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Average age of elite male and female marathoners

October 18th, 2010

One of the stats that aroused interest at the 2008 Olympics was the age of the two marathon champs: Sammy Wanjiru was a young lion of 21, while Constantina Tomescu-Dita, at 38, was more of a cougar. Philip Hersh wrote an interesting article a few weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune about why top marathoners are getting younger — on the men’s side, at least. Is it really a trend? And if so, does it apply to both men and women?

Researchers at Marquette University tackled that question in a paper available online ahead of print in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. They analyzed the ages of the top five men and women from the last decade or so of the World Marathon Majors — Chicago, London, New York, Berlin and Boston — plus the Olympics and World Championships. They found:

  • The women were 29.8 on average, while the men were 28.9 — a difference, but almost certainly not a physiological difference. (All of the difference came from Chicago and London, which had some unusually old female winners and young male winners.)
  • The difference didn’t change over the years, which puts another nail in the coffin of the now-discarded theory that women would one day out perform men over long distances because of greater ability to burn fat as fuel. On the contrary, it suggests that women’s marathoning is now a “mature” sport, since they’re no longer closing the gap to men’s performances.
  • The difference between men and women was smallest for first place and largest for fifth place, suggesting that there’s less depth in elite women’s marathoning ranks — something that’s fairly obvious to see.

So that’s the scoop. Nothing too earth-shattering here, but a reminder that one pair of unusual events (an old winner in the women’s race and a young winner in the men’s race) does not a trend make!

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