In its annual State of the Sport series, Running USA examines how patterns in corporate, consumer and running behavior have changed over the past decade and what lies ahead for participants and the industry as a whole. The running industry has seen steady growth over the last decade, but the regression of the economy has spawned doubts that participation numbers can sustain their current pace.

According to Running USA’s report, running ranked fourth on the list of “Hottest Sports for Sales Growth in 2008.” Likewise, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reports that running products topped the list for “Top-Selling Shoe Style,” increasing 5.3 percent from 2006. An NPD report, however, notes that 2007 is the first year that the majority of consumer spending doesn’t reside with running-style shoes. Instead, consumers have opted for more inexpensive low-performance shoes.

Predictably, use of the Internet as a sales channel continues to grow, accounting for 8 percent of running shoe sales in 2007. The report also emphasizes the impact of the Nike+ concept on the running market, noting that the ad campaign, social network website, and products are reinventing the sport of running.

Ryan Lamppa, a researcher for Running USA, doesn’t think the waning economy will have a major effect on participation. “Being out there and running gets [people] away from the problems of the world, and it’s a way to [relieve] stress,” Lamppa says. He is “reasonably hopeful” that the state of the economy own’t significantly impact running participation. Regarding retailers, Lamppa says runners will likely be more mindful of the amount of money they spend on running products. “It will have an impact on the product side of the industry, but I hope it’s not too [significant],” Lamppa says.

The survey drew its demographic data from the first National Runner Survey project, conducted by Running USA and the Road Runners Club of America. The surveyed groups were core runners, described as active adults who frequently participate in running.

Notably, research shows that the average female long distance runner is 39 and married without children. Nearly 80 percent have college degrees and 64 percent have household incomes of $75,000 or more. The average male long distance runner is 45 and married without children. Of this group, 80 percent have college degrees and 57 percent have household incomes of $100,000 or more.

Over the past two decades, the running industry has continued to see steady growth in the number of women participants. Lamppa says the ongoing influx of “new blood” has been a driving force for the sport, and adds that he doesn’t expect growth to curtail any time soon. Because running is a relatively inexpensive sport, prognosticators like Lamppa maintain that the current state of the economy will have a minimal effect on growth.

According to Running USA’s Road Running Information Center, the number of finishers in U.S. road races continues to increase, with 2007 showing a record 8.9 million finishers – a 4 percent spike from 2006. Since 2003, the half-marathon has been the fastest growing road race in the U.S., but the 5K remains the most popular, comprising more than half of all road races. The report also notes that the number of female runners continues to skyrocket, increasing five-fold since 1987.

Since 1987, participants in the 100 largest road races in the nation have increased 60 percent – from 687,955 to 1,100,746 – and, for the first time since the report began, there were two 15K races with more than 10,000 finishers (the Gate River Run and the Utica Boilermaker Road Race.)

According to the report, the youth component of the sport has remained especially stable and has demonstrated recent growth comparable to that of adults. Race directors have made efforts to appeal to younger runners by emphasizing the non-competitive aspect of races, adding fun elements like climbing walls, face painting and prize drawings in order to downplay competition. As a result, there has been a steady increase of young participants in 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons.

“Now, anybody’s welcome, and that’s why the number has [grown]. It has the appeal of being universal,” Lamppa says.

Lamppa stresses that obesity in America has become an “epidemic” and, as a result, race organizers have begun to stress health and fun instead of promoting competitive goals.

Likewise, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported an increase in both track and field, and cross country runners. The SGMA, however, warns that the industry should not expect continued growth from school team sports. Data suggests that team sports participation was boosted by an influx of female participation in the ’90s, and that growth of female participation for high school running teams has begun to taper.