London Marathon – what an experience and what we’ve learnt

After 4 months in which I ran 750 miles in training, the London Marathon is done and dusted for another year. It was a good year for me personally – 2:52, a big PB – and a significant year for the race with almost 40,000 people finishing, the largest number ever. What else did we learn about the London Marathon and the state of the mass participation industry?
  1. The largest events are in rude health
The London Marathon has grown by over 5,000 participants in just 5 years. There is no lack of demand from either charities or the public, whose chances in the ballot are slim, for one-off events like the London Marathon or Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon, which give people the chance to run in unique and iconic locations. But as the number of events increases, smaller more ubiquitous events are struggling to continue to attract good fields and sponsors. To survive and thrive it’s necessary to have a strong brand, and unique attributes to cut-through to potential participants.
  1. Strava is coming of age as THE tracking app, and social network
At the time of writing over 9,200 people have a result for the London Marathon on Strava – that’s an impressive 23% of all finishers. Given the range of people and abilities taking part – club runners, charity runners and “bucket-listers” – that’s a very high % for an app that was until quite recently seen as exclusively for cyclists. While Strava is still more popular amongst cyclists and “more serious” athletes as it grows (it now has c. 22 million users worldwide) the less geeky, social features are helping Strava break into other groups and become more popular in running. (In the UK running now makes up 38% of all activities on Strava.)
  1. Consumers and brands want superb experiences, not races
With estimates of around 800,000 people spectating and cheering the runners, the London Marathon delivers an almost unrivalled experience for people taking part. All but the most serious runners aren’t looking for a race but an experience that they can share (personally and digitally) that will live long in the memory. Brands too want to deliver or be associated with large-scale, consistent, quality experiences that only large events or series can deliver.
  1. Perpetual growth shouldn’t be taken for granted
According to a recent report from Running USA for the third consecutive year the number of road race finishers has declined in the US, from 17.11m in 2015 to 16.95m in 2016. Whilst running and racing is still relatively buoyant in the US, this does show that trends can and will shift, and we still need to be focusing on bringing more people into the Active World, permanently, as well as providing those people already active with great experiences. In the many countries, including the UK, participation is not growing significantly. It is vital to understand how to encourage people to become more active, the various reasons different people can and the barriers that prevent them. Whilst many events are hugely successful in giving people a #reasontorun, charity is only one reason why people can and are active.
  1. Greater collaboration in the sector is necessary
The key to unlocking growth, both in participation and businesses, is insight. Insight into why people are inactive; insight into what can encourage people to take up a sport or activity; insight into different kinds of people with different motivations; insight into the experiences that will engage people who are already active and those that want to become so; insight proving why brands should invest in the Active World. By working together organisations from across sport and physical activity can grow the sector by investing in work like that that so successfully propelled Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign to success, benefiting society and the businesses that create experiences like the London Marathon that thrill and inspire millions.

Rick Jenner /// Director of Strategy and Insight