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Who Is A Trail Runner?

Despite the rising popularity of the sport, we still know very little about the persona of the trial runner. We analyzed one of the few academic works in this field to discover the demographics, preferences, and habits of a trail runner.
trail runners patagonia
Image: Patagonia

During one of the daily sessions of scrolling and swapping on Instagram, a story from Francesco Puppi, an Italian trail runner, caught our eye as it showed charts and insights familiar to market research studies used in marketing departments. This time they were applied to trail running, definitely something new. This made us think: how much do we know about trail runners' habits and characteristics from an academic point of view?

The quoted insights were from an academic study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire as part of the Trail Ultra Project which focused on 1,000 trail and ultra runners across the UK and North America (US and Canada). The report is one of the first applications of the academic consumer research method to the sport and, for this reason, we decided to dive deeper into it. Our genuine curiosity played a big part: is the average trail runner running more than me? Are we running for the same reasons? Do we get inspired by the same personalities? Would the findings in the report represent us?

We analyzed the macro themes in the study, trying to place them into the broader context of the sport. If you want to dive deeper into it, you can find it here. Let’s start!


We need to tackle this at the start: trail running lacks diversity. 96% of respondents were white and above 30. We all know this by first-hand experience at races or by following the media: diversity is not present in trail running. Not only all the best athletes are white Caucasians but almost all of the participants of any race are. The topic has been addressed more and more but things have been moving very slowly.

We need to tackle this at the start: trail running lacks diversity. 96% of respondents were white and above 30.

This is the result of how the sport has evolved in the past years, with all the main races and brands based in Europe and the US. Minorities in these regions or Africans and Asians living in their home countries have been left out of a medium-high income sport ($70,000 - $79,000) like trail running. “You only need a pair of shoes to run”, this is true to some extent. A higher disposable income brings several pros to training: more time available, better gear, better injury prevention, and the opportunity of traveling to participate in races around the world.

Now that the sport is attracting more money from sponsors we started to see African athletes participating - and winning - races across Europe, while before the economic incentive was not enough to support their travels. This dynamic seems a natural evolution of the sport if we look at road races. African athletes already travel to Europe for race in marathons with prizes that can allow them to exit poverty back in their home countries and showcase their value to sponsors.

With this said, monetization of the sport is still at a low level due to the lack of transparency and relevance of prize money even among top-tier races like UTMB - we all remember the TDS scandal last year - leaving athletes to sustain themselves only through sponsorships. On the topic of monetization, the vast majority of respondents agreed on higher prizes for elite athletes and more professionalization of the sport.

tara dower black canyon
Tara Dower at Black Canyon 2023. Image: @shitinthewoods

Interesting findings came from female respondents. They value the social aspect of running and they like to run regularly with others which explains why around 50% of respondents are part of a running club, confirming their importance in growing female participation in the sport. If the mainstream credence leads many to think that women train and race less, this is not true. Their weekly mileage and number of races are the same as men's. Then, why we don’t see many women at the starting line of 100k and above races? In this sense, some races have been pursuing better gender diversity. Hardrock 100 announced that the percentage of women’s entrants will be no less than the percentage of women’s lottery applicants in 2023.

Media & Community

Trail running relies on free media to narrate the sport, from Youtube videos and podcasts to magazines and live streams. Indeed, only 4% of respondents find Paid-for videos and films and Paid magazine subscriptions extremely useful and inspiring versus books, podcasts, and free videos all above 25%. Again, this is the state of a less mature sport that gravitates around independent media and passionate individuals who cover the sport during their free time. For this reason, the media landscape is very fragmented finding itself in the pre-televised era trying to figure out how to package a 19-hour race or a mountain marathon through remote areas for the casual Sunday spectator.

Podcasts gained the biggest share of the pie among influential media with 15 of the top 27 responses in the UK and even more in the US. This comes as no surprise as runners usually listen to them during their runs looking for insights on training methodologies or inspiring stories from the sport. One question that the media needs to face is how to monetize their work in order to bring the narration of the sport to the next level. How media platforms can generate sustainable revenue streams, outside of brand sponsorships, Patreon, and merch?

​Top 5 Media US

Top 5 Media UK


Run to the Hills

Trail Runner

Runners World


Trail Running

Trail Runner Nation

Bad Boy Running

Ultra Running Magazine

The Running Channel

Two women got the top spot as most inspiring athletes: Courtney Dauwalter and Jasmin Paris among US and UK respondents respectively. Among the races, UTMB emerged as the most inspiring race for US respondents, overtaking legendary races like Western States and Hardrock and confirming its hegemony in the Ultra Running scene. On the other hand, UK respondents stuck with classics: Spine Race and the Bob Graham Round.

Jack Kuenzle bob graham fkt
Jack Kuenzle during the Bob Graham FKT. Image @jackkuenzle


No Surprises here. Trail runners usually train 4-5 times per week and the majority of them alternate with another sport, as we know strength workouts at the gym or cycling are omnipresent in the training plans. Weekly mileage (40 to 50km), the number of races per year (3 to 5), and the fact that most runners move around other appointments in their life to fit running into the schedule - "Ops…sorry for canceling our coffee on Saturday morning, but I have a long run" - come to no news.


Most frequent answer

​How old were you when you started running?

25 - 34 years old (25%)

How long have you been running?

5 - 10 years (23%)

How often do you run?

5 - 6 times per week (41%)

What is your normal weekly mileage?

41 - 60 km (33%)

How often do you race?

3 - 5 times per year (35%)

The answers were confirmations of empirical pieces of evidence and other related studies on mental health. First, trail runners have excellent mental health. This is both a motivation and a result of running generating an infinite virtuous loop that brings to more running - a good addiction. Second, 66% of respondents participated as volunteers in an event and the main reason was the desire to support the sport. Just another statement about the community spirit of trail running.


This section opens up one of the most popular debates in trail running by asking in which type of running you identify. The answers show a strong positive correlation between Trail Running and Ultra Running (i.e. respondents who strongly identify in one of the two buckets are likely to strongly identify in the other as well). This finding reinforces the position of all the ones saying that real Trail running is Ultra Running. From our perspective, this insight has to be read as the consequence of the media landscape in trail running. The most popular videos on Youtube, the most popular podcasts and publications, and the biggest races are all skewed toward Ultra. We are what we consume.

What is the furthest you have ever run?


Up to Half Marathon




50 - 100km


100 - 160km


Above 160km


When it comes to why runners run, the primary reasons are mental health (68% of respondents assigned the highest score), connection with nature, and spending time alone with your thoughts. Women tend to give more importance to mental health and inner motivations, while men are more motivated by achieving a specific performance. Again, here nothing really new, at least from an empirical perspective.

Our Thoughts

More academic research studies about the sport and who practices will move forward the sport and improve everything around it.

Trail running needs more of this. More academic research studies about the sport and who practices will move forward the sport and improve everything around it. From products and races to the narration made on the media. Each of the sections we analyzed could have a dedicated in-depth study providing valuable findings to all the actors in trail running: purchasing habits, source of information for training plans, decision drivers when signing up for a race, and so on.

andrew glaze instagram
Andrew Glaze survey on his IG stories

Trail running can’t rely on Instagram surveys as the main research tool. In this way, the knowledge is not collected and formalized preventing the advancement of the sport's collective conscience, Instead, it vanishes after 24 hours without any meaningful reflection or action taken. This is why trail running needs to be researched using rigorous methods that rigorize the state of the sport and its practitioners.


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