When it comes to running, no other country can match the United States for the number of people doing it. With all that running, you’d think we’d be better at it, but we actually kind of stink.
“The United States is the country with the biggest number of race runners, but from the countries with most participants, it’s the slowest. And consistently.”
That assessment comes from the State of Running 2019, an enormous data dump that incorporates 107.9 million race results from more than 70,000 events from all over the world between 1986 and 2018. It’s billed as “by far the largest study of race results in history.”
The study (runrepeat.com/state-of-running) was spearheaded by Jens Jakob Andersen, a statistician at the Copenhagen Business School and a former competitive racer who loves to amass and analyze data about running. (You have to think about something during those long training runs, after all.)
We’ve heard from him before, most recently two years ago when he first reported that American runners were growing slower. At that point, he could only hypothesize about why; now he’s armed with numbers that offer insight into what’s going on. And it’s not all bad.
For one thing, our reasons for running are changing. We’re less concerned about trying to set a personal-best time and more focused on running’s health benefits, both psychological and physical. While there still are many runners who are focused on finishing times, “the sport has attracted another group of runners [with] other motivations,” including socializing with friends and enjoying the fresh air. Or, to put it in statistician speak, there’s been “growth in the experience economy rather than achievement motives.”
There continues to be an increase in the number of women runners who, compared with men of the same age, tend to be slightly slower. (Before you fire off an angry e-mail to Andersen reminding him that there are lots of women who can run faster than men, be aware that he excluded elite runners — male and female — from the study in order to concentrate on recreational runners.)
“For the first time in history, there are more female than male runners,” the report found. “In 2018, 50.24% of runners were female.” To show how that is changing, that number was below 20% in 1986, the first year the report covers.
Andersen also thinks that overall race times are increasing because some of the more competitive runners who used to bring down the average finishing times with their speed are looking elsewhere for challenges. His study included data from marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks, but nothing from other forms of racing that are siphoning off some of the faster runners.
“At some point, the extreme athletes did not find the marathon extreme anymore,” he found. “Because of this, the ultramarathon, trail running, the Ironman and so on exploded in popularity.”
One more reason we’re slowing down: We’re getting older.
The average age of a runner in 1986 was 35.2; last year, it was 39.3. Andersen finds a silver lining in this cloud, too.
“This could be due to the fact that runners have longer racing careers,” he said. “Also, people are welcome to start racing at an older age. We can see that in the sharp increase in the average age of 5K participants over the last seven years,” during which that figure has climbed eight years.
As American runners are slowing down, who’s getting faster?
“Spain has the fastest recreational runners on the marathon distance,” Andersen reports. “Russia on the half-marathon, Switzerland on the 10K, and Ukraine on the 5K.”
And just how far behind are American runners? Lots, actually.
Looking at the average finish time for marathons — the standard most often used for comparison — we’re reaching the finish line almost an hour (four hours, 42 minutes) after the runners from Spain (3:53).
But that just means we have more time to enjoy the run.