Corrected Headline: Why are slower runners racing?

I’m part of an amazing support group of female runners.  We have women of all shapes and sizes who participate in our New Hampshire She Runs This Town Chapter (seriously, if you are in New Hamphire you should join us).  We have ladies who win the women’s category in races, and we have women finishing last in every race.  We have moms, grandmas, dog moms, single girls, and “it’s complicated” girls in our group and we are united by our mutual love of lacing up shoes and hitting the pavement (or treadmill).

Today, someone shared an NPR article that upset me a little:  Why are American Runners Getting Slower?


At first I was interested by the headline.  Is the elite runner pack slowing down?  Are we having fewer runners able to compete on the international stage?  Are college track coaches disappointed with the quality of the available recruits?

No!  The average race times across the 4 major road race distances have been on a gradually upward trend since 1999.  The study’s stated purpose is “The deteriorating American health has been a popular topic for quite some time. We wanted to see if this trend is reflected in running race finish times.”

Therefore, the author is seeking evidence in the running data that runners are going slower because of a lack of health.  He goes on to equate the national obesity rate to the maraton finish time data he is looking at.  Although he is careful not to draw too many conclusions out of the data.

If there’s an increase in obese individuals running races (or as the author keeps denoting slower runners: “running” races) is this because people who would traditionally be running races have gotten heavier, or is it because slower, heavier runners are feeling more empowered and welcomed in the sport?

As for other factors:

  • How about runners who are doing races as part of marathon maniacs and half fanatics?
  • People who are trying to meet frequency goals instead of quality goals?
  • People who have no interest in racing the course and just enjoy running with support.
  • People who are weekend warriors
  • People who have never been fit and struggle to run a mile challenging themselves to run a marathon.

I am an obese runner.  I struggled for years with feeling like I wasn’t a real runner.   Even at the height of my rowing career I was a slow runner.  Thinking I was a slow runner made me hate it.  But I fell in love with participating in races.  I was never fast, but I run races as a challenge to myself.

Perhaps the correlation between race times an obesity has more to do with people becoming more aware of the increased obesity rate and trying remain healthy with exercise.

As for the NPR article, her conclusion is different than the study’s

To my mind, the reason why Americans are getting slower on average is a good one: With more people interested in running to get and stay fit, there is an unavoidable drop in the level of training and preparedness. More people run, and the results are slower overall.

I also don’t think the level of training and preparedness is necessarily key either.  If one has been a couch potato their whole life it takes a long time for the body to adapt to fitness, although every time one stops exercising fitness is easier to find thereafter.

My conclusion is that the headline should read: Why are slower runners running races?  And then we might learn of information that would empower out of shape people to join in on races.  No one wants to feel like they would be too slow to join in.  Especially if their finish times would “drag down” the national average.

13112815_10102705359344999_8384804530241037486_oAs for me, I’m going to keep running races no matter my size. And I’m probably going to run them only to finish them (at least until the day my ankle heals fully). National average be damned.  (Picture above, running a 5:05:07 marathon at Big Sur on a sprained ankle that required I walk all the hills. Weight: obese)

What are your thoughts on the article?

1 thought on “Corrected Headline: Why are slower runners racing?”

  • Thank you for writing this. It's a bizarre study, and rather nicely shows the limitations of #bigdata done by experts in statistics and number crunching rather than experts who understand nuances of the domain under study. Just to add some more questions: Did the authors (there are two) take into account changes in cut off times to races? And in the specific analysis on walking (where they looked at numbers finishing the half mara in 4:00 hrs and the full mara in 8:00 hrs), did they exclude races where the cutoff time is shorter? In those races, it's quote possible that slower runners were DNF'd and didn't record a finish time.

Leave a Reply