Marathon times throughout the years: are we getting faster or slower?

(Photo: Pixabay)

It’s likely the first question that you’ll be asked when you tell people you’re a runner: what’s your marathon time? Running a marathon is a bucket list thing, and clocking a fast sub-something time is the ultimate goal. And if you happen to also beat the marathon time of a colleague or your neighbor, that’s a welcome bonus. Marathons make us competitive. But how long does the average person need to complete 42.2 kilometers? And how has performance developed throughout the years?

Something that can be seen word wide is that the popularity of running marathons has reached a bit of a plateau. That’s what Runrepeat concluded based on 107.9 million marathon results from 70,000 events in the period of 1986 to 2018. After reaching a peak of 9.1 million marathon finishers in 2016, the number of participants shrunk with 13 percent in 2018. Also, runners have never been slower. Especially men. While the average man ran a sub-4 marathon in 1986 (3:52:35 hours), that number is now 40 minutes higher: 4:32:49 hours. That might have something to do with the average age of the participants, which has gone up. In 1986 the average age was 35.2 years, while in 2018 that was 39.3 years.

If we look at the average marathon times per gender, you can see that men relatively slowed down more than women. With 27 minutes, the average time for men went up fast until it reached 4:15:13 hours in 2001; after that it slowly continued to go up. Women on the other hand slowed down more than men from 1986 (4:18 hours) until 2001 (4:56 hours), but in recent years they have actually started to run faster again. That could have something to do with the fact that for the first time in the history of marathon running, women dominated the field in 2018. 50.24 percent of the participants were female in that year.

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Marathon finish times of women and men. (Photo:

You can find the full research reports here.