What It Will Actually Take to Break the 2-hour Marathon Barrier, According to Science

Eliud Kipchoge wins the 2016 Olympic marathon in Rio de Janiero.

Back in December, Nike staked its running reputation on a lofty goal: The company would sponsor an effort, aptly named Breaking2, to smash the 2-hour marathon barrier. The sports goliath cherry-picked three of its elite runners—among them, Eliud Kipchoge, who won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the men’s marathon—who are biomechanically able and mentally willing to tackle the colossal challenge of shattering the 2:02:57 world record set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in 2014 at the Berlin Marathon. And in Nike’s wake, two more companies, Adidas and sub2hr, have joined the arms race. (Erm, footrace.)

It’s not just a race of athleticism, either—it’s also a scientific and technical challenge. And researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have some mathematical calculations and ideas of their own that could help Kipchoge, or any other top male marathoner, run his fastest time yet.

In the new study, published online in the journal Sports Medicine, the Colorado research team computed the necessary physiological factors a runner would need to even come close to breaking two hours. They then factored in the environmental and biomechanical strategies that would help enhance running efficiency and economy, and reduce the total amount of energy used to traverse 26.2 miles. Here’s the perfect tool kit to break the vaunted 2-hour barrier, according to their study:

1. Lighter shoes make a huge impact

It seems obvious, but a runner wearing 130g shoes (roughly 4.5oz) can cut 57 seconds off a marathon time alone, according to previous research from the University of Colorado Boulder. To give you some context, when Kimetto broke the record, he was wearing shoes that weighed about 230g (a little over 8oz). By wearing a minimal shoe that’s about 100g lighter, a runner can get a minute’s edge over the competition. At the bleeding edge of human performance, that’s huge.

2. Stick behind the ‘pacemakers’ for the first 13 miles

Elite runners can combat the slowing effects of wind resistance by running behind a cluster of pacemakers leading the pack for the first half of the race, the researchers found. It’s almost as if you were to run the marathon route along a paved loop through a pine forest, study co-author Roger Kram says. Other runners serve the same purpose as trees—they create barriers to block off wind.

Previous research backs this up, too. A runner drafting one meter behind another runner in a wind tunnel reduced air resistance by 93 percent, according to a 1971 study published in the Journal of Physiology. Of course, shadowing a runner like this isn’t exactly ideal or possible for that many miles. But Kram suggests even reducing air resistance by 36 percent would improve running economy by 2.7 percent, which is all an elite runner capable of hitting 2:03:00 needs to reach a time of 1:59.59.

3. Work together by alternating the lead runner

For the second half of the race, it would be ideal for the course to slant slightly downhill (but still comply with the regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations). The ‘drafting’ strategy used in the first half of the race would resume in the second—except the top four runners should settle into a line, one behind the other, lead study author Wouter Hoogkamer says. The runners would then take turns leading the line, blocking the air and working together to ‘draft’ off one another’s bodies—like Tour de France cyclists riding in a pack, or geese flying in formation. The streamlined pattern helps reduce air resistance and preserve energy. This could lower the metabolic cost of the runners by about 5.9 percent, shaving about 3 minutes off the current world record, the researchers suggest.

If this teamwork isn’t probable, the researchers say optimal weather can also be a tremendous source of help. If marathoners have a strong tailwind of about 13 mph in the second half of the race, that could also shave off about 3 minutes of time.

These scenarios suggest breaking the 2-hour marathon could be done as early as today. But there are sizeable hurdles impeding the way.

For one, there’s the prize money. With several hundred thousand dollars at stake, working as a collaborative team is a little less appealing. The solution? Create an incentive agreement between racers to equally split the prize money among the top finishers, the researchers explain.

“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,” study co-author Christopher Arellano said in a press release. “Now it’s up to scientists and the most elite marathon runners to put our ideas to the test.”

Nike just revealed the date and location of their sub 2-hour race attempt will be the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex outside Monza, Italy. Athletes will run on a fixed 2.4km/1.5mi loop combining portions of Grand Prix track and Junior track, per a Nike press release.  

We wouldn’t be surprised if the above strategies were factored in to the athletes’ game plan. We’ll just have to wait and see if the passion, insight, and performance will be enough to make history.

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