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Endurance sports and an ageing population
7 November 2013

After being part of the organising crew for the Motu Challenge multisport event and Motu 160 Cycle race, I had a chance to reflect on the event. One thing that stood out was that the people participating were old! We’ll let me re-phrase that: they were mostly above 40 years of age. 

So, what is happening to the multisport scene? Or, more generally, what is happening to endurance sports? To help put my thoughts into context I summarised the history of endurance sport from the perspective of someone approaching 50 (which is why I can call participants old – I’m there, too!)

I remembered attending athletics training at the local club in Waikanae in an era when running was popular. You’ll be showing your age if you remember John Walker, Dick Quax and Dick Taylor. It was the eighties and the running boom was in full swing. Running marathons then was like mountain biking is today. Marathon races were full to capacity and the average times were certainly a lot quicker than those of the present day. Running under three hours was considered normal. Training seriously was in and weekly totals of 150 kilometres and more not unusual.

The early eighties saw mass participation events of a different type: Speights Coast to Coast, triathlon, bike rides like the Hamilton to Whangamata and, of course, the Round Taupo Cycle Challenge. A little later, mountain biking took off. I remember my first mountain bike purchased in 1989, a Diamond Back Apex.

Fast forward to 2013 and turn up to a marathon to watch the finishers. The first 5% will be young, serious athletes, followed by a tough bunch of age groupers from 50 and up. So what has happened?

In my own experience, running was a bit boring compared to the fun I could have doing all these other wonderful things like biking and kayaking. Each new generation has more and more choice and each sport has to share the new generation of people interested in endurance sports.

What has persisted in all these sports is the need to train and gain skills in the various disciplines. Working hard and long at your sport is the one consistent factor.

Enter generation Y. Now these guys know how to have fun. Fun and excitement are the name of the game and training hard and long is not a given. Why slog for hours training to ride your mountain bike fast from point A to point B, when you can enter a downhill competition, or even better, a competition where only the downhill sections are timed?

In my opinion generation Y and more recently Z have got it right. Work on your skills and not slog away for hours of painful training. And in a lot of cases, why even learn a skill when all you have to do is chuck a bungy to your feet and jump off a bridge?

So back to my original question: why are endurance sports participants ageing? Well, the new blood is not coming through in the same numbers. The percentage of the population interested in individual sports has so much choice and is choosing to take up sports with a higher fun quotient. And there is so much choice now! Why are mud runs so popular (I don’t get it)? Why are mountain bike races where you only time the downhills popular (I kind of get that)?

If you want to know, ask someone from the Y and Z generations at one of these events – because I’m not sure of the answer.

What can we do as event promoters? Well, luckily, our population is ageing and ageing with good health. We can cater for the older age groups by having age categories (triathlon does this well). We can adapt our events to cater for what the next generation wants.

And we can hope that as the Gen Y and Zs get older, they start seeing the fun in the endurance sports, too.



Comment on this post


10 Dec 2013

Posted by: Jim Robinson

"I agree Mike. Just gotta adapt, adapt, adapt, evolve, evolve, evolve. Sport has always reflected society of the time, and has changed continually. Heck, even the classic era of harrier running was really no more than about 1930-1985. There will always be