Running has a long legacy within the Olympic games. It was one of the first sport introduced in what is considered to be the first official Olympic games way back in 776 B.C. in Greece. Official recordings of different track events date back to the 1896 Athens games. The sports that fall under the umbrella of track and field have all undergone significant changes over the years, from introducing new distances and disciplines, to allowing women the chance to compete at the highest levels.
The sport of running falls under the “Athletics” category of the Olympic games. This includes a variety of sports like pole vaulting, hurdles, and the long jump. The rise of high school and college track and field teams has provided incredible growth for the sport as a whole, making it a mainstay in the world of sports (Source).
In the Olympics, runners can compete in distances ranging anywhere from a 100m sprint to a full 26.2-mile marathon. Some runners will compete in more than one distance, but it’s not very common. This will generally only happen for runners who compete at the 100m and 200m distances, and runners who also do hurdles.
So how fast do Olympic runners run? The male Olympic running record for the 100 meters is 9.63 seconds, 200 meters is 19.3 seconds, 400 meters is 43.3 seconds, 800 meters is 100.91 seconds, 1,500 meters is 3 minutes and 38 seconds, 5,000 meters is 12 minutes and 57 seconds, 10,000 meters is 26 minutes and 11 seconds, and 42.195 Km (Marathon Distance) is 2 hours, 6 minutes and 32 seconds. In general, it is noticed that Women’s record is around 7 to 13% slower than that of Men’s record for all distances. Additionally, the slowest Olympic runner is expected to be 10 to 12 % and the average runner to be 0.8 to 4% slower than the world record.
Though the mechanics of running have remained roughly the same for thousands of years, there has been a dramatic improvement in what these athletes are capable of. From improved running technology to a better understanding of the human body, runners have managed to increase their speeds over time.
So how do they do it? And how fast are these runners going? We dove into the data to get a better understanding of this classic Olympic sport. Let’s dive in.
- How Fast Does the Fastest Olympic Sprinter Run?
- How Fast Does the Average Olympic Sprinter Run?
- How Fast Is the Slowest Olympic Sprinter?
- How Much Faster Have Olympic Runners Become Over Time?
- Why Are Runners Becoming Faster Over Time?
- How Fast Does An Average Runner go?
How Fast Does the Fastest Olympic Sprinter Run?
Olympic runners are generally classified into three groups: sprinters, middle-distance runners, and distance runners. The shortest distance Olympics athletes can compete in is 100m and the longest distance is a marathon (26.2 miles). Most of the races take place on a track, while the marathon will usually start on a track and wind around the track and field venue (depending on the space). Athletes specialize in their distance and need to qualify for Olympic trials where they can then compete to get onto their country’s Olympic team.
Sprint Distances – Olympic Records
|WOMEN||10.61 seconds||21.34 seconds||48.25 seconds|
|MEN||9.63 seconds||19.3 seconds||43.03 seconds|
Sprinting is all about power. Olympic sprint races come in three distances: 100m, 200m, and 400m. Athletes will typically compete in one of the distances. In the sprint competition, all runners are lined up side by side and get into a beginning position with their feet on starting blocks. For the 200m and 400m distances, runners are lined up in a staggered position to accommodate for the curve of the track. The winner is the person whose torso first reaches the closest edge of the finish line (Source).
The current Olympic record holder of the men’s 100m run is Usain Bolt who earned it at the 2012 Olympic games. Amazingly, he’s also the 200m world record holder, a title he has held since the 2008 Olympic games.
Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica became the women’s 100m Olympic record holder in 2021. She also won the 200m race that same year, donning two gold medals for her home country.
From the above table, we can also notice that on average, women’s record for sprint Olympic running distances is around 7- 12 % slower than men’s record
Of course, sprinters aren’t the only ones competing in the Olympics. There are also many runners in the middle distance and long-distance ranges. Below are the Olympic records for those distances. Keep in mind that these are Olympic record holders. World records encompass a variety of official races, so the fastest Olympic time may not be the official world record.
Middle Distances – Olympic Records
These runners will start standing upright with no starting blocks and they’re not allowed to put their hands on the ground. In the 1500m race, athletes are allowed to go outside of their lane and need to jockey to get a position at the front of the pack.
From the above table, we can also notice that on average, women’s record for Middle Olympic running distances is around 11- 12 % slower than men’s record
Marathon Distance – Olympic Records
|Gender||Marathon (26.2 miles)|
|WOMEN||2hr 23min 7sec|
|MEN||2hr 6min 32sec|
The marathon is the longest distance that runners can race in the Olympics. The marathon begins with a mass start without any assigned lanes (Source). It was introduced as an official Olympics competition back in the London 1908 games for men (women’s marathon debuted in the 1984 Los Angeles games). There hasn’t been a longer distance added to the Olympics, though there is a growing ultramarathon scene outside of the games. It’s unclear whether or not longer distances will ultimately be added to the games, but new sports are added all of the time.
From the above table, we can also notice that on average, women’s record for Marathon Olympic Running Distance is around 13 % slower than that of men’s record
How Fast Does the Average Olympic Sprinter Run?
Don’t let the word “average” fool you – Olympic sprinters run at incredibly impressive speeds. The differences in times between these runners are just fractions of seconds, barely visible to the naked eye. That’s why so much technology has to be used in order to accurately time these runners.
To get an idea of the time it takes for sprinters to run their distances, we calculated the average times of the three most recent Olympic results (2020, 2016, 2012), then took the average of those three years combined.
Average Sprint Distance Times
|WOMEN||10.96 sec||21.51 sec||49.95 sec|
|MEN||9.99 sec||20.03 sec||44.38 sec|
Time-based on final posted Olympics results (Source)
From the above table, we can notice that the average Sprint Distances Olympic runners are around 0.8 to 4% slower than the world record.
How Fast Is the Slowest Olympic Sprinter?
Even the “slowest” Olympic sprinter is running at nearly superhuman speeds.
These athletes are at the top of their field and only lose by fractions of seconds, with many races being very close calls. But to get an idea of the finish time for the slowest Olympic sprinter, we took the average of the last place finisher results over the three most recent Olympic games (2020, 2016, 2012).
Slowest Sprint Distance Times
|WOMEN||11.32 seconds||23.31 seconds||50.97 seconds|
|MEN||10.68 seconds||20.50 seconds||44.94 seconds|
Comparing the slowest time to the average time shows just how close these races truly are. For example, the women’s 100m average is 10.96 seconds and the slowest runner finished in 11.32 seconds. We can conclude from the above record and compare it to the world record that the slowest Olympic runners are expected to be in the range of 10 to 12 % slower than the world record.
Runners have gotten faster over time and it’s especially noticeable when you look at the winning Olympic results over the years. While it’s not always a linear progression (the 2020 Olympics was on average slower for women’s sprinting, for example), it is a noticeable change over time.
We’ll look at three examples in each distance category to show just how much faster runners are getting. The table lists out the times for the three distances (100m, 5000m, and marathon), then the charts below show the general downward trend.
Olympic Gold Medal Scores
M = Men; W = Women
|Event/Race||100m (Sprint)||5000m (Middle Distance)||Marathon (Long Distance)|
|Athens 1896||M – 12.0||n/a||n/a|
|Paris 1900||M – 11.0||n/a||n/a|
|London 1908||M – 10.8||n/a||M – 2:55:18.4|
|Stockholm 1912||M – 10.8||M – 14:36.6||M – 2:36:54.8|
|Antwerp 1920||M – 10.8||M – 14:55.6||M – 2:32:35.8|
|Paris 1924||M – 10.6||M – 14:31.2||M – 2:41:22.6|
|Amsterdam 1928||M – 10.8 W – 12.2||M – 14:38.0||M – 2:32:57.00|
|LA 1932||M – 10.3 W – 11.9||M – 14:30.0||M – 2:31:36|
|Berlin 1936||M – 10.3 W – 11.5||M – 14:22.2||M – 2:29:19.2|
|London 1948||M – 10.3 W – 11.90||M – 14:17.6||M – 2:34:51|
|Helsinki 1952||M – 10.4 W – 11.5||M – 14:06.6||M – 2:23:03|
|Melbourne 1956||M – 10.5 W – 11.5||M – 13:39.6||M – 2:25:0|
|Rome 1960||M – 10.2 W – 11.0||M – 13:43.4||M – 2:15:16.2|
|Tokyo 1964||M – 10.0 W – 11.4||M – 13:48.8||M – 2:12:11.2|
|Mexico City 1968||M – 9.9 W – 11.0||M – 14:05.0||M – 2:20:26.4|
|Munich 1972||M – 10.14 W – 11.07||M – 13:26.42||M – 2:12:19.8|
|Montreal 1976||M – 10.06 W – 11.08||M – 13:24.76||M – 2:09:55|
|LA 1984||M – 9.99 W – 10.97||M – 13:05.59||M – 2:09:21 W – 2:24:52|
|Seoul 1988||M – 9.92 W – 10.54||M – 13:11.7||M – 2:10:32 W – 2:25:40|
|Barcelona 1992||M – 9.96 W – 10.82||M – 13:12.52||M – 2:13:23 W – 2:32:41|
|Atlanta 1996||M – 9.84 W – 10.94||M – 13:07.96 W – 14:59.88||M – 2:12:36 W – 2:26:05|
|Sydney 2000||M – 9.87 W – 11.12||M – 13:35.49 W – 14:40.79||M – 2:10:11 W – 2:23:14|
|Athens 2004||M – 9.85 W – 10.93||M – 13:14.39 W – 14:45.65||M – 2:10:55 W – 2:26:05|
|Beijing 2008||M – 9.69 W – 10.78||M – 12:57.82 W – 15:41.4||M – 2:06:32 W – 2:26:44|
|London 2012||M – 9.63 W – 10.75||M – 13:41.66 W – 15:04.25||M – 2:08:01 W – 2:23:07|
|Rio 2016||M – 9.81 W – 10.71||M – 13:03.3 W – 14:26.17||M – 2:08:44 W – 2:24:04|
|Tokyo 2020||M – 9.8 W – 10.61||M – 13:30.61 W – 14:47.89||M – 2:08:38 W – 2:27:20|
Based on official Olympics results postings
Comparing the changes over a period of time shows just how much progress has been made in the sport. It also demonstrates just how fast these runners have been as early as the first games.
Looking at the marathon, for example, men have gotten nearly 19% faster over time, shaving off nearly 47 minutes of their run.
But how – and why – has this happened?
It seems that runners get faster every year, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible for the sport. But how do they do it? What makes runners become faster over time? There are a lot of factors that can play into this trend, including money, technology, and training. We’ll look more closely at these three categories.
Prize money keeps increasing, and that means runners are more likely to try and push themselves to the absolute limit of what they’re capable of. A gold medal in the Olympics comes with a prize of $37,500. Silver medalists are awarded $22,500 and bronze medalists receive $15,000.
This doesn’t include the amount that professional runners can get from various partnerships, especially once they reach the elite levels. Shoe companies like Adidas, Nike, and Puma can provide sponsorships of $100,000 over multiple years, plus funding for a coach (Source).
Having multiple sponsorships and partnerships can really add up for runners, with some making in the millions of dollars annually. Andre De Grasse, a Canadian sprinter, signed his first pro deal with Puma for $11.25 million dollars at the age of 21 (Source).
Timing technology has improved dramatically over the years and we can now track down to tiny fractions of a second. This allows us to have far more accurate results in races. It also means that athletes have more incentive to push themselves in competition because they can win by an incredibly small margin. In sprint races, every part of the timekeeping system is electronic, even the starting gun (Source).
There’s a laser at the finish line that captures the runner’s time as they cross it, plus a Scan’O’Vision camera. This camera can scan images up to 2,000 times per second, giving a truly photo-worthy finish.
The more we understand about the human body and what it’s capable of, the better our training can be. Coaches are constantly finding new information and changing the ways they approach the sport. Even seemingly simple enhancements to items like shoes and running tracks can make a difference.
Unfortunately, there are also athletes who utilize illicit drugs and methods like blood doping to increase their strength and VO2 max (Source).
But records are still being broken by athletes who haven’t gone down the banned substance route.
The average runner can generally sprint at a pace of 20 km/h (12.4 mph), which would have them finishing a 100m race in about 20 seconds. Compare this to elite runners who are typically running faster than 30 km/h (18 mph). The fastest runner in the world is Usain Bolt, who had an average speed of 37.57km/h (23.3mph) and hit a top speed of 44km/h (27.8mph) (Source).
Endurance paces are also significantly different between an average runner and an elite runner. An average runner typically has a pace of 10-11 minutes per mile (and beginners are even higher at an average of 13-14 minutes per mile).
Meanwhile, Olympic athletes are running at an average pace of 4.3-5.3 minutes per mile. Olympic athletes are nearly twice as fast as the average athlete, and even the slowest Olympian can run faster than the average runner. That’s why they make it to the Olympics.
|100m Total Time||Marathon Total Time|
|Average Runner||20 seconds||4hr 21min|
|Olympic Record||9.63 seconds||2hr 6min 23sec|
While it’s highly unlikely that the average runner will be heading to the Olympics, watching elite athletes can serve as a great source of inspiration for any athlete. After all, if Usain Bolt can run at a top speed of 27.8mph, surely you can shave a few seconds off your 5k.