Japanese Marathon Model

In recent years, multiple visits to Japan has provided some insight and understanding into the structural aspects of the Japanese Marathon culture.

In distance running terms, Japan has built a world leading domestic platform to drive strong international results, with a focus on representation through high school, collegiate and finally corporate team structures. A socially significant positioning of the sport means that teams and athletes are followed closely through extensive TV and mass media coverage and indeed a longer term precedent of success and national pride generated by the likes of Toshiko Seko, the Soh brothers and brands such as Asics and Mizuno.

As observers of distance running, in particular marathons, we are constantly drawn to the dominance of East African nations at major championships and big city marathons. For many reasons, the quality and depth of performances of the Japanese is overlooked. Consider this, at the 2014 Japanese Collegiate Half Marathon Championships 207 runners broke 66 minutes for the Half Marathon. When you consider that this event was the same day as the Lake Biwa International Marathon (an IAAF Gold Label Marathon with over 200 sub 2.30 times) and also multiple smaller domestic races, you start to get an appreciation for the astonishing depth of high performance in Japanese distance running.

As a comparison, with a population that towers over Japan, the 2014 USA National Half Marathon Championships had 43 sub 66 minute times.

How is this achieved?

On discussion with various athletes, coaches and enthusiasts in becomes clear that the discipline and routine of endurance training is highly correlated with the core values of the Japanese people. Process driven application is respected and highly valued and underpins high performance and regard both in life and marathon running in Japan. Another very apparent strength of the culture is the team component to training and racing. This drive to perform so as to not “let down the team” is not exactly success through fear of failure, but certainly there is a feeling that accountability and expectations are high and that underperforming is viewed unfavourably. Finally, the domestic racing scene has multiple tiers to assist athletes transitioning from school, to university, national or international standards of proficiency via high school competitions, University Ekiden and Half Marathon championships, Corporate Professional Ekidens and a series of elite only IAAF branded male and female marathons each year.

In terms of training structure and career progression there is also a very logical progression through the high school-university and corporate team structures to allow talented athletes to continue to progress along a career path which allows social and capital integration of running into the broader national framework.

As a simplified summary, it would appear that during high school years, skill development (technique) and speed (track races) are the strongest focus, with this ensuring that runners develop well biomechanically and neuro-muscularly before progressing into college. By building a successful platform of skill acquisition, movement patterns are well engineered for increments in volume load that follow and will generally hold runners in good stead to carry strong elastic mechanisms and running economy into their later career.
At College, team races become increasingly important and volume is the primary load that is enhanced to build endurance and racing begins to skew strongly towards longer distances on track, on cross country or road which are most culturally valued and aligned. In the final phase, if runners progress to corporate professional teams, they begin to train full time. The largest change here is recovery and focus. By allowing those running in professional teams to focus exclusively on running increments can be made in terms of strength and conditioning programmes (gym), training camps or incremental loading in volume or intensity to suit the teams agenda and athletes need.

In summary, the success of the Japanese distance running culture provides valuable insights for Australia, USA and European countries, as their success in Marathon and distance events takes place sustainably within the context of a country with a relatively high cost of living and high demands on ongoing education and long working hours.