Five simple factors could propel the right runner to the first sub-two-hour marathon.

Since my first article on the 1:59 marathon in 1997, men’s record times have come down almost 4 minutes. Now with the record at 2:02:57 since the writing of my book 1:59 we’re waiting for the next shoe to drop, so to speak.

There is no “if” to this. When it does happened it will be because an athlete dared break with tradition to step up and fine-tune their training and racing. Shattering the most amazing barrier in sports today will elevate this runner to a status among the greatest athletes of all time. Most now understand 1:59 will happen relatively soon.

While there are no real improvements in road surfaces, nutrient formulations, training methods, equipment — primarily shoes — or other factors that have improved performances in other sports in recent years, marathoners have been basically left on their own to let the natural progress of human performance take place. While a handful of experts actually believe the history of human performance has plateaued, it hasn’t, unless humans are in the midst of extinction and we don’t yet know it.

In a new study currently in review, colleagues Paul Laursen, Rita Malcata and Ivan Rivera, and I show that marathon times for elite men and women over a recent 10-year period of major World Marathon events, including Boston, Berlin, Chicago, London and New York, improved by an average of 1 percent per year. While this average is not applicable to any one race or individual, it does indicate we’re ready for another world-record. Those months prior to the Olympics may be delaying the 1:59 phenomenon because runners avoid the faster venues in place of the generally slower Olympic races, and in some countries an additional qualifying marathon.

Women should also not be left out of this discussion. Paula Radcliff’s marathon record of 2:15:25 is also seemingly untouchable, but the next women’s record is similarly in sight. The same factors discussed here would apply for breaking this record as well.

From my perspective, social-stressors are still impairing natural human progress in the marathon. It could be said that the necessary improvements in race paces required for 1:59 are being hindered by one primary factor — tradition. But the details involve physiology. In addition to the variables of race-day emotions, weather and finances, perhaps we can narrow it down to five factors that could possibly help propel a runner beyond the two-hour threshold. These five remaining factors appear most significant to produce a sub-two-hour marathon, especially on courses with advantages like Berlin or London, which have mostly produced the fastest races in recent years:

Glycogen

While glycogen reserves that provide athletes the energy to maintain 4:34 per mile paces have been studied, experimented with and talked about for decades, the mark is virtually missed when it comes to improving the important factor of fueling marathon efforts. Carbohydrate from junk foods are still the tradition in sports. No secret race carbohydrate formulas have or will show up in the runners’ bottles, no special pre- or race-day meals are forthcoming. The best way to conserve glycogen is to use a better form of energy for a two-hour effort: fat.

Imagine being able to run a marathon with much less liquid to gulp down. In addition to breaking stride at the aid stations, it can cause intestinal distress, which can slow you down. Reductions in race-day carbohydrate requirements can be accomplished by training your body to use more fat with less emphasis on carbs. Burning body fat is the best way to conserve glycogen stores. It’s the alternative to stuffing in more carbohydrates before and during the race. 

Fat is such a super fuel that even at a 4:34 pace, the body can still use relatively high amounts of it while conserving glycogen stores. But in order to achieve this metabolic goal, several things are necessary. First, training programs must develop the aerobic system, improving the function and speed of the body’s slow-twitch muscles, where fat is burned. This must be regularly measured, not assumed, by monitoring one’s sub-max speed. Progressing to a sub-max pace of about 4:50 per mile would be a key goal, and indicate that fat-burning has significantly improved, glycogen stores during a race will be conserved and the aerobic muscle fibers will not only support the physical body to maintain a great gait and running economy, but help power glycogen-fueled fast-twitch fibers toward the end of the race.

A key factor in building an efficient fat-burning machine is to avoid refined carbs (aka, junk food) in the daily diet and make up the caloric difference with healthy fat. Simple. 

Pacing

There’s another important race-day factor: go out faster than 4:34 per mile early in the race (or surge with faster paces) and all bets are off regarding glycogen conservation. Pacing is a secret weapon.

The ideal pace strategy begins before the race by developing a great aerobic engine that burns fat for high energy while conserving glycogen. As a conscious strategy involving a relatively consistent heart rate and or pace, the fastest marathoners usually have fewer changes in speed throughout an event. This strategy enlists the brain’s natural ability to optimally control the physical and biochemical body. It’s auto-pilot.

Despite the well-known facts about pacing, even elites sometimes start too fast or indulge in an inappropriate surge, which is usually an emotion-charged action. This can reduce fat-burning and tap into glycogen stores, ultimately slowing the overall pace. Others are just not adequately prepared to maintain an optimal pace.

Altitude: 3-Steps

Tradition dictates that great athletes live at high-altitude locations. However, the best way to build a 1:59 marathoner’s metabolism is to 1) live at high altitude, which increases natural EPO to raise red blood cells for better oxygenation; 2) train at lower altitudes, which enables faster sub-max training paces; and 3) race at the lowest altitude, where oxygen uptake is greatest. If high-altitude living is not possible, sleeping in a hypobaric chamber can accomplish the same.

Foot Function

The bottom line with shoes is that, as the only real equipment marathoners use, they have not improved race times. Most likely, they have prevented a 1:59 marathon from already happening. Almost all the greatest marathoners in history grew up barefoot to develop their natural return-energy mechanisms used to convert gravitational forces into additional race energy — the secret energy weapon of optimal foot function. There is one primary reason the best athletes don’t run barefoot — money. Shoe contracts are usually lucrative enough to overcome logic.

The V-Factor

The best and most likely non-human factor for marathoners will come not with shoes but the venue. In particular, the course surface. Building a one-mile loop, for example, would be a unique, first-of-its-kind venue. Less like city streets and more like those fast 400-meter ovals, where most other running records reside. Such a surface would speed us to a 1:59 marathon sooner. No doubt this is already being discussed, even planned, but is still no more than rumored. When a venue like this appears, we’ll have separate official track and road marathon records.

Combining all these potential factors to improve marathon time is obviously the best strategy for breaking the 1:59 marathon barrier.

 

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Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Matt says:

    Nike plan to break 2 hours in 2017:
    http://news.nike.com/news/2-hour-marathon

  • Jjm says:

    Phil, can you comment on the training these guys would do for this? I know in 1:59 the schedule you give comes out to around 8 hours of running, and I am assuming much of it will be at MAF pace. This would seem like such a marked departure from what coaches like renato canova have done to get these guys down to 2:03 but do you really think this is what it will take? Granted, it would be lots of quality running (8 hours at MAF for these guys works out to over 90 miles per week at 5 minutes per mile). Just curious if you can elaborate more on this. Obviously the schedule in the book was just a really basic example

  • Dr. Phil says:

    Thanks for your question. Of course, optimal training for a 1:59 marathon would be highly individual and based on regular assessments. This idea is itself a departure from the common training philosophy. Much of this will certainly be at MAF HR, with the aerobic base period extended if aerobic speed continues to improve. So while we think of a good base as being 3-6 months, a runner who continues getting faster at the same MAF HR should be allowed to continue that direction through strict aerobic base training. The goal being about 4:50 mile pace at MAF HR.

    I think the 2-hour mark will be broken eventually, even with less optimal training, or an approach that sacrifices a runner’s health. This is because human performance continues improving, although it takes a bit longer. As you know, my philosophy is to not sacrifice health, and this may mean less than the traditional weekly training hours, at least in most cases. I just don’t see it as necessary. Recovery is at least as important as training, and as training volume and or intensity increases, recovery need rise quickly.

    Runners will not train at 5-min/mi for 8 hours/week (as an example). Between the warm up, cool down, and most likely the use of aerobic intervals (as sub-5-min pace would not be easy to maintain each day, and that pace will slow over the course of the run), total weekly distance equivalents would usually be less than 90 miles.

    You mention ‘quality running’ – all training should be of high quality. The phrase ‘junk miles’ was used for a long time, but to me that’s like junk food, something to be avoided.

    Phil Maffetone

    • jjm says:

      Phil,

      thank you so much for the well thought out response. I Know that you have a different perspective than conventional wisdom (and that was not to question your perspective). It makes sense that since we improve from recovery, we need to put more weight and value into recovery. I think it is just so tempting to take a short term approach with things. In part, this might be due to how quickly you see improvement when you take up training, but then once you have trained for only a few months the returns become exponentially more gradual.

      In my personal experience, I can take a month off from training, and my MAF pace will be just under 7 minute pace. After only 4-6 weeks of training, my first MAF mile will be around 6:15 per mile. Then it will not necessarily plateau, but the progress stagnates to just getting minimal returns. I have experienced this phenomenon on multiple occasions. Once I get in decent shape, to get from a 6:15 first mile to under 6 minutes per mile and hopefully even faster would be such a gradual process. Stupidly, I often will instead opt for higher intensity training and usually end up hurt, burnt out, or slower at MAF (though racing times may have improved).

      My guess is that this is the “mistake?” top level endurance athletes make in conventional training. Everyone sees the benefit of building a base. However, once the base has been built enough to where you think you have done something, the majority of athletes venture into chasing intervals, tempo runs, etc… Essentially anaerobic training. We fail to be patient to really “ride out” the base building, and instead opt to keep on seeing further improvements rather than being patient until we are forced to take time off.

      It seems like now this strategy has been even further popularized thanks in large part to the whole notion of polarized training, which would pit MAF training into the gray zone and place you should not train. Again, I am by no means questioning the philosophy, and I stand by it (though often lack the discipline to stick with it), but it seems like there is a major push away from steady training in the endurance world. I would love to hear your thoughts on polarized training.

      Perhaps, it could marry well with MAF training for an advanced athlete, and I think it does bring up the critical importance of recovery and avoiding going too hard, too often. With that being said, it would seem that you are still ultimately taxing the anaerobic system quite often doing workouts far in excess of MAF around vo2 max intensity.

      Regardless, while this is the theory much in vogue with the exercise science community, to me it seems pretty contrary to proper marathon training. In following this approach one is either running way faster than marathon pace or way slower. With MAF, you might not ever approach marathon pace, but you are logging quite a few miles at just under that intensity. And, to echo your last reply, slow enough that the body can recover from it.

  • James says:

    Nike are typically tight-lipped about their assault on 1:59. I suspect it will be a publicity stunt with an ‘illegal’ shoe. I wonder what that may look like? Do you have any thoughts on it? Or by doing so are we giving them the publicity they want?

  • Roger says:

    Hi Dr Phil, i have been following you were working with Mark Allen and I have been using your 40/30/30 method for year for triathlon. I have a new sporting challenge, it s a sport in south africa called biathlon. It started in the days of isolation from world sport,where we created a version of Modern pentathlon, only using the swimming and running portion.
    So the even is divided into 2 separate events, running on a track and swimming in a pool.
    Distances vary depending on age group, from under 8 yrs – 70+

    I am in the Vet category, we race 1km on the running track and we swim 100m. probably spaced out by an hour or 2, Depending on where we are in the running program and swimming programs and how big the attendance is, since everyone needs to pack up at the track and then move to the pool.

    There is a points system allocated, so it is all about time. We go red line effort on the track and in the pool.

    After that explanation, my question is. Since I am engaging in a high intensity sport, I am interested in hearing your take on this and diet and high fat/aerobic engine and how I can make this work for me. Can I deplete muscle glycogen in such a high intensity effort? what is that blow out I experience at about 300m to go? Is that glycogen or VO2 max.
    Lastly, do you now any studies I can read about maximal effort in track.

    • Roger:

      It’s most likely VO2 Max, meaning that it’s probably a combination of lactate acidosis and CO2 saturation. When your body produces too much lactate, it has to stop in order to clear it, or risking major damage to your internal organs. The same goes for CO2.

  • Craig Smith says:

    Phil
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78m1KYVnN3M
    I have just been flting the MAF flag – I suggested that Sage invite you onto the show

  • Dave Jewell says:

    The shoe comment is interesting. Yes the best marathoners in the world today outside of the Americans grew up barefoot. Why do we concentrate on shoes and not the entire lifestyle. Most of those runners didn’t grow up sitting in chairs either. They squat. Show up to any group run in the rift valley and most of the runners waiting around are squatting. Phil do you think it’s the total lifestyle that benefits them more?

    • Dave:

      Certainly, the sum total of someone’s lifestyle has a greater impact than any single one of the constituent parts of their lifestyle. That said, a squat is an event, while being barefoot is a state. This means that while the frequency of squatting events will impact the body hugely, the barefoot state will influence the quality of sensory feedback occurring in every squatting event, running event, walking event, lifting event, etc.

      We can similarly say that “being able to squat” is also a state similar to being barefoot, in terms of the sensory feedback it allows. People who can do a deep overhead squat have very few restrictions in the major joints of their body. And since a joint that moves more produces more feedback, this means that the sensory feedback a good squatter gets from running, walking, lifting day-in, day-out is also of a much higher quality than that of a person who cannot. So if you have the opportunity to become a good squatter, by all means do so.

      All this said, being barefoot has a sensory advantage relative to being able to squat: the neurological sensory cross-section allotted to the soles of the feet is massive. Part of the convenience of being shod is that it allows a relative deactivation of this sensory cross-section: we don’t have to be very aware of our feet in order to not risk pain or damage as we step. (In other words, it allows us to afford a diminished sensory cross-section.) So, we believe that the compounding effect that being barefoot has on the information feedback provided by any other movement event is quite significant.

      By all means, the best-case scenario is to compound being barefoot with the ability to squat (and any other positive sensory states you can scrounge up). But if we’re going to lay states of sensory opportunity one next to the other and compare them, being barefoot is going to come out very, very close to the top. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a history of barefootedness as a child potentiates the sensorimotor development of muscles up and down the body in a manner conducive to producing and retaining a capability to squat.

  • Dave Jewell says:

    Ivan, thanks for the reply. My point of the squat was functional. I believe the lifestyle makes the African runners functionally strong which puts them at an advantage to push their bodies to those efforts.

    • Dave:

      Big time. The squat in particular is the high water mark of basic, independent functionality of the shoulder and hip joints. (And of course that has cascading implications for the knee, elbow, wrist, and ankle joints.) So we stand very much in agreement.

  • Matt K says:

    Imagine being able to run a sub 2-hour marathon and also be a strong work horse at the same time…

  • Thomas Dotson says:

    As a senior runner who has been running unshod for the past year I concur that my entire body seems to have developed a greater sensory acuity.

  • ling says:

    Dr. Philip
    I have been using your MAF to train for almost a year. I am 32. My run time didn’t get improved,but got worsen. I am using the Keto diet, using olive oil and coconut oil most of the time. I am not sure what went wrong?

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