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IU Media Relations

Jason Karp
Department of Kinesiology

Joel Stager
Department of Kinesiology

Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Marathon runners vying for the Olympics vary greatly in training

Indiana University survey probes training characteristics

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A survey of athletes training for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials found little consensus about the best way to train, and as many as 46 percent of the men and 29 percent of the women trained alone and without a coach. The survey was conducted by kinesiologists in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University Bloomington.

IU doctoral student Jason Karp and Professor Joel Stager also found that 62 percent of the men and 57 percent of the women who qualified for the trials last spring had full-time jobs while they trained.

This month during the Olympic Games in Athens, three men and three women will compete for the United States in the marathon, a 26.2-mile race created for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 as a commemoration of the legendary run by the Greek messenger Phidippides after the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

The marathon has been one of the weaker Olympic sports for U.S. athletes for the past several decades, despite around 300 marathons held in the United States each year and a large population base from which to draw. "We have a large national population and around 300,000 people running marathons each year, but we still don't fare well," Karp said. "If it's not the size of the population or a participation issue, then it's the training."

Thirty-seven men and 56 women answered survey questions about physical characteristics such as age, height and weight, and also about training history, such as use of a coach, years in training and use of altitude. The survey also included questions about high school and college performances, and it asked about detailed training characteristics such as average and peak weekly mileage, weekly distance at specific intensities, and frequency of training. All training-related questions referred to the entire year preceding the U.S. Olympic Trials held last February and April.

Comparisons were made between men and women, and also between elite athletes (times below 2:15 for men and below 2:40 for women) and national-class runners (times between 2:15 and 2:22 for men and between 2:40 and 2:48 for women), based on personal-best marathon times.

Here are the study's major findings:

General characteristics

  • Forty-nine percent of men and 31 percent of women did not have a coach.
  • Sixty-five percent of men and 68 percent of women trained alone.
  • Combined, 46 percent of men and 29 percent of women trained alone without a coach.
  • Twenty-four percent of men and 16 percent of women trained at altitude.
  • Sixty-two percent of men and 57 percent of women had a full-time job.
  • Elite men were shorter and weighed less than national-class men, but elite and national-class women were of similar height and weight.

Training characteristics

Men ran more than women for the year preceding the Olympic Trials. Men ran an average of 90 miles per week with a peak week of 120 miles, and women ran an average of 72 miles per week with a peak week of 95 miles.

  • Elite women ran more than national-class women. Elite women ran an average of 84 miles per week with a peak week of 112 miles, and national-class women ran an average of 69 miles per week with a peak week of 91 miles. Elite and national-class men ran similar amounts.
  • Men ran more often than women (nine times per week compared to seven times per week).
  • Elite athletes ran more often than national-class athletes (12 times per week compared to eight times per week for men and 10 times per week compared to six times per week for women).
  • The majority of the athletes' training was comprised of low-intensity distance running, with men running 75 percent and women running 68 percent of their mileage slower than the pace of a marathon race.
  • The amount of training performed at different intensities was similar between the sexes but included large variability, suggesting there is no consensus about how these athletes believe they should train.
  • Men had been training longer than women at the time of the Olympic Trials (12.2 years compared to 8.8 years).
  • Elite athletes had been training for more years than national-class athletes (17 years compared to 11 years for men and 12 years compared to eight years for women).
  • Although not a statistical comparison, U.S. marathoners trained more at marathon race pace and did more tempo-paced running than foreign distance runners but trained less at higher intensities.

Marathon performance

  • Personal best time for the marathon was correlated to performance for 5 kilometers, 10 kilometers and half-marathon for both men and women.
  • Women's personal best time for the marathon was correlated to number of years training, average weekly mileage, peak weekly mileage and number of runs of at least 20 miles.

The study was funded by IU's Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, which Stager directs. Karp can be reached at 812-332-3653 and Stager can be contacted at 812-855-1637 and