A two-hour marathon has been in the minds of elite distance runners since the American running boom of the 1970’s but only recently has that dream evolved into a possibility.
In the past few years, three different companies, Nike, Adidas and the Sub2Hrs Project, have developed their own unique programs to recruit and train an elite runner to run 26.2 miles in 1:59:59 or faster.
All three have some aspects that would be expected in a project aiming to accomplish an athletic feat, such as following a rigorous training plan with an experienced coaching staff, but with the recent exploding growth rate of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), scientific research will play an unprecedented, pivotal role in this athletic endeavor.
Sports medicine, nutrition, sports psychology and innovative technology are some of the specific fields involved, and each athlete recruited by the three programs will be individually assessed for their characteristics pertaining to these fields.
VO2 max and running economy are focal points of sports medicine.
VO2 max is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use in a certain amount of time, measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute (mL/kg/min). Running economy refers to the oxygen that a runner uses to cover a certain distance, measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per kilometer run (mL/kg/km).
Ideally, an athlete aiming to run a two-hour marathon would have a high VO2 max but also have a low running economy, but this is not a strict requirement for an elite runner.
Take, for instance, Zersenay Tadese, whose VO2 max was measured at 83 ml/kg/min, and whose running economy was measured at 150 ml/kg/min; while many elite runners exceed his VO2 max, he has an exceptional running economy to make up for it.
Nutrition will be studied before, during and after both routine workouts and on race day. Optimum caloric intake will be determined in addition to tailoring the ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein to satisfy an individual runner’s fuel and recovery needs. Carbohydrate-loading strategies for a specialized pre-race diet will also be determined for each runner.
Sports psychology studies a runner’s mind, both biologically and emotionally, when he is running under, at and above the blazing pace necessary to cover a marathon in two hours: 4:35 minutes/mile. Biologically, heart rate, running economy and lactic acid buildup will be compared to the psychological measures of perceived mental and physical strain.
Innovative technology will not be limited to footwear in the quest for a sub-two marathon, although Nike and Adidas are well-suited to tackle that field. Nike is currently awaiting a patent decision for a shoe that contains a carbon springboard in the midsole, while Adidas recently manufactured the world’s lightest running shoe exclusively for their runner, Wilson Kipsang, to wear in this year’s Tokyo marathon, which was held on Feb. 15th. It’s called the AdiZero Sub2, and it weighs a shocking 5.29 ounces.
Other technology that will be utilized includes instruments that monitor environmental conditions, such as air and ground temperature. These will be used to determine the ideal temperature at every point during a sub-two attempt, and this same technology will also be used to monitor the conditions in real-time while the attempt is actually taking place.
While each of these measures make it seem like a sub-two-hour marathon could be just around the corner, it is unlikely that the goal will be achieved in the next year or two. As any record gets lower and lower, it becomes harder to break.
The marathon record hovered around 2:04 for four years before entering into the 2:03’s, where it stayed for five years. From there it took six years before a runner ventured into the 2:02’s in 2014. Dennis Kimetto was the first and only runner to break 2:03, making him the current record holder with a time of 2:02:57.
Perhaps the efforts of Nike, Adidas and the Sub2Hrs Project will break this trend and enable an elite runner to write history in under two hours.