Running is set to overtake swimming as Britain’s most popular participation sport this year, according to Brendan Foster, founder of the Simplyhealth Great North Run half marathon, the country’s biggest mass sports event.

The surge in popularity of running, particularly among women, has propelled it from fourth place a decade ago to second place last year.

Foster, who will launch his first full marathon events in Stirling, Birmingham and at an undisclosed location in Wales, said: “I think women will ensure that in 2017 running becomes Britain’s biggest mass participation sport.

“If you look at the beginning, the first Great North Run [in 1981] 8% of the runners were women whereas last year 48% [of the 57,000 participants] were women. If you look at the shorter distance, the Great Scottish Run, it was the first event to our knowledge where we had more women than men at 10km [6.2 miles].”

He said the sport’s popularity was growing most rapidly among women aged 25-35 as they switched from swimming.

“It is driven by women getting together in groups; you can do it in an hour and be back at your workplace or back with your kids.”

“Swimming is good exercise but a bit more inconvenient and a bit more inaccessible — and that’s why it’s shrinking. With running, you can notice an improvement fairly quickly: the first time you might run only a mile but soon afterwards you may be running two miles.”

A decade ago the number of regular runners stood at only 1.3m compared with 3.3m swimmers, yet in the year to last September the gap had narrowed to 300,000, with 2.2m runners and 2.5m swimmers.

According to Sport England’s Active People Survey, football swapped places with running as it dropped from second to fourth place over the decade.

The survey measures the number of adults participating in sport of at least moderate intensity for a minimum of 30 minutes once or twice a week.

Foster said that although the success of Team GB had created a “feelgood factor”, the number of people going out for a run peaked on the day of the Great North Run, and not on Olympic days, according to data from the Strava social media app.

Foster added that mass participation events “do more to get people off their backsides because people look at the television and think: ‘If they can do that, so can I.’”

It can be dispiriting for runners to achieve slower times as they get older, so all finishers will also get a “Great for you” score that rates them for their age group, gender and the day’s conditions.

Sir Mo Farah, who is 33, scored 982 with a finish time of 1hr 4sec in last September’s Great North Run, covering a 13.1-mile course between Newcastle upon Tyne and South Shields in Tyneside. A 50-year-old man would have got the same score by clocking 1hr 6min 56sec.

@nicholashellen

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