Breaking 2: Nike’s sub-two hour marathon mission
Global sports giant Nike and University of Exeter scientists have facilitated an attempt to achieve the first sub-two hour marathon, in the internationally broadcast event ‘Breaking 2’.
After Roger Bannister completed the first four-minute mile in 1954, experts in distance running have turned to a new question: is it physically possible to run a sub-two hour marathon? Before ‘Breaking 2’, the current record was 2:02:57.
Nike wanted to condition a carefully selected group of athletes to attempt this incredible feat. They collaborated with Andy Jones, Professor of Applied Physiology, who applied his expertise in the science of distance running to help coordinate the physiological testing of leading athletes and to consider the optimum conditions for the race. Andy was supported by Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology Dr Anni Vanhatalo, Exeter alumnus Dr Phillip Skiba and PhD student Ida Clark.
Nike’s 20 best distance runners were flown over to Portland, Oregon, for tests in Nike’s sports labs, followed by further tests at the University of Exeter. After rigorous evaluations of the athletes’ physiology and fitness, which were carried out by Andy Jones and the Nike team, three athletes were chosen: Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, Zersenay Tadese from Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia.
All possible factors that could affect the athletes’ performance were evaluated and optimised, including footwear, environment, course, pacing and nutrition. Under scientific supervision, the athletes’ training was carefully monitored to ensure they were in peak condition on race day.
The team adopted a pacing strategy which involved an arrowhead formation with the marathon runners positioned at the back, and pace makers rotating every 5k to maintain the same speed. Runners received a bespoke sugary drink solution every lap (2.5k) to maintain hydration and nutrition levels. These changes would not have been possible in an official city race (at the London marathon, feeding stations are only available every 5k).
The customised version of the Nike Vaporfly running shoe was chosen for the athletes following rounds of testing, and this is now recognised as a revolutionary shoe for marathon runners which is highly popular.
The attempt took place on a F1 race track – which was chosen due to its flat surface and sweeping curves – in Monza, Italy on the morning of 6th May 2017, the anniversary of Roger Banister’s four minute mile. The event was watched live by millions and was captured in a feature-length documentary (‘Breaking 2’) produced by National Geographic; a special screening of this was organised at the Berlin marathon.
The result? Kipchoge narrowly missed the sub-two hour target, crossing the line at 2:00:25, 2:32 faster than any man had ever run. Tadese finished with a time of 2:06:51 and Desisa with 2:14:10.
Andy commented: “This was an exploration of what is feasible and since then Kipchoge has gone on to run 2:01:39 in a regular race in Berlin, making him both the official and unofficial world record holder.
“When you work with athletes of that calibre you learn things. And sometimes it’s that they can achieve even more than you expect. We now have data on Kipchoge and the other runners which allows us to understand for the first time the energy cost of running at that speed. The big question my team at Exeter continue to research is how we offset fatigue during exercise.”
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