Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Gender and Age Performance Progressions in the Marathon

The Olympic marathons are the horizon, which are unique in that genders run separately.  Women’s running has seen enormous growth at all levels after the women’s marathon was introduced to the Games in 1984.  I’m not suggesting any causation via the Olympics as many factors have contributed to growth.  What were once world class times are now back of the pack in the Olympic Trials.  However, if performance improvements continue to persist, it’s critical to strive for depth at all levels of the sport to drive athletes forward.  2:30 runners push the 2:20; 2:40 push the 2:30; 3:00 push the 2:50…etc. 

Predicting the trajectory of women’s running can be tricky due to many female Olympic Trials participants and aspirants using the post-Olympic year for childbirth.  It would be interesting to gather additional statistics on this sub-group.  Fortunately, unlike high level race horses that retire to the breeding shed but never return to racing, women runners can return to compete at equal if not higher levels than pre-childbirth.     

Two studies recently explored gender differences between females and males at the New York City Marathon, which is a fairly representative sample due to its size and more competitive vibe than many participatory events.  Hunter (2012) looked at results form 1980-2010 and isolated top ten finishers in each five year age group from age 20-79.  Within each age group, there was a greater relative drop from first place to tenth place within each female age group as compared to each male age group.  Although gender differences became more pronounced with advanced age, the overall difference between genders has decreased from 1980-2010. 

Additionally, authors observed that 34% of the difference among age group winners could be explained by the ratio of male-to-female finishers.  Although physiological factors are often used to explain gender performance differences, this data suggests that overall depth plays as much if not a greater role.  The more women we can get competing at all levels, the more robust the vertical integration of talent can become.  Everyone strives to achieve more when they are chased by more and have more to chase. 

In a related study of New York City Marathon runners from a similar time period, Lepers (2012) focused on masters runners (age 40+) and noted that times decreased significantly for males above 64 years old and females above 44 years old.  Gender differences decreased over the last thirty years but have remained steady the last ten.  Authors concluded, “These data suggest that male (≥65 years) and female (≥45 years) master runners have probably not yet reached their limits in marathon performance. The relative stability of gender differences in marathon running times across the different age groups over the last decade also suggests that age-related declines in physiological function do not differ between male and female marathoners.”    

Women’s marathoning has grown immensely in the last thirty years and these stats indicate there’s room for continued growth at all levels.  If we can continue to foster depth in the ranks, it is likely even better performances are on the horizon for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic quadrenniums.  


Hunter SK, Stevens AA.  Sex Differences in Marathon Running with Advanced Age: Physiology or Participation?  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]

Lepers R, Cattagni T.  Do older athletes reach limits in their performance during marathon running?  Age (Dordr). 2012 Jun;34(3):773-81. Epub 2011 May 27.


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