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Do you need to be tall to be fast?

Usain Bolt is 6’5″ tall.

Carl Lewis is 6’3″.

Clearly taller people are faster than shorter people!

That may be true if we were talking about sprinters, but I’ve heard that argument invoked too many times with reference to distance races. Let’s take a little look at reality. The average height for men in the United States is 5’9.5″. Haile Gebrselassie, the world record holder in the men’s marathon is 5’5″. Reigning New York City marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi is 5’7″. The most recent Olympic champion? Sammy Wanjiru (may he rest in peace) – 5’4″. Heck, the last time the United States had an Olympic champion in the men’s marathon, his name was Shorter! At 5’10”, Frank Shorter is tall compared to other marathon champions, but still just average relative to the rest of the population.

The average height of women in the United States is 5’4″. So, marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe is relatively tall at 5’8″. Reigning Olympic champion, Constantina Dita is only 5’3″ tall and while few people would call Deena Kastor average, at 5’4″, her height truly is. 5’2″ Joan Benoit skipped the first water stop in the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. She increased her lead on 5’8″ marathon legend Grete Waitz with every short step, beating her by 1:26.

True, tall people naturally have longer strides, and stride length, along with stride rate determines speed. How long can that speed be maintained, though? Runners lift their bodies off the ground with each stride, as they propel themselves forward. The more you weigh, the harder you have to work to lift your body. Tall runners simply carry more weight than short runners. Furthermore, the longer your stride is, the higher you have to lift your body off the ground to complete your stride before you hit the ground again. Upward motion is wasted motion when you’re really trying to propel yourself forward. It’s not a big deal in a race that lasts less than a minute, but it’s quite significant in a race that lasts more than 2 hours!

So, for distance running, it’s certainly no disadvantage to be short. In fact, it’s probably an advantage. Check out 5’5″ Haile Gebrselassie vs 6’2″ Craig Mottram in a 5000 m race:


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Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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