Breaking Boundaries: Setting the marathon world record
For many years running a sub-two hour marathon was considered impossible, but research produced by a team at the University of Exeter underpinned much of the scientific strategy applied by project leaders, Nike and INEOS, to make this a reality.
Professor Andrew Jones and Professor Anni Vanhatalo worked alongside Nike’s in-house scientists to evaluate the potential of 16 elite distance runners to break the two hour mark. This included laboratory-based treadmill testing using protocols developed by Professor Jones to get valid measurements of physiological variables known to determine endurance exercise performance.
The tests involved a multi-stage incremental treadmill test, which evaluated the oxygen cost of running at submaximal speeds (running economy), the running speed likely to be sustainable in a metabolic steady-state for long periods (‘lactate threshold’) and the maximal aerobic capacity (maximal oxygen uptake).
Professor Andrew Jones running in the 2019 Moscow marathon
Tests identified Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, along with Zersenay Tadese from Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia, as having the capability to attempt a sub-two hour marathon.
Other research by the team also identified the most efficient way to deliver energy during the attempts to prevent a fall in ‘critical speed’. Regular consumption of a sports drink, delivering >60 g of carbohydrates per hour, was found to blunt the reduction in running economy over time.
Whilst not breaking the two hour mark during Nike’s ‘Breaking 2’ event, Eliud Kipchoge recorded a time of 1:59:40 during the INEOS 159 event in Austria in 2019. This latter event re-applied much of the scientific strategy developed by Nike and the Exeter team, including pacing strategy, drafting, energy delivery and shoe choice.
The achievement of the first sub-two hour marathon has provided arguably the highest-profile sports science ‘story’ of all time. It generated significant public debate about the potential limitations to endurance exercise performance and the scientific approaches that might be taken to overcome them.
The Breaking 2 project has led to a number of changes for elite athletes. A greater number of feeding stations has been made available for elite athletes in major marathons, and pacemakers now assume a tighter ‘arrowhead’ formation to maximise the drafting potential for the principal competitors. It also inspired new product development by Nike, in particular of the Vaporfly 4% running shoe. There have been significant improvements in marathon times worldwide in the wake of Kipchoge’s performances.
Breaking boundaries provides a bitesize look into the variety of leading research that has, and still is changing the world from the University of Exeter.
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