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Marathon Runner vs. Salsa Dancer. Who is the better athlete?

Crossing the finish line of any marathon for the first time requires physical and mental conditioning. There's physical fatigue, the mental highs of pushing past psychological limitations, and the sheer excitement of feeding off competitors and a crowd.  It is just this sort of physical and mental prep that are also required to be an accomplished salsa dancer.

While images of glitz and sheer athleticism of salsa experts Karel y Eddie Flores may come to mind, dive deeper and it’s clear that skilled salsa dancers share the athleticism, endurance, physical agility, organization, clean eating, and “attire” focus (and bling) that marathoners are known for.

We invited avid marathon runner Kirsty Hopkins and acclaimed salsa dancer Mercedes Martinez to collaborate and share their take on how their sports compare.  

No dead legs on the course or dance floor!

Marathon runners invest 16-20 weeks into a regimented program that loads legs with miles to prep them for race day.  Running as much as 22 miles before the race, and running on “dead legs” to simulate the last 4-6 crucial miles of a marathon is de rigueur.  Adding tempo runs and speed workouts to improve cardiovascular fitness is also pursued. 

Salsa dancers look to increase muscular endurance by practicing their craft daily and investing countless hours working on dance technique. Polishing up moves and creating new ones is never-ending and drives the artistic mind of a dedicated salsa dancer.

Discipline wins.

Early bird gets the worm. “Type A” marathoners don’t think twice about rising at dawn to get their miles in.  Full-time workers and parents understand that if it isn’t done first, it may not get done at all.  Many runners organize their calendars by the hour to ensure that no miles are left undone. 

Salsa dancers are no less disciplined, but burn the oil at the other end of the day. They go late, late and later.  Salsa dancers structure their day to maximize performance.  The schedule often includes a midday nap to ensure plentiful energy to dance all night long.

No bonking allowed.

Marathoners are all too familiar with the term “bonk,” which means, “to hit the wall.” And it can happen fast when the body runs low on glycogen and dehydrates. Salsa dancers can experience this same feeling after a few hours of moves.  Lightheadedness, fatigue and weakness can hit and ruin a perfectly good evening---or race.

While marathoners may seek out carbs and protein to prevent the bonk, salsa dancers often look to protein infused smoothies.  Heavy carbs slow dancers down when the plan is to keep moving into the wee hours of the morning.  And if you haven’t seen a salsa dancer in action, you should.  The amount of sweat produced resembles that of an intense 60-minute cycling class.  For marathoners and salsa dancer, hydration is essential!

Battle of the BLING! 

Salsa dancing is synonymous with “bling” and sparkle.  We immediately conjure images of ornate sequined costumes that shine when the lights hit them. These outfits are worn for salsa performances and competitions -- flashy choreographed dance routines that are detail oriented. One can never have too much bling for a performance! Sexy is the name of the salsa game.

Marathoners also like their bling.  These long distance runners will opt for one marathon over another just for the medal.  And race organizers know it. In today’s marathon world, the completion medals are customized and crafted with immense detail. Hmmm, we wonder if these same folks support giving kids “participation awards?”

If the shoe fits.

Finding the right shoe for marathon running is like cracking the Da Vinci Code. “If the shoe fits, then wear it.” Easier said than done. Just Google “shoe running marathon” and endless opinions fly off the screen. Marathon runners can spend weeks, months, and even years in search of the Holy Grail of running--the perfectly fitting shoe!  Gait analysis, treadmill tests, insert customization are all pursued along with taking into consideration weight, weekly mileage and marathon goal time.

Salsa dancers confront many of these issues and face the extra challenge of style. It’s a top priority!  Salsa dancers want to look sexy, stylish and be comfortable. Wearing the right shoes is paramount to dancing endurance.  You can expect to see heels 2.5 inches or higher with an open toe, often nude in color giving salsa dancers the appearance of having longer legs. Rhinestones will provide a wow factor.


Marathoners need to schedule rest and relaxation, aka “recovery.”  Sleep, lounging in hot tubs and/or Epsom salt baths, meditation, foam rolling, massage therapy, cryotherapy, and just taking a day or more OFF are imperative training components.

Meanwhile over in salsa land, dancers also need to rest their legs and prioritize recovery.  Enjoying activities that promote a balanced mind and body is important.  Massage, trips to the sauna, Jacuzzi, or even a yoga class will keep a salsa dancer’s body primed for the next salsa fix. Both groups are susceptible to overtraining. 

Competition. Where’s the Skill?

Results of a salsa dancing competition are partially subjective.  While winners must employ specific technique and skill, it’s up to the judges to score both.  Style also factors into the results. Mercedes contends running is running.  “Where is the “skill?””  It’s one foot in front of the other, and she who does it faster, wins.

Kirsty responds that new brain neural pathways are undoubtedly created via salsa dancing’s ever changing moves. However the training system, goal setting and running technique are skills that must be employed.  Kirsty dropped her marathon time from a 3:52 to a 3:23 over the course of 6 years, and accredits this success to adopting a new run form, building faster twitch muscles at the track and following a regimented training schedule.

So, who is the better athlete??

Mercedes and Kirsty advocate for what they love best.  What we can conclude is that motivation, hard work, organization and athleticism are requirements for BOTH salsa dancing and marathon running.  Mercedes can’t get enough of the “caliente” salsa dance and Kirsty can’t wait for her runner’s high!

Kirsty Hopkins is a 12-time marathoner, 7-time Boston Marathon qualifier and 3-time Ironman finisher.  This accomplished athlete grew up in the UK and now resides in San Diego, CA.

Mercedes Martinez has over twenty years experience salsa dancing and thrives on exploring the beautiful rhythms of this passionate and very expressive dance form.

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