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London Marathon runners in 1981 and 2020

The anatomy of a London Marathon Runner

From some 6,300 finishers at the first race in 1981 to more than 42,500 in 2019, the London Marathon has come a long way in 39 years. We take a look at some of the trends and changes in running ahead of the 40th edition of the race...



On a rain-soaked day in March 1981, participants in the first London Marathon wore all manner of headwear, from sweatbands to woolly hats and cycling caps.


While the elite and club runners wore conventional running vests, behind them a fashion parade of colourful tracksuits, hooded sweatshirts and everything in between was taking place. It was a sight athletics coach and BBC commentator Ron Pickering described at the time as “part Hampstead Heath, part Petticoat Lane, part track and field.”


The trend for short shorts was alive and well throughout the eighties, and while fashion dictated a shift towards longer lengths in the following years, many runners still prefer a shorter style today.


Dick Beardsley famously crossed the Finish Line hand in hand with fellow race winner Inge Simonsen, but the American had worn large white gloves for much of his run.


From the launch of the New Balance Trackster in 1960, the running shoe had evolved significantly by 1981 as companies introduced different designs that encompassed suede and mesh, many of which are the inspiration for fashionable casual trainers worn today.


Gender Balance

Of the 6,300 people to finish the first London Marathon in 1981, fewer than 300 were women, but the gender gap between men and women has continued to close over the years. A record 457,861 people applied to run in 2020, and just under 48 per cent of the total UK applicants were women.


The London Marathon quickly became synonymous with charity fundraising, and at the 2019 race, the #ThanksaBillion campaign celebrated the runners and supporters who have together raised more than £1 billion for charity over the race’s history.

Wearable Tech

With the introduction of smart phones, fitness tracking apps and smart watches, it has never been easier for runners to monitor their pace, heart rate, the number of steps they take or calories they burn during their run.

Clothing Tech

There have been a number of advances in sports clothing that now make for a more comfortable run. New Balance ICE technology, for example, boasts sweat-activated cooling and fast-drying moisture management for more breathable running tops, while items such as compression socks are designed to assist with muscle fatigue and post-run recovery.


When it comes to choosing the right shoe, runners have never had so much choice. With gait analysis available at many high street stores, it’s easier than ever to ensure you get the right support for your feet and your running style.