Interesting news from the marathon

12 Dec 2007 Posted by
The sub 2-hour marathon, London 2008, and Paula gets hot

We’re bang in the middle of our series on Running Economy, but thought that for today, we’d take a break from that series and turn our attention to a few interesting news stories that are coming out of the world of marathon running.

The Sub-2 hour marathon: Debate re-opened

The first is a discussion about whether a sub-2:00 marathon will ever be run? This is a topic that hit headlines in September this year, when Haile Gebrselassie broke Paul Tergat’s world record in the marathon. The margin? 29 seconds, taking the time down from 2:04:55 (run by Tergat four years before) to 2:04:26. We covered the race, and Geb’s splits and pacing in a couple of articles at the time.

As tends to happen whenever a barrier is broken, everyone started talking about the prospects of the sub 2-hour marathon. Even Gebrselassie made his predictions, though he was a little more circumspect, suggesting instead that he would run 2:03 some day. But a lot of people were looking even further into the distance, at the 2-hour barrier. And a recent report from the Herald paper quotes Dave Bedford, London Marathon organizer, as predicting that the 2:02 will be run by 2015, and a sub-2 hour time will come in 20 years!

The problem is that even a basic analysis of the world record in the last twenty to thirty years suggests that this talk is likely a touch premature! For example, in the last 22 years, the marathon record has come down by just under 3 minutes, from 2:07:12 in 1985 (Carlos Lopes) to the current 2:04:26. So for Bedford to be correct, we need the next 22 years to yield 50% more than this – 4:30! But even more than this, since Ronaldo da Costa broke Dinsamo’s 10-year old record in 1998, we’ve moved into an era where the record is coming down by seconds, not minutes, making this highly unlikely!

In otherwords, it’s difficult to see how anyone is going to knock more than 30 seconds off this time. When Gebrselassie ran his 2:04:26, we all marvelled at how massively he ‘shattered’ the record, people calling it a once in a lifetime run! And that was for just 29 seconds – in other words, we “only” need another nine performances just like that, and we’ll have our sub-2 hour marathon! Now, how often do we expect a runner to line up and smash 30 seconds off a world record? And then of course, the ceiling effect comes into play as well, and says that once we get to the 2:02 range, it will become even more difficult.

I hear some of you saying “What about a Paula-esque performance? She took it down by 2 minutes!” And of course, this may yet happen. But just looking at Gebrselassie’s pacing from this world record, you’ll see that he is incredibly consistent. That suggests to me that he’s right on the limit, because if he had any reserve, you’d see that through fluctuations in pace especially at the end (this is one possible interpretation, I acknowledge that). But given the fact that he took 29 seconds off the time running this kind of race, it’s difficult to see how he’s going to get 3 seconds/kilometer to get the time down to 2:02. As it was, he was already right on the limit.

So my feeling is that the 2:02 will eventually come, but it won’t be by 2015, and a sub-2 hour time will certainly not happen with anyone from the current crop.

As for who is likely to break the world record next, my money would be on Zersenay Tadese, ahead of Bekele. A lot of people are getting hyped up over Bekele and his chances of running 2:02, but I suspect Tadese will be the dominant marathon runner from the current generation of track stars. Time will tell…

The London 2008 Marathon and some implications for the Olympics

Speaking of Dave Bedford and the London Marathon, his marathon predictions might be a little debatable, but one certainly would not want to argue the quality of the field he puts together for the London Marathon!

You can read some of the names here, but the big one is Martin Lel, defending champion and New York champ. Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Lel’s, I think he’s the complete package, so it was with mixed feelings that I read that he’s signed up for London, and that he’s currently leading the lucrative World Marathon Majors series.

Why mixed feelings? Because his presence in London, combined with what must be a growing incentive to win a share of the $1 million prize purse means he is thus less likely to compete in Beijing in peak shape, if at all. No word on that yet, but I had really hoped for a race between him and Gebrselassie for the Olympic title – the best Racer in the world against the fastest marathon runner in history, would have been a great clash!

As for Gebrselassie, he is not on London’s books yet, but there was talk that he might yet be signed. I seriously doubt it, because he’s already running the Dubai Marathon in mid-January. If he then runs London in April, and is aiming for the Marathon in Beijing, that equals one tough year. I know I’d be advising against it, but stranger things have happened…I certainly would lengthen the odds on Gebrselassie if he runs in all three those races.

But it’s a bumper field for London, Olympic and World Champions, racers, fast men, strong men, the works. And so the Marathon year will certainly get off to a great start, first with Geb in Dubai and then this field. Let’s hope it is as good as the year that has just gone (we’ll do a look back at the science and physiology of the year’s marathons next week in our “Year in Review” series).

Paula gets hot – in South Africa

Finally, it was with interest that I read this article on Paula Radcliffe and the UK athletics team coming out to my home country, South Africa, for a training camp in January next year. The purpose of the camp is to help the athletes prepare for the Beijing heat and to help them figure out what to drink in Beijing. There are a couple of reasons why this is interesting.

One, it shows that the UK are serious about preparing for the heat, because the plan is to bring out three physiologists to help the athletes figure out their best hydration strategies. They are talking about measuring the salt and sugar content of the sweat in order to help the athletes figure out the optimal hydration strategies.

Regular readers of The Science of Sport will know that we think the best hydration strategy is to drink when you’re thirsty! You can read our rationale for this in our series on fluid intake and our series on Muscle Cramps. And it’s a lot cheaper than flying athletes out for a training camp! But dodgy science practices aside, I think that this type of camp has as much a psychological benefit as it does physiological. In my experience, athletes benefit when they believe that they have done everything possible to prepare for their event, regardless of whether what they are doing actually works! And so the camp idea will certainly help, because from the article, the athletes are buying in.

One thing it will not do is help the athletes prepare for the heat – it’s too far out, and they are only coming in for 10 days. So having achieved some degree of adaptation to the heat, they’ll then fly back to cold and wet England and undo it all by mid-February. So the purpose is a planning, rather than a physiological one.

From a scientific point of view, there some pretty large potential potholes. For one thing, each athlete is coming out to South African for only 10 days. We know that with the body’s adaptation to the heat, the sodium content of the sweat changes quite dramatically (sweat becomes more dilute). This adaptation takes about 6 days to be achieved, so let’s hope the UK physiologists are at least aware of this, and don’t make their “proven” recommendations based on the sweat content in the first few days! The values they get in the last few days will be very different from those in the first few! And so if they do this, the UK athletes will just about be drinking sea-water in Beijing!

Secondly, the venue they have chosen (Potchefstroom – a town close to where I grew up), is hardly comparable to Beijing. It has a typical temperature of 25 degrees, and humidity is next to nothing – think dry, and relatively mild heat. Compare Beijing, which will be like a greenhouse meets a steam bath! So I’m not convinced that they are replicating conditions as well as they might. There are two follow-up camps planned, however, and so they probably have this covered.

The other big issue, of course, is that state of training is a critical determinant of both sweat rate and sodium loss in sweat. And so therefore, one would expect the requirements in August (at the Olympics) to be very different from what they are in January, even without the additional factor of the heat! So I see great complications coming!

Again, it just re-inforces the point that because the body is so well designed, so balanced and “intelligent”, it can change the amount of salt lost in the sweat depending on heat adaptation and training. So why introduce a third person (or even a second person physiologist), who simply cannot hope to understand the integration of the physiology during exercise as well as the human body can? It is a case of losing sight of the wood for the trees, and over-complicating matters.

From a practical perspective, what constitutes a successful drinking pattern? Is it the fluid intake routine that keeps the body weight the same? Is it keeping the body’s salt content the same? Are you trying to keep the core temperature down? Fluid intake doesn’t help this to begin with, and we know that most athletes lose weight during the course of the marathon. One thing that I will predict is that if Paula Radcliffe tries to drink so much that she doesn’t lose any weight during the race, she’ll never win the Olympic Gold medal – she’ll be too busy worrying about stomach cramps and nausea to race properly!

Bottom line – drink to thirst. Of course, the idea to practice drinking before Beijing is a good one, and I think it would be a good exercise to allow athletes to exercise with a range of options – high sodium, low sodium, high glucose, low glucose etc., and then see which they find easiest to drink. Because if it tastes too salty to the athelte, then it probably is! The wonders of the intelligent body…

Join us again tomorrow for Part III in the series on Running Economy!

Ross

This post is part of the thread: Marathon Analysis – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

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