Women deserve gender-specific race shirts at running events

Women are 56 percent of all runners in the U.S. So why are race directors still handing out “unisex” shirts at running events? Photo: Elite women at the 2013 Boston Marathon-AP

NEW YORK, September 27, 2013 — Let’s talk about shirts, specifically women’s cut race shirts. Sadly, most races don’t offer them as part of a runner’s registration kit. But, frankly, most should as running has become a female dominated sport.

The Omaha Marathon on September 22, 2013 recently found itself in the middle of a social media brouhaha after race organizer HITS Running Festivals handed out technical moisture-wicking shirts to male participants and cotton shirts to women, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Runners took to the race’s Facebook page to complain about the disparity, among a slew of other problems.


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It highlights an issue women have been grumbling about for years: the lack of women’s specific shirts at races all over the U.S.

It’s standard practice at just about every running race, from small charity events with 100 participants to behemoth races with over 20,000, to give runners a shirt to commemorate the event. Most races pass off men’s shirts as “unisex.” A smaller, but growing, contingent of races offer gender-specific shirts, where men get the “unisex” cut and women get a shirt that is actually fitted for women. 

Earlier this year, runDisney announced that it will offer women’s cut running shirts at the 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon in addition to the “unisex” race shirts they’ve handed out for the last 20 years. More women than men ran the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2013, the first time in the race’s history. Disney recognized what most race directors should: women are now the majority of runners.

In 2012, women accounted for a record 56 percent of all running race finishers: over 8.6 million women finished a race, versus 6.8 million men. Women are 60 percent of the field at half-marathons, America’s most popular race distance. RunningUSA, which tracks and publishes stats on the growth of the sport, called this “astounding.”


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The Omaha Marathon is a case in point. A total of 3,536 runners finished races at the event, which included a marathon, half-marathon, 10K, 5K and 1-mile run. Of those runners, 2,035 or 58 percent were women. When you look just at the half-marathon, which had the most runners at 2,128 finishers, 62 percent were women.

Women now account for 56 percent of all runners and 60 percent of half-marathoners. (Photo: AP)

In fact, women have been the major driver in the current running boom with increased year-over-year participation. The number of female running event finishers has climbed from just under 1.2 million in 1990 to nearly 8.7 million in 2012. At the same time, the number of male finishers has grown from almost 3.6 million to just over 6.8 million. Namely, while male participation hasn’t quite doubled, female participation has jumped more than 700 percent.

It’s time that more race directors took notice and started giving the majority of their runners a shirt option that actually fits them. “Unisex” is code for “Men’s.” The unisex shirt is the same as the men’s shirt. The women’s cut shirt is completely different. And if you look at what women actually race in, it’s not “unisex” shirts. Women wear clothing made for their bodies. Why would running shirts be any different?


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Sure, many runners don’t care about race shirts; they give them away, use them as rags, save them to make a souvenir blanket or other trinket. 

But many more wear them or, at least, want to. And that’s important for race directors. It’s free advertising for the race. Runners often ask each other about races when they see someone in the event’s shirt. Even strangers on the street will stop to chat. It happens all the time.

But here’s the thing: most women don’t wear those unisex shirts. They choose to wear shirts that actually fit them. If half of the runners aren’t wearing the race shirt, race directors are selling their events short. 

Losing half of their mobile advertising base in that way is not just bad for races; it’s also bad for event sponsors. Sponsors should want as many runners as possible in the race shirt. Runners, and everyone they encounter, see a company’s messaging every time they wear it. That’s why sponsors plaster their company names all over race shirts. Runners also get to know the clothing brand itself when they wear the shirt and, many times, that brand is a major sponsor of the race.

Here’s one positive example. Nike sponsors the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and makes all the apparel for the event. Since getting a women’s cut shirt as part of my registration at the 2009 race, I’ve bought five Nike running shirts because I liked the fabric and fit of that first shirt. While shopping at Nike, I also picked up some shorts, tights, socks and other Nike running accoutrements, including items for my husband.

Which brings up another point. Women don’t buy just for themselves. Women “control” 70 percent of all household purchases and 64 percent of total consumer spending worldwide, according to a 2008 Boston Consulting Group survey. It holds true in the running world too. Women buy 60 percent of all athletic shoes, which includes running shoes, according to a 2012 U.S. Census report citing a 2010 National Sporting Goods Association survey.

Some dispute statistics like that. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article that said while women on average say they control 73 percent of household spending, men say they control 61 percent of it. Thus, both groups claim to influence the majority of spending.

“But it also shows that two or more people can influence a purchasing decision, or think that they can,” the article states. Even if women merely think they control 73 percent of purchasing decisions, races and their sponsors should want women thinking well of them.

The Baltimore Marathon on October 12, 2013 will offer men’s and women’s technical race shirts by Under Armour as part of runner registration. (Photo: The Baltimore Marathon)

Not every race needs women’s cut running shirts. Small community runs or charity events with low entry fees, cotton shirts, and no bells and whistles likely don’t need to worry about it. Low frills events can stay just that—low frills.

But larger, more expensive, marquee events that give runners technical shirts with their race registration fee should probably consider it, even if the race is a not-for-profit event, as many races still are.

The criteria? Race directors should strongly consider giving gender-specific technical shirts if their event:

  • Has a field where more than 50 percent of participants are women; 
  • Has more than 1,000 participants; 
  • Is the marquee race for their city; 
  • Has an expo; 
  • Gives finisher medals; 
  • Has a major sponsor; 
  • Gives prize money or appearance fees to professional runners; 
  • Costs more than $50 for a half marathon or shorter distance and more than $75 for a marathon; 
  • Is for-profit; 
  • Gives “unisex” technical shirts.

If a race meets just two or three of these criteria, it’s time to seriously think about women’s cut shirts.

Yes, many race directors are just trying to save money with “unisex” shirts. But there are so many routes a race director can take if the cost of having to order both men’s and women’s shirts will break the bank.

Some races offer lower entry fees to runners who want cotton or no shirt at all and higher entry fees for runners who want a gender-specific technical shirt. The Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run in Washington, D.C., gives runners the option when they register to upgrade from “unisex” cotton to a gender-specific technical shirt for a fee. That way, runners who don’t want a shirt don’t have to pay for one, and those that do, get a shirt that actually fits.

Other races don’t include shirts in the registration fee at all, but instead give a non-gendered commemorative item. The New Balance Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts includes a mug with registration instead of a shirt. Runners who want a race shirt can buy one. These options solve the problem of giving half the entrants an item they can’t wear.  

The days of passing off men’s shirts as “unisex” should be over. Would any race director think of offering only women’s cut shirts and passing those off as “unisex?” Certainly, no one would.

Running isn’t simply a man’s world anymore. It’s time for race shirts to reflect that.

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ show about running. Her work has been seen in Newsweek, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, ABC-TV in New York and over two dozen other outlets. She has finished six marathons and four triathlons. Follow Karla at RunKarlaRun.com.


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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.

 

A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on RunKarlaRun.com, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

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