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Great Marathoners Over Six Feet Tall Are Rare

Luke Puskedra heads toward a 2:10:24 PR on October 11, 2015, at the Chicago Marathon. At 6 feet 4 inches, Puskedra stands out among his elite marathoning peers.

During Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, it was easy to pick American Luke Puskedra out of the pack, and not just because his singlet read “USA.” With a personal best of 2:10:24 and a height of 6 feet 4 inches, Puskedra is the newest entry on a short list—top marathoners who are at least 6 feet tall.

Puskedra is tall enough to stand out in almost any crowd, but especially in comparison to his fellow elites. As reported in a 2013 Sweat Science column, between 1990 and 2012 the average height of the top 100 men marathoners in a given year decreased from 5 feet 8.1 inches to 5 feet 6.9 inches.

Why are tall elite marathoners rare? Exercise scientists have offered some partial answers. First, as David Martin and Peter Coe wrote in Better Training for Distance Runners, “As height increases linearly, body weight increases exponentially.” According to Martin and Coe, if a 5-feet-6-inch elite weighs 120 pounds, a similarly built runner who stands 6-feet-0.5-inches, or 1.1 times taller than the first runner, would weigh 156 pounds, or 1.3 times more than the shorter runner. That is, the taller runner is heavier not just in absolute terms, but also proportionally.

Related, the similarly built shorter runner has a relatively greater surface area, which, everything else being equal, allows for better heat dissipation.

Martin and Coe have also speculated that training to be a world-class marathoner can be more difficult for tall runners. The theory is that, because foot size doesn’t necessarily increase in proportion to height, taller runners are subject to greater biomechanical forces, and could have an increased susceptibility to injury.

That’s not to suggest that tall teens shouldn’t aspire to be great marathoners. The last two men to hold the world record, Dennis Kimettoand Wilson Kipsang, are reported to stand exactly 6 feet tall, and the first person to break 2:05, Paul Tergat, is listed at being just under 6 feet tall.