Ask Stew: Why Runners' Race Times Are Getting Slower

Participants in a memorial run cross the finish line on Camp Lejeune.
Participants in a memorial run for Sgt. Lucas Pyeatt and other fallen service members cross the finish line on Camp Lejeune, N.C., Aug. 6, 2016. (Lance Cpl. Jon Sosner/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

There are interesting studies done around the world concerning fitness and health and methods to train optimally. Here is one study that claims there is an overall decline of race running times in the United States.

Hi, Stew,

I'm Ivanka Nikolova, Ph.D. in mathematical analysis and analyst at I checked your recent articles on about health and running, and felt sure you'd love our study on running times.

Basically, we have analyzed 27 million race results from 1996 to 2016. We have found that American runners have never been slower -- across 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon races. This is a major health concern. I did the study with Jens Jakob Andersen, who is a former competitive runner and statistician from Copenhagen Business School. We have a lot of graphs, tables and comments that I'd love to share with your readers, as we plan to publish this study in early July on our website.

Our conclusion is that signs of poor health are correlated to the decrease in speed. Though we cannot with certainty say that these are the causes for the slowdown.

Best Regards,

Vania Nikolova

Dr. Nikolova, thanks for thinking of me, and yes, I will check out your study in July on your site when published. I think there are a few issues at hand if you seek my opinion:

1. Different strokes: The younger generation is just different. I believe it is less than a health concern among runners, as there is a growing fad with non-competitive running races in the United States.  

2. Health concern: In general, yes, we have a health concern. One-third of our country is obese, and more than half is overweight.

3. Kids are having fun: For instance, popular running races like the Color Run -- The Happiest Race On The Planet have people running with no winner, but they get covered in dye while they run. Or the MuckFest, where the goal is to run, circumvent obstacles and get really, really muddy.

4. Participation awards: The competitive runners are fast, and records are still being broken every race. However, the average hobby runner may not care about being competitive and prefer these "participation awards."  The parents of this generation decided that "everybody gets a trophy" when playing recreational sports. Maybe that is enough for most runners. The issue could be more psychological than physiological.

Runner's World would disagree that this is the slowest generation.

What I See Every Day

I however, do not deal with the negative images portrayed by the "slowest generation/millennial" comments. I see slivers of the greatest generation in these athletes in their teens and early 20s every day at 6 a.m. These young men and women are preparing themselves for military, special ops, police and firefighter professions in a world where our military has been at war for 16 years. These super fit and motivated patriots make up a very small percentage of the millennial generation, but I love 'em. They give me hope for the future.


Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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