Breaking Paradigms: the Sub 2-Hour Marathon Barrier

This blog is focused, for the most part, on interesting often counter-intuitive insights, creativity, and the challenges of achieving breakthroughs in performance. That is why a two-part story titled “Man vs. Marathon – One scientist’s quixotic quest to propel a runner past the two-hour barrier” by Jere Longman and published this May in the New York Times is a fascinating read for anyone interested not only in the science of pushing the limits of human performance without using drugs but also in the ways accepted thinking continually pushes back against new ideas and uncomfortable questions. Its central protagonist is Yannis Pitsiladis.

A couple of teasers from the article:

The Sub2 Project, as it is called, is an attempt at the extraordinary — to reduce by nearly three minutes the world record of 2 hours 2 minutes 57 seconds, set at the 2014 Berlin Marathon by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. A marathoner breaking the two-hour barrier would finish more than six-tenths of a mile ahead of Kimetto, a veritable eternity in distance running.

A 1:59:59 marathon would require a searing pace of 4 minutes 34 seconds per mile, seven seconds faster than the pace of the current world record. It would require 85 to 90 percent of a runner’s maximum aerobic capacity — twice the capacity of an average man — and a sustained heart rate of about 160 to 170 beats per minute. (The typical resting rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute.)

“Sponsors are telling me it’s too good to be true,” he said. “Like man going to Mars.” The disbelief did not make him waver. Unlike many sports scientists, Pitsiladis sees value, not risk, in throwing out provocative ideas, even if they turn out to be incorrect.

The Sub2 experts would use data to confront habit, tradition, consensus. They would tailor training programs to individuals, employing science to help runners from Ethiopia and Kenya and elsewhere who had had fantastic performances using little science. They would challenge everything people thought they knew about distance running — how to train and even whether to wear shoes. “We know nothing about the science of training,” Pitsiladis said. “I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.”

A popular training method is known as “live high, train low.” By living at a higher altitude, athletes stimulate the production of red blood cells to compensate for the lower level of oxygen in the air. By training at or near sea level, they are able to maintain the intensity of their workouts because more oxygen is available. Live high, train low is supported by some evidence. But Pitsiladis is not fully convinced of its efficacy, saying, “I would bet you it’s wrong and that what’s better is live high and train higher,” as perhaps the two greatest distance runners in history — Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia — often did. “It may not work, but let’s try it and see what happens,” Pitsiladis added.

For more than 30 years, researchers had quantified how the weight of running shoes affected performance. Less weight on the extremities translated into greater running economy, meaning less oxygen was needed to run at a given speed. The aerobic cost of running increases 1 percent per three and a half ounces of shoe weight, which could amount to a minute in a marathon, research showed. Pitsiladis wanted his Sub2 Project to experiment with a minimalist shoe, which might consist only of a film that covered the bottom of the foot.

One thing that stands out as the kind of mind-set required to achieve innovation and breakthrough is the “maybe this is better or maybe not – we don’t know” attitude towards all aspects of a phenomena.

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