The Sky is Falling – We’re getting Slower and Slower!

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.

Fast Data

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!

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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12 Responses to The Sky is Falling – We’re getting Slower and Slower!

  1. Aric Keith says:

    Frankly that’s such an obvious flaw in the argument that we’re getting slower, that I have a hard time imagining an author not realizing it. Unless it’s a piece of journalism- journalists are notorious for lack of statistical understanding. Any analysis of running from the past to the present must account for the increase in runners- injury rates, average speed, spending, etc.

  2. Troy Busot says:

    Hey there – this the Troy Busot, the author of the original email from Athlinks.

    Let me answer a few of your points above:

    Point One – There have been several years, 2008 being the most notable, where participation AND performance (decreased average times) were both present. In our data, we show that Marathon is actually doing better than it was four years ago. This is because of the hard-coded time goals built into the sport by the Boston Marathon Qualifying Times. I would bet dollars to donuts that the average marathon times next year (2013) will the best ever. Why? Because humans aspire to break limits – either real or imagined. Our data shows this very explicitly. There are huge spikes in finisher times surrounding artificial barriers like 20 minutes for a 5K, 40 for 10K, 2 hour for half marathon, etc.

    Point Two – Ease of access to registration ALSO means ease of access to online coaching, mobile GPS tracking, community forums, and a host of other tools that have been shown to increase performance.

    Point Three – On the surface, it is the most valid of your points, but over the past four years, it is a very minor increase and it is not across all of the distances. In fact, the most dramatic increase in female participation has been in Marathon – which saw average times drop.

    Point Four – This is a tough one. Our data shows that excluding elites, who max out in their mid to late thirties, most of us to casually enter the sport get progressively faster up into our sixties. Further, our data actually shows that folks speed up AFTER joining Athlinks. It’s a shameless plug, but it’s true. They are also 85% more likely to repeat a race from their past after joining Athlinks as well.

    Point Five – Walkers were excluded from the averages (for the most part). You’d be surprised at how difficult this one is as some walkers are actually pretty quick. In each of our distances, we compared times with a floor of the world record at each distances, and a ceiling of roughly 3-4 times that based on the distance. So 5K went from the record out to 4x the record and marathon was up to 3x.

    Endurance sports absolutely have grown tremendously over the past decades. I think that there are more than enough voices on that side of the aisle – and we celebrate them daily. I believe that our role, however, is to encourage smart, intense, purposeful training with the goal of achieving ones best performances on race day. I do not accept as fact that we must collectively get slower as we grow. Logical, true, but definitely not written in stone. In fact, 2008 is a very notable exception – participation AND performance were both sharply up over the previous few years.

    Also, I don’t think that fast and happy have to be mutually exclusive. Sure, it’s tough breaking through the LT threshold, but once you’re able to get there, man that’s hella fun! ;)

    We will be producing lots of new stats and info graphics that tell more of the story in the weeks and months to come.

    This all stemmed originally from Marathon times. We are going to be sharing an infographic that shows these huge spikes in finishers around artificial barriers like 2:30, 3:00, 3:30, etc.
    Then, there are these other huge spires that we couldn’t explain until we looked at them age-group by age-group. It turned out that they were the Boston Qual times. That’s why you see such rigid consistency in Marathon only. If you tell someone that they need to run a 7:00 mile, they will run about a 7:00 mile.

    So, our goal in 2013 at Athlinks is to literally will the average times across all distances down through mere suggestion. Wish us all luck!

    Thank you for caring enough to reply – this has been a great morning with all of the different feedback that we have received.

    Best,

    Troy

  3. Troy Busot says:

    I forgot to add, the entire theme of the original post was meant as satirical, hyperbolic, campaign-style rhetoric. The headline was, “Are you faster than you were four years ago.” That’s important to keep in mind. I would not have bet my statistical thesis on the conclusions.

    Thanks again!

    Troy

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Troy… thank you for dropping in and clarifying. I really appreciate it. Good points. But you have some data that needs exploration.
      Point 1: “This is because of the hard-coded time goals built into the sport by the Boston Marathon Qualifying Times” This is not relevant to overall slowing of times and this one thing will not dramatically affect running times. If this logic held true then the fact that Olympic qualifying times drop, then everyone’s times should drop. Qualifying times are for the few… not the many; and only for one race not the many. So, the point still is that more runners – just as with the first running boom – means slower races.
      Point 2: Regardless of availability of all those training enhancers the fact is from day one a beginner is SLOWER. That automatically makes overall times slower. They can all improve over time… but you miss the point. When you begin… you are slower.
      On Point 4: ALL the research definitively demonstrate that we slow with age without exception. “most of us to casually enter the sport get progressively faster up into our sixties” simply is not physically possible. And most runners who have been running for 20 plus years (having started in their teens or twenties) most certainly are not faster today than when they were younger.
      On Point 5: You already allude to the problem here. I have joggers who move at 10-11:00/mile and I have fast walkers who are @ 10-11:00/mile. You cannot make an arbitrary cut off of time and then label it for the sake of convenience as a runner or walker without skewing your data. There are some generally accepted paces such as 15:00/mile is a fast walk; 20:00 is average walking pace, etc.

      I really do appreciate humor, hyperbole, exaggeration – just read some of my posts. What was bothersome to me is that real statistics were posed to support a conclusion (and flawed conclusions at that) which put down not only runners of all sorts but also their coaches too! If you wanted a motivational message you should have gone in the direction of … “look at all those runners… welcome to the world of running… want to get even faster and fitter than ever? Try my magic pill guaranteed to work”.

      Keep up your good work @ athlinks!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    We aren’t getting slower– the gap is widening due to increased participation. Nice post!

  5. Aric Keith says:

    I think it’s true that if you start running when you’re older (say in your 30s) you will get faster as you get older, because you will progress due to training. However, your theoretical top speed at the age of 30 will still be faster than your max speed at 40, and so on, as you correctly identify. Which means, if the average age of runners increases, we can expect the average speed to decrease correspondingly.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      George – great data. This is the kind of data that would be needed for almost all races or at least a huge sampling to get any idea of what is happening nationwide to runners. Of course as you recognize extreme races like Pikes is a very small microcosm of racing. Mainstream races are what would be most relevant. Thanks for adding this!!!!

  6. Troy Busot says:

    Thanks indeed George. We’ve looked at Pikes and other races quite a bit for RunningUSA. It’s amazing to ponder how consistent times can be over 26.2 miles, year after year in certain events, and then watch smaller races bounce all over the place.

    Pikes, Badwater, etc attract a very specific type of athlete – often times, the same exact athletes year over year. If you’re ever interested in taking similar comparisons from other events, we’ve obviously got 101 million results in the database, just let me know.

    Troy

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Troy – sounds like a great research data-mining project for a graduate intern! :-)
      BTW something else I have noticed at least in the Phoenix metro area – there are now so many races to choose from that talent gets watered down. I see times in many races that are won (overall or age groups) with what I would call quite slow times. And on the same weekend or in following weeks in a similar distance see the fast times. It’s curious.

  7. Troy Busot says:

    We have wanted to experiment with having an invitational type of feature with taking the top performers and pushing them into specific races. Could be interesting.

  8. Brett72 says:

    Great thread over here. I was thinking all the same points that Coach Dean responded with. And no offense Troy, but I don’t read in your counter arguments any convincing rebuttals. For example, just because there are more online tools to improve performance, doesn’t force someone to use them.

    Look at the growth in registrations – our population has not grown by 25% over the last 3 years. You’d have a hard time explaining to me how we have all these elite people doing other sports and all of a sudden they jump into running. No, more and more average people are running.

    Or it could be global warming. :)

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