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Why Has the American Marathoner Declined?

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Several folks who responded to my "Decline of the American Marathoner" post mentioned lack of role models and competition from other sports as reasons for the decline of competitive American runners, especially among the front runners. I don't doubt that those things have been factors, but I do doubt that they are the primary causes for such a huge decrease in the number of sub-3:30 American marathoners.

The erosion of American marathon front runners is symptomatic of a more general decline in the ability and/or desire of American runners to compete at the same level as our predecessors of just 10-15 years ago. Except for a very few genetically exceptional elites, fast runners simply represent the cream of the crop. To learn why the cream is thinner and less wholesome today, it's necessary to take a close look at the crop....and the variables that have affected it.

I think that several factors that have contributed to the general deterioration of American runners' competitiveness can be summarized in two words....cultural change. The cumulative effects of changes in the culture of our society in general and the sport of running in particular have produced a generation of American runners who are slower than those of yesteryear. I don't think it's because there are dramatically fewer runners today trying to be as fast as they can be. I think it's because they can't be as fast as the runners of 10-20 years ago with the raw material they have to work with and the culture of today's society and running community.


As several people pointed out in responding to my first post, it all starts with the children. Children have become less physically active than in previous decades, which limits their physiological development to prepare for later competitive running.

We have often heard that one of the reasons that the Africans are faster than our elite runners is because they are more active in their childhood. Our kids used to be more active, also. Competitive runners of the '70-80s were born and spent their basic physiologically developmental childhood and teen years in the '40-50s and early '60s. Those of the '90s and today grew up in the late '60s through the '80s. The environments in which the two groups grew up changed significantly, beginning in the '60s.

(1) School.....I grew up in the 40-50's. During my first six years of school, we spent 30 minutes twice a day on the playground for "recess". The teachers organized physically active games, such as Red Rover and tag, and provided equipment for "sandlot" games such as softball. Everyone was expected to be physically active during recess, unless s/he was ill.

In grades 7-12, Physical Education (gym) was a required course for boys and girls.....an hour/day of highly organized programs in softball, football, basketball and track run by the school's sports coaches. Clean gym uniforms and towels were provided daily by the school's gym staff, along with a locker room and showers. Phys Ed was really an extension of the school's organized sports department. It was from these Phys Ed activities that coaches identified boys as candidates for the school's competitive sports teams. The only way to "get out of gym" was for a doctor to verify a physical ailment or disability. I don't think that my little school's program in Pascagoula, MS was unusual. I suspect that it was fairly common in many American school systems. How many school systems have similar programs today? I'm sure some do, but I doubt if they are as common or that many are as extensive as they once were. Such programs are often among the first suffer reductions or disappear completely when schools have to make cuts to stay within tightening budgets.

The Baltimore Sun published an OP/ED essay in yesterday's Sunday (12/30) edition by Tom McMillan (whose credentials include All-American college basketball player, NBA player for 11 years, and six years as a US Congressman) entitled "Schools fail kids by cutting phys ed". In it, he said the following:

"Children in the United States are the fattest in the world, and we have no one but ourselves to blame. As a nation, we have done little more than pay lip service to grassroots sports opportunities, particularly for our kids."

"A study of more than a million fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students in California released this month found that only 23 percent were physically fit. The study measured student performance on tests that included running a mile, push-ups and pull-ups."

"Illinois is the only state to require daily physical activity classes in all schools. Merely 6 percent of U.S. schools require these classes for high school seniors."

(2) Diet....This might be a controversial statement, but kids generally ate a better diet in the 40-60's. Sure, we had junk food. But, there was a heck of a lot less of it. It wasn't nearly as readily available. There wasn't a fast food joint on every corner. Nor were there junk food/soda dispensing machines always within reach. Most families had one wage earner and more mothers were full-time homemakers with more time to prepare wholesome meals, rather than stop by KFC on the way home or call out for pizza....neither of which existed, anyway. And more meals were prepared from fresh foods that hadn't been processed, which often removes nutrients, and loaded with preservatives to facilitate packaging and easy preparation. Lunches served in my schools were always hot meals....no pizza or peanut and jelly sandwiches. I suspect that kids diets were much lower in fat and more nutritional.

(3) Climate control.....This might seem a bit off the wall, but I really do think that a significant factor has been the development of home air conditioning. In the 40-50's, very few homes were air conditioned. Kids spent more time doing things outdoors that often involved physical activity, especially during the warm half of the year. Home air conditioning began to become more common through the '60-70s. Today, kids....just like their parents....don't venture outdoors if it means getting sweaty....and parents are more likely to keep them in if the temperature is much above 80 to "protect" them from the harsh elements.

(4) Entertainment....This relates partially to (3) above. If kids are going to spend more time indoors, they are going to be more engaged in passive forms of entertainment, than they are in those that require some form of physical activity. And the phenomenal development of electronic media has spawned interests among kids today that place demands on their time. Cable TV, VCR's, Playstations and computers are preferred forms of entertainment for kids today. TV came into being in the 50's. But programming that enticed and encouraged kids to sit down and watch it for hours at a time didn't really blossom until the '70-80s. Today, kids can pop a couple of movies into a VCR and stay entertained from the time they get home from school until bed time. In the '50s we saw one movie/week.....Saturday afternoon matinee at a local theater....and we rode a bike to get there.

In his article, Tom McMillan said:

"Today, children are devoting more time than ever to sedentary recreation. A study released this month by the CIGNA Corp. found that children spend an average of 14 hours each week watching TV. Children 12 to 14 spend almost seven hours a week playing video games."

(5) Transportation....The primary means of transportation for kids in the '40-60s was the bicycle. Many families didn't have one car, much less two or more. But, every kid had a bike and used it as a mode of transportation....to school....to movies....to the beach....to the community recreation centers and playgrounds....to visit friends. Or they walked. Kids are transported by car to almost every activity today. Bikes have largely become a form of entertainment....a toy....rather than a mode of transportation. Of course, it's also less safe for kids to use a bike as a mode of transportation in many areas today. BTW, I attribute the development of my inherent leg strength and endurance, plus not being prone to running injuries, largely to riding a bike 10 miles/day every day for almost 6 years to deliver newspapers as a kid. I suspect those bike riding years greatly benefited me when I became a runner 30 years later.

I think the net result of all of the above is that, over the last 20 years, kids have been reaching the age at which they might opt to become runners progressively less developed physiologically and more obese than previous generations. I suspect that most people who start running with such a handicap are much less likely to reach the same level of competitiveness as one who doesn't. Genetics is a major factor in determining one's ultimate potential; but, early physiological development probably maximizes how close one can come to that genetic potential. Perhaps this is an oblique analogy because of the hand/eye coordination involved, but does anyone think that Cal Ripken would have accomplished what he did if he had been a couch potato into his late teens and then decided to play baseball?  His Iron Man feat was probably largely influenced by his baseball specific activity throughout his youth.

We haven't gotten our kids to where they are in just the last few years. It has gradually evolved for a couple of decades as our lifestyles have slowly changed, and the resources that enable those changes have been developed. The end result of the cultural changes impacting our youth is that the raw material moving into the sport of running has been getting progressively inferior.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I attended a Christmas choral program at the Christian school that my 9-year old granddaughter attends. Kids from all 12 grades participated. The majority of them were very noticeably overweight. I wondered how many potentially very competitive runners might be buried within them....but whose potential might not be fully realized because of the passive lifestyles they are living and diets they are eating throughout their childhood.


Enough....probably too much....about kids. How about adults? What are we doing with the raw material we bring from our youth to our running years? What societal and cultural changes have impacted adult runners? I think they fall into two categories....physiological and psychological.

Concerning the psychological element, in Scott Douglas' Running Times article, "The Second Tier Disappears", he pointed out that 190 men broke 2:20 to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Trials, whereas only 58 did 12 years later for the 1996 Trials. He went on to postulate that:

"At the risk of grand generalization, here's one explanation: Our 28-year-old at the '84 Trials was born in 1956, placing him squarely in the baby boom. This article isn't the first to claim that members of this generation....especially the white, middle-class ones who overwhelmingly populate the marathon scene....grew up in an era of plenty. Jobs were plentiful, the economy scenario seemed rosy, why, the government even ran a surplus in some years. Why not make a go of it at running? There would be plenty of chances to join the workforce later.

Contrast that with an average 28-year-old at the '96 Trials. Born in 1968, his upbringing included economic highlights at gas lines, double-digit inflation, recession, 1987's 'Black Monday' on the stock market and trillion dollar debt. When I was in college in the '80s, business was the leading major, and self-knowledge meant knowing how best to pad your resume to impress the corporate recruiters who interviewed in a decided buyer's market. Whether rationally or not, people of this generation feared for their economic future. How to justify yourself....and your college debt collectors....dedicating the next five years to shaving two minutes from your marathon time?"

I think that Scott is right in that there are psychological differences between the baby boom generation, that fueled the peak American runners, and later generations. The concern about economic well being that he cited is part of the differences, which relates largely to the deterioration of the second tier of American runners. Similarly, I think there are psychological differences between the generations that affect American runners at all levels.

I grew up as part of a generation that I call the "hybrid generation". We weren't part of either the baby boomers nor the WWII generation, which is known as "The Greatest Generation" by many for the way they handled the war and the depression that preceded it. We are a bridge between the two. I graduated from high school the year that Scott's hypothetical '84 Trials contender was born. My generation experienced the belt tightening and rationing of the war years, and the boom and plenty of the post war years. So, we had one advantage over the baby boomers.....we were attuned to both the need for security and the comfort of plenty. I can understand the differing psychological factors that Scott described so well in his article because I lived them.

The WWII generation demanded excellence in an environment of challenge and hardship throughout the depression and the war. Heck, they redefined excellence and perseverance! They had to in order to survive two of the biggest challenges Americans faced in the 20th Century. Despite the tremendous hardships they faced, their lives were much simpler than today. They generally had only a few interests, mostly related to family, job and home.....survival. They set a few, well-defined goals, focused their energies, and worked hard to achieve them. They established a heritage that flowed directly from them to my hybrid generation and to the baby boomers.

Then, the world began to change in the '60-70s. Technological advancements made lives easier in many physical ways, but also complicated them greatly in others. There was an explosion in the amount of information and entertainment available to everyone. Lives began to become more complex. People had more choices than ever before. Interests broadened. And there were more resources available, such as a rapid and readily available transportation infrastructure, to pursue those interests. As a result, time and energies became spread over a wider range of interests, which doesn't permit devoting the time necessary to reach the same level of excellence in a specific area that one can achieve when more focused.

A specific event that further affected the psychology of the American people was the Viet Nam War. Just as WWII had redefined the meaning of excellence, so did the Viet Nam War....but negatively.

As a result of these changes in our societal environment, standards of excellence began to erode. Our range of vision narrowed. Living for today became more important than investing for tomorrow. Short term results became more important than long term goals. American society reached the psychological point of being willing to accept "good", even "mediocre", as being "excellent" as long the task is completed, we enjoy it, it doesn't take too much personal investment, and we can realize some progress from which we can derive satisfaction, then move on to tomorrow.

Physiologically, American runners are simply spread too thin to devote the time and energy to running that their predecessors did. There are many more dual-wage earner couples today. And, as one person pointed out, data shows that the average American works longer hours today. With no stay-at-home family adult, household chores have to be performed during non-working hours. Like kids, adults also enjoy a broader range of potential interests today. Increasingly complex lives leaves less time available for running than past generations enjoyed.

Running Community

The cultural changes in our society have had a direct affect on the running community. Runners have been increasingly seeking easier, more "comfortable" training and racing. The professionals in the running community have responded to the desires of the masses.

Some people want to blame "experts", such as Galloway, Bingham and Running World, for dumbing down the sport. They have certainly contributed to the "softening" of running that has even penetrated the elite community, but they didn't start it. They are simply giving the broad running community what they want.....the guidance to run, even well, without demanding a major investment. The parade toward mediocrity didn't start with them, although they are leaders of it today.

Before this sounds too much like I'm banging on Galloway, Bingham and RW, let me also say that they have played a major leadership role in the growth of the sport. I have nothing but respect for the excellent job they have done of encouraging and helping many, many people to get off their backsides and become runners and marathoners. However, the subject here is the competitiveness, not the growth, of the sport.

I would like to address a few of the changes that have occurred over the last 15 years that I think illustrate the erosion of the quality that has occurred in the sport.

(1) Races....5k has replaced 10k as the runner's "staple" race distance. In the early '80s when my first running life began, 10k's were readily available and 5k's were rare. It's the opposite today. I ran 21 races in 1984 which included thirteen 10k's, only one 5k, and four 8k/5m's. Contrast that to 1999 when I ran 23 races of which more than half (12) were 5 miles or less, including nine 5k's.....and only five were 10k's. I watched the race popularity and availability trend shift from 10k to 8k to 5k throughout the 1984-89 period. By 1989, the mix of 10k's vs. 5-8k's in my 25 races dipped under 50% (ten 10k's and eleven 5k-8k's). The trend toward more shorter distances continued throughout the '90s with 10k's almost disappearing from the local running scene and 5k's in abundance.

The 5k has increased in popularity because it is easier for a runner to prepare for; requires fewer resources for a race director to produce; doesn't take as much time from a runner's weekend; and more people can participate in and finish it, which makes race sponsors happy. The downside is that it isn't as suited to a marathoner's training/development as a 10k, which makes a marathoner's desire to become as good as s/he can be more difficult to realize. The 5k is more suited to VO2max development. However, LT development, for which the 10k race is more suited, is more important to the marathoner. Another impact of the popularity of the shorter race distances is that a runner gets less race intensity mileage in his/her training regimen over the course of a year of training. Substitute just a half dozen 5k's/year for what would have previously been 10k's and you take 20 miles of race intensity running from a training program....that's a goodly amount of reduced hard work.

(2) Training regimens.....they have gotten easier. It's a manifestation of the "less is more" syndrome....but it hasn't worked. Some people say that the Americans need to learn to train like Kenyans. Well, the Kenyans train like Americans used to train. They learned from the way Americans of the '70s....it's the later generations of American elites who weren't paying attention.

In the '70s, it was generally accepted that an elite had to train 120+ miles/week to be his/her best. Alberto Salazar used to train 150-170 miles/week. I wonder if many, if any, elite American marathoners run that level of mileage today. In a RW article last year, Galloway bragged about encouraging a national class runner to reduce training mileage from 100+ to about 70 miles. The purpose of his article was to suggest that you and I cut mileage to get faster!!

Even Glover has softened his training programs in the 1999 edition of his book, "The Competitive Runner's Handbook", compared to the earlier editions. He reduced the duration of his recommended marathon training cycles from 18 to 16 weeks. His recommended training schedules for Local Champion Competitor runners in the 1988 edition called for seven weeks of 80 miles and eight weeks of 70-75 miles....the 1999 edition specifies only three weeks of 65 miles as a peak, and 50-60 miles for all other weeks. For the Advanced Competitor, he recommended ten weeks of 60-65 miles in 1988....then reduced that to only three weeks of 60-65 miles in 1999. Although Glover isn't Darth Vador (that's Galloway), he is leaning toward the Dark Side by following the "less is more" trend.

The softening of training begins long before many runners decide to run their first marathon and pick a training program. It extends down to the high school level. In responding to the "The Decline of the American Marathoner" post, one Mervite who has been involved in the high school running scene for 25 years pointed out that he has seen a big change in high school training....from lots of aerobic mileage to "less is more" in terms of mileage and an increase of hammering faster and faster track intervals. In other words, from endurance and strength base building to burning out while seeking "speed".

I remember the first time a saw an article in RW suggesting that a 30-mile/week training program is all that is needed to complete a marathon. It was in the late '80s. I was shocked! It was the first time I had heard or read a professional source recommend anything other than to train and race the best you can. It was my introduction to the "you don't have to work hard to be a marathoner" philosophy. Looking back, I view that article as a significant step in the dumbing down process.

The only way to perform at your best at any age and level of competition is to run as many miles in training as you can tolerate.....total mileage is a fundamental form of quality. Yes, it means accepting a higher risk of injury; but it's either that or settle for less than you could be. As Lindsay on the RWOL Marathons Forum said, pyramiding is the way to get as good as you can be.  The base of the pyramid is mileage.  The wider the base (more mileage), the higher you can build the pyramid (your peak).

(3) Psychology....there has been a definite change in the attitude of the average marathoner. We want to do well, but we don't want too much discomfort along the way. We want to finish feeling strong and good. We measure "progress", not just in running faster times, but also experiencing less pain along the way. We view the wall in a marathon as something to try to avoid, when the wall is, in fact, part of a hard run marathon. If we don't run up against the wall....and handle it....then we haven't run an optimum marathon. Hitting the wall doesn't mean having to slow dramatically in the last few miles, maybe even finishing with a survival shuffle. That isn't hitting the wall; that's crashing as a result of a poorly run race.

A well run marathon should hurt. The last few miles of a perfect, even split race will be very difficult and leave us feeling like we are going to die at the finish. That's facing the wall and conquering it.  That's excellence in marathoning. But, it isn't what many marathoners expect and prepare for today. They look for ways to make the last few miles "feel better", avoid pain, and finish in good shape....that's the real dumbing down of marathoning.

Here's one to ponder....the decline of American marathoners has been concurrent with the advent and proliferation of sports drinks, gels, sports bars, camelbacks, heart rate monitors, shoes with air/gel/spring soles, and all the other running aids that weren't available to runners 15-20 years ago, when most marathoners relied on water alone to get them through training and the race. Today's technological aids are supposed to make us better runners....and they should. Yet, they haven't stopped us from getting slower. Why? Well, I suggest two possibilities. Either the competitive decline would have been even worse without these aids, or the aids largely serve as psychological crutches to make marathons feel better. We sometimes dwell and rely more on the "artificial" aids than on simple hard work. I'm not suggesting that the aids aren't useful. They certainly are. But, they should make us faster, not more comfortable, marathoners. It's just another example of the psychological changes that have occurred among American marathoners.

I've rambled a lot during this post. But, maybe you get the gist of where I'm coming from. In essence....Americans are less prepared to excel as runners, and marathoners in particular, because, (1) due to cultural changes, we bring inferior raw material (physiological conditioning) to the sport, then (2) we don't train as hard (run as many miles) as previous generations did.  Maybe my comments could have just consisted of this last sentence instead of over 23,000 words? :)