What Researchers Found After Studying 10 Million Marathon Finishers

What Researchers Found After Studying 10 Million Marathon Finishers

In 2017, researchers completed an impressive study which reviewed nearly ten million marathon finishing times (9,789,093 to be exact) from a total of 6,888 marathons across the globe. The vast majority analyzed (nearly 89 percent) took place after the year 2000, but races ranged between 1970 and 2013. The investigative team was interested in reference-dependent, goal-motivated behavior for a task that held little direct bearing on the quality of a person’s life: the race results of a marathon.

The information gleaned from their data set was quite remarkable on a number of levels, but one result stands out. Runners had an unusually high clumping of finishes just before rounded hour finishing times, specifically those at the three-, four-, and five-hour marks.

For example, runners were 1.4 times more likely to finish a marathon in 3:59 rather than 4:01. In fact, a total of 300,324 competitors finished their marathon in the three minutes prior to the four-hour mark compared to only 212,477 competitors who finished in the three minutes after the four-hour mark. That’s not because human beings are somehow categorically better at running a 3:59 rather than a 4:01 marathon. It’s because human beings make numbers matter. A lot.

The same trend held true at 30-, 15-, 10-, and five-minute increments. Essentially, finishing times showed the tendency to clump just ahead of, rather than just behind, any time that ended in a zero or five.

What does this mean?

This data set is remarkable in showing the powerful influence of numbers as it relates to recreational sports over decades of time, thousands of races, and millions of finishers. This research shows that athletes imbue remarkable meaning into chasing numbers, and shows statistically significant trends of goal achievement ahead of relatively arbitrary time standards.

Establishing a time goal for a race, regardless of race length or sport, is a time-honored tradition for the endurance athlete. This level of purpose requires strategy development to pursue those goals to fruition. These strategies involve both long-term planning and preparation, along with race day psychological management, including the tolerance of discomfort and the willingness to continue despite a mounting desire to stop (many thanks to Alex Hutchinson his fantastic definition of endurance).

Numbers chasing cuts both ways, however, and the pain associated with missing a goal, even by a minute or two, may prove to be a powerful motivator. Anyone who has beat a personal best or worked to run a sub-[insert personally meaningful time standard here], can attest to the power of goal setting. But, missing the mark can be just as painful psychologically as it can be rewarding.

It may be that the loss (or feared loss) associated with missing a time goal by one minute is more psychologically intense than the pleasure felt by beating a goal by an equal measure. And, this may be the greatest psychological component involved in chasing such feats—the psychological impact of loss aversion.

Simply stated, loss aversion refers to the tendency for us to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. Fearing that we may be slowing down late in an event and knowing the consequence of potentially missing the mark may actually be the driving force for speeding up or maintaining rhythm.

Pushing your athletes with goals

Reference points serve as a basic psychological itch for motivating behavior. One of the greatest thinkers in understanding the concept of psychological experiences related to behavioral choices is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them,” Csikszentmihalyi explains. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Time goals established by athletes fit this criteria perfectly—voluntarily pushing the mind and body to perceived limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and personally worthwhile. The connection to personal meaning is key here. Breaking a four-hour marathon means very little to someone who has qualified for the Olympic Trials, but the four-hour marathon mark is many runners’ greatest athletic accomplishment. The personal relevance of time standards cannot be ignored, and although the times themselves vary from athlete to athlete, the underlying psychological draw to better one’s own personal limits is deeply human.

What’s next?

So what do we do with this information? Well, for starters, look at the time goals for your next race or, if you’re a coach, think about the goals your athletes are chasing? My guess is that most goals either fit a round number standard by targeting times ending in zero of five or focus on bettering an existing PR.

The former very rarely targets something as arbitrary as a time like 3:01:03 unless it occupies the same psychological space of the latter. At first, just notice and accept that doing so connects you to one of the most defining aspects of the human spirit involved in endurance races. And, be aware that when you or your athletes toe the line at the next event, the vast majority of athletes around you are doing the same.

Second, consider stretching goals by five minutes, or for longer races such as ultra marathons or full-length IRONMAN events, stretch goals by two to five percent rather than by minutes. This research shows that we are very motivated by those time standards. If your athletes are gunning to break four hours in the marathon, for example, stretching the goal time will likely be both a bit exciting and a bit scary. The accompanying emotions, such as anxiety and excitement, are sweet spots for psychological growth. Stretching goals will require that you adjust training so that faster efforts are just a bit more effortful, yet conceivably within reach. Athletes will develop a new psychological and physical training framework for what they are capable of, which will make 3:55 possible and four hours much more likely.

Third, remind yourself of your own personal meaning throughout the process. Research about goals is clear that one of the most important factors in goal attainment is the personal meaning of your goals. We know that we are much more likely to put in the right work at the right time in service of a personally relevant, meaningful goal. What does the goal race time mean to you? The more clear, precise, and specific athletes are about their underlying reasons to achieve, the more likely they will be to put in the effort to see it to fruition come race day.

Finally, it’s important to adopt a “breaking barriers” mindset. Self-determination to push the limits of what you think is capable starts in thought. Stretching your goal by five minutes will require you to shift your thinking accordingly. Starting with thinking, “This is what sub-_____ does” in reference to all things related to training in pursuit of your fresh, faster goal time. As your training shifts accordingly to break a tougher standard, so too does your thinking.

The entire research article is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it for all of the details.

Justin Ross

Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO specializing in sports performance psychology. He is a nine-time marathoner, four-time Boston Marathon qualifier, and two-time IRONMAN 70.3 finisher. In addition, he has written extensively about athlete goals and is attempting to break a three-hour marathon in Boston in 2019. Look for his course, High Performance Sports Psychology, on Insight Timer soon. In the meantime, follow him on Instagram (@drjustinross) and Twitter (@PsychDenver).