Running in Hard Times

The economy is finally improving! Or maybe it isn’t. It depends on who you talk to, and what indicators you consider. One thing is certain, however: at some point – whether in a few months or a few years – our economy is going to recover, and people will begin to feel a bit more financially secure.

When that time comes, it will be almost universally welcomed – by everyone, that is, except for runners.

There’s a curious running-related corollary to the ebbs and flows of our national economy: namely, hard times tend to produce more and faster runners. It’s a pattern that goes back more than 30 years, to the recession of the mid-1970s – which also happened to see the biggest running boom in modern history. The historical phenomenon is so notable that the Wall Street Journal has dedicated two separate articles this year to the relationship between the economy and the running community.

When disposable income becomes scarce, gym memberships and personal trainers are often the first casualties of personal rebudgeting. By comparison, running looks like a tremendous value: the price of entry is a t-shirt, shorts, and pair of shoes. The club facility is any road, park, or trail you choose. The hours of operation are whatever works with your schedule.

Running is also proven to be a great stress reducer, triggering the release of brain neurotransmitters that make us feel more content. For many people who are struggling financially, running is a great healthy outlet to vent their fears and frustrations - or perhaps just a place to escape them for a little while.

That last point may be especially appealing to people who have been laid off during the current economic meltdown. When full-time workers involuntarily find themselves with nothing but down time, many of them pursue fitness goals that were deferred while climbing the corporate ladder.

Despite their sometimes big-ticket entry fees, nearly every major marathon in America has seen increased numbers of participants in 2009, or filled to capacity in record time. Usually when races grow in size, it’s on the back end of the pack – but over the past year, the quality of the fields has improved significantly as unemployed (or underemployed) runners have more time to spend developing their fitness and speed in preparation for these events.

For example, the gold standard for marathon runners is running a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. In one study cited by the Wall Street Journal, there was an overall 39% increase in Boston qualifying times at races across the country during 2009 compared to 2008.

There’s even a potential “trickle-UP” effect from the increasing ranks of marathoners, making everybody better by consequence. For the amateurs, laid-off marathon runners help to raise the level of competition within age groups. Among elite athletes, Olympic-caliber collegiate runners may be more inclined to pursue their athletic goals instead of hunting for work in a dismal market. So when the economy tanks, it’s potentially great news for the entire community of runners.

Of course, we’d never recommend quitting a job or blowing your retirement savings as a strategy to help you (or us) run faster – but in stormy times, any glimmer of positive reassurance may serve as a temporary port of shelter. When the economy finally recovers, we’ll be as happy as anyone else – but we’ll also be hoping that some of those newfound converts to our sport can figure out a way to stick around and enjoy running’s benefits in good times as well as bad.

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