I was forwarded an interesting advertisement email from one of my runners. It was the usual wide distribution email sent out from a well-known running site. The eye-opener was that it portrayed the running state of affairs as falling apart and getting slower by the year. It was a call-to-arms to get faster because the statistical data now shows we are slower than ever!
The author even accompanied his points with the statistics to reinforce his point. His proclamation after reviewing the statistics is, “The past four years have seen an alarming decline in U.S. racing performances in distances across the board.” And goes on to exhort all runners to “restoring speed in your community”.
So what is my point? His analysis and conclusion are grossly in err. Those times (well reported and documented) reflect several things.
Point One: There is a huge increase in participation including joggers, fitness runners and walkers in all these events! According to Running USA State of the Sport report (the same source the email author got his numbers), since 1990 runners completing events have soared from less than 5 million to almost 14 million in 2011. All race distances from 5k to marathons have increased participation. There are now more than 23,000 races annually around the US. How dramatic are these numbers? The report actually called it the “Second Running Boom”. It is a similar phenomenon seen in the 1970s. Prior to the First Running Boom, only serious long term runners and former collegiate runners or the like were out competing in road races. Then “joggers” came onto the scene. Times between winners and final finishers swelled.
Point Two: The recent report added another key contributor to the statistics: “There are a myriad of reasons for this historic growth trend in U.S. road races, but community, family-centered, fun events; charity and non-charity training programs and their social impact; access to running information via the internet and the use of technology for registration, timing, websites, email, social media, smart phone apps and more are the main drivers of this boom, particularly for the new runner and women.” New runners with only minor exceptions – means slower runners – are swelling the ranks of race finishers.
Point Three: Female participation has also risen dramatically to now 53% of all runners. Again, facts are facts and a fact is that generally speaking women are not as fast as their male counterparts. [Don't go weird on me - I know plenty of women who can dust my clock anytime and what do you say when one woman can even run a 2:15 marathon.] In the end this will skew times a step slower than years ago when fields were dominated by men.
Point Four: We have more runners today who have been running for many more years than ever before. It is not uncommon to talk to runners who have been running 10, 15 or 30 or even more years! Guess what, at some point we slow down. And since there are more “older” (or should I say “very experienced”) runners than ever before – statistically finishing times will be slower.
Point Five: And here is where the email author goes most wrong. Those walkers, joggers and runners who are skewing times to the slow side are being averaged in with those who race for time and therefore slowing the “average” finishing time. Averages are poor statistics. The real comparison would be far more accurate if you compared those very same joggers/walkers with their own cohort or their own fitness levels over the past few years. If you compare someone who was a couch-potato who now is walking or jogging 5Ks then they are actually FASTER not slower than they used to be.
Valid Comparisons are Needed
If he wants to make a valid point about the US running community slowing down then he has to use stats solely reflecting things like the top 10 in the US at each distance and – top winners in age groups in road races. Another valid comparison is that of specific race (and age-group) winners year over year. Review what years course records were set. Then if course records are older than the past decade, if winners are slower than a decade ago, if age group winners are slower than a decade ago, he could conclude that the fastest are not fast any more. We could in fact be slowing down.
Unfortunately for him, the data doesn’t even bare that out.
- The American men’s 3k, 5k, 10k, 3k steeplechase, and marathon records have all been broken since 2010.
- The top 8 US times in the marathon have been run since 2002.
- The American women’s 5k, 10k, 3k steeplechase and marathon records have all been broken since 2006.
- 5 of the women’s top 10 all-time US marathon times have been run since 2003.
- Masters level competition (40+years old) in the distance events is faster than ever for both men and women with most records for most 5-year-age groups have been set since 2000.
My conclusion is that we are better than ever and still improving. I do agree with that author’s exhortation of committing to getting faster but not for his erroneous deductions. I believe that whether you are an avid walker, jogger, fitness runner or competitive runner the overwhelming research points to adding more quality into your training. You’ll get fitter faster at all levels regardless of your current level of performance!