Fit­ness: A race against time

Run­ning geeks strive to make a sub-two hour marathon hap­pen

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - LIFE - JILL BARKER

When Roger Ban­nis­ter broke the four-minute mile in 1954, the world was stunned. No man can run that fast, was the think­ing of the day. Then he did.

More than 60 years later, an­other mile­stone on the cusp of be­ing bro­ken has reignited dis­cus­sions about just how fast our feet will carry us. A sub-two hour marathon has re­mained elu­sive de­spite sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances in train­ing, nu­tri­tion and footwear. With both Nike and Adi­das back­ing sci­en­tific teams de­ter­mined to make it hap­pen, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to break­ing what was once con­sid­ered the im­pos­si­ble.

At first glance, run­ning a marathon be­low the two-hour thresh­old doesn’t seem too daunt­ing. The world record was set by Den­nis Kimetto in 2014 at 2:02:57. So it’s sim­ply a mat­ter of shav­ing off 2.5 per cent. But for an al­ready elite pack of run­ners, who are sur­rounded by the best coaches, best gear and best train­ing con­di­tions, even a few sec­onds faster is a tall or­der.

That hasn’t stopped run­ning geeks around the world from weigh­ing in on what needs to be done to drop those pesky two min­utes and 58 sec­onds.

Guy Thibault, di­rec­tor of Sport Science at the In­sti­tut na­tional du sport du Québec, (INS Québec), thinks it’s not a mat­ter of if it can be done, but when.

“It will be dif­fi­cult, but I strongly feel it will be pos­si­ble,” said Thibault who has spent the last 30 years study­ing the prob­a­bil­ity.

What will it take to break the bar­rier?

A sub-two-hour marathoner needs to be a highly trained, slightly built phys­i­cal spec­i­men with su­pe­rior en­durance and aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity, Thibault says. Some of th­ese phys­i­o­log­i­cal com­po­nents can be achieved through a well-de­signed train­ing pro­gram and some are the re­sult of a good ge­netic pool. Com­bined, they paint a pic­ture of some­one who is lit­er­ally born to run.

But find­ing the right run­ner is only half the prob­lem. The other half is deter­min­ing what kind of ex­ter­nal con­di­tions are needed to get the job done. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent ar­ti­cle by a re­search group out of the Univer­sity of Colorado in Boul­der, the key to a sub-two-hour marathon is match­ing the right run­ner to the right con­di­tions.

This win­ning com­bi­na­tion is all about op­ti­miz­ing run­ning econ­omy, de­fined as the rate at which metabolic en­ergy is con­sumed at a given speed. More sim­ply put, good run­ning econ­omy burns less en­ergy even as the run­ner ap­proaches the max­i­mum de­sired speed or pace.

Fac­tors that neg­a­tively ef­fect run­ning econ­omy in­clude air and wind re­sis­tance, tem­per­a­ture, shoe de­sign, body weight and the route, all of which the Univer­sity of Colorado study ad­dresses.

To min­i­mize the re­sis­tance that re­sults from air push­ing against a run­ner, the re­searchers sug­gest em­ploy­ing a draft­ing reg­i­men sim­i­lar to that used in cy­cling. Po­si­tion­ing run­ners at the front of the pack might seem like an easy fix, but find­ing run­ners fast enough stay ahead of some­one run­ning at a subtwo-hour marathon pace is a seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able chal­lenge. A so­lu­tion is to have sev­eral run­ners of sim­i­lar speed who al­ter­nate tak­ing the lead.

It’s also nec­es­sary for the run to take place on a course pro­tected against the wind with ei­ther an ad­di­tional tail­wind or down­hill slope dur­ing the last half of the marathon when a run­ner’s pace starts to drop off.

As for tem­per­a­ture, cool weather helps main­tain the body’s core tem­per­a­ture, which en­sures en­ergy isn’t wasted try­ing to stay cool. The more en­ergy the body takes to reg­u­late body tem­per­a­ture, the more the run­ner moves away from op­ti­miz­ing run­ning econ­omy.

Also im­por­tant are the shoes, which need to be 100 grams lighter than the 224-gram Adi­das Adios Boost shoes worn by the cur­rent world record holder, with ad­e­quate cush­ion­ing and a firm mid­sole to add a touch of stiff­ness to the shoe and en­sure the proper trans­fer of en­ergy from the ground up.

The Univer­sity of Colorado re­searchers sug­gest that co­op­er­a­tive draft­ing com­bined with a tail­wind or an ex­tended down­hill por­tion in the last half of the race is enough to sus­tain a pace equal to break­ing the two-hour mark. The ad­di­tion of the right shoes would be ic­ing on the cake.

One prob­lem: Part of the chal­lenge of run­ning a marathon is man­ag­ing the con­di­tions of the day, which are any­thing but pre­dictable. So it’s likely a sub-two-hour fin­ish won’t hap­pen any­time soon in the type of marathon held in ci­ties around the world. In­stead, break­ing the mark prob­a­bly will take place in well-con­trolled con­di­tions that fea­ture the world’s fastest dis­tance run­ners tread­ing on a course es­pe­cially de­signed to boost run­ning econ­omy while wear­ing in­di­vid­u­ally de­signed run­ning shoes.

Nike re­cently tested its Nike Zoom Va­por­fly four per cent shoes on such a course with its own sta­ble of high-per­for­mance run­ners. They cov­ered only half the marathon dis­tance and were faced with windy con­di­tions, but the re­sults were promis­ing.

Will Nike’s team of sci­en­tists and run­ners break the bar­rier this year as promised? Who knows? What we do know for sure is that over the next few months, even more ex­perts will weigh in and more run­ners will strive to re­de­fine the lim­its of phys­i­cal per­for­mance.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Kenya’s Eliud Kip­choge re­acts af­ter cross­ing the fin­ish line to win the elite men’s race of the 2016 Lon­don Marathon in cen­tral Lon­don. Eliud Kip­choge of Kenya set a new course record in win­ning the Lon­don Marathon for the sec­ond straight year on Sun­day.

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