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Trail running; the participation pipeline

By Keri Wallace, Founder of Girls On Hills

While some fantastic trail races see equal participation from men and women, most do not. At the same time, many more road races do - with some seeing more entries from women than men! What is the stumbling block with trail running? The answer is accessibility; not just of races but of our sporting discipline as a whole.

Not everyone who runs wants to race. We know this. But the more women that run, the more will race – it’s a statistical certainty. The gender participation gap we see at offroad races, also exists out there on the trails – as not all trails are made equal. More women run on roads than on trails, more women run on trails than in the fells and more women run in the fells than over ultra-distance mountain trails and rounds. The trend here reflects the many ‘soft barriers’ that continue to impact women* disproportionately every day.

In 1967 Katherine Switzer became the first woman to complete the historic Boston marathon as a numbered entrant. It was another five years before women were officially allowed to compete, and a further 50 years before global road racing reached an average gender split of 50/50. By comparison, trail race entries show female participation to be in the range of 35% to 15% (and less for the most technical and ultra-distance events). Gender equality in road running has not only had a head start on trail running (which didn’t gain widespread popularity until the early 2000s), but it is an urban sport with a strong club culture and enormous commercial investment. It is also something that most people can do from home, with minimal specialist skills or equipment needed to get started. Initiatives like Parkrun have opened the door to even greater access, with regular, free and well supported events all over the world. By comparison, trail running is harder to enjoy without travelling and it brings with it a unique set of challenges which can be harder for women to overcome.

*We note that many of these factors also affect men but that there is a differential between genders

Soft Barriers

As we move along the continuum from road running to ultra-distance trail or mountain running, accessibility decreases. More time and financial commitment is required - for training and travelling, and to an extent more specialist clothing/kit. Women today are still responsible for the majority share of childcare responsibilities and care of elderly relatives (less time availability), and typically experience less financial independence than their male counterparts. Office of National Statistics (ONS) 2021 census data reveals that men take more leisure time than women per week and that this inequality has widened since 2000.

The financial commitment and requirement to travel to rural locations for trail running, also disproportionately impacts young runners (including students) and urbanised ethnic minorities, further reducing the diversity we see in our sport. The issue of representation is a negative feedback-loop, with visibly low levels of participation making the sporting discipline ‘less welcoming’ than it should be.

Then there is the issue of skills and experience - the way women view their own capabilities. At Girls on Hills we find that many women take the view that they ‘cannot navigate’ or are less able to navigate than their male partners/friends. In reality most have never learned the basic skills, preferring to follow or defer to more confident partners. Physically, women are also 10-20% slower than men over most distances, meaning that there is often concern about being slow and ‘holding others back’ at mixed club meets, social runs or training events.

This is the main reason why Girls on Hills (and many other running and outdoor community groups) are women-only spaces. There is also anecdotal evidence (supported by significant data showing similar trends across politics and business) that women are generally ‘less confident’ than men, requiring far more experience and knowledge to feel as capable in a given scenario. Our survey revealed that many women feel ‘held back’ by concerns around getting lost or injured, running alone or in the dark, fears about harassment/abuse, managing periods or needing to go to the toilet in outdoor spaces. If these considerations are impacting women at the point of entry into trail running, it’s no surprise that they are also affecting race entries. Races that lack good provision for women on the course, which bill their events as particularly brutal or which impose tight cut-offs are likely to see low uptake from all but the most experienced of female entrants.

At Girls on Hills we’re excited to be working with SheRaces and encouraging more brands and Race Directors to address the specific needs of women, helping them overcome the complex and intangible barriers that prevent better uptake of race entries. I, for one, will simply never believe that women just don’t enjoy racing or competing as much as men! We just need to make #racingbetter.

At Girls on Hills

Girls on Hills is the UK’s only trail, fell and skyrunning provider designed specifically for women. We offer courses and bespoke guided adventures primarily in the Glencoe area of the Scottish Highlands but also in the Cairngorms, Lake District and Snowdonia National Parks. Our aim is to empower women with the skills and confidence necessary to become more independent in the mountain environment.

Each year we run a ‘Trail Skills for Ultra Runners’ weekend with our coach Nicky Spinks, covering the skills and knowledge required to step up to ultra-distance trail running. We also deliver skyrunning courses throughout the year with expert input from elite skyrunner Georgia Tindley, who as part of our delivery team, helps encourage more women into the technical end of our sport.

We are proud to work with Skyline Scotland who have an excellent Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy for all Ourea Events races. Our courses and official guided recces provide a platform from which we can facilitate and support more women to enter some of the most strenuous and technically challenging mountain races in the UK.

We run a Youth Ambassador program and seek-out projects that help us tackle inclusivity in trail/mountain running, to help more women share in the many health and wellbeing benefits that running and racing can bring to our lives.

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Jul 05, 2022

Brilliant article Keri! Love how you are enabling women to feel more confident on the trails

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