Thursday, January 2, 2014

Exploring Why Elite U.S. Runners Are Less Competitive In The Marathon

I recently looked up some race statistics and I think they illustrate what many of us have known for a while now: the United States is not very competitive in terms of elite level marathon and half marathoner performances, in what has become an increasingly competitive running world. 

First I’d like to share with you with the statistics that demonstrate this point, and then some thoughts on why I think that is, and what I think we can do about it. 

The Statistics

An event by event listing (800-Mar) of the number of the top 40 performers in the world in 2013 (in terms of best time for the year) that are Americans.

800 meters  -  8  of 40 (20%)
1500 meters  -  9 out of 40 (23%)
5000 meters  -  10 out of 40  (25%)
10,000 meters  -  4 out of 40  (10%)
Half Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)
Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)

800 meters  -  9  of 40 (23%)
1500 meters  -  8 out of 40 (20%)
5000 meters  -  9 out of 40  (23%)
10,000 meters  -  3 out of 40  (8%)
Half Marathon  -  1 out of 40  (3%)
Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)

Of the Top 100 Times in the world in 2013 in the half marathon and the marathon, how many were Americans?

Half Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)
Marathon – 0 out of 100  (0%)

Half Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)
Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)

(Interesting side note: the Japanese women have 8% of the top 100 marathon times and 12% of the top 100 half marathon times in 2013)

I also looked at 2011 and 2012 stats as well and U.S. marathoners and half marathoners didn't fare much better than either.

What Is The Problem?

World renown coach, the late Arthur Lydiard, and American coaching legend, Joe Vigil, both who have traveled the world extensively, have stated that from their travel of the world they have found that there as much distance running talent here in the United States as anywhere.  That while countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia may have a higher percentage of their population with strong physical characteristics needed for elite distance running, those characteristics are certainly present in large quantities on the U.S. as well.  

If we look at the above statistics along with this insight from these legendary coaches, then obviously there is a problem with how we are approaching elite marathon and half marathoning in the United States if we want to be competitive on a world level.

I think there are 3 main underlying reasons why we seem to be very competitive in the 800-5k and relatively not competitive in the marathon and half marathon distances:

Youth/Scholastic System:  In the United States the youth and scholastic running systems are very ingrained and are how 99% of elite runners (and most non-elites as well) begin in the sport.  These systems are very much focused on the middle distances (in terms of distance runners) with events from 800 to 5000 meters dominating the make-up of meets (in terms of distance races).  When a young athlete shows an interest in running, they are usually prompted by most people to join their school and/or youth track teams.  There they are trained and focused on the middle distance events (800-5k) unless hey are pure sprinters.  This is largely what they grow up knowing and doing.  Add to this that the seasonal system and frequent race environment of both systems are much better suited to training and developing middle distance runners than they are long distance runners, and we have most of our distance talent focusing on the middle distances the first half of their running careers. While this provides them with good speed and can develop their VO2 Max well, it does far less to further the aerobic development, endurance and thresholds they’ll need for elite success in the longer races (HM and Mar). 

Late Start:  There seems to be a general mindset, and has been for some time, among most elite American runners that the marathon is only something that you move to or try once you have reached your potential at the middle distance (800-3k) and shorter distance (5k-10k) races.  This means most elite American runners are not seriously focusing on marathons until later in their careers when they have reached or past their primes and often after they have experienced injuries along the way that often come with higher intensity training of the shorter races.  This is hardly the ideal situation in which to embark on higher mileage marathon training.  While we have begun to see this mindset be challenged more frequently in recent years, it is often done so only by the second and third tier talent rather than the top tier talent coming out of college.

Elite Teams:  There are far more elite teams and training groups in the United States focused on the middle and shorter distance races (800-10k) than on the half marathon and marathon.  Currently the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project is the only significant elite training group focused primary on the half marathon to marathon distance.  As compared with a dozen or more groups focused primarily on middle distance events.  This provides significantly less opportunities for talented American marathoners to work with elite coaching in a supported group environment. 

Further complicating this situation is that even the training groups with a broader focus, who do train some elite marathoners as well as shorter distance specialists, are almost always run by coaches who began and worked most of their coaching careers specializing in the middle and shorter long distances races, and who only dabble in the marathon or picked it up partially in later years.  There is far, far fewer elite coaches in the United States who specialize in the marathon and half marathon distances than there are their middle distance counter-parts.  So even the elites who want to focus on the marathon and half marathon often end up working with coaches for whom these events are not their main specialty. 

Looking at another sport, most head coaches in professional football came up the ranks and have an area of specialty (such as o-line, d-line, d-coordinator, QB’s, etc).  These head coaches understand a good deal about every area and position and can coach each at some level, but they have specialists in each area to do the main coaching if it is not the head coach’s main area of specialty.  Pro running hasn’t gotten their yet, we still ask 1500-5k specialist coaches to coach our professional marathoners on a regular basis.  Can it work to some degree of success - yes under some circumstances.  But is it ideal for the best development of marathoners, no, I think not.   

So What Do We Do?

After identifying what I think are the 3 main underlying problems, I think there are 4 primary things we can do that will help turn things around and make the U.S. far more competitive in the marathon and half marathon distances.

Parallel Youth Club System:  I believe the U.S. would benefit from the formation of youth club teams for kids who have special interests in or talent at the longer distances races, as a parallel system to the more middle distance focused current system.  While these kids will not be racing marathons (or even half marathons until ready) they would be setting the ground work for being able to do that successfully later on by beginning work on building aerobic development as well as learning about these distance races under the careful and watchful eye of a coach.  In most cases, these groups could use local road races (5k’s to half marathon) as their competitions.  The benefits of this is presenting an alternate path for those not well suited for the shorter distance focused clubs or school teams but who have longer distance talent, and by providing a system that begins laying the foundation for success in the longer races.  This 2 pronged approach to our young distance runners (instead of just 1) will be more inclusive of all distance runner talents and should help us produce more athletes who are better prepared for success in races across the full spectrum of championship events (800-Mar) rather than just the middle distances.

More Elite Groups/Coaches Focused On The Marathon:  We need to form more elite training groups/teams focused primarily on the marathon and half marathon distances and who are coached by elite coaches who have the marathon as their specialty.  Just as Brooks has sponsored and supports the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, we need other companies/sponsors (such as Nike, Adidas, Mizuno, Saucony, New Balance, Under-Armour, etc.) to sponsor/support marathon focused groups & teams.   These would seem to be a good play for these sponsors as well, given the mass appeal and fast growing nature of marathons and half marathons in the U.S. and the explosion of distance running as a participation and competitive sport.

This increase in marathon focused training groups will provide an increase in opportunities for talented marathoners to work together in groups, and under the coaching of a coach dedicated to that distance specialty, and that in turn will increase the number of success stories we see.  This will also give more athletes the opportunity to transition to the marathon earlier in their careers, before their peak years, so they can learn and grow in the event, rather than just trying to salvage a last hurrah. 

I believe that having marathon specialist coaches is a key element of this.  We want coaches who think, research and understand the marathon first and foremost, not just ones who know it somewhat as a secondary event for them.  I believe we need more coaches who specialize in the same events as their athletes. 

Encourage More Sub-Elites to Training Seriously For the Marathon:  The more serious runners we have in the U.S. who seriously train for marathon goals, the deeper we are and the better chance we have of producing high level marathoners.  There are 2 reasons why I think this works.  One is you will get a small percentage of these sub-elites who find they have the talent to cross-over from sub-elite to the elite level.  Dick Beardsley is a great example of this as he went from 2:47 in the marathon to 2:08 in a matter of 5 years.  So the more sub-elites we have pursuing this, the more cross-overs that may occur.  But probably the more important reason is the example they set and people they inspire.  If we have more sub-elites seriously pursing the marathon, we have more young runners seeing them and getting excited about the event, we have more family members and friends following the sport, and we foster a more competitive spirit in the sport nationally as each sub-elite strives to climb their way up national marathon lists.    

American Only Money At Second Tier U.S. Races:  One thing that I think could make a big difference in allowing and encouraging more Americans to train for the marathon and half marathon distances is if there were American only prize money at second tier U.S. road races (especially half marathons and marathons).  This prize structure would allow the prize money these races give out to go to supporting the U.S. athletes working to bring the U.S. back to the top of international competition but who aren't quite there yet.  This support can help those athletes obtain the resources needed to dedicate themselves to this task.  As I talked about in an earlier blog, I also believe this is just as beneficial to these races as it is to the U.S. athletes.  While we obviously still need the top headline races to be open to open to all athletes and be the hallmarks of international competitions, the second tier U.S. races, which more regional and national in scale, could benefit U.S. athletes and benefit themselves from a more select prize structure.   

There you have my thoughts and analysis if this situation.  What do you think and what ideas do you have?

Happy Running!

Coach Mark Hadley  


  1. Hi Mark

    I believe this is a common scenario in most western countries. Here in Australia we have some great long distance runners inspired by runners like Ron Clarke, Robert de Castella, Steve Moneghetti, Lisa Ondieki and the great Herb Elliot.

    That being said, we too are at present no match for the African nations in marathon running. Why?

    One reason I believe is to ask the question what is the national sport of a country? In Australia and England the national summer sport is cricket (football in winter). Australia and England have been playing cricket against each other since 1882. I grew up idolising cricket not running. This is reflected in the school yard and popular sporting culture in Australia and England. Kenyans idolise their runners and running is the Kenyan national sport. Like Ice Hockey is for Canadians and Soccer is for Brazil.

    My theory is similar to yours – it’s the junior system / national sport complex. I believe sporting professionals are developed in their mid to late teens and this is when they are also influenced by the popular sporting culture prevailing at the time.

    But this not the only reason, going back to the cricket, since 1920, Australia has beaten England 25 times and England only beat Australia 16 times (with 5 draws). Why this dominance by Australia over a similar rival?

    I used to coach cricket in England and I noticed there was little difference between an 11 year old playing cricket in England and in Australia. But by the time they reach adults, Australia has generally dominated over England in Cricket – better players, better skills, more wins etc. Something significant happens from about the ages 12-14 to early twenties. I reflected on this 10 years ago while coaching under 12’s cricket in England and playing cricket for a club as their ‘overseas’ player and I believe:

    1. The structure of competition was different. In Australia it was graded with limited teams – if you were high quality you played against other high quality players – always. England was not as well structured. Lesson: Have a good organised structure and strong managing body.

    2. An Australian cricketer will play less games of cricket in a season then their English counterpart. Australians placed higher value to their games. The Englishman didn’t put high enough value on their games because they had another shot at it in the next game - hence they could ‘throw away’ a game without consequences. Lesson: fewer matches make better quality matches and therefore better players.

    3. Training – ‘you play the way you train’. English’s training was well below an Aussie’s preparation. Lesson: Practice, practice and practice to perform.

    4. Environment – the people you have around you can make the difference in success as an elite or being a good performer as a sub elite. Australian sporting culture is generally far more positive than the English. Lesson: An atmosphere of support and understanding is needed.

    5. Personality – the age of 18 to 21 are the most critical as this is when alcohol, girls (or guys), drugs, rock n roll, other careers etc fight for the attention of the athlete. This is where role models are important and I believe Australia has had better role models than the English. Lesson: Develop and support existing elite athletes with greater range of life skills to lead the next generation of heroes.

    Marathon running needs to be developed like a national sport, idolise by younger generations with a strong junior/young adult system within an environment to grow young talent into sensational and human beings.

    1. Excellent insight and comparison. I agree the national culture and interest level of a sport is a major factor in the success of a sport. I think all 4 of my suggestions will help improve that in the U.S. I think Japan is good example, as marathon running is held in much higher regard there and as a result they have more elite depth and athletes fairing well in the half marathon and marathon than the U.S. despite our huge population.advantage.

  2. Great read Mark. I am a HUGE fan of the, "American Only Money At Second Tier U.S. Races." Consequently, I remember talking (with the help of a translator) to the men and women winners of the 2012 Buffalo Marathon near the finish line. The mens winner was Josephat Ongeri 2:20:26 from Kenya and the women's was Elena Orlova 2:43:48 from Russia.

    When I asked about his personal best, Josephat mentioned his strategy was to win the race, which he did by a mere 17 seconds, and not run a personal best. Why? He candidly stated that this race was just another day at the office and an opportunity to make money for his family. He said that he and his fellow countrymen run multiple races throughout the US because of the prize money that is available. I cannot blame him or others for doing this in the same way as I would cherry pick a local 5K if I knew I could snag a place on the podium and grab a gift certificate to my local running shop.

    However, in doing so, where does that leave the American hopefuls that wish to "make a living" and further develop their running careers for THIS country?