m just saying this is how I see it!

  15. Mark Iocchelli on April 1st at 8:25 am

    Nicely done. 🙂

  16. Afty on April 2nd at 8:35 am

    Another thing to consider is that you can make a heck of a lot more money as a professional basketball or football player than as a runner. Our most athletically talented kids are pushed toward these sports as a result.

    There’s a rumor from the 2004 Olympics that, on a whim, Allen Iverson (NBA basketball player) went out on the Olympic track and ran a timed mile. His time? 4:15. Who knows if it is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of pro athletes in other sports have the natural ability to be great runners, but they make a better living doing whatever they do.

  17. Jeanne on April 2nd at 12:32 pm

    Nicely said Lee! This has been a good discussion. It’s always painful though when people start labeling others as elitist, or exclusivists or whatever. Overall though, you got people thinking Lee, which is always to the good.

  18. billjank on April 2nd at 7:34 pm

    I’ve got to wonder if the culture of “accomplishment” – IE, every kid gets a trophy in baseball, everyone gets recognized for academic achievement, preschool and elementary school graduations isn’t a precursor to the decline in competitiveness.

    Let’s face it, there’s something to be said for recognizing actual achievement instead of accomplishment. There are few people, who if they set their mind to it, couldn’t run a 5 hour marathon. Which is why there are so many folks who finish and shrug “Where’s the ephiphany?”

    I’m playing soccer again, and probably the best part of it is the reality check from the expats (non-americans) who play. I’m going to be a far better player at the end of the season. Which is far more than I can say of any of the beer league softball I’ve ever played.

    Sure, there is room for four or five hour marathoners like me. But I think I’d become a better runner given clearer goals.

    I think that Boston maintains much of its mystique because it is still exclusive. But I’m rambling now.

  19. Tim Van on April 3rd at 6:20 pm

    I would tend to agree with Lee on most of his points. Although I may personally feel that getting back into running has improved my sex appeal (certainly has made me the fittest I have been in 15 years), it simply does not have the broad appeal to the younger generation of athletes who are continuously bombarded by commercials from companies pushing them towards sports like basketball, football, etc.

    Another problem I see is the fact that unlike many sports where as an athlete ages they move still popularly into a Senior’s division(Golf), once you’ve had your glory as a young elite in running… you become a race director or track coach. Again, it has a lot to do with the appeal of the sport.

    Consider Michael Jordan. If you are near his age you followed him from college to professional and then to owner and if he plays golf you’re interested and would probaly pay to watch him play. Not to mention that Baseball, basketball, football all have national championships with lot’s of media coverage every year. The true showcase for elite runners is the Olympics… how often?

    I can’t tell you how to change that appeal issue, but I’m sure there are some major sporting goods companies who could.

    Except for a very small period of time in it’s history running has always been more of a grassroots sport. In my personal life, the more I run and perform well, the more infectious it becomes for others around me to participate and get more from themselves. Who knows? Maybe one of the people running with me at a “finisher” level will have a kid who will get inspired to compete by their parent who got inspired by an old guy who got in shape and participated because it was good and fun and self-improving, and then running will have it own “Tiger”. I don’t really see that running has diminished as much as it is in a “Joe Public” revival. Remember, the more amatuers there are the more likely we are to find the true pros.

  20. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on April 4th at 8:36 am

    Hi Tim,
    Well said, and you also bring some more interesting points to the discussion.

    I can’t agree more that running as a lifestyle tends to enhance your overall existence. This is where being a participant, at any level in running, has tremendous benefits for the individual and to society too.

    Specific aspects of societial benefits of being involved with running are a topic of an upcoming article I’m currently working on!

  21. Funky Dung on April 5th at 7:32 pm

    The way I see it, you don’t have to be elite to be competitive. I, any millions like me, will likely never do better than a 4:30 marathon (Thus far the best I’ve done is a 2:08 half marathon), but that’s not the point. The fact that we train relentlessly to make ourselves better runners is what makes us competitive. Always trying to race just a little bit faster makes competitors. In fact, choices like that make us runners instead of joggers.

    The “problem” of casual runners/joggers, IMHO, is represented well by Reebok’s new “Run Easy” ad campaign. It’s another exaple of the “something for nothing” attitude that has gotten America to the lazy and obese point that it’s reached. “Painless” running strikes me as a poisonous antidote derived from the same pathetic ethic that produces scores of new fad diets every year. Too many people only want the benefits of exercise – health and a sexy body – if they don’t have to work too hard to get them.

    You don’t have to be Dean Karnazes or an olympian to be a competitive runner. Do I recommend wearing your body down until your parts barely hold together? Of course not. However, a little pain is good for you. Encouraging jogging “at the speed of chat” certainly won’t help running as a sport. Reviving running as a competitive sport will require a new spin on “competition”, not an abandonment of the concept.

  22. Calvin on April 16th at 2:54 pm

    Great vital points Lee. With the obseity level so high these days, I believe that just getting people to run easy is important. Everyone runs hard and trains hard. But what about running easy? I hear from folks that by running easy, you’re putting less stress on your body and in-turn allows for a longer playing career. This will make running sexy again.

  23. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on April 16th at 3:52 pm

    Thanks for the comments Calvin! See my next article when it comes out. It addresses more specifically that any running is beneficial.

  24. Anton Prenneis on June 19th at 9:28 am

    Running is FUN and should be DOMINATED by recreational runners! If you’re an elitist, and have a problem with “fun runners”, that’s fine – you just stay up front with your stress and your planar fasciitis – us fun folks don’t want to hang out with you hypercompetitive brooding folks anyway! Jocks will always be jocks. Regardless the sport, jocks were idiots in high school, and they continue to be idiots into adulthood. It’s very encouraging to see thousands and thousands of people adopting a healthy activity. And for those who say that a 4.5 hour marathon finish isn’t an accomplishment, it certainly is an accomplishment for the person who’s never run a marathon before. Maybe that person had to lose lots of weight, or started running because of a heart problem, or simply came to athletics late in life because they were busy mastering a musical instrument in their youth. Whatever the case, their accomplishment is not yours to disparage. Most people come to running with a zen-like mindset: it’s not about defeating opponents, but rather, it’s about self-mastery. If you’re one of those insecure people who attempts to exclude others and discount their accomplishments, you are *not* elite, but rather elitist (the point being that having an elitist attitude does not in and of itself include you in the ranks of elite athletes – there are plenty of landlubbers in yacht clubs and horrendous golf players at country clubs). The only thing that could possibly get diluted by the participation in races of more recreational athletes is the concentration of boring, unfriendly elitists. And that, as everyone’s favorite ex-con cookie baker would say, is a GOOD THING!

  25. Thinking-about-running- on August 5th at 9:10 pm

    Hey gang! I just finished “Ultra Marathon Man” by Dean Karnazes and have been bumming around running sites reading old articles that mentioned him (someone mentioned him in a comment here). Reading his book made me want to start running again (I ran cross country in high school). I would have to agree that this article and many of the posts on here were a little discouraging. I was thinking to myself “wouldn’t it be cool if I trained really hard and ran a marathon?” Now I know that if I did that I would have to avoid anyone on the ‘performance’ side of this discussion, because I would rather not work really hard just to be snickered at. Maybe none of you meant to come off this way, but I can imagine myself dragging into the finish line barely under five hours and notice one of you pointing and laughing at me.

  26. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on August 6th at 7:10 am

    Thinking-about-running-: I have more respect for a 5 hour marathoner than a 3 hour marathoner. When I race, I am out on the course for less than 3 hours, which is not really all that hard. Being out there for 5 or even 6 hours, though, can’t be easy. That is that many more hours out in the elements, on your feet, having to keep yourself moving and hydrated!

  27. Marci G on August 6th at 9:12 pm

    Wow, I thought the article was going to be about how runners aren’t considered sexy. Turns out, not so much. I really enjoyed the back-and-forth comments. Mine, however, is more focused on the title of the article. As the last single gal in my family, I am always asked if I’m maybe meeting some nice men on my running team, or at a race. When I run, my face turns red, my nose runs, I get sweaty and smelly, my hair gets matted and drippy — I mean, how could anyone resist me?

  28. Anton on August 6th at 9:30 pm


    Your sweaty, smelly and drippy condition would bring out the nurturing instinct in any male runner worth his salt. Nothing sexier than a warm bath and a foot massage. 😉


  29. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on August 7th at 6:16 am

    Marci, I met my wife by inviting her to do an 800 meter workout with my team as I jogged past her.