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Men’s marathon: how much faster is it getting, and why?

December 22nd, 2011

Marathoners are getting faster — that’s no secret. Here’s the progression of the fastest men’s marathon in each year between 1969 and 2010:

But looking at the leading time is a somewhat narrow approach, since it just reflects the freakish talents of one individual in each year. So here’s data, from a new analysis by researchers from the University of Milan in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, showing the average of the top 200 times for the same time period:

So the basic trends are similar, but not identical. Look at the last three years, for example. From the top time, you might think marathoners are getting slower; but the second graph shows clearly that — as anyone paying attention to the marathon lately can attest — the depth of fast performances has been increasing steadily and sharply. I’ll bet the 2011 numbers will continue that trend.

The average data also shows a few inflection points where the rate of improvement has changed. There was rapid improvement until 1983, then a leveling off until about 1997; decrease again until 2003, then a little hitch for a few years, and now steady decrease again.

So what explains the changes? We can speculate about the role of money, science, and training… But as Amby Burfoot pointed out in his take on this study, it’s hard to get away from this stat:

[I]n 1997, East Africans nabbed just 29 percent of the top 200 times. For 2010, the corresponding figure was 84 percent.

One other interesting nugget: during this time period, the top time improved by about 5 seconds per year, while the average of the top 200 improved by about 10 seconds per year. So this means that (a) competitive depth is improving, and (b) in another 50 years or so, the 100th ranked marathoner in the world will be faster than the top-ranked marathoner of that year.

  1. RH
    December 23rd, 2011 at 08:47 | #1

    “in another 50 years or so, the 100th ranked marathoner in the world will be faster than the top-ranked marathoner of that year”

    Do you forsee that, if this trend continues across the field, DNF will be the world record at some time in the future?

  2. MD
    December 23rd, 2011 at 13:57 | #2

    I’m inclined to believe that the lowering marathon times, and the progression of increase in depth of top performers, including the 200+ cohort studied, has as much to do with athlete recruitment as it does with improvement in training methods. Increasingly, top East African runners are competing for U.S. universities. With the promise of college scholarships at U.S. universities and the lure of huge purses to elite runners, increasingly, the sport is casting a wider net and attracting athletes who might otherwise have played cricket or soccer or some other sport. Advances in the science of sports physiology have aided all runners, from the elite down to the youth level (where i coach.) I expect the trend in declining times of elite runners to plateau.

  3. alex
    December 23rd, 2011 at 15:08 | #3

    @RH: I can only hope so, since it would give me a lofty goal to aspire to!

    @MD: Agree completely that the biggest factor in this progression is the tapping into a wider pool of potential runners. Does that mean that times will plateau soon? That seems likely. On the other hand, who knows what other populations of potentially talented runners remain completely untapped so far?

  4. December 23rd, 2011 at 16:29 | #4

    I’m going to suggest something a little off the wall and suggest that the larger pool has contributed to the progression not because there are just more potentially fast runners, but because of a kind of collective unconscious effect whereby more fast people open up the possibility for others to be fast. See: Bryzgalov’s Universe, and also Noakes’ CGT. Once the collective brain lets off the brake, we will really fly.

  5. alex
    December 23rd, 2011 at 16:44 | #5

    @John: I agree entirely — it’s not just a simple question of “more numbers.” That’s basically the point I was getting at the end of this related post.

  1. December 23rd, 2011 at 22:29 | #1