Why Are Elite Americans at the Boston Marathon Slower Than 42 Years Ago?

Somax research uncovers unlikely culprit lurking behind every athlete under 30.

The Boston Marathon is April 16 and the performance of American distance runners makes for dismal reading. In 1975 Bill Rodgers won Boston with a time of 2:09:55. In 2017, Galen Rupp finished second with a time of 2:09:58, 3/100ths of a second slower!

Top American David Morris ranked 38th in the world in 1999 with a time of 2:09:32 at Chicago. Even more depressing is that the best American today, Galen Rupp, is ranked only 90th. His time of 2:09.20 was a measly 12 seconds faster than Morris on the same course 18 years ago.

But African marathoners are a different story. The fastest African in 1999 ran a 2:06:16. So far, the fastest African is 2:03:32.

The situation is even worse for 10K runners. In 1999, Bob Kennedy was the fastest American with a time of 27:38.37, which ranked him 16th in the world. In 1917, Martin Hehir was the fastest native-born American, ranked 90th in the world at 28:08.60—a time slower than Bob Kennedy 18 years ago. In the meantime, Africans have improved their world-leading 10K time by 3 seconds.

So why have Africans improved almost 3 minutes in the marathon, but Americans have improved only 12 seconds over the past 18 years? Why are American 10K runners slower today than 18 years ago?

Are American runners lazy? Not likely. They are training at greater volumes than they did 18 years ago. Are they genetically inferior to African runners? No, because researchers have established that American and African runners have a similar VO2max.

Compared to American marathon runners, African runners are more economical. They use less oxygen per mile. But this is simply because they are more efficient. They bounce up and down less with each stride--a lot less. The marathon consists of 26,200 strides. The average American marathoner bounces up and down 3” with each stride, which adds up to running up and down a 6,550-foot mountain. African runners, on the other hand, bounce up and down 2”, which means their ‘mountain’ is just 4,323 vertical feet. They are doing 2/3rds of the work of their American rivals.

American runners over-stride more (landing with their foot ahead of their center of mass), which is equivalent to driving a car with one's foot on the brake. They also lift their toes more (which fatigues their lower legs and leads to shin splints), cross their legs over more toward the mid-line (which stresses the ankles, knees, and hips) and run more upright. All of these stride faults reduce economy, which explains why Africans are so much faster than Americans.

But why have Africans improved so much and Americans so little over the past 18 years?

Let’s take a look at one big difference between American marathoners in 1999 and 2017.

In the mid 90’s, bigger backpacks were introduced because school kids could no longer stuff all their books in their small backpacks. Since David Morris was 25 years old in 1995, he did not carry a heavy school backpack. But Galen Rupp was 9 years old in 1995, so he and his cohorts carried a heavy backpack to school every day for at least 9 years.

Did African runners get bigger backpacks in the mid-90’s? 

They wish. Few East Africans even carried a school backpack. Supplies, backpacks, and books have been scarce in East Africa, which has a per capita income ranging from $706 to $1455 per year, compared to the US, which is $58,030 per year.

So how could bigger backpacks impair American distance runners?

Researchers in China found that kids carrying just 5% of their body weight reduced their vital capacity. As weights are increased, researchers have recorded up to a 40% reduction in vital capacity. According to US researchers, kids carry anywhere from 8-37% of their body weight on their backs. Vital capacity shrinks as the weight increases because the breathing muscles in the trunk have to contract to carry the additional load.

This reduction in vital capacity continues once the backpacks are finally put in the closet.

The Somax Performance Institute helps athletes improve their performance by improving their efficiency and flexibility, which is why Somax-trained runners often cut a minute per mile off their pace in just four weeks. Somax not only improves their stride efficiency (reducing bounce, overstride, crossover, toe lift, etc.), but also improves their breathing efficiency by doubling the expansion of their stomach, diaphragm, and chest when they take a deep breath.

The results of expanding the three breathing ranges are, well, breathtaking.

An experienced age-group swimmer dropped her 50m free time 5% in just one day after Somax increased her stomach expansion from zero to 2 inches.

A competitive cyclist who could not keep up with the lead pack in a weekly race up 2500-foot Mount Tamalpais “ran them into the ground” after Somax doubled his chest expansion.

A professional soccer player (who ran 6 miles in every game) reported he no longer got winded after the institute increased his chest expansion from ½ inch to 5 inches. He also then led his team to their first national championship and was voted league MVP at age 39.

After Somax doubled the chest expansion of a college athlete from 2” to 4”, he recalled carrying a heavy backpack every day to school, starting in first grade. He later calculated that the total weight he carried for his 12 years before college added up to 21,600 lbs. or 6.5 Toyotas. His doubled chest expansion also increased his vital capacity from 3.22 liters to 4.3 liters. Since the brain uses 10X more oxygen than any other part of his body, his college grades went from a C+ average to straight A’s in two majors and two minors.

Starting in 2000, Somax noticed a sharp drop in the chest expansion of young swimmers in the Somax Performance Institute's week-long national swim camps. While their chests usually expanded 2-3”, now they were expanding only 1-2”. What did they recall as Somax's program doubled their expansion? Carrying a heavy backpack to school every day. Now able to take in more oxygen, their times improved 8-18% and their grades improved as well.

So, can the stagnation in American marathon times really be due to carrying heavy school backpacks?

Consider this question: Will any amount of fitness training reverse the breathing restrictions from carrying an accumulation of 6.5 Toyotas on one's back from first to twelfth grade? Apparently, it cannot.

How much chest expansion does one need to run a fast marathon or 10K? Somax finds the best aerobic athletes expand 20%. This means a 40” chest expands 8 inches after exhaling all of one's air and taking in a deep breath. The biggest expansion Somax has measured is 9”. Additionally, distance runners tend to be the stiffest of all the athletes the institute works with, and usually only expand between 1-3”. This is why America's best runner is ranked 90th in the world today.

To expand less than 20% means taking in less oxygen with each breath. Fatigue during a race may not be from a lack of fitness. It’s most likely today's competitive athletes being burdened with the restrictions from that heavy backpack they lugged to school every day.

A higher standard of living in America (in the form of more books and heavier school backpacks) has unfortunately lowered the standard of American marathon and 10K performance.

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­­­­­­­­­Bob Prichard is president of Somax Performance Institute in Tiburon, CA. His athletes have won 44 Gold Medals and have set 11 World Records. His sports analysis videos have over 6 million views on YouTube. He has videotaped and analyzed more than 4,500 runners. He correctly predicted the winner of the 1992 Olympic marathon at the halfway mark while working as stride analyst for NBC Sports. His website is www.somaxsports.com.

Source: Somax Performance Institute


Categories: Recreation and Sports

Tags: African runners, Boston marathon, Galen Rupp, restricted chest expansion, school backpacks, slow American runners


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Somax improves sports performance by improving efficiency, flexibility and oxygen intake.

Bob Prichard
Bob Prichard
President, Somax Performance Institute
Somax Performance Institute
4 tara hill road
tiburon, CA 94920
United States