Elite runners line up on the morning of March 6 near the Washington Monument prior to taking part in the St. Pat’s Run put on by Pacers Running. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

Researchers estimate that 42 million Americans consider themselves runners or joggers. Of those, about 18 million are millennials. They grew up familiar with the appeal of running and have fully embraced the sport as a lifestyle phenomenon. Add in their relationship to technology and their strong sense of community, and they are a force the running industry must reckon with.

But what does running and competing mean to them? A new study tried to figure that out.

The Millennial Running Study, released in February and sponsored by Running USA and RacePartner with research by Achieve, surveyed 15,631 people born between 1980 and 2000 who have finished a race, asking about their motivations for running.

The primary reason is clear: Millennials run for their health. Amy Thayer, the study’s lead researcher, said that’s a key finding because this generation struggles with obesity. To counter that threat, millennials run — to lose weight and get in shape.

“Running is the most economical way [for millennials] to get the most bang for their buck,” Thayer said. “From there, the motivation was to continue on to do more so that it has become a lifestyle.”

From left, Brian Johnson of Los Angeles, Erin Strickland of Fairfax, Eresha Wicks of Landover and Stephan Byam of Kingston, Jamaica, take a moment to relax after the race. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

The survey found that three-quarters of respondents considered themselves fit but that only 51 percent were content with their fitness level. Seventy-three percent of respondents were women, a telling statistic: While races used to be almost evenly divided between men and women, now about 60 percent of finishers are women. In response, much of the lifestyle marketing of running is geared toward millennial women.

In addition, the study found that 76 percent of those surveyed run throughout the year and are active in other forms of exercise, such as weightlifting (49 percent) and “outdoor activities” (43 percent).

This research shows that being a runner — in the journey to being fit — is part of a millennial’s identity.

Thayer said she was surprised by how dedicated millennial runners are to races. The study found that half of respondents signed up for races at least three months in advance.

“They are very deliberate and intentional, not only in the timing of their event but in the events they select,” Thayer said. And they are motivated first and foremost by the challenge, something Thayer said event organizers have to understand to reach them.

“A lot of events put a lot of time and energy into thinking about the event as being about ‘the total experience,’ ” Thayer said, referring to amenities such as VIP packages, additional apparel and virtual training programs. “But from the data in the survey, a lot of millennial runners aren’t interested in that at all. They just want a quality running experience.”

Thousands of runners move down Independence Avenue past the starting line during the St. Pat's Run. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)
Looking for a challenge

The desire for quality experiences bodes well for major races such as the Boston and New York City marathons. Yet Thayer thinks millennials should look to smaller races that are well organized and can offer the challenges they want.

That’s good news for companies such as Pacers Running.

Now in five locations in the District and Virginia (and one in Princeton, N.J.), Pacers sells running equipment and stages local races. Chris Farley, the owner and general manager, said that in order to adjust to industry shifts brought on by millennials, Pacers Running focuses more on the accomplishments of all participants and less on first-place finishes and fast times.

The races are created by Kathy Dalby, Pacers’ chief executive and partner. “We’re not going to be doing super-huge races; it’s not in our DNA,” Dalby said. Instead, Pacers events, about one a month, usually have between 1,500 and 2,000 runners. “You get to see people over and over again.”

Dalby, who is in her 30s and started to work at Pacers in her 20s, brings a millennial’s sensibility to her job. “I design a race that I would like, and that seems to be working,” she said.

Dalby and Farley said their goal is to create events that allow for a real challenge and an opportunity to promote community. For example, the St. Patrick’s Day run on March 6 featured a 5K and a 10K course along the Mall. Runners were encouraged to dress up in costumes and post photos with the hashtag #StPatsRun, and competitors looking for more of a challenge had the option to do a double run, beginning with the 5K, then coming back to the starting line to run the 10K. Results show 613 finished the double, 350 of whom were millennials.

That age group makes up 43 percent of the participants in the large, challenging Rock ’n’ Roll marathon events, said Keith Kendrick, chief marketing officer of the Competitor Group, which owns and operates the series. While millennials are often pegged as being unsure of what they want, Kendrick said that kind of participation supports the survey’s findings that millennials put a high value on being authentic.

“It’s a different generation that values authenticity and the quality of the event,” Kendrick said. “They don’t want all the extraneous bells and whistles.”

Kendrick said that because of millennials who run the Rock ’n’ Roll races — which include last weekend’s Rock ’n’ Roll D.C. race — the company had to “get focused again on the core of the race,” Kendrick said.

He said organizers emphasize the nuance of each course, touting the different challenges that racers will face. Kendrick noted the very hilly course in Raleigh, N.C., and the challenges of a night marathon in Las Vegas.

“We don’t hide the fact; we promote it,” he said. “You want a challenging course; here it is.”

Like Pacers, Competitor has invested heavily in its social media efforts to communicate to millennials. In January, the company rolled out a new digital “Finisher Zone” that offers real-time results, comparative data of times to other races and ways to customize the finisher’s certificate to different media platforms.

“Clearly, we have to do business the way millennials want to do business because they’ve been served so well through the iPhone and Xbox and the way they consume electronic media,” said Andy Coccari, executive vice president and chief product officer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which raises money from racers through its Team in Training program. TNT has started providing mobile-compatible fundraising tools and adapting to the innovative ways millennials host fundraising events.

In short, as millennials embrace change, they are forcing the running industry to do so as well. “We’ve really had to open up the aperture in terms of what they can achieve,” Coccari said.

@mjmplunkett on Twitter