Cracking the Sub-Two-Hour Marathon

A new record has been set in the marathon, edging us 15 seconds closer to the two-hour mark. Will we get any faster?

Wilson Kipsang at the 2012 Lond

Wilson Kipsang at the 2012 London Marathon.     Photo: Tom Page/Flickr

A number of people think the sub-two-hour projection is nuts.

This weekend, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya ran 2:03:23 at the Berlin Marathon. He broke Patrick Makau’s world record by 15 seconds. The first recognized world record was 2:04:55 by Paul Tergat at Berlin set in 2003. Prior to that, only “world bests” were recognized.

In light of Berlin, will humans ever crack the two-hour mark?

22 Years and Three Minutes
In 1991, the world best for the marathon was 2:06:50. That year, I published a theoretical article on how fast the optimal human distance runner might go for the marathon. I recently updated the paper, and both papers suggest that we might someday run the marathon much faster than we currently do.

So why are Kenyans leading the charge?

The VO2max values and lactate thresholds for the elite East Africans are impressive but not exceptional for world-class runners. However, they are very efficient, allowing them to generate more speed with less oxygen. Their small size might also permit them to thermoregulate better. Finally, a lifetime of physical activity at high altitude can’t hurt.

The graph below shows the projections my colleagues Alejandro Lucia and Jonaton Ruiz made in the updated paper. The faster of the two projections shown in red is based on an average improvement of about 20 seconds per year and the slower blue one is based on ten seconds per year.   

Breaking the Record
A number of people think the sub-two-hour projection is nuts. As I've noted, the improvement to 2:02 might happen quickly—only to then slow down. My rationale: Until recently, the marathon mark was relatively slow compared to the 5k and 10k records on the track, pointing to room for improvement. Depending on which formulas you use, the current records project out to a marathon time of about 2:02. The other issue is what role doping is or is not playing in all of this. 

That having been said, a targeted world record attempt on a special circuit of a few miles is a fascinating idea to consider. The surface of such a circuit could be tuned for maximum speed and the course absolutely flat. The attempt could be made at twilight on a cool windless evening. To break 2:02 the average 10k pace would need to be just less than 29 minutes, extremely fast but maybe not so fast for a top marathoner who can break 27 minutes.   

If a sponsor put up the right kind of prize money, my guess is we could get very close to 2:02 in the next four of five years and then the chase for 2:01 could start. There are only 204 seconds left to get to two hours. The record continues to fall, and I have not lost the argument yet.

For more on the science behind the two-hour marathon.

Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the past 25-plus years, he's published hundreds of studies, many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes at Human Limits. The views expressed in his posts are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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