Early this year, elite runners Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese, and Lelisa Desisa became the first to try running a sub two hour marathon in Italy. In order to accomplish their goal and break the two-hour threshold, the trio must maintain an average pace of 13.1 miles per hour. To put this lofty goal in perspective, the current world record is 2:02:57 (or 12.786 miles per hour).
For these elite athletes, who wore a highly customized (and highly controversial) pair of Nike shoes for the challenge, completing a marathon in less than two hours is doable. After all, their bodies are trained for it. They also have the necessary equipment to pull it off and they did it under ideal conditions. But is a sub two hour marathon achievable for ordinary runners? Folks at Wired conducted an experiment to see if they can do it and unfortunately, they found out that it is almost impossible. Here’s why.
For those who don’t know how fast is 13.1 miles per hour, experienced runners will tell you that it is somewhat fast, but it is not that unreachable even for average runners. However, the challenge is that you have to maintain that speed for 120 minutes in order to break the world record and complete the marathon in less than two hours.
In 1991, Dr. Michael Joyner, exercise physiologist at Mayo Clinic and an expert at human performance, published a paper exploring the theoretical limits of marathon running. He calculated that an ideal athlete running under ideal conditions can run a marathon in one hour, 57 minutes, and 58 seconds.
According to him, there are three important elements that would allow a runner to complete a marathon in less than two hours. They are VO2 max or maximum oxygen intake, lactate threshold, and running economy or running efficiency.
In a nutshell, VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen you can get out of the air and into your tissues. It is usually expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of your bodyweight per minute. If you don’t frequently exercise but are otherwise healthy, your VO2 max is probably in the 30s or 40s. If you exercise, it would be in the 40s to 50s, and if you’re serious about your training, it will probably hit the 60s threshold. However, these VO2 max levels are nowhere near those of professional marathoners. Kipchoge and co. have VO2 max in the 70s to 80s.
If you’re going to think of VO2 max as the size of your car’s engine relative to its size, then lactate threshold is akin to the red line meter on your car’s dash. It is basically the level in which lactates and other metabolites start exponentially accumulating in your blood. If you’re running long-distance, this is something you’d want to keep low.
Running economy is basically how efficient your running is. There are many factors that influence running economy such as biomechanics or the length and size of your legs, where your foot lands relative to your center of gravity, as well as the flexibility of your tendons. While there are a lot of myths surrounding the best way to run, a 2012 study conducted by biomechanics researcher Ian Hunter showed that there isn’t really such a thing. Biomechanic factors differ from one runner to another, suggesting that there is actually no single most efficient way to run.
For folks at Wired, they discovered that it’s impossible even for avid runners to run a sub two hour marathon because their VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy are not the same level as those of professional marathoners and long distance runners. Unless you train the way professionals do, you won’t be able to consistently run at 13.1mph and achieve this feat.