Identifying social media trends and tracking what’s popular with KOLs and their followers is a big part of what we do at PARKLU. Our free Analytics tool can be used to track KOL mentions of keywords like “running” or the brands that are benefiting from the Chinese fitness craze.
The Unlikely Runner
I was scanning through my WeChat Moments one day when I saw my former co-worker Tracy had posted some photos of her and two colleagues running together. “Team building run!” the caption said. I was a little surprised. During my two years working with the three of them, I never heard them express any interest in fitness whatsoever. I figured it was a one-off thing until I noticed all three of them regularly posting running photos on their Moments. Then they started competing in races. Then running marathons.
But they weren’t the only ones picking up this new hobby. It was becoming increasingly harder to claim a treadmill at the gym, and every weekend the 10k running path at the Olympic Park in Beijing was so crowded you would have thought there was a race going on. What really caught my attention, though, was when my housing complex, on the southwest edge of the city, built a 1k running loop inside our neighborhood. That would never have happened several years ago.
Running has exploded in popularity in China. Six years ago, China hosted 22 races nationwide. According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), that number skyrocketed to 328 in 2017. A total of 2.8 million runners took part in these races, nearly doubling from 2016.
A large proportion of this expanding group of runners are from the country’s exploding middle class. They are young and well-off, living in the mega-cities where the pace of life is extremely fast and the pressure high. Here, growing numbers of young professionals want to work off the stresses of a hard day at the office. Many of them have turned to running. My friend Tracy, a mid-level manager at an international PR firm, happens to be one of them. “Running helps me release pressure and keeps me energetic,” she said.
They choose running because it does not require specific facilities or equipment and can be done at any time, giving it very low entry barriers for ordinary consumers. It is also social.
“Nowadays there are many running clubs and events. Sometimes I join the Nike Running Club running session,” Tracy said. “For many of us, running has become a social activity where you can meet different people and share your running stories with each other.”
But in the age of social media and smartphones, we are never really alone. Just like gym selfies posted all over Western social platforms, Chinese runners eagerly share their workouts via WeChat and other social accounts, showing off to their friends and giving themselves a sense of accomplishment.
Whether they run alone or in groups, the social aspect seems to be very important for Chinese fitness enthusiasts. Codoon, a popular Chinese running app, was created so runners could not only track their workouts but also find a community of other runners. Codoon has more than 100,000 running groups in hundreds of China’s first- and second-tier cities. Similar apps include JoyRun, Nike, and the social workout app Keep.
An Important Aspect of Running is the Gear
Like athletes all over the world, the more Chinese runners enjoy their sport, the more they want to spend on it. I asked Tracy if she had purchased any running gear. “Definitely,” she answered. “Part of the fun comes from learning about the gear. I’ve bought a belt bag, Nike and Asics running shoes, a hat, and other things too. I am planning to get a watch too.”
Highly educated and increasingly health conscious, upper middle class are driving the growth of the Chinese fitness industry. Many are going so far as to reallocate their spending from luxury goods to sports apparel, equipment and fitness classes. Reuters reported earlier this year that “GPS sports watches, compression leggings, and hydration packs are the new must-haves for wealthy Chinese.” Data from Euromonitor International revealed that the sportswear market in China is expected to grow to 43.1 billion dollars by 2020, surpassing luxury goods.
According to a survey by marketing research firm Nielsen, an average Chinese runner spends 3,601 RMB ($556) a year on their hobby. Meanwhile, experienced runners tend to spend more, averaging 4,594 RMB ($711) with the aim of improving performance. Li Ning, one of the largest sportswear companies in China, revealed that 26 percent of its revenue is generated in the running sector of the business, which significantly outperforms other sectors.
The Trend Didn’t Happen by Accident
To combat an increasingly sedentary and illness-ridden population, the Chinese government has launched nationwide health and fitness campaigns. In June 2016, China’s State Council unveiled a five-year fitness plan that aims for 1.5 trillion yuan ($225 billion) in national spending on sports and fitness by 2020.
With the government’s support, races are popping up everywhere. Out of the 328 events recorded last year, there were 125 marathons, 128 half marathons, and 75 other races. Marathons and half-marathons tend to be the most popular. Maybe it’s because they come with the most bragging rights. Even novices such as Tracy agree. “Nowadays there are lots of running events, big and small, all over China. And many people tend to join the events. Since I started running a-year-and-a-half ago I have already run in four marathon and half marathon events.”
It’s not only the government who is interested in supporting these races. Marathons have become a sought-after platform for companies to promote their brand image and appeal. While the majority of China race sponsors are athletic apparel and auto companies, companies like United Airlines are also getting involved. They were the main sponsor for the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Chengdu Marathon and 1/2 Marathon.
The running trend is also a boon for China’s tourism industry. Last year, races took place in 133 cities in 30 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities. Nielsen’s data shows that veteran runners traveled about four times per year on average and spent 6,935 yuan on expenses (excluding transportation fees). Ninety percent of veteran runners traveled to at least one race, with 9% traveling overseas.
Not Even Pollution Can Slow Down Runners
It’s incredible that the running industry has been able to grow at this speed even with the horrible levels of air pollution found in many Chinese cities. Runners admit the air makes planning complicated. Often, they just have to adapt their training schedules to the conditions.
“I just run whenever the air is good. In general, if the PM 2.5 level is under 80, I will run outdoors, but if I am training for a race then I’ll run as long as the PM 2.5 level is under 120,” said Tracy.
Running is Only the Beginning of Chinese Fitness
As the most basic and accessible form of exercising, running is one of the first sports in China to experience such exponential growth, but it sure won’t be the last. Running is a gateway drug. Once someone is hooked, they become more confident in their athletic abilities and more willing to try other sports.
The Chinese fitness and health market will experience massive growth over the next decade, and running mania is only the beginning.