With only two months to go, runners in this year's London Marathon are pounding the pavements in the final stages of their training for one of charity fundraising's most prestigious events. Thirty years since the first London Marathon in 1981, this year's event is on course to be a record breaker with more than 35,000 participants on the day, 25 April, who will raise an estimated £500m in sponsorship.
Despite the economic doom and gloom, people are increasingly trying to spread some cheer by raising money for causes dear to our hearts, while getting fit into the bargain. There is something for everyone, from the big daddies of the sponsored sporting world such as Sport Relief, the Race for Life, Children in Need and local events for smaller causes taking place throughout the country on a daily basis. It's a form of giving that has grown into a fundamental revenue stream for numerous charities, both big and small.
It's not just the grand gestures that count, either. Many people will have heard about Charlie Simpson, the seven-year-old from Fulham, who was so moved by the Haiti earthquake he decided to raise money for Unicef by cycling around his local park five times. The phenomenal reaction to his efforts meant his original target of £500 has snowballed to £206,000 and counting.
Total figures for the contribution made by sports-related events are difficult to calculate, but since its launch in 1999 one of the UK's major online donation platforms, JustGiving, has helped raise over £450m for more than 8,000 different charities.
Lucy Newington-Bridges of Cancer Research UK confirms that sponsor-led sporting events have grown exponentially in the past few years. "When Race for Life started in Battersea Park in 1994, we had 680 participants. This year we are aiming to have 700,000 people taking part in 230 events throughout the UK," she says. "The money we get from Race for Life is one of our biggest income streams. This year, we hope to raise over £60m through sponsorship, which is a huge contribution to the work of our scientists." Newington-Bridges believes that accessibility is one of the key reasons for the success of both the 5km women-only Race for Life and the Run 10k, which is open to both men and women. "Because it's open to people of all levels of fitness, families and friends can train together in the run up to the event and then participate together on the day," she says.
This camaraderie for a common good is echoed by Helen Georghiou, who has participated in several charity runs over the past few years. "I've always seen it as a way to keep fit, but with the added bonus of raising money for charity," she says. "I'd rather do something like that than set up a monthly instalment to a charity. Exercise can be boring on your own but having friends involved is much more fun – plus it's an incentive not to bail out at the last minute."
Georghiou is clearly not alone. She is one of millions of people across the UK who have dusted off their trainers with a good cause in mind. But both seasoned athletes and novices need to think wisely about training before they embark on their own personal charity crusade. James Trevorrow, a fitness service trainer at Virgin Active, is often asked for advice about preparing for charity sporting events. "Beginners especially benefit from a plan. The great thing about occasions like these is they give you motivation and a date to train for," he says.
"Without a target, people often struggle to achieve their goal, and personal reasons, such as raising money for charity, are a lot more conducive to completing it." According to Trevorrow, one mistake a lot of people make is not giving themselves enough time to prepare. "Think about 12 months rather than 12 weeks," he says. "A lot of people go too hard too quickly, but you need to be patient to avoid injury."
Trevorrow also stresses the need for hydration during training and the event itself. "Two per cent dehydration can result in a 20 per cent drop in performance, so it's important to drink water and electrolytes little and often," he says. Trevorrow also advises maintaining a training programme after the event, engaging in what he refers to as an active recovery. As an example, he suggests anyone who has run a marathon should continue exercising for a further 26 days to help wind down and reduce any long-term problems.
Whether it's walking the Great Wall of China or climbing to Mount Everest base camp, travelling to more exotic shores is also proving increasingly popular. Andrew Lowe went to Ethiopia last year to participate in Africa's biggest road race, the 10km Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa, when more than 30,000 people run at 10,000ft above sea level. He raised more than £5,000 for Orbis, the international charity dedicated to reducing blindness in developing countries. "The atmosphere was electric and the adrenalin carried me through, but there was no real pressure and it was great fun," he says. After the race, Lowe travelled to southern Ethiopia to visit some of the Orbis projects. "It was great to see where the money actually goes and it also gave a sense of the scale of the problem. It made the experience very special," he says.
It's a growing niche. Between 2008 and 2009, Responsible Travel has seen a 69 per cent increase in enquiries about the charity challenge section of holidays ranging from cycling in Vietnam to camel trekking across the Sahara. Simon Albert set up Charity Challenge 10 years ago, driven by a desire to operate responsibly-run charity challenges abroad. As well as providing the logistics and helping to raise money for more than 2,000 different charities registered in the UK and Ireland, the company also donates some of its profits to the local communities visited on its trips.
One of its most high-profile successes was organising the much-publicised Comic Relief Kilimanjaro Trek completed by Denise Van Outen, Chris Moyles and Cheryl Cole. "Comic Relief was incredible in terms of creating wider public awareness of these types of trips. The interest in our Mount Kilimanjaro trek grew by 500 per cent," says Albert. "We have seen incredible growth this year, which is amazing considering most other sectors of the travel industry are laying people off."
With more than 120 different events in 30 countries, Charity Challenge's fundraisers are typically between 35 and 55 years old, and travel either as part of corporate team-building groups or as individuals often celebrating a milestone such as a big birthday, or their children leaving home, or marking a divorce.
In answer to the sceptics who think it's just an easy way to get your holiday paid for by someone else, Albert is quick to counter that just under half of all their participants self-fund the minimum amount to cover the cost of the trip with the rest of the money raised going to good causes.
Albert's tip for would-be adventurers is to do your homework properly. Finding out how much money will go to charity and what help will be provided with ideas for raising money is an important first step. He advises not to cut corners and to make sure the company you travel with is Atol-bonded, offers the proper logistical and medical backup, and has a good record of behaving responsibly towards the local communities. "Be passionate about who you are raising money for and be realistic about your physical limitations," he says.
"It's important to go outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. I always say that during their challenge people need to cry at least twice and question their sanity – but in the end, they will enjoy it all the more."