Six founders share advice for marketing, growing and sustaining a group.
Most people think of running as a solo venture. And while runners appreciate (read: need) quality “me time”, there’s something quite powerful about running in a pack.
“Most of the time people join groups for the social experience, but the cool thing about a running group is that you can be a part of it without saying a word,” says Scott Miller, founder of the Boulder Trail Running Breakfast Club. “It’s a great opportunity to connect.”
Here, Miller plus five other running club founders, share tips for building—and sustaining—your own running club.
Poll Your Members
Jessamy Little, who founded the Cass Runners Club, a 100-plus person running group in London comprised of her business school classmates, suggests asking potential members what days, times, and locations work best with their schedules. Some groups may favour an early morning sweat sesh, while others may prefer meeting after work. “A recommendation for a newer club is to have two set running days,” Little says. “One during the week that is more focused on ‘getting it done’ and one on weekends that can have a more ‘fun and footloose’ vibe.” For Little’s group, the weekend runs were geared toward exploring new areas of the city.
“Don’t get discouraged if not a lot of people show up at first,” says Marnie Kunz, founder of Runstreet, an NYC-based company that leads art runs – urban runs that pass by street art in cities across the US. When Kunz held her first art run in 2015, just one person came: a man on a bike. Kunz was disappointed, embarrassed, and considered cancelling the whole thing. But the next week a few more people showed up, and then a few more. Soon, word got out. Runstreet has since hosted more than 200 runs in cities around the country. “Realising that everyone starts from scratch really helps,” Kunz says.
Build an Online Presence
Kunz stresses the importance of having your own website that houses all information about your runs along with photos. “Social media platforms can change – and not everyone is on every platform – so it helps to have everything in one place.” Keep your communication consistent across platforms to help create a streamlined brand.
Let people know what they are getting themselves into, Miller says. His Boulder, Colorado-based group of 100-plus members meets every Saturday for a long trail run (anywhere between two to six hours) followed by a group breakfast. Because the group’s runs cover a wide range of terrain, he wrote several articles explaining the general types of conditions runners can expect and the group’s approximate pace along with safety tips.
The articles are published on the group’s MeetUp page, and when a new person signs up, Miller sends them the reading material. “If your group is not a beginner group, you need to make that clear,” Miller says. “You don’t want people to show up and have a bad time. I try to be really descriptive about the time, distance, and elevation of our runs so people know what they are in for.”
Post Photos Frequently
Many members of Miller’s group take photos during the runs and post them to the group’s page. He says it helps draw new members. “When people are looking for a running group and they see pictures of runs in amazing areas, people smiling – both men and women – they see that it’s a mixed group that likes to be social and have fun.”
Keep Things Consistent – And Weather-Proof
Frankie Ruiz, cofounder of the Miami Marathon and founder of the Baptist Health South Florida Brickell Run Club, a free, once-a-week, Miami-based group of about 400 runners, can count on one hand the number of times he’s cancelled runs throughout the program’s nine-year tenure.
“Our main message is that we don’t cancel,” he says. “If it’s really rough out, we’ll go to a parking garage or go indoors and do a core session.” He says this has helped build the club’s reputation as a consistent amenity offered by the city. “Even if a runner doesn’t show up, I think there’s a comfort knowing that there is something in your city that doesn’t stop.”
“If you have new people coming in, you can’t assume that they know the rules and guidelines,” Ruiz says. “Communication needs to be all the time.” Even though the group’s “weather-proof policy” may be well understood among current members, every time the skies get gloomy, the club blasts their social channels with reminders that the runs are still on. It also helps to communicate the planned route, distance, and pace in advance so that new members can plan their fuel and attire accordingly.
Consider a Social Component
“The breakfast part holds the group together,” Miller says about his group.“Out on the trail, you’re mostly just talking to the few people who are running right alongside you, but at breakfast, everyone – including the fast and the not-so-fast – is there together. Most of the conversations are not running-related, and it helps people get past the basics of getting to know each other.” Consider what social component can make your group unique – like a jump in the lake after a run, or a post-workout cheese and chocolate tasting, or a running-themed book discussion.
“Periodically, I’ll put up a little blurb on our site about how to be prepared,” says Miller. “It covers the basics that go into running so that people don’t show up without enough water, fuel, the right gear, etc.” He usually carries extra water and snacks in his car in case others run low, and takes it upon himself to assist any members who get injured along the trails. “I figure that I brought these people out here, so it’s my responsibility to ensure that they make it back okay.”
Be Intentional About Your Culture
Each of Ruiz’s runs begins with everyone meeting the person to the right and to the left of them. “I try as hard as we can for us to not feel cult-like or too intimidating,” Ruiz says. “I don’t want to make it feel like a closed group with lots of inside jokes where everyone knew everyone.” He says he’s kept the structure of the group loose on purpose. “I want it [the run club] to be where you go when you are feeling a little lonely in the community and want to connect.”
Consider a Carpool System
Many of Miller’s runners come from outside Boulder, so he created a carpool system – both to help runners with transportation and also to foster camaraderie and relationships among the group. “We’ve had one marriage so far, and there are two other couples,” he laughs. “I’ve noticed a lot of friendships and little subcultures building [as a result of the carpool].”
Follow Other Run Clubs for Creative Inspiration
Follow on social media as many run clubs as you can across the globe, Ruiz says. “You will see what different creative ideas are out there and this will help the creativity of your offerings.” He suggests using a hashtag research provider to find relevant running-related accounts. One recent idea he brought to his club after seeing it online: a cannonball run.
“We rented a pool out and had the run end with everyone doing a cannonball into it. We made it a huge thing, and even had a DJ there.” He says this type of fun, unique festivity helps engage members and drive participation.
Incorporate Sponsors Thoughtfully
As Ruiz’s club grew, so did the sponsorship offers. But he remained selective about what brands he’d partner with. “I don’t want people to feel like they are walking into a flea market every time,” he explains. Instead, he creatively incorporates sponsorships – like having a branded pop-up 5K.
Build Local Relationships
Initially, The San Francisco Road Runners Club, a 400-member nonprofit group founded in 2001, didn’t seek sponsorships. Instead, it built relationships with local races, running stores, and government entities, like the National Parks Service and the Department of Parks & Recreation. “We volunteered in local parks to help improve the areas we run,” say Lisa Griffin and Deb Holcomb, two of the club’s original founders. “We made (and still make) annual donations to the parks where we run. These days, many sponsors come to us. We seem to have a good reputation in the community.” Your group could also consider a charitable component that allows members to give back to worthy causes that impact the group – like covering hospital bills for someone’s sick family member, or donating money to replace possessions lost in a fire—through a fundraising run.