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The Gym Bros Who Have Forsaken the Gym for the Open Road

“Calling it a night, boys. I’ve got a big run tomorrow.”

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday night, and we’re at a pub in London’s financial district. My college buddy, Tom, a banker at one of the city’s biggest firms, has been training for the Berlin Marathon. His training involves waking up at 5:30 a.m. every morning, eating half a dozen egg whites, protein supplements and high-energy oatmeal and rigorously planning his running routes before work. During his runs, he consumes packets of glycogen gels — the type of supplement that professional athletes use. He used to get his gels from a specialty running store, but recently, he’s been ordering boxes from the U.S. He’s hoping they’ll give him an edge, even if it’s “just a few seconds” over other racers during his weekend 10-kilometer runs. I know all of this because, for the past 90 minutes, all Tom has talked about is running.

Tom’s addiction to running isn’t unique. Nor has it come as a result of a quarter-life crisis. In fact, the odds are, if you’re over 25, guys like Tom are pretty common in your social feed. They’re the ones who upload their Strava times onto Facebook. The ones who keep reminding you in DMs to sponsor their next half-marathon for charity. The ones who post carefully filtered photos of themselves running through their neighborhood, complete with hashtags like #instarunner, #runbabyrun, or #runninglife. Go on any of these hashtags, and you’ll find the same kind of photos — mostly of young guys, usually at their prime of physical fitness, either just about to finish a race or staring into the distance of an idyllic running location. More often than not, these pictures are captioned with the same kind of “inspirational” quotes associated with Instagram’s gym-bro communities, racking up hundreds, if not thousands, of likes.

Tom also represents a growing number of people in the U.K. who are, apparently, turning their back on gym chains and personal trainers. Research produced by the private medical-care company WeMa Life earlier this month suggests that nationally, a fifth of all British adults favored using fitness apps and wearable technologies associated with exercise like running when managing their fitness. What’s more, the survey also found that nearly half of millennials preferred to use such technology as opposed to going to the gym.

But, is it just a desire for more personal data, that’s driving more people to pick up running?

“I started running last year, mainly because of the anxiety and pressure I was feeling at work,” my friend Michael Ford tells me. Michael and I go to the same gym, where we lifted weights together two nights a week. Unlike me, his form was solid, and the right muscles would accentuate with every deadlift and hammer curl. He was broad and well-built, the kind of guy you’d immediately look at and think, He goes to the gym. But at the beginning of the year, Michael stopped lifting. He stopped drinking extra protein and eating extra chicken breasts and broccoli — staples of the “swole” diet. He lost nearly 35 pounds to slim down in time for the London marathon last month.

“I was always conscious about my physical size,” he says. “When I started going to the gym, I wasn’t in the best shape, and my only reference points for having a good body were issues of Men’s Health and Chris Evans as Captain America. I put a ton of pressure on myself to look like that. Plus, when you’re in a gym and the guys you train with are all pushing that idea, too — that the ideal man looks the way you see on these magazines — that’s your default way of thinking.”

For Michael, an engineer by trade, meeting his targets wasn’t the problem. Rather: [It wasn’t] “feeling good after a workout and hating what I’d have to do to maintain the body I’d worked hard for. Gym life is fetishised by lots of guys who, for some reason, want to prove themselves or prove that they’re manly, but that doesn’t really mean anything. You only realize that once you’ve reached this goal of looking a certain way, there isn’t any further to go. My thought was that, at least with running, no one cares about how you look or even what your time is. It’s just something you do for yourself.”

Other guys I spoke to said something similar. “It’s less intimidating,” Ellis Parker, a 29-year-old IT manager from Australia tells me over Twitter. “I was never really a gym guy. I played sports — football, cricket and all that. So to me, gyms were always weird, isolating and territorial places. You have to wait for ages until you got a few minutes to use a particular machine, or whenever you start lifting, some guy comes to you and shows you how to lift, which is fine. But then he continues to follow you around until you pay him to be your personal trainer. Like I know they have to make a living, but it also means that this period of time when you just need some time to yourself is difficult to get.”

With running, Ellis says, “You’re in control of your environment. That’s probably why so many millennials like it. We have very little control over our workplaces, or whether we’re going to make enough money to pay our rent. But during that short period of time when you can go running, you control your pace, where you go, how long you go for and so on. I like that part, and I reckon other people like the control that it gives them, too.”

Indeed, there’s evidence that physical activity does have positive impacts on men’s mental health. Studies from Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. and research commissioned by the government of Northern Ireland shows that even small amounts of outdoor physical activity can have significantly positive impacts on the wellbeing of men suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. In fact, it’s sometimes recommended by doctors and mental-health specialists, including the U.K.’s National Health Service, as a way of helping manage non-severe mental illness.

Other runners I interviewed, however, had more obvious reasons why they turned their back on the gym. “Most jobs are office based, and you’re working alone for up to 10 hours a day,” Sam, an accountant, says. “The last thing I’d want is to follow that up by being in a small room lifting weights on my own, or in a space that’s crowded, stuffy and humid. Running allows me to be more varied, explore the city I live in and not stare at my screen all the time.”

“I’m guilty though of being one of those guys who posts their Strava times all the time, and spying on other people’s data too,” he continues. “It’s a whole community on Instagram. Sure, you get the people who post stuff just to get likes, or to show off that they did a marathon in a fast time. But the thing about running is that because everyone can do it, showing off has way less impact than say, a picture of a guy in the gym with a six-pack and pecs.”

Sam did add that there were occasions when there was ugly behavior among his #instarunner brethren, including accusations of cheating or rivalries. But for the most part, the groups were civil and body positive. “There isn’t that much emphasis on what a runner’s body should look like, compared to other fitness communities where muscles are ridiculously interrogated,” Sam says. “Ultimately people congratulate you if you finish the run, that’s basically it.”

For his part, Tom says he doesn’t pay much attention to social media, but he did find that reading stories of other runners helped him when he first started. “It’s refreshing to see ordinary people put on a pair of running shoes and go for it,” he says. “It’s not like other fitness communities where you’re immediately bombarded with abs and stuff. It’s an inclusive, and ultimately, a non-threatening sport. The social media [communities] are reflective of that.”

He stops there. “Sorry, mate” he tells me. “I have to go out for a run. I’m already late, and I have no idea where I put my gel packet.”