As athletes, we know that success is more of a stew than a secret ingredient. It starts with the classic base of patience and consistency, then you throw in the main flavors of intensity and mileage (whether that’s on two wheels, two feet or in the water) and finally you add the magic sauce: talent and luck.
For the world’s best athletes talent and luck are a given. They’re intangible and we’re not going to attempt to solve the talent equation today (we’ll save that for another time!). But the other ingredients are quantifiable, to some extent, and fascinating to anyone with an interest in pushing their limits. Because we can all learn from the best.
So, as athletes around the world gear up for a big summer, we took a look underneath the hood to see how they train.
Let’s first take a look at just how fast these athletes are in comparison to me and you. Each year millions of runners tackle a marathon. It is, for many people, the goal of a lifetime and a one-way ticket to weeks of sore legs.
The women’s 2021 Olympic Marathon qualifying time is 2 hours, 29 minutes and 30 seconds, an average pace of 5:41/mile. And the men’s is 2 hours, 11 minutes and 30 seconds, an average pace of 5:01/mile. Yep, that is very fast!
We found that the average marathon finish time for a female athlete on Strava is 4 hours, 12 minutes and 18 seconds, an average pace of 9:37/mile. That means that they’d be at mile 15.5 when the athletes competing at the Olympics have crossed the finish line.
On the men’s side the average male marathon time on Strava is 3 hours, 35 minutes and 10 seconds, an average pace of 8:15 per mile. So the story is very similar to the women’s marathon: the average male Strava athlete would be at 15.9 miles, about 60% done, as the world’s best cross the finish line.
At international track and field competitions, the 1500m, also known as the metric mile, is the most common race distance. While many of us might never have donned a pair of spikes and raced a 1500m, the mile is likely to be a familiar benchmark.
Nikki Hiltz is an American 1500m runner and part of our Dream Bigger program which is designed to help you chase your big goals this summer (so head on over there for more insight from the pros!). Nikki represented Team USA at the 2019 World Championships and has a personal best for 1500m of 4:01:52 which converts to roughly 4:31 for the mile. The average run on Strava is at 9:53/mile pace which would put us almost a full two laps behind Nikki.
How close to Nikki do you think you could get with an all-out mile effort?
Racing on two wheels is a little more tricky – it’s rarely the all-out, sustained effort you see in running so speed comparisons can be misleading. But we took a look at the average speed pros train at and unsurprisingly, it’s fast! Pro cyclists ride about 44% faster on their training rides than amateur cyclists.
So, the logical next question is: how do pro athletes get so fast?
We looked at data from pro athletes on Strava for the first four months of the year as many of them put in big training blocks before a summer of competition. The conclusion? They train a lot. If you want to be great, you’ve got to put in the work.
While most of us just get out for a few runs a week logging an average of 11 miles, the average pro runner is logging 58 miles a week. That means amateur runners are recording 19% of the weekly volume of a pro.
Pro cyclists are mileage machines – they’re logging an average of 258 miles per week compared to the 45 miles the average cyclist records each week. That means amateur riders are training at only 17% of the volume of the pros.
Unsurprisingly, a big day for a pro athlete is significantly bigger than what most of us might consider a long run or ride. For a pro runner, 20 miles was an average longest run in the first four months of 2021 compared to 8 miles for an amateur. With a lot of races on hold for amateur runners, it’s likely we might see that number rise a bit for our amateur athletes as race opportunities return this summer.
Pro cyclists are logging average big days of 127 miles while amateur cyclists log 45 miles. Interestingly, the biggest day for an amateur cyclist is the same as the average weekly mileage suggesting many cyclists are putting all their effort into one big weekend ride.
So, are we all going to become pro athletes now? No, sadly not. Most of us don’t have the time or training maturity to log the kind of training volume of pro athletes. And that’s okay! In fact, looking at the training volume of pro athletes is a good reminder that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the world’s best.
While we can learn from their good habits – consistency, taking the easy days easy, prioritizing sleep and all the other things we know we should do but don’t always – we can’t expect to perform like them when we have busy lives and other priorities.
But, if you are looking to improve your fitness this summer, getting a coach who can help you maximize your training based on your time and training maturity is a great place to start.