Home > The Scene

Why women-only run clubs are dominating the scene

From the sidelines to the finish line, women are empowering each other to bridge the gender gap and chase their dreams

women-only run club Photo by: John Liu

Amid 2024’s run-mania, with races frequently selling out across Canada, female-exclusive run clubs are gaining momentum. In honour of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re discussing how the sport has evolved, with women’s run clubs paving the way for female runners to feel seen, safe and empowered.  

Run clubs are in

Women’s running has been on the rise since the ’70s, when recreational jogging first became popular. However, the recent surge in gender-exclusive running clubs is a significant development. According to Reddit, this is not just a passing trend. Women’s run clubs have become especially attractive to women who’ve experienced gender-based discrimination or sexual harassment in mixed-gender clubs.

Photo: Pexels

“As a woman that has participated in many mixed-company athletic pursuits, [I feel that] men often react poorly to women being skilled or successful in a sport, in addition to the usual perils of being harassed or bothered,” said one Reddit user. Another pointed out that “this obnoxious masculinity is woven into the history of run clubs.”

Confronting patriarchy

Running, like many other sports, was designed by men for men. Women in France began challenging this norm in 1903 with a race in Paris known as “The Race of the Midinettes” (a 12-km walking race for seamstresses or assistants in the Paris fashion industry). While the French press called these midinettes derogatory names like “streetwalkers” (sex workers), feminist scholars such as Florys Castan-Vicenet (in her 2023 report in Front Sports Act Living) strongly argue otherwise, considering them pioneers.  

Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon, where race manager Jock Semple tried to pull her off the course. Photo: CORBIS

Amsterdam’s 1928 Olympic Games marked a revolutionary moment in women’s running. For the first time, female runners were invited to participate in the 800m. This feat was short-lived however, as the event was immediately banned, and would remain so until 1960. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official bib (though she was physically assaulted by the race manager for doing so).

“Female runners were spearheading a revolution, changing common beliefs about the limits of women’s physical endurance,” shared Louise Wood in her story “Into the Boys’ Club”. By the turn of the 21st century, feminist movements were changing the landscape of women’s running.

Women supporting women

During this time, feminist thinkers like Sara Ahmed confronted topics like gender inequity and female objectification that commonly deterred women from joining the sport. “What I hate is, for example when someone comments on your run,” wrote Ahmed in her 2000 novel Strange Encounters. “They mean it as a compliment, but for me, it just emphasizes, ‘I don’t expect this from someone who looks like you.'” 

Girls run the 6ix weekly session. Photo: John Liu

As female runners and feminists continued to reshape the narrative, gender-exclusive run clubs emerged, reflecting a significant rise in women’s participation in running. A report by International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health says between 1953 and 2017, sex differences decreased dramatically in 100-mile ultras worldwide. By 2020, according to RunRpeat, 57 per cent of Canadian runners and 23 per cent of ultramarathon participants identified as female, marking a significant increase.

Strength in numbers

Today, women are choosing to forgo late nights on the town for a good night’s sleep and morning run club with the girls. These clubs are not just about running; they are about women sprinting together through life’s challenges, forming strong bonds and a sense of community that extends beyond the club. Women-only run clubs across Canada, such as Switzer’s 261 Fearless (which has chapters in 14 countries; the Canadian chapter is in Toronto), and runs celebrating women, like Lululemon’s Further 6-day ultra (based in Vancouver), are surging in popularity. 

Still, in a 2023 study by Adidas, it was reported that 38 per cent of women have experienced physical or verbal harassment while running, with more than half receiving unwanted attention (56 per cent), sexist comments or unwanted sexual attention (55 per cent). According to a 2024 study by Asics, a startling number of Canadian women have cited “lack of safe spaces” as a barrier to running. 

Chix Run (located in Toronto and Calgary) has been dedicated to offering women this safe space. Since founding the club four years ago, Amanda Richardson, 42, has observed a significant improvement in the sport’s female representation. “Toronto run clubs used to be focused just on performance, but now it’s all about community, where women are out there connecting on topics like motherhood, marriage or their love of coffee—a post-run highlight.”

The club strives to take the emphasis off competing and winning to make running more about having fun, being active with other women and creating friendships. “Many people have noticed running is advertised as a place to date,” Richardson laughs. “Turning up to a running club where you know it’s all women there, free to say what you want to say, be who you want to be, they don’t have to worry about how they look; there is no hidden agenda.”

Girlhood and good vibes

According to Strava, women under 25 are the fastest-growing community using the app today, promising a more balanced and inclusive future for running. The Girls run the 6ix run club has quickly become a regular hotspot for young female runners in Toronto. The club was founded in December by Jill Amirault, 26, and Claire Milburn, 23, and already has 5,000 Instagram followers.

Girls run the 6ix weekly session. Photo: John Liu

“I think for someone new to running, it can be really intimidating to go to a gender-diverse run club, because men are typically competitive,” says Amirault. “Some women need that safe space, similar to a gym with a ‘women only’ section.” The club embarks once a week on a 6-km route through the city, in which its members can be found swapping stories about dating misadventures and connecting about girlhood. For a long time, there was a lack of female-exclusive run clubs in Toronto, says Amirault.

“Now, with more female run clubs and influencers, people are certainly beginning to notice that this is an environment where women can succeed,” says Amirault. “Pace doesn’t matter; what’s important is that we motivate, connect and celebrate our womanhood.”

Check out the latest buyer's guide:

Top 10 shoes our testers are loving in June

We tested tons of great shoes this year, but only the very best make the list