This is a review of the graphing, stratification, correlation, and causation research conducted by Barry Smyth.
The marathon is a grueling 26.2 miles and is often considered the iconic endurance event. Every year millions of runners, both elite and recreational, participate in marathons around the world. The goal for some is just to finish the race, for others it is to beat their personal best, and for a few, it is winning the race or breaking a record. Participants consider their pacing to be a crucial aspect of the race and carefully plan in advance what their pacing strategy will be. However, in the heat of the competition excitement often beats out strategy. While pacing has been studied in regards to elite athletes, there is no data regarding recreational runners.
The data collected included 1,724,109 complete race records of recreational runners, covering 12 years, 64 races, and 11 cities. Data included age, gender, 5km split-times throughout the race and final finish time.
Data is graphed of mean finish-time versus relative start pace. The resulting graph clearly indicates that running the first 5 kilometers at a rate faster than average is very costly at the end of the race. A starting pace 10% faster than the average adds approximately 37 minutes to the average finish time. Starting 10% slower adds approximately 29 minutes.
While this data illustrates a strong correlation it does not necessarily represent causation. To test for this the runners are stratified into three different finish-time bands. For each band, the percentage finish-time cost is calculated. All three bands hold to the idea that starting too fast or too slow adds time to their race, as compared to an evenly paced start.
To further investigate causation the focus turns to runners who run three or more races, looking at the circumstances that lead to a personal best time. From this data, it is determined that runners typically achieve their personal best times when they start at a pace within 5% of their average.
Analyzing pace at the end of the race, the average percentage of runners and their final pace is graphed. Approximately 58% of runners finish at a pace slower than their average, 19% finish at a faster pace, and 21% finish at their average pace, indicating that the pace at which a runner finishes the race is a strong indicator of how well the runner managed their pace throughout the race. However, the cost associated with finishing at a fast or slow pace is less significant than the cost associated with a fast or slow start.
Coaches can use this information to help their runners determine optimal pacing during a marathon race that will provide the greatest opportunity to meet their goal, whether it is to finish the race, achieve a personal best, or to win. Understanding that strategy often falls by the wayside when the race actually starts indicates that runners need additional tools to help them overcome this natural inclination.
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