Amer­i­cans are run­ning slower, but why?

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Amby Bur­foot Charles Krupa, As­so­ci­ated Press file

A new re­port, which calls it­self the largest-yet anal­y­sis of U.S. road race re­sults, has con­cluded that “Amer­i­can run­ners have never been slower.”

The re­port, based on more than 34 mil­lion in­di­vid­ual race re­sults from 1996 to 2016 and pub­lished on the Dutch web­site RunRe­peat.com, fo­cuses on marathon re­sults. It finds that the av­er­age Amer­i­can marathon time has slowed from about 4:15 to about 4:40 over the 20-year pe­riod.

A prin­ci­pal au­thor of the re­port, Jens Jakob An­der­sen, says he was watch­ing the Copen­hagen Marathon sev­eral years ago, and was sur­prised by the num­ber of five- and six-hour fin­ish­ers. He won­dered whether U.S. marathon­ers were sim­i­lar, and whether they had al­ways been as slow. An­der­sen and co-au­thor Ivanka Nikolova, who has a Ph.D in math­e­mat­ics, spent four months gath­er­ing U.S. race re­sults, and an­a­lyz­ing trends.

A road race trade or­ga­ni­za­tion named Run­ning USA has been com­pil­ing sim­i­lar data since 1980, when the typ­i­cal male Amer­i­can marathoner fin­ished the 26.2-mile dis­tance in 3:32:17. Ac­cord­ing to Run­ning USA’s most re­cent anal­y­sis, the equiv­a­lent time in 2016 was 4:22:07.

But why the slow-down? Amer­i­can marathon­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past three or four decades, thanks in large part to the women’s run­ning boom. In 1980, Run­ning USA es­ti­mates that only 10 per­cent of marathon fin­ish­ers were women. Last year, that fig­ure reached 44 per­cent. Be­cause women are, on av­er­age, 10 per­cent slower than men, more women par­tic­i­pants will nec­es­sar­ily slow the av­er­age times. (Most marathon ex­perts have tied slower marathon times to the in­crease in women and in less-se­ri­ous rac­ers.)

The RunRe­peat re­port, how­ever, says that slow­ing men have con­trib­uted more to the de­cline (54 per­cent) than in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion by women (46 per­cent).

It also as­serts that ca­sual, back-of-the-pack run­ners have slowed only slightly more than those in the front of the pack.

Ken Young, dean of world­wide road race statis­ti­cians, says those ca­sual rac­ers share more of the blame than the RunRe­peat re­port shows. Young has been com­pil­ing race data since the mid-1970s, and serves as un­of­fi­cial di­rec­tor of the global As­so­ci­a­tion of Road Race Statis­ti­cians. “Av­er­age times are slow­ing be­cause more and more races are em­pha­siz­ing their so­cial as­pects,” Young says. “They seek to at­tract recre­ational run­ners and walk­ers. Look at the race web­sites. You can find all sorts of so­cial me­dia links, party de­tails and mer­chan­dise for sale, but it’s hard to find the race re­sults.”

Young’s view is shared Bos­ton’s tough qual­i­fy­ing stan­dards, rare among big marathons, only about 10 per­cent of all U.S. marathon­ers run times fast enough to en­ter Bos­ton. Yet it has also got­ten slower, on av­er­age, over the past two decades. In 2000, ac­cord­ing to MarathonGuide.com, the av­er­age fin­ish time at Bos­ton was 3:41:39. Three months ago, in the 2017 Bos­ton Marathon, the av­er­age fin­isher crossed the line in 3:58:03.

“In re­cent years, the gen­eral em­pha­sis among marathon­ers has shifted from per­for­mance to par­tic­i­pa­tion,” ac­knowl­edges Tom Grilk, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Bos­ton Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, which or­ga­nizes the Bos­ton Marathon. “If that means more peo­ple are run­ning for their longterm health and fit­ness, it’s a trend I ap­plaud. I think it’s healthy that fit­ness sus­tain­abil­ity is more im­por­tant than speed.”

The RunRe­peat re­port notes that the slower Amer­i­can marathon times co­in­cide with in­creases in obe­sity, di­a­betes and med­i­cal ex­penses, as re­ported by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion but stops short of claim­ing cau­sa­tion. “I would love to say that obe­sity is the cause for the slow-down, but I can­not,” An­der­son ad­mits. “We can only point out the cor­re­la­tions.”

Most run­ners un­der­stand that the more they weigh, the slower they will run. The im­pre­cise for­mula is of­ten given as two sec­onds per pound per mile. That means that a marathoner who gains 10 pounds over 20 years will run eight to nine min­utes slower for 26 miles. Although data gath­ered by the Na­tional Run­ners Health Study in­di­cates run­ners gain weight at only about half the rate per year of non-run­ners, the pounds can still add up over time.

Writer-nu­tri­tion­ist Matt Fitzger­ald, au­thor of “Rac­ing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Per­for­mance,” has ob­served that the run­ners he coun­sels gen­er­ally have the same nu­tri­tion prob­lems as non­run­ners. “The big­gest one is that they eat too many pro­cessed foods, in­clud­ing pas­tries, chips, fried foods and sweet­ened bev­er­ages,” he notes.

Mayo Clinic health and en­durance ex­pert Michael Joyner has been fol­low­ing marathon trends for more than 40 years. He notes sev­eral rea­sons for slow­ing marathon times. First, most run­ners no longer aspire to per­for­mance goals, as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Sec­ond, the marathon has be­come a “sub­ur­ban Ever­est,” where the goal is to reach the sum­mit rather than to test one’s lim­its. And third, a kin­der-gen­tler zeit­geist en­cour­ages a broader range of body types to en­ter marathons. “There aren’t a lot of peo­ple who want to run more miles, add in­ter­val train­ing and lose weight,” says Joyner. “But that’s what it takes to run faster marathons.”

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