Study reveals physical demands of two-hour marathon

November 13, 2020

Elite runners need a specific combination of physiological abilities to have any chance of running a sub-two-hour marathon, new research shows.

The study is based on detailed testing of athletes who took part in Nike's Breaking2 project - an ambitious bid to break the two-hour barrier.

Professor Andrew Jones, of the University of Exeter, said the findings reveal that elite marathon runners must have a "perfect balance" of VO2 max (rate of oxygen uptake), efficiency of movement and a high "lactate turn point" (above which the body experiences more fatigue).

The VO2 measured among elite runners shows they can take in oxygen twice as fast at marathon pace as a "normal" person of the same age could while sprinting flat-out.

"Some of the results - particularly the VO2 max - were not actually as high as we expected," Professor Jones said.

"Instead, what we see in the physiology of these runners is a perfect balance of characteristics for marathon performance.

"The requirements of a two-hour marathon have been extensively debated, but the actual physiological demands have never been reported before."

The runners in the study included Eliud Kipchoge, who took part in Breaking2 - falling just short of the two-hour target - but later achieving the goal in 1:59:40.2 in the Ineos 1:59 challenge.

Based on outdoor running tests on 16 athletes in the selection stage of Breaking2, the study found that a 59kg runner would need to take in about four litres of oxygen per minute (or 67ml per kg of weight per minute) to maintain two-hour marathon pace (21.1 km/h).

"To run for two hours at this speed, athletes must maintain what we call 'steady-state' VO2," Professor Jones said.

"This means they meet their entire energy needs aerobically (from oxygen) - rather than relying on anaerobic respiration, which depletes carbohydrate stores in the muscles and leads to more rapid fatigue."

In addition to VO2 max, the second key characteristic is running "economy", meaning the body must use oxygen efficiently - both internally and through an effective running action.

The third trait, lactate turn point, is the percentage of VO2 max a runner can sustain before anaerobic respiration begins.

"If and when this happens, carbohydrates in the muscles are used at a high rate, depleting glycogen stores," Professor Jones explained.

"At this point - which many marathon runners may know as 'the wall' - the body has to switch to burning fat, which is less efficient and ultimately means the runner slows down.

"The runners we studied - 15 of the 16 from East Africa - seem to know intuitively how to run just below their 'critical speed', close to the 'lactate turn point' but never exceeding it.

"This is especially challenging because - even for elite runners - the turn point drops slightly over the course of a marathon.

"Having said that, we suspect that the very best runners in this group, especially Eliud Kipchoge, show remarkable fatigue resistance."

The testing, conducted in Exeter and at Nike's performance centre in Oregon, USA, provided a surprising experience for a group of amateur runners in the UK.

"We tested 11 of the 16 runners at Exeter Arena a few years ago," Professor Jones said.

"Some local runners were there at the time, and it was a real eye-opener for them when a group of the world's best athletes turned up.

"The elite runners were great - they even joined in with the local runners and helped to pace their training."
-end-


University of Exeter

Related Athletes Articles from Brightsurf:

51% of Americans agree paying college athletes should be allowed
More Americans than not believe that college athletes should be allowed to be paid more than what it costs them to go to school, a new national study of nearly 4,000 people suggests.

Menstrual dysfunction is more common among young athletes than among non-athletes
Menstrual dysfunction is more prevalent in young Finnish athletes than it is among non-athletes of a similar age, but athletes experience less body weight dissatisfaction than non-athletes do.

Athletes don't benefit from relying on a coach for too long
Athletes increasingly relying on a coach over the course of a season may be a sign that they aren't progressing in their development, according to new research from Binghamton University.

Olympic athletes should be mindful of their biological clocks
Biological clocks have sizeable effects on the performance of elite athletes.

Female athletes at risk for nutritional deficiencies
Two decades of research among female athletes over the age of 13 years shows that a lack of nutrition knowledge about what they need to eat to stay healthy and compete may contribute to poor performance, low energy and nutrient intake, and potential health risks, according to a Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School study.

Electrocardiogram shows value in college athletes' screens
Research published today indicates that screenings that incorporate an ECG are more effective at detecting cardiac conditions that put athletes at risk, and more efficient in terms of cost-per-diagnosis of at-risk players, than screenings involving only a physical exam and patient history.

How kirigami can help us study the muscular activity of athletes
Scientists devise an elastic and durable skin-contact patch for measuring the electromyographic activity of the palm muscle inspired by ancient Japanese paper crafts.

Study examines attitudes toward transgender athletes
As several states draft legislation that would force student-athletes to play as their gender identified on their birth certificate instead of on a team that matches their gender identity, a team of political scientists investigated underlying factors that drive public opinion on transgender athletes.

The mind-muscle connection: For aesthetes, not athletes?
The 'mind-muscle connection.' Ancient lore for bodybuilders, latest buzz for Instragram fitness followers.

Sudden cardiac arrest in athletes: Prevention and management
It's marathon season, and every so often a news report will focus on an athlete who has collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest.

Read More: Athletes News and Athletes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.