Slow and steady: marathon runners slower than ever before

The sport of running continues to grow in popularity across Canada. But when it comes running races, including marathons, completion times have slowed by 20 minutes over the past 20 years.

Despite technology to track run times, marathon runners in North America are getting slower

A study of race times found that over 20 years, the average completion times for marathons in Canada slowed by 20 minutes, compared to 40 minutes in the U.S. (Jens Jakob Andersen/RunRepeat)

The sport of running continues to grow in popularity across Canada. But when it comes to running races, including marathons, average times are getting slower.

"The industry has changed a lot. Twenty years ago the races were smaller [and] more focused on performance. Runners didn't care if they got a medal or cool swag; they were going to see how fast and hard they could go," said Michelle Kempton, director of the pirate-themed Maritime Race Weekend.

"Now, you might run with a friend. It's not about beating your friend; it's about 'hey, let's get 10 of us together and have a great time and cross the finish line.' It's just a different feel than it was 20 years ago."

'We can train so perfectly but we are not getting faster, we are getting slower'

Jens Jakob Andersen was once an elite runner in Denmark. He now operates an online shoe company called RunRepeat. Last year he released a statistical study that compared the results from 28,000 different races in North America over two decades.

He says an increase in overall participation helps explain why average times are getting slower, but it's not merely a case of the worst runners bringing down the pack.

"If we look at finisher number 100 [over] the past 20 years, he or she has also slowed down significantly, just as much as the others. So finisher number 100 or 1,000 is also slowing down."

The study also looked at Canadian race times and found that over 20 years, the average completion times for marathons slowed by 20 minutes, compared to 40 minutes in the U.S.

"If you go back 30 years, you probably didn't have a GPS watch to track your times and track your intervals," said Andersen. "Nowadays, we can train so perfectly but we are not getting faster, we are getting slower."

Jens Jakob Andersen operates an online shoe company called RunRepeat (Jens Jakob Andersen/RunRepeat)

People are getting slower because of lifestyle

Luke MacDonald co-owns a Nova Scotia-based shoe store called Aerobics First. He works with competitive runners and says most of them don't have the spare time they used to 20 years ago, with many riding desk jobs to support their passion.

"The lifestyle is different. The amount of hours that they work and stuff like that is different, so I'm not surprised that the top 100 runners aren't necessarily progressing against the world record. It's really only the top 20 in the world that can push the envelope on the world record."

Luke MacDonald co-owns a Nova Scotia-based shoe store called Aerobics First (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

As a full-time athlete, entrepreneur and professional race pacer, Johanna Kariankei splits his time between Kenya and Canada. He agrees that people are getting slower due to lifestyle.

"I see many people who work in offices and they sit a lot," he said. "Until something like a marathon or a half marathon and then they say, 'OK, I'm going to go out and let's sign up.' And sometimes I wonder how do they do that?"

Johanna Kariankei is a full-time athlete, entrepreneur and professional race pacer. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

'Good correlation' between deteriorating health and running times

"We are not getting more healthy," said Anderson, reflecting on the results of the study. "Actually our health is deteriorating and that we have correlated with our results and found a good correlation. But it's important to say that correlation does not equal causation, so we can't [say] for sure that it's because people are less fit."

Michelle Kempton is the director of the pirate-themed Maritime Race Weekend. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Kempton does not have the "stereotypical" runner's body and organizes running groups that are inclusive of all body types. She hopes to see more people taking part in running and staying healthy, rather than standing on the sidelines for fear of not being fast enough.

She understands her days of achieving personal bests are over, but focuses on taking care of her body and treating any injuries.

"I think long term if I want to be running for years, I just need to be more moderate, and not worry about pushing it all the time," she said. "Because it's the pushing that my body doesn't like."

About the Author

Blair Sanderson

Reporter

Blair Sanderson is a nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years.

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