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HERZOGENAURAUCH, Germany/LONDON (Reuters) - As budgets tighten and working lives get more stressful, running is experiencing a boom as people hit the parks and streets of their cities to escape from it all and keep themselves healthy for just the cost of a pair of sneakers.
With places in marathons and road races from New York to London to Berlin being snapped up almost instantly, and hundreds of thousands of spectators turning up to watch the triathlon and marathon at the London 2012 Olympics, the $18 billion running market is set for further growth.
"There is absolutely a running boom and it's global," Mike McManus, Adidas market director for running, told Reuters at the group's headquarters in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurauch, where employees regularly make the most of the area's woodland trails for lunchtime runs.
While the successes of the Olympics may inspire some people to get off their sofas and into a pair of running shoes, medal-winning is not the main motivation behind the trend.
"People are doing it not to win, like Usain Bolt, but because they want to get fit. People run to have fun and keep their weight in check, because we all like to eat and drink a little too much," said Klaus Jost, chairman of Intersport International Corp, the brand management and purchasing arm of the world's largest sporting goods retailer.
The boom is especially noticeable among people in their mid-20s who are new to the sport and who see running as a way to escape the stresses and strains of working life, or even as a way to get to the office, say people in the sports industry. Running is also a cheaper way to stay fit in debt-ridden European countries suffering an economic slowdown.
Japanese sneaker maker Asics says the fastest growing part of its business is the under 25 category, while Adidas has altered its product range to make it more desirable to younger people.
"Running is getting younger. These are people who come out of college who take on running as a balance to the rest of their life," Adidas's McManus said, adding that 20 years ago, it was mostly older club runners who could be seen pounding the streets.
Adidas, which wants to overtake rivals like Nike and Asics to become the world's biggest running brand, experienced a 19 percent jump in its sales from running gear in 2011 to over 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion), making it the fastest growing sports category at the group. They rose a further 13 percent in the first six months of this year.
The health club sector, meanwhile, is suffering in the economic downturn as consumers cut discretionary spending. The UK's Fitness First chain narrowly avoided insolvency in June, but is now looking to sell around half of its gyms.
"Consumers do have to make choices in terms of cutting back and running has been one of those categories that seems to be on the upside regardless of the economic climate," said McManus, who is aiming to run this year's Berlin marathon in under 2 hours and 30 minutes.
After giving up her gym membership six months ago, 34-year old London-based media worker Chinny Li invested in a 67 pound ($110) pair of trainers and now goes jogging at least once a week to Clissold Park, in the north of the capital.
"I hate competitive sports and didn't want to buy expensive equipment or membership, or lug stuff around. Running seemed to be the best option," she said.
Research from consultancy Sport+Markt shows that in Spain and Italy, two of the countries worst hit by the euro zone debt crisis, the percentage of the population who actively participate in running, hiking and walking has soared.
In Spain, the proportion of adults doing those activities has jumped to 20.7 percent from 12.5 percent in 2006, while in Italy it has gone to 21.3 percent from just 5.4 percent over the same period.
In the U.S., that proportion stands at around 4 percent, although running has still moved up one spot to become the fifth most popular participation sport there. Prior to the Olympics, the figure for the UK was 8.5 percent.
Adidas and Asics have both said that business is going well for them in Spain, where unemployment is at 25 percent and one in two young people are out of work.
"When people want to get fit they can afford to buy a pair of running or walking shoes for 60-80 euros," Adidas Chief Executive Herbert Hainer told journalists at the start of August. "Even in tough times people buy products because they get inspired by sport."
Asics, which takes its name from the Latin 'Anima Sana In Corpore Sano' meaning 'A Sound Mind in a Sound Body' said its sales were up 6 percent in Europe in the first quarter, with Spain delivering "outstanding" figures.
"In 2007/08 we definitely saw that running was recession proof," Asics European Marketing Director Michael Price told Reuters, adding that all of the mass running events sponsored by Asics, like the Rome and Moscow marathons, are oversubscribed.
Even taking into account running clothing for both summer and winter, you have a cheap, fuss-free hobby, said Intersport's Jost.
"For tennis you need a court and an opponent, for cycling a bike and suitable roads, but running, you can do in the middle of the city. Whether in London, New York or Tokyo," Jost told Reuters, saying that running also doesn't have any other ongoing costs like membership fees.
Jost, a keen runner himself and who was one of the 60,000 people in central London to watch Ethiopa's Tiki Gelana win the Olympic women's marathon, believes the explosion in running is not going to die away anytime soon.
A report by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch published last month said the fight against obesity will be a major investment trend for the next 25-50 years.
"More and more people recognize that we don't move enough, that we don't eat as well as we should and that they need a balance. There's nothing easier and better for that than running," Jost said.
It is not only the young though, said Jost, highlighting that running is also popular amongst those in their 50s and 60s, for whom sports like football pose too much of an injury risk.
Running coach Peter McHugh de Clare, who at 65 years of age still runs for 90 minutes a day, agrees.
"We're built to run and if we don't do it, we're going to have a very big health problem. Running is easy, it's relatively cheap," he told Reuters.
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Editing by Sophie Walker and Jon Loades-Carter