How running clubs replaced dating apps

love, Friends, Couple, London, Dating

Running clubs have soared in popularity since the pandemic (Getty)

Hayley* wasn’t looking for love when she joined her local running club. “It was just something I enjoyed doing every weekend,” the 30-year-old marketing assistant explains. But then she met a man – let’s call him Rob. “We were friends at first and things progressed from there; he asked me out after a couple of months.” That was three years ago. Fast forward and there’s no sign of things slowing down; the couple live together in north London and regularly run alongside one another all over the world.

“It was quite a liberating way to meet someone,” Hayley recalls. “It takes the pressure off because you’ve got this common interest; you’re both doing something you love. And you’re doing it for you. You’re not putting loads of pressure on it, so it doesn’t feel contrived.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal, particularly for those who’ve long given up on the maddening charade that is online dating. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that Hayley is far from the only person to have met someone through a running club. “We hit it off immediately,” says Sarah Jane Clark, 53, of her partner, Paul, whom she met through her running club’s social media channels during the pandemic. “I really missed my running club and, because of lockdown, I was running by myself. Paul and I entered some of the same virtual events and encouraged each other. Fast forward to September 2021 and we had arranged to meet up at the Sheffield Half Marathon.” They tied the knot last autumn.

It’s not just happening in the UK, either. Just have a look on social media, where you’ll find thousands of running clubs all over the world – plenty of which have acted as inadvertent matchmaking services. In the US, there’s Venice Run Club in California, which has been documenting its relationship success stories on TikTok. Take Joe and Myreen, who met during one of the club’s workout sessions. For their first date, they naturally went for a long run and then did a yoga class followed by salads. “At first I really didn’t want to date someone from run club because I’d just moved to LA and this was where all my friends were,” says Myreen in a clip that has amassed more than 383,000 views. “Then I got over it.”

Moving to the southern hemisphere, running apps as the new dating apps has also become a popular concept in Australia. Sammie and Zac are two former singles who benefited from the phenomenon; they recently got married after meeting in a Sydney-based running group. “Our relationship just developed through the running,” Sammie told News.com.au. “You’re running side by side for hours and you really get to know someone because none of you are distracted by phones or social media or anything. We were both training for marathons… so you just get to know each other while you’re running along chatting away.”

Since the pandemic, run clubs have soared in popularity. According to a report by Nielsen Sports in 2021, 13 per cent of all surveyed runners started during lockdown, while 22 per cent of respondents who were already running before the pandemic said they started running more once it started. Meanwhile, use of apps like Strava is surging, while running brands such as Hoka, which reported record-breaking year-on-year revenue in 2023, continue to go from strength to strength.

The Hackney half marathon had a record-breaking 25,000 sign-ups this year – many of whom were from running clubs, including Hayley and Rob. They celebrated afterwards with fellow members. “It’s a lot of fun because after the races there are always parties and a lot of social events,” she says.

Ostensibly, there’s little that’s less romantic than running. Think about it: you’re probably dripping in sweat, red-faced and huffing between steps, and you’re in gym gear that, unless it’s new, sags and clings to you in all the wrong places. A recipe for love this is not. And yet, there’s something about the total lack of pretension that makes it a perfect circumstance in which to meet someone.

“A shared passion creates a natural foundation for building relationships,” explains Kate Daly, relationship expert and co-founder of leading online divorce services company Amicable. “When people share common goals and activities, it often helps forge stronger connections. Increasingly, many individuals prioritise a healthy lifestyle and want partners who share this commitment, and a running club provides a space to meet like-minded people who value fitness and health, increasing the chances of compatibility.”

There’s also a sense of hardship and endurance involved that could create bonds – running isn’t exactly easy, and even the most experienced of runners may struggle with long distances. “We’re all there quite vulnerable in our running kit,” says Hayley. “When you do a workout with someone it’s quite raw and there’s something about seeing them trying their hardest that makes you feel close to them.”

In London, one of the most popular running clubs is Your Friendly Runners, which, with 24,000 followers on Instagram, regularly hosts social events after its weekly runs. “We’ve seen first hand just how positive a space running can be for like minds to meet, connect and become really close,” says founder Matt Horrocks. “Whether or not single people are attending with a view to meet other singles specifically, it’s just a safe place to bond without too much pressure or expectation, and the fact this leads to some coupling up isn’t a surprise. It fills us with joy to say we have a few very happy couples who met while jogging with us around Hackney.”

It’s just a safe place to bond without too much pressure or expectation, and the fact this leads to some coupling up isn’t a surprise

Matt Horrocks, founder of Your Friendly Runners

There’s an element of science at play here, too; thanks to the release of endorphins (hormones that promote feelings of pleasure in the body), exercise puts us in a good mood, which fosters a joyful environment that is ripe for forming meaningful connections. “The endorphins released during exercise create a positive and uplifting environment,” adds Daly. “This can make people more approachable and open to forming new connections, including romantic ones.”

Running also lends itself to a unique breed of verisimilitude. You’re forced to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and leave your ego at the door. And as strange as it might sound, when two people are doing that together, sweaty or not, it can be strangely bonding. "Being active and seeing others in a healthy, energetic state can increase the likelihood of attraction,” says Daly.

Another element that sees running clubs brim with opportunities for single people is the simple fact of consistency. By being exposed to the same group of people on a regular basis, you’re likely to form bonds with them. “It means you have more chances to interact and get to know each other and this regular interaction can help to build a friendship first that can develop into a romantic relationship over time,” says Daly.

This is something all of us could do with more of, particularly in our hyper-online era where, outside of the workplace, there are very few places where you might come across the same group of people over and over again. We have it as children in the school playground and as students on university campuses, but beyond that, as adults we have to go out of our way to meet new people and foster relationships, romantic or otherwise. Particularly when we’ve become so accustomed to dating online, the concept of approaching people in real life can feel entirely alien.

"If you’ve been on the dating scene for a while it is likely you will experience burnout from the repetitive nature of swiping and messaging, often without meaningful connections,” says Daly. “The constant need to present yourself and the lack of genuine interactions can be exhausting.” This is exacerbated by the way dating apps work: they are looks-centric. Sure, there are prompts and bits of information on people’s profiles but the most prominent feature is almost always a photograph.

“Dating apps often encourage a focus on appearance over personality which can lead to feelings of objectification and superficiality,” explains Daly. “It often leaves people feeling dehumanised and less valued for their true selves. The prevalence of fake profiles and deceptive behaviour, such as catfishing, is also undermining trust in dating apps, so a running club cuts through that noise.”

Evidently, they do. Because unlike on a dating app profile, where you can hide behind Valencia-filtered photos and a few pithy prompts, running clubs require you to do away with the pretence and show up as yourself. “You can just be yourself and really that is the only way to truly find your person,” says relationships coach Sam Morris. “No one is pretending to be the best version of themselves like they do on an online dating app, because people don’t join running clubs to date, they join running clubs to run.” Given the success rate, maybe it’s only a matter of time until that changes.

*Names have been changed

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