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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Runners Then and Now

Monday, August 23, 2010

Runners Then and Now

When I was young, I ran a 5:02 mile, 16:00 three miles, and several sub one hour ten miles.  Those are good times but they would not impress real runners.  Cameron Stracher starts his Wall Street Journal article with the in-your-face title, “Slow and Steady Loses the Race: U.S. runners are pokier than they were in 1979.”  This title gave me perverse pleasure and pride.  He begins,
This summer, more Americans than ever have laced up their running shoes and entered road races. That's the good news. The bad news is that America's runners have never been slower, fatter or more out of shape. How is this possible? How can running enjoy a new wave of popularity while the sport itself has never been in more trouble? The answer lies in the peculiarity of foot races on the road.
As I read, I began to doubt that my generation was faster than today’s.  I thought that the explanation was easy.  If there are more runners, it is very likely that the increase came from slower runners joining races.  Stracher fires his first salvo pointing out that median times for marathons have increased from 3:32:17 in 1980 to 4:13:36 in 2009.  But my explanation is insufficient to cover all his observations.  In his second salvo he points out that fewer runners are matching past marathon qualifying times and that there are fewer “sub-elite” or club runners. 

After my first doubt was shot down, but I noted that he offers no data beyond slower times to support his contention that “America’s runners have never been slower, fatter or more out of shape.”  Before I accept his claim, and acknowledge my generation as America’s fastest, I want to know if the average age of American runners has increased with the general population, or if there are a larger percentage of women runners.  In a flight of fancy, I would like more direct evidence like the average weight, height, or percent body fat or runners then and now, but doubt that such evidence exists.  Indirect evidence will have to do.   

Why are runners slower?  Stracher suggests counter intuitively that the first running boom in the 1970’s is the culprit.  Americans began to view running as a pastime and not a sport.  I am looking forward to his book on the running craze of the 1970s.  I was there.  I wonder if my data point fits his aggregate data.  I hope he elaborates on his hypotheses about American runners.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh - this is frustrating. I just posted a very well thought out argument (at least I thought so) and got in a hurry and hit the wrong button and lost my comment. Grrr. So - that being said, I will re-write my comments. I enjoyed reading this blog about running. My family likes to run (I have tried, and prefer other sports) so this is interesting. I agree with what you posted about him proving his hypotheses in his new book. I also look forward to hearing his proof. It is important that claims such as these not be taken as fact until one has proven it - and the scientific method is a good way to do so. My initial thought to his claim was (1) maybe there is a scientific reason that we are running slower marathons compared to 1970 such as it's been proven that your body will hold up better if running slower? I don't know the answer to that, but it is one that I would ask. Next, just as you said - maybe an addition of female runners has changed the statistics - but did the author actually take this into account or just compare the numbers not the gender differences? This is an interesting blog and I enjoyed reading it. Please share the facts when he releases them in his book! - Jennifer M.