# An Educated Guess On How Many Running, Cycling, And Triathlon Age Groupers There Are…And Why The Danes Are So Damn Happy

I was lucky to grow up in a very tight running community in Palos Verdes, California. My dad was part of the now semi-famous Breakfast Club comprised of 40-, 50-, and 60-something hard core marathoners. Sunday runs were 16-milers crisscrossing various parts of “the hill” followed by breakfast at one of the members’ home. I ran with the club during my junior high and high school years. After that, I walked on to U.C. Irvine’s Division I Cross Country team…and then quickly walked off when I realized the team’s 30-minute warm up translated to a tempo run for me.

Like many others, I stopped running in my 20’s and then startup up again in my 30’s; I’ve been running consistently ever since competing in 5Ks, 10K, and a few marathons.

Lately I’ve been curious about how many others there are like me—those who train regularly and compete in races. This also got me thinking about similar athletes in cycling and triathlon.

So, I challenged myself to hunt down the data and crunch the numbers.

The following is my estimate of how many competitive runners/cyclists/triathletes there are, from which countries they hail, and of what percent of their nations’ populations do they represent. (I ended up excluding China, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico because I couldn’t find reliable data sources).

The methodology is far from perfect—much more on that in the Methodology section—but here’s what I came up with:

Again, these numbers represent competitive age groupers who train and race. I’ll use the term “Competitors” from this point forward. To be clear, running to the refrigerator every commercial break does not count. Nor does doing a workout on the first few Saturdays of the new year followed by 11 months of hibernation.

Graph #1 is a histogram representation of the data above. Of course, population has a lot to do with the length of each bar, but there are other factors at play.

*Graph #1*

One imperfect assumption I made was to assume that each athlete is a competitor in only of the three sports. Obviously, there is much overlap, but I chose to make this assumption because a.) I wanted to estimate a realistic *maximum* number of Competitors and b.) the overlap is probably consistent across each nations’ Competitors, so it wouldn’t affect the relative length of each bar.

When you divide each of the total number of Competitors by their countries’ population, you get the per capita breakdown in Graph #2.

For example: Japan = (4.6M runners + 1.2M cyclists + 47K triathletes) / 126M people = 4.61%. In other words, out of every 100 Japanese people there’s an average of 4.61 Competitors.

*Graph #2*

Japan is experiencing a Marathon and Ekiden (relay marathon) running boom which helped propel it to the top of the charts. Ireland is second because it has a very high per capita competitive runner statistic. Denmark is in the top three with respect to per capital runners, cyclists and triathletes. The U.S. is somewhere in the middle with 1.96 Competitors per 100 people.

*Graph #3*

This is a scatterplot of the number of Competitive cyclists on the vertical axis and Competitive runners on the horizontal axis. The US and Japan are way, way out in front. Germany, France, and Great Britain are in the chase pack. All others are tightly bunched close behind.

*Graph #4*

The vertical axis here represents the per capita number of Competitive cyclists (as expressed in percentage points) while the horizontal axis represents the same but for Competitive runners.

Japan and Denmark are in the upper right, which means they have relatively high numbers of both cycling and running Competitors. I thought the Netherlands would be higher up on the cycling scale, but its love affair with cycling may be equal parts commuting and sport.

*Graph #5*

Finally on to triathlon. Once again, the great Danes rise to the top. Could this partially explain why Denmark is the happiest country on earth? Perhaps it’s because they make enough time to run, bike, and swim so damn much?

**METHODOLOGY **

OK, so the graphs are interesting, but are they an accurate?

The short answer is “kind-of, sort-of”.

The longer answer is that there is bias in the findings because I used the U.S. as a model for computing several ratios, and then assigned those ratios to all other countries. Also, the data is better in some categories than in others. In places where the data is poor, it is likely a case of “garbage in, garbage out”. That said, I think the bias is consistent across the nations so that the relative ranking of the per capita Competitors is roughly correct. As for the absolute numbers, I’m sure they are off by a double-digit percentage, but not by a factor of 2x or higher.

Given all that, here is where I appeal to my readership. If any of you have better data or better methodology+data you can share with me, I’d be really grateful!

### Estimating The Number Of Competitive Runners

This was done in three parts.

- Part 1: Determine the total number of U.S. Competitive runners
- Part 2: Determine the total number of U.S. Competitive runners as a function of total marathon finishes for a given year. (i.e. Competitive Runners = f(Marathon Finishes)
- Part 3: Apply that function to the total marathon finishes for a given year of all other countries.

The data for Part 1 and Part 2 came from Running USA & Athlinks. Running USA also conducted a survey of runners in 2015 from which I deduced the average Competitor finished 4.5 races per. If you divide 17.1M by 4.5, you get 3.8M runners.

Simple arithmetic shows that marathon finishes accounted for 2.97% of all race finishes in 2015. The survey revealed that 54% of Competitors had run at least one marathon. My assumption was that 40% of those had completed a marathon within the past year. By dividing 2.97% by (54%x40%), you get 0.137.

Therefore: # of Competitive runners = Marathon Finishes/0.137 .

For Part 3, I needed data on the number of marathon finishes per country. Fortunately there’s an amazing website, which has been compiling statistics on over 160,000 road races worldwide. {Aside: Here’s the story on the incredible Ken Young who founded and still runs the site.}

The number of marathon finishes by country is here. I divided each one by 0.137 to compute the number of Competitive Runners.

The 4.6M number for Japan was surprisingly high to me even though I’ve lived and ran in Japan in the early 1990’s and 2014-2016. In the last decade or so, Japan has enjoyed Marathon and Ekiden (relay marathon) booms which drove the numbers. Now, it could be that Japanese runners have a higher propensity to run marathons vis-à-vis other distances. If so, this would make my 0.137 function too low and overestimate the total Competitors.

Still, if Japan isn’t *ichiban* in the world of running, I am comfortable claiming that it is close second.

### Estimating The Number Of Competitive Cyclists

Next up was cycling. This was a more difficult nut to crack because there aren’t good, comprehensive sources for grand fondo and criterium finishers by country, so I had to do some ‘creative’ analysis.

I started by taking the number of bikes sold each year in the EU, US, and other local sources.

I then found a 2006 statistic from the Bicycle Market Research Institute which indicated that 8% of bicycle unit sales in the U.S. were for racing bikes.

Now, I realize that in the U.S. only 0.6% of people use a bike for daily commuting vs. a whopping 36% in Netherlands. Such differences can wreak havoc with that “8%” figure. Therefore, I subtracted the number of commuting bikes from the total sales and then applied the 8% to computer the number of race bikes. Finally, I assumed that each racer keeps just one race bike at a time and keeps it for 2 years before buying a new race bike.

The arithmetic yields:

### Estimating The Number Of Competitive Triathletes

Here, too, I computed a U.S.-based statistic—the number of 2016 Hawaii Ironman World Championships Age Group finishers (628) divided by the number of U.S. triathletes (432,000). [Note: to run a sanctioned Triathlon in the U.S. of any distance, you must be a USA Triathlon member for at least 1 day. There are probably some USA Triathlon members who don’t race, but the 432,000 number is probably pretty close to reality.]

432,000/628 = 688. In other words, 1 out of every 688 American triathletes were selected to compete in the world championships.

I then multiplied 688 by the number of age group finishers for the other countries in the 2016 Ironman World Championships to get the number of Competitive triathletes for each nation.

**CONCLUSION**

The universe of competitive runners, cyclists, and triathletes is smaller than I thought. For the 14 countries I studied, the total number is 21 million…and that’s with the generous assumption that each athlete only participates in one of the 3 sports. If you account for the overlap, I suspect that the 21 million shrinks to something closer to 15 million.

The Running USA survey found that just over 50% of Competitive runners have household incomes greater than $100K. For Competitive triathletes, USA Triathlon reports that number jumps to 71%! My guess is that Competitive cyclists are somewhere in between.

There’s clearly a correlation between income and Competitor participation. My belief is that in the next 10 years or so, as incomes (hopefully) rise in China, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico, we will see a new, much larger wave of Competitors.

This is exciting because as the market grows, so too, will the resources dedicated to the science of improving all of our performances. Here’s to all the PRs to come in the 2020’s!

Thanks for making it all the way to the end. I welcome your comments and wish you happy training!!!