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Return to Running: Runner Attitude Survey Results

05/08/2020

Runners weigh in from all 50 states and DC about a return to group running post-pandemic

Arlington, VA May 07, 2020 – On April 21, 2020, the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) launched its Return to Running Events and Group Runs survey.  The goal of the survey was to get an understanding about customer attitudes as it relates to return to running in organized group runs and in-person running events.    

Methodology:

The survey opened on April 21 and closed on May 6.  Survey was developed in the RRCA’s account with Constant Contact.  The survey was designed to allow only one response per IP address to avoid multiple submissions by a single user.

The RRCA used the following methods to share the survey link in order to get a broad representation of responses from around the U.S.  The survey link was emailed to RRCA’s master list over 200,000 contacts including club leaders, event directors, local club members, RRCA certified coaches, sponsors, and more.   A high percentage of the respondents are likely to be members of a local running club and representative of runners and event organizers that are engaged in their local running communities.  Within a day of the survey launch, the RRCA had over 3,000 responses.  A follow-up email to a small distribution list was shared with running club and event leaders encouraging local sharing of the survey link with their audiences.  The survey was also shared using several different outlets, including a press release with link on: Endurance Sports Wire, RRCA News, RunBlogRun, Race Results Weekly, Road Race Management newsletter, USATF LDR newsletter, RunSignup newsletter, and others. We recognize there is a high likelihood of cross-over audiences, but each outlet has audiences/contacts the other does not necessarily have. The survey link was also shared on social media through a variety of different groups and pages associated with RRCA and its members.

Overview: 

On May 6, 2020, 10,634 responses were recorded.  With many of the questions optional, 7260 people completed every question, while some questions had over 8000 responses. Utilizing the zip code question, RRCA was able to confirm responses were received from individuals from all 50 states and the District of Columbia*. Of the respondents that completed the question about gender (67% completed the question), 54% were female and 43% were male and 3% did not identify or chose not to respond.

The Details

Group Running:

While the survey asked about return to organized group runs last, we feel it is important to address those responses first, as the likelihood of returning to smaller, organized training runs is likely to happen first in most communities.  In some communities, groups of 10-people have had no restrictions on gathering.  67% of the survey respondents said they have run in a group with friends or as part of a training program or organized group runs.  38% of them run one or more days a week with a group.  43% of those that run with a group said they would return to group running once public health officials' guidelines allow them to do so, but 16% noted returning to group running is a "to be determined" decision.

Once a return to larger group running is permitted, 60% are comfortable running with 5 or fewer people.  51% are comfortable with 10 or fewer runners, but the percentage of comfort drops significantly when group runs start to see 20 or more participants. As club/crew leaders and organized training programs come back online, developing small groups based on pace, day, location, etc. will be important to help create a sense of comfort while engaging your members/community in the joy of group training/running.

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An overarching theme from the survey is that runners are concerned about public health officials' recommendations for physical distancing guidelines followed by their community’s infection/death rates and trends.  This is reflected in respondents’ return to group running attitudes.

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Event Running: 

97% of respondents have run in an event and 81% had or have an event scheduled for 2020.  Nearly 100% noted that their events had either been cancelled or postponed in the 2nd quarter (April-June) of 2020.

Some good news is that 53% noted they would participate in events for the remainder of 2020, if public health officials allow them to take place, but that leaves 47% of runners unsure (23%) or not willing to run in events for the remainder of 2020. 
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Even better news is that 90% plan to participate in events in 2021 and beyond, with less than 1% of respondents having written off participation in running events in 2021 and beyond.

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It is clear that while this pandemic has caused understandable uneasiness in the short term, at least for now, the vast majority of event participants look forward to racing again.

As race directors plan for the future, the general consensus is runners will decide to participate in a post-pandemic event once “public health officials’ recommendations allow for gatherings.”  This is followed by “recommendations for physical distancing” with the event “location's infection/death rates” rounding out the top three most important concerns to runners.
(Red represents most important and blue is least important.)

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When it comes to actual execution of an event, the following factors when deciding whether to participate in a post-pandemic event focus significantly on event sanitation.  The event's cleaning and sanitation policies including management of water stops and aid stations is a primary concern, with the need for an expo being a low priority for a return to running events.
(Red represents most important and blue is least important.)

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Beyond being the responsible thing to do, it is a good to remember that local health policies and infection rates supersede any individual practices a race can implement. General sanitation and cleaning policies were considered highly important to runners. Participants are clearly concerned about availability of hand washing and/or hand sanitizer at the start of a race along with availability on course.  Conversely, comforts like a finish line festival, expo, and finisher medal distribution ranked much lower. It is clear that resources devoted to providing a clean and safe event will be more important to runner participation than say pre-and post-race food or music. 

As part of the survey, open comments were allowed following the ranking of response type of questions.  Nearly 1500 comments were shared.  While these types of commentary can be a bit of a challenge to synthesize within a survey, we found, overwhelmingly, the comments focused on masks, with a significant consensus that people are not willing to register for a race if a mask is required.  This sentiment is reflected in several of the open comment options throughout the survey.  In turn, a mask would do little to ease the concerns of the smaller percentage that is wary of running in an event before a vaccine.  Based on comments (using word tagging for estimation purposes) we estimate less than 1% of the 1500 commenters don’t feel comfortable running in a group until there is a vaccine.

Consistently, those who said they would not participate if a mask was required indicated a willingness to sacrifice other amenities. Through the comments, we see that things like an expo/packet pick-up, finisher medals on-site, and finish-line festivals are not what runners are most concerned about with the return of events.  While sponsors may not love this, investment in hand sanitizer may present a sponsor opportunity.

As event organizers and local permitting agencies weigh issues, crafting guidelines/race rules about responsible use of masks at an event will be important.  Clearly the medical community will need to weigh in as local organizers plan new policies.  If allowed by the permitting agencies/health departments, allowing participants to make their own choice about mask wearing may be the most sensible course of action.  However, voluntary mask wearing by participants may not sit well with everyone, especially those that will not be comfortable running in an event if someone next to them isn’t wearing a mask.  Just like headphones, it will be an ongoing issue for event directors to manage.

Event organizers should think about communication plans, spelling out:

  • What public guidelines they are using;
  • What steps they are taking to make sure the event is clean and sanitized;
  • What is expected from participants on race day to ensure a safe experience.
When asked “what factors will impact your decision to register for running events,” responses seem to be reflective of pre-pandemic behavior, in that runners primarily select events based on location, distance, and date.  This does not seem to change when returning to event running.  Of note, runners are mindful of the importance of having the "all clear" from the local jurisdiction for events to take place.  They also care about the how participation may impact their health and the health of others in the event and the community.

Event Size:

As communities explore a return to running events, at present, participants seem most comfortable with smaller field sizes.  When asked, “given what you know about the pandemic today, moving forward, what size event(s) would you be comfortable participating in after a return to gathering is allowed,” we draw the assumption that the responses are not based on pre-pandemic attitudes about field size, but are reflective of post-pandemic attitudes. 
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As hypothetical field sizes grow, a lower percentage of runners feel comfortable participating in larger events, at present. Noteworthy, is observing where there are dramatic shifts in responses. For example, 500 stands out as a point of demarcation, with 53% of respondents feeling comfortable with an event up to that size (down from a starting point of 61% of respondents who feel comfortable with an event between 0-100). From there, the number drops quickly with just 34% comfortable running in an event with over 1,000 participants. 

Registration Planning:

When local permitting agencies eventually give the green light for events to occur, organizers should plan for the fact that most participants are likely going to register within a narrow window of race day, with 42% feeling comfortable registering 1-3 months out from race day, with a significant drop-off in comfort 4-months to a year before race day.

When asked, "how important are the following operational measures for post-pandemic event organizers to consider," participants are definitely going to be concerned about the event’s deferral or refund policy moving forward. This may also create a “wait and see” mentality for participants deciding to register at the last minute once they have a high-level of confidence the event will proceed as planned. 

(Red represents most important and blue is least important.)

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As many noted in the survey, they did not receive a refund (52%) from cancelled events in 1st and 2nd quarter.

It is important to note, most events have a clearly stated ‘no refund’ policy that participants agree to during registration. Most events cancelled in 1st and 2nd quarters had already made significant cash outlays to vendors: shirts, medals, hydration supplies, etc. that would not enable them to provide refunds at the start of the mass cancellation occurrence for events.

From a focus group discussion RRCA held with club leaders from around the US, developing plans to provide refunds or deferrals to participants that report in as "too ill to run" should be considered.  Post-pandemic, event organizers should develop contingency plans or reserve funds to help minimize the potential of a sick runner showing up, because they cannot get a deferral or a partial refund. 

Conclusion:

  • Be prepared for a slow phase-in of return-to-activities in your community. Keep in mind state officials may say one thing, while your county or city officials may say something else based on local conditions.
  • This is not a like a fire drill where everyone will get an "all-clear," "return to normal" directive. Take your time to work with local officials to understand when you will be allowed to host group runs and produce your race(s). 
  • You may find that communities will start to allow for small group gatherings of 10-25 people before allowing events over 100 people. This may present an opportunity to implement some small, controlled group runs to test updated sanitation efforts to implement at future events and larger group runs.
  • Avoid group selfies on social media for the next month if your reduced restrictions allow for gatherings of 10 or more. It will help maintain/improve the nationwide example of runners being responsible community leaders if we continue to promote physical distancing.
  • Plan, plan, plan - utilize the "Looking Forward: Guidelines for Events" for helpful tips.

There is no one size fits all solution for the challenges we face in the coming weeks and months, but with over a 60-year history to draw from, the RRCA understands that the running community is extremely resilient, creative, giving, and dedicated. We will survive this crisis if we work together to safely return to group and event running.

Download the complete survey data (individual comments not included) (PDF)



The survery was developed by the RRCA's Erica Gminiski and Jean Knaack.  Data analysis provided by RRCA's Jean Knaack, Andy Smith, Erica Gminski, and Mike Webb.  *Special thank you to Frank Murphy, (IN State Rep) and data analyst expert.  Thank you to Rachel Tambling, PhD (CT State Rep) and Randy Accetta PhD (Director of Coaching Education) for their review/feedback.

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