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FLM2009 The Flora London Marathon: Sex and age – barriers to performance? When we analysed data from each of the 34,500 participants in the 2008 London Marathon we made several interesting insights concerning runners finishing times and pacing strategies adopted during the race. However, some of our most enlightening observations relate to simply revealing more about the demographics of the people who completed the race. In this article, we report on the Sex and Age of the runners in the 2008 London Marathon. In doing so we highlight how understanding something as simple as the demographics of mass participation race competitors can help us to provide more specific and relevant advice for those preparing to take the challenge in 2009.

Sex As the pie-chart shows, the number of men participating in the 2008 Marathon outnumbered women by more than two-fold. However, given the size of the London Marathon, what might seem like a relatively low proportion of women actually corresponds to over 10,000 runners! By anyone’s reckoning that’s a significant number and we therefore felt justified in looking at whether men and women differ in their response to exercise and if so, do the recommended nutritional strategies for marathon running apply equally to men and women?

Our search revealed that most of what we know today about the physiology of prolonged exercise and sports nutrition comes mainly from observations made on young, fit men; with findings often simply extrapolated to women. Nonetheless, in an attempt to redress the balance sports science research involving women is emerging and, although still in its infancy, has already revealed a few key pieces of relevant information:


FLM2009 • Women tend to burn relatively more fat during endurance exercise than men; but, carbohydrates are still the most important fuel source for endurance exercise for both sexes

• The strategy of ‘carbo’ loading in preparation for an endurance race was shown to effectively • • • •

increase the muscle fuel (glycogen) stores of men in 1967; it took until the year 2000 show this strategy can work for women! For women to reach carbohydrate intakes necessary to effectively ‘carbo’ load, an intake of >8 g of carbohydrate per kg body per day for 3-4 days has been recommended (that’s ~520 g per day for 3-4 days for a 65 kg woman!) Eating this much carbohydrate could require an increase (up to 30%) in total dietary energy intake or careful selection of high carbohydrate food sources in the lead up to the marathon Based on research conducted in men, the consumption of carbohydrate during exercise at rates of 30-60 g per hour has been recommended to endurance athletes since the mid 1990’s as a way to improve performance It wasn’t until 2007 that Lucozade Sport supported research actually proved that that this recommendation ensures the optimal availability of carbohydrate fuel for use during exercise in women too!

Age The graph shows the huge age range (18-101*) of runners participating in the 2008 marathon. Perhaps it’s not so surprising to see the London Marathon attracts runners of a variety of ages, and indeed, that’s what gives the event such universal appeal. But it’s still quite incredible to think that 4 generations of the same family might have been able to run in the same race!

What we found more surprising is that the average age of the marathon runners was 39 for men and 37 for women, with almost 60% of runners being older than 35. Aside from being an interesting statistic, the idea that most marathon runners were over 35 years old has some potentially important implications. As we have already discussed, sports science research into endurance performance is typically investigated through well controlled University studies making observations on highly trained young men, usually aged 18-35. Consequently, we have a very good understanding of how training and nutritional practices might apply to the marathon for these young, fit men; but what does this mean for and what do we know about the huge number of people running the London Marathon that don’t fit into this category?


FLM2009

• As people age running performance declines steadily, due to decreases in muscular strength and endurance capacity

• Continuing to exercise train as we age helps to preserve much of the ability to successfully complete endurance events like the marathon

• Two of London’s more famous marathon runners exemplify the principle that age is no barrier to

• • •

completing a marathon • Haile Gebrselassie - the world record holder over the marathon distance (with a time of 2:03:59) set his personal best time in 2008 at the age of 35! • *Buster Martin - at somewhere between 94 and 101 years old (depending who you ask) no-one champions ‘active-aging’ quite like London’s oldest ever marathon runner! Older adults rely more on carbohydrate than younger adults to fuel endurance exercise To date no research has specifically examined the implications of age-related differences in the response to exercise for sports nutrition recommendations for the older athlete Until future research proves otherwise, all adult athletes should follow general sports nutrition guidelines developed from observations on relatively young adults

Summary This relatively simple demographic analysis has revealed the truly staggering number and spread of runners participating in the 2008 London Marathon. Most importantly, it showed that the majority of London Marathon runners do not necessarily reflect the young, highly trained men that most of what we understand about exercise physiology and particularly sports nutrition is based on. Sports science research in this respect lags a bit behind the recent upsurge in popularity of running in mass participation events. Nonetheless, we will be sure to keep abreast of emerging research into the implications of sex and age for sports nutrition recommendations to ensure we continue to provide credible, evidence based advice to support each and every single runner who attempts the London Marathon.


Sex and age – barriers to performance