According to RunRepeat’s State of Running, 2018 was the first time in history that female runners outnumbered male runners at just over 50 percent. More recently, the race results database, Athlinks, discovered that by the end of 2022, female participation in races had increased to 54 percent. Niche corners of the market are attracting more women as well. RunRepeat’s Ultrarunning report indicates that female participation in ultrarunning has steadily gained ground over the past quarter century. In the trail running category, 46 percent of participants are female, representing more than a three-fold increase since 1997. Watching these trends closely are the brands who cater to women runners, both those training for their first 5K and those who are vying for an Olympic berth. From improved fit, to innovations in materials, and evolving aesthetics, running brands are working hard to keep pace with changing demands.
Running for Every Body
Top brands catering to the running specialty market have heard the call for footwear, apparel, and accessories tailor made for a wider demographic of women, as well as nonbinary and gender nonconforming runners. This makes working with athletes of every shape and size essential.
In particular, sports bra development requires a high level of real-world testing. “Many factors determine the correct size and style of a sports bra that is best suited for women, such as body volume, breast shape, tissue density, and the spacing of the breasts on her chest wall,” explained Joy Haizen, managing director at Anita USA. “Our styles include sports bras in all cup and band sizes, which are fit on actual women of all shapes and ages to give our design and technical team the practical advantage of receiving real-time feedback from women after they have done a wear-test during their activities.”
Brooks relies heavily on their Brooks Run Research and Runsights teams for invaluable data and feedback from women wear testers. “We’ve done a series of surveys and reports in the last year alone to understand what women’s pain points are regarding their current bra selection so we can understand how to fit their needs and provide solutions to make their runs more enjoyable and successful,” explained Rachel Davidson, brand marketing manager of apparel at Brooks.
Indeed, brands aren’t just designing for women’s bodies, but specifically for women’s bodies in movement. “The product needs to work with the movement of running and not disrupt cadence,” said Greta Hambke, lead sportswear designer for Outdoor Research.
Dave Spandorfer, CEO and co-founder of Janji, concurs. They too work with both professional runners and running clubs from Washington to Arizona and beyond. “We also work with fit models from xx-small to xx-large to reach a variety of body types when it comes to fit. We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable regardless of body type,” he said.
Accessories often require the same scrutiny and runner input. “We work with both female and male athletes and recognize they have different needs,” said Jennifer Rust, senior product line manager for Nathan Sports. When it comes to research and design for running packs and vests in particular, wear testing is nearly as important as it is with sports bras. “When we are building a vest, we need to adapt that female vest by modifying sternum straps depending on breast size. That’s why we make sure to work with all types of runners,” added Rust. “We extended the binding on our sternum straps on the Pinnacle FeatherLite, for instance, so she can move straps higher.”
Anatomical Footwear Differences
Just as with other aspects of anatomy, men’s and women’s feet display meaningful differences. “When we realized that running shoes are often built around male anatomy, we knew this was a place we could make a difference,” said Lindsay Housman, founder and CEO of the recently launched women’s running footwear brand, HETTAS. Partnering with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, they are working to conduct research on women runners, including looking at hormonal variation within a woman’s cycle and lifespan, and applying it to footwear development. They’ve also examined the difference between men’s and women’s heel-to-forefoot width differential and the shape of the fifth metatarsal. “There’s been a general lack of education around shoe design, especially in women’s footwear,” added Housman.
Another female-specific shoe new to the market is the Levante, La Sportiva’s latest trail running shoe. “The La Sportiva team worked closely with top female athletes from around the globe to craft a model that fits the needs of the female athlete,” explained Michael Genauer, the director of product and planning for La Sportiva North America. “Every aspect of the shoe was selected intentionally, from the last and the rubber compound, to the upper materials and the midsole height.”
“We have designed our women’s lasts to follow approved standards that make ideal footwear for women. Some of the key differentiating points are the instep design and the heel design,” added Melanie Hood, director of marketing and communications at SCARPA North America.
Deliberate Design Details
On top of the question of fit, brands are also working to promote beautiful design with purpose. “Women expect their gear to work hard for them, but they still want to look good,” said Arielle Knutson, Oiselle CEO. “They don’t want to choose between fashion and function, it’s expected that brands can execute both.”
“Women’s trends tend to evolve quicker, requiring us to stay updated on things like fitness trends or even cultural influences to insure we stay relevant,” said Jasmine Leidich, associate apparel designer for Brooks.
Brands must take into account the features women want, as well as how a seam, pocket, gusset, or drawcord might fit the female silhouette. “We do a lot of research in market and on our factory visits,” added Hambke of Outdoor Research. “For example, we know our female consumer has very different needs around insulation, placement of features, and color selection.”
“We hear a lot about pockets and deliver with several styles that offer plenty of them like our, Toolbelt Roga Shorts and Pocket Jogger Tights,” said Kami Beckendorf, technical designer, Oiselle. Functional pockets are one of the oft-cited safety features that are important to female runners. “While we know that men and women share a lot of the same concerns,” explained Michael Genauer, director of product and planning at La Sportiva North America, “we find that safety can be of particular importance for our female customers.”
“Women are more likely to run with their phones for safety, or with other safety devices,” added Oiselle’s Beckendorf. “We also focus on a lot of reflective detailing to ensure that early morning or late evening hours stay as safe as possible.”
Miya Dotson, senior manager of marketing at Brooks echoes this point, saying, “We often hear about the ‘freedom to run’ and this concept is not applied with the same levity for women as it is for men. In order to be advocates of women runner safety, we offer products that help with visibility, and we should be taking into consideration how geographic location affects the accessibility of running for women in the sport — not everyone can make it to a run before the sun goes down, and running in the dark has a heightened risk for women statistically.”
Quality, durability, and aesthetics of the materials used in women’s running gear is another point of focus. “We hear a lot from women that they want to feel like they are not wearing anything — they tend to like softer and lighter products,” said Kinoka Ogsbury, lead apparel designer at Ultimate Direction.
Rust of Nathan Sports has seen the same call for fabrications that wick, breathe, and remain comfortable for the long haul. “One thing our female athletes ask for is that they want the shoulders of our packs and vests to be more breathable and lighter weight,” she said. “All of our packs and vests have a non-chafe binding that work with a sports bra.”
Jon Teipen, principal footwear product line manager for Brooks, adds that while the brand works hard to offer certain essential features based on runner feedback, a thoughtful approach to aesthetics and color choice is also essential. He emphasizes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “One thing we hear regularly from some women is that they don’t just want a pink shoe or that they like the men’s colors better. It’s important to us to offer multiple color options and create a product mix that provides variety and choice to meet each woman’s preference.”
Hood of SCARPA says that trail runners have become increasingly interested in staying on trend when it comes to their running gear. “It is now a basic requirement to tie the functionality of the product to an aesthetic look that impresses the consumer,” she explained.
“It is very important to our design and development team to combine the latest trends in creating styles with modern silhouettes that merge fashion and fit by mixing vibrant and classic colors and prints with functional design details like our sweat management system keeping women cool and dry during their most rigorous workouts,” added Haizen of Anita.
A Call to Action
While brands are working hard to cater to female runners like never before, communicating with an audience who has historically played second fiddle in the sporting world can be challenging. Women are discerning and want to see footwear, apparel, and accessories on runners who have bodies similar to their own. “We as marketers have to consider the diversity and complexities of a woman’s lived experiences and get them to trust our brand to take care of them from head to toe,” said Dotson of Brooks.
Incorporating imagery of female runners of all shapes and sizes in motion is a key strategy used by many brands. “Ultimate Direction regularly promotes its female athletes’ triumphs and lessons learned into its owned media channels so that prospective female customers can see how the product is being used, what problems it’s solving,” said Ogsbury.
Among others, Nathan Sports does lifestyle shoots with local run clubs to show how their gear functions for runners of different body types. Spandorfer of Janji says they take a similar approach, promoting diverse imagery: “Most women want to see what styles look like on different body types to show clearly how it fits.”
“In our marketing messaging and imagery, we always want to make sure our female consumer is accurately represented, in garments that fit well and show how they function in the outdoors,” said Hambke of Outdoor Research.
Whether a runner’s journey starts on the couch or a top tier start line, brands are catching up to the demands of the growing demographic of female runners. In return, they gain an ever expanding following from a loyal group of runners at all levels of the sport. This is all clearly evidenced in the 2024 crop of running gear built specifically for the women’s market.