If you love running and wish you could go pro, you’re not alone. Every year, collegiate distance runners who earn All American in track and cross-country events have a chance to be courted by elite teams to train for the Olympics and by brands for lucrative sponsorships. But can someone who didn’t run at the collegiate level learn how to become an elite runner?
It’s true that the visibility that comes with podium placements in college, plus natural talent and potential, are huge factors in a runner’s ability to monetize their running career. In any sport, it is generally expected that athletes hit peak performance levels between the ages of 25 and 35.
Going elite isn’t limited to young athletes right out of school. However, becoming an elite runner does get harder with age. It’s true, determination and grit can help you achieve elite status, but some runners might have a genetic advantage that wasn’t unlocked until later in life. While it is rare for adult runners to transition from amateur to professional, it’s not impossible.
How To Become an Elite Runner
Are elites born or made? We’ve covered running genetics, but the answer gets more complicated when it comes to achieving elite status. Even Olympian Jeff Galloway has admitted that he was not the fastest runner in high school or college, but that he applied himself to running and qualified for the 1972 Olympic team.
It is possible to train hard enough to become a world-class runner, although surely genetics give some elites a leg up. Sports medicine professionals analyze the form, mechanics, and training of elite runners and note consistency in the following areas:
- Hip strength when the foot strikes the ground – elites have a very even pelvis throughout the stride
- Faster foot turnover, equaling faster cadence – elites are striking the ground closer to a very efficient 180 steps per minute
- Strict training regimens – elites put in the effort in terms of running, strength, recovery, fueling, and sleep to support their goals of running faster and better while also reducing injuries
Additional factors include a having a more powerful cardiovascular system and the ability to run longer at anaerobic threshold. Elite athletes process oxygen more efficiently, and can run at anaerobic threshold (hard enough that talking is impossible) for longer than average runners. It takes a significant amount of training to hit these levels. Many elites train at altitude to train the body to produce more red blood cells to aid in oxygen delivery to the muscles. This offers a boost when racing at lower elevations.
Other factors that set elite runners apart include wearing high-performance shoes and replacing them before they wear out, and higher training volume. Elite runners tend to run more days and more hours than amateurs, which also put them at higher risk for injury. Research has shown that elite marathon runners are report experiencing musculoskeletal pain nearly four-time more than recreational runners.
What Qualifies You as an Elite Runner?
If you’re wondering what qualifies you as an elite runner, the answer is, “It depends,” especially for elite marathon runners. Different races have different qualification requirements. In some cases, a runner who ranks as elite in one marathon might not qualify to race as an elite in another.
For example, the Boston Marathon, run by the Boston Athletic Association, has a professional athlete program for defending champions, Olympians, and World Champions. To qualify, runners must have run a sub 2:35 for women and a sub 2:13 for men in the marathon distance.
Runners debuting in the marathon at the Boston Marathon must have run a half marathon sub 1:11 for women and sub 1:02 of men. On the other hand, to qualify for elite runner status at the Missoula Marathon, your PR finishing time at a marathon in the previous two years must be at least 3:00 for women and 2:30 for men.
The Abbott World Marathon Majors Elite Series evaluates athletes on their performance in the six largest and more well-known marathons in the world. These races include marathons in Boston, Tokyo, NYC, London, Chicago, and Berlin. Athletes score points for their finish place in each race. Those who place in top three for male and female marathon runners win prize money.
Do Runners Make Money?
Getting paid to do something you is a dream for many. Elite runners are able to monetize their passion and skill for running and turn it into a viable income stream. So, yes, some runners do make money. One might assume that elite = paid, versus amateur = not paid, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Additionally, athletes with agents automatically don’t see some of that income in order to pay management fees. So, looks like a lucrative money-making opportunity isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems.
Runners can make money in a variety of ways, including highly coveted sponsorship deals with popular brands such as Nike, Saucony, and Brooks. Famous sprinter Usain Bolt has made millions as a sponsored athlete with Puma, but he’s an exception and not the rule. Many sponsored elites also make money winning races. This isn’t limited to sprinters or World Marathon Majors, either. News dropped in early 2022 that NYCRUNS would offer more than $100,000 in cash and prices to top finishers at the Brooklyn Marathon and Half Marathon, with a special cash bonus for the winning athlete if they were from one of NYC’s five boroughs.
Runners can also earn through appearance fees, which can range from a few grand to hundreds-of-thousands. It’s not necessarily easy money because the contracts often come with conditions. Additionally, athletes can leverage their notoriety as influencers and make money through promotional campaigns on social media. However, you don’t necessarily have to be an elite athlete to make money with appearance fees or social influencer opportunities.
While some elite runners do quite well, it’s important to note that earning potential is primarily driven by performance and potential. Injured runners, and those who end up with a poor public image, risk losing sponsorships and opportunities to earn money. Many Olympic athletes have careers and part-time jobs outside of athletics.
Elite athletes often get their start early. While it is possible for an older athlete to become an elite runner, it is rare. Many elite runners have a natural, genetic advantage that other runners may not be able to replicate with grit and determination in training. Qualifying to become an elite runner depends on the event you’re competing in, and the standards are pretty high. It is possible for runners of all distances and paces to make money, especially through influencer deals and even paid appearances.
There is some money to be made by earning podium placement at events, with purse sizes varying from race to race. However, the bigger money-makers tend to be brand sponsorships that are generally reserved for elite athletes, and even that can be at risk due to negative changes to public image and injuries.