Recreational sports are those activities where the primary purpose of the activity is participation, with the related goals of improved physical fitness, fun, and social involvement often prominent. Recreational sports are usually perceived as being less stressful, both physically and mentally, on the participants. There are lower expectations regarding both performance and commitment to the sport in the recreational sphere. In theory, there is a clear demarcation between purely recreational pursuits and competitive sports, where emphasis will be centered on the achievement of success and the attainment of physical skills through rigorous training. Competitive sport involves not only contests, but it also advances as a central tenet that the athlete or team will continually seek progress and advancement to a higher level. Professional, international, national, and regional championships and university competitions are exclusively competitive activities. In practice, the division between the concepts of recreation and competition at all other levels is often blurred.
Recreational sports are the most popular type of athletic activity undertaken throughout the world. While elite professional leagues and glamorous international sport festivals are the events on which the media focuses its attention, for every professional athlete there are thousands of participants who use the same sport for the satisfaction of their personal fitness needs. Recreational sport enthusiasts include individual athletes, such as persons who run, cycle, or participate in aerobics; this sport category also extends to those who play a sport as a member of a community-based league, such as master's (over 40 years) age soccer or mixed (male and female) slow-pitch baseball.
Recreational sport is the aspect of overall fitness often promoted by government health agencies in the larger societal quest for better health and consequent reductions in the strain on public health care costs. Recreational sports, at both youth and adult levels, is advanced as a component of the healthy lifestyle that leads to less incidence of serious disease (particularly diabetes and cardiovascular diseases associated with obesity), and greater longevity in the population generally.
The distinction between competitive and recreational sport is more often a matter of degree, as opposed to the application of a descriptive label. Competitive sport is not always an elite athletic activity; the attitude of the individual athlete toward the sport is an important aspect of how to define it. The best examples of this categorization are found in the mass participation sports such as marathon running and the triathlon, which are invariably further subdivided into age group classifications. These age group distinctions, in contrast to the elite, often professional, competitors, are where the recreational/competitive boundaries are challenged. If a marathoner runner, who has achieved a four-hour time for the event at age 40, decides that he would like to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, that runner must improve to the Boston standard in his age group, 3 hr 15 min. A four-hour marathon time is faster than the approximate median time of most mass participation marathons (those races with over 5,000 participants); the four-hour runner could take some justifiable pride in that accomplishment. The reduction of 45 minutes from the previous personal best will require an improvement of over 1.7 minutes per mile; the winner will conquer the hilly Boston course in approximately 2 hr 10 min or faster, approximately two-thirds the time the prospective qualifier must run. There is a huge competitive gap between the winner and the qualifier; most objective observers would classify the qualifier as a recreational runner.
To improve his qualifying time by 45 minutes, the recreational runner will be required to make significant changes to his training workload, training intensity, and perhaps diet. This athlete will have to consider the tactics of running the racecourse most effectively and economically, with special attention to hydration and supplementation. At his athletic level, the prospective Boston Marathon qualifier must increase the level of his competition, even if that competition is essentially with himself.
The Football Association (FA) of England organizes the annual FA Cup, the world's oldest soccer championship. Unlike the professional league championships, the FA Cup is open to any registered man's team, amateur or professional. The teams are drawn at random in the first number of rounds to play a home and home series. It is not uncommon for a "minnow," the English expression for an entirely unheralded side, to advance deep into the competition. The minnows are often teams composed entirely of amateurs. From the heights of English football, such teams would be seen as no more than recreational players when compared to the elite, multimillionaire professionals of the sport. When a team or an athlete seeks to compete at their highest level, the recreational aspect becomes secondary to the competitive dimension.
An aspect of recreational level sport that is often overlooked is the importance of a proper warm-up and cool-down period. While the body may not be put to the same degree of muscular stress in a recreational event as in a high level competition, the nature of demands on the musculoskeletal system in recreational sport are similar. A failure to properly stretch the muscles, joints, and connective tissues often leads to serious injury for the recreational athlete. In a related way, when there is a failure to wear proper footwear or protective gear in an environment where the activity is seen as being "for fun," preventable injuries are common.