Should there be weight classes in running? Four arguments against it

I'm no lightweight runner, that's for sure. But I'm not going to seek special treatment because of it.

I’m no lightweight runner, that’s for sure. But I’m not going to seek special treatment because of it.

An interesting discussion popped up on the Trail and Ultra Running Facebook page, attached to a link that asked the question: Should marathons be divided into weight classes?

The reasoning was that many other sports have weight classes. So why not long-distance running? The writer used the analogy of boxing, and plenty of people who commented on the link also mentioned sports like mixed-martial arts, competitive weightlifting, wrestling, and so forth. Arguments for more weight classes seemed to go like this: Smaller, thinner people have a physical advantage over larger people in marathons. So why not split ‘em up?

It should be noted that some races offer “Clydesdale” and “Athena” classes for men and women who toe the line with more size than the smaller competitors. I fit nicely within the Clydesdale ranks, and my times show it. I’m mid-pack at best when I’m trim and in good shape. There’s no way I can compete with the front-pack runners who rarely weigh more than 135 pounds.

I fault the article for saying running and boxing are both “combative sports” (they’re not). But the general question is a decent one to ponder.

You’d think that someone like me, who usually enters races at 184-190 pounds, would embrace more weight divisions in endurance events. But I don’t. My thoughts:

Combat sports and weight lifting use different methods of athleticism to succeed than running. You might be thinking, “duh!”, but this needs to be explained. Boxing, wrestling, MMA and powerlifting use force and power against either an opponent (another fighter) or an object (a barbell). It takes mass to move mass, so naturally larger lifters can lift more weight, and when pitting two, equally skilled combatants against each other, the larger one has an advantage in terms of how much potential force can be behind a punch, kick or throw. With running, your energy is applied to moving only yourself against the friction of the road, an incline, or the wind. How well you do this is affected by your weight, but is more affected by your conditioning, and your build relative to your stature. If the latter two are adapted correctly for the sport, weight becomes a nonissue as it will automatically conform to the demands of high-level competition.

Weight-classed sports are designed in a way to accommodate a person’s genetics in terms of size. This matters less in running, because “size” is more under the athlete’s control. It would make no sense to put a 160-pound boxer in the ring with a dude who weighs 220. Similarly, you’d never expect a 120-pound powerlifter to lift as much as someone who weighs 250. These people’s sizes are often a component of their genetics. This happens with runners, too, but here’s the thing: If a runner wants to have a build that is conducive to running fast, a lot of that is under his or her control. Diet and training can make someone fast and efficient regardless of being 5-foot-4 or 6-foot-2. There are genetic and hormonal factors that can come into play for some people, but for most runners, your size relative to your sport are determined by you.

Distance running is already split up into numerous classes. Endurance sports don’t need to have a bunch of weight divisions because the fields are already broken up into age groups and gender. Go to any big-city marathon, and you have somewhere around 8 or more age groups per gender. Age makes some sense, as that is a major factor that the runner can’t change. Splitting up into even more categories seems to dilute what it means to be a “winner” and lessen the significance of podium finishes. If we do this, what’s next? Height classes to help shorter runners? We could keep going down this rabbit hole until we get a few dozen podium photo ops per race.

Running is already one of those sports that rewards far more than just winning. Many races give out medals just for crossing a finish line. I have no problem with that (I treasure my mid-pack finisher medals), but if we’re going to make the podium more accessible by adding new classifications, we’re watering down the significance of what it takes to win. Though I compare my times to friends, I mostly compete against myself. I realize that if I want to have a chance at winning, I’d need to drastically change my training, diet and lifestyle. I’d need to be about 60 pounds lighter to be fast enough to challenge high-performing runners. But I like barbecue and tacos, and I don’t want to lose so much muscle that my strength goes away. With that in mind, I know I’ll never be a podium finisher. And I’m OK with that. Along the same line, I do not and will never expect any race director and athletic organization to write up new rules to make it to where someone like me, who won’t commit to elite-level training, reaps the rewards of an elite-level finish by stepping on a platform and holding a trophy that looks and feels like that of someone who is actually elite.

So those are my thoughts. How about you? Yay or nay on weight classes? Holler in the comments.

Bob Doucette

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