A team at the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered—through a series of mathematical equations—that the sub-2-hour marathon is not only possible; it could even be done today.
The study published in the journal Sports Medicine shows just what it would take for an elite male marathoner to shave about four and a half minutes off the current world record and break 2 hours.
“We are not the first team to suggest such ideas to speed up marathon runners,” said Roger Kram, who directs CU Boulder’s Locomotion Laboratory. “But we are the first to quantify each of the strategies with careful calculations in a single paper.”
The calculations for running a marathon in under two hours include the baseline physiological capacity to run Kenyan Dennis Kimetto’s current world record of 2:02:57—according to postdoctoral researcher Wouter Hoogkamer who led the team—paired with biomechanical changes that could reduce energy consumption and improve running economy.
The team says that part of those changes include shoes that are 100 grams lighter (equivalent to a deck of cards) than those Kimetto wore setting the record at the Berlin Marathon in 2014. His shoes were 230 grams, or just over eight ounces each. (Nike just unveiled the shoes its athletes—Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea—will be wearing while attempting to run a sub-two-hour marathon as part of its Breaking2 program announced earlier this year.)
“People have been thinking about the magical sub-two-hour marathon for a long time,” said Hoogkamer via a news release. “Our calculations show that a sub-two-hour marathon time could happen right now, but it would require the right course and a lot of organization.”
Another factor in breaking two hours? The course. The team says the first half of this ideal scenario includes the runner on a loop course drafting a group of pacemakers. The second half of the course would involve a similar drafting method, with runners taking turns leading and drafting, and would be run slightly downhill. They also showed that if the athletes were lucky enough to have a strong tailwind on the second half—approaching 13 mph—this could shave about three minutes off of the finishing time.
“This study is significant for both scientists and serious marathon runners because we really delve into what we know about the exercise physiology of running, as well as the biomechanics of running,” said Assistant Professor Christopher Arellano at the University of Houston, a study co-author who received his doctorate under Kram. “Now it’s up to scientists and the most elite marathon runners to put our ideas to the test.”