Fitness: What makes a two-hour marathoner tick? – Montreal Gazette

Fitness: What makes a two-hour marathoner tick?  Montreal Gazette


There’s no single impressive stat that defines the world’s best runners.

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One of the more popular displays at running expos prior to some big-city marathons is an oversized treadmill set at the speed of the men’s world record marathon pace. It’s nicknamed the Tumbleator, and runners are encouraged to hop on and see if they can keep up. For most, it’s a humbling experience, and one that clearly illustrates the difference between the pace at the front and back of the pack.

How fast are the world’s elite marathoners? The best time on record for the 42 km course is 1:59.40, which translates to an average speed of 21.1 km/h, or around 2:50 minutes per kilometre. Meanwhile, the average finishing time of a mid-pack marathoner is 4:29.53, which means moving at a pace of about 6:25 minutes per kilometre, give or take.

Admittedly, only one man, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, has finished a marathon in under two hours. He did it as part of a Nike-sponsored experiment that put together the ideal set of conditions — track, temperature, wind speed, pacers, footwear and drafting — in an attempt to break the two-hour mark. But it takes more than just the perfect combination of external factors to become a two-hour marathoner. The physiology of Kipchoge and his fellow front-of-the-packers has been largely unknown, until recently: a British researcher welcomed 16 of the best male marathoners into his lab to find out what makes them so fast.

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“The requirements of running a two-hour marathon have been extensively debated, but the actual physiological demands of running at 21.1 km/h have never been reported,” said Andrew Jones from the University of Exeter in the U.K.

Jones assessed, in a lab and on a track, what are considered the three most important measures of a distance runner: VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a runner can consume and use), running economy (the energy needed to run at a given pace) and critical speed (the fastest pace a runner can sustain over a long distance before hitting the wall). By any measure, the stats posted by all 16 runners proved their excellence over 42 kilometres. But there were some surprises, including their VO2 max, which was impressive but not as remarkable as expected.

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Elite cross-country skiers and cyclists have VO2 max scores that reveal they take in 96 mL of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. The marathoners in Jones’s lab ranged from 62 to 84 mL/kg/min, which is more than double that of most mid-packers, but modest when compared to other elite aerobic athletes. It was the first indication that a superior VO2 max isn’t always the best marker of a superior two-hour marathoner.

The other notable finding from this elite group of runners came from their ability to sustain a high level of speed over the full 42 kilometres without crossing the line to the point at which their body can no longer sustain their effort. Anyone who has tried to improve their 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon time knows there comes a point when you can no longer maintain your top pace — you simply run out of gas. Turns out this resistance to fatigue over long distances is an important factor in separating the best from the very best distance runners. Even among the elite group in Jones’s lab, not all were able to maintain the output necessary to run at a two-hour marathon pace, which turns out to be about 94 per cent of their peak effort for the full 42 kilometres.

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Part of what breaks down at this relentless pace is running economy. As fatigue builds, form starts to deteriorate and the energy expended with each stride increases.

“It was striking that only seven of 16 athletes in this world-class cohort were able to achieve a VO2 steady-state at 21 km/h,” said Jones. “This underlines the significant challenge of running a sub-two-hour marathon.”

Jones and his team point to the importance of multiple performance factors, versus a single impressive stat like VO2 max, in determining the physiological makeup of the world’s best runners. The runner who possesses the perfect balance of performance tools, along with a superior ability to moderate energy output with oxygen intake, will cross the finish line first. If you look under the hood of a two-hour marathoner, you’re bound to find a Bugatti engine, but there’s also a mix of other high-performance features that ensure the delivery of top speed for the full length of the race.

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As for the rest of us, we can always make small improvements to our VO2 max, running economy and resistance to fatigue, but it takes good genetics and lots of hard work to keep up with the best distance athletes. An average week for Kipchoge and his crew consists of training runs totalling 170 to 230 kilometres, including several high-intensity days of speedy workouts such as 25 to 30 intervals of 400-metre sprints. And given that the average weight of the elite runners in Jones’s lab was 59 kilograms (130 pounds), body type is another aspect to take into consideration when it comes to the energy cost of moving mass at near top speed for two hours. Let’s face it: it’s hard to keep up with a fully tanked Porsche powered by a 1,500 horsepower turbocharged engine when you’re built more like an SUV running half empty on four cylinders.