#Nolimits: How to break marathon records

Been training for a marathon and wonder how elite marathoners achieve such mind-boggling records? We might have some answers for you.


Eliud Kipchoge has been breaking marathon records every year and will attempt an under-2-hour mark soon.

We love people who define our #nolimits tag and one of those is Eliud Kipchoge. For those who do not know, Kipchoge is the world's most celebrated marathoner. At 34 years old, he achieved an amazing finish time of 2:01:39 hours for a full marathon in Berlin last year. That's a jaw-dropping pace of about 20.8km/h. He also holds an unofficial record of 2:00:25 at Nike's Breaking 2 marathon in May 2017 (not a world record due to the use of rotating pacers). This year, he will be attempting to run a marathon under 2 hours, this time with INEOS to make it official.


Kipchoge is not alone in these record-breaking speeds. The top ten marathoners below hold records within a two-minute range from Kipchoge.


The men hold the top ten records for a full marathon. The women trail behind with the fastest woman, Paula Radcliffe holding the record of 2:15:25.

As we analyse the table, obvious questions that pop into our minds are: Why are all the runners either Kenyan or Ethiopian? Is it because of the geography of their countries? Does biology play a part?


We sought to find answers.



Our take on the debate

We stumbled across a 2012 paper titled "Kenyan and Ethiopian Distance Runners: What Makes Them So Good?", written by two well-known scientists: Randy Wilber of United States Olympic Committee's Athlete Performance Lab and Yannis Pitsiladis of the University of Glasgow. It was published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.


The thought-provoking paper sparks debate by laying out eight possible factors (mostly biological) that govern the question:

  1. Diet

  2. Genetic predisposition

  3. Skeletal-muscle-fiber composition and oxidative enzyme profile

  4. High haemoglobin and hematocrit levels

  5. Living and training at altitude

  6. Development of high maximal oxygen uptake due to an active lifestyle since young

  7. Development of good metabolic "economy/efficiency" based on body type and lower limb characteristics

  8. Motivation to achieve economic success

The paper largely focuses on determining a genetic advantage that may define the dominance of the record table. They looked at three genetic components: Mitochondrial DNA (inherited from mom), Y-chromosomes (inherited from dad); and individual unique genes that might explain the performance boost.


Surprisingly, in all case studies, there were no convincing evidence that Kenyans and Ethiopians are genetically predisposed to succeed. But that also lies in the problem that the sample size is rather tiny and our scientific abilities are limited.


The paper suggested that Kenyan runners had slightly longer and lighter legs compared to Scandinavian runners.

However, the paper did draw a connection between a physical trait (that might have to do with genetics) and biomechanical and metabolic efficiency. They suggested that elite Kenyan runners had 5% longer legs and 12% lighter calves compared to elite Scandinavian runners. Perhaps that might be their secret.


What was interesting to us was point 6, which ties in the other factors as well. There is a longstanding belief that great Kenyan runners had a head-start because they often ran long distances to school. A decade ago, it was deemed a myth, but the paper shows there might be some truth to it. They compared national- and international-level long-distance Kenyan runners to a control group of non-running Kenyans, based on their mode of transport to school as children.


Figure (a) Comparison of different groups of Kenyans based on how they got to school.

Similarly in Ethiopia, they compared non-athlete controls to elite non-distance-running track and field athletes, 5K-10K runners, and marathoners:


Figure (b) Comparisons of Ethiopians based on how they got to school and what they are doing now.

The data can be quite suggestive as there is a distinct difference in how much running was done during schooling ages before being an elite runner.


Finally, the authors explain the Kenyan-Ethiopian dominance of the record tables through a hypothetical model that examine biomechanical and physiological, training and psychological factors.

"It would be naive to think that there is a single prominent genetic, physiological, or psychological factor that explains the extraordinary success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners." - Authors of the paper.


It's a bit of everything

So, Kipchoge's performance boils down to physiological characteristics like an ectomorphic body type, and advantageous environmental conditions, such as growing up at high altitudes.


It is the nature-nurture symbiosis (which aligns with many other studies) that the top ten athletes are blessed with. But this symbiosis is not limited to genetics, physiology, nutrition, coaching, mental and emotional preparedness.


One thing is for sure, all eyes will be on Kipchoge makes his official attempt of being the first person to run a marathon in less than two hours this year. Maybe he will bring some truth to more of the factors in this paper. Meanwhile, will you perhaps consider moving to high altitudes and running long distances?


#benchmarktheory #getfitright #nolimits


If you are not contending for being the fastest marathoner in the world, but are looking to beat your personal running goals, we can perhaps help you! Just drop us an email at enquiries@benchmarktheory.com. We promise you don't have to migrate to a high altitude country.

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