Breaking the two-hour marathon mark is a magical, athletic milestone that has fascinated the running world for years but has never been accomplished. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Houston and the University of Colorado Boulder has laid out a series of mathematical calculations showing about four and a half minutes could be shaved off the current world record by using lighter shoes, a collaborative drafting strategy and ideal course.
“Our calculations show that a sub-two-hour marathon time could happen right now, but it would require the right course and a lot of organization,” said CU postdoctoral researcher Wouter Hoogkamer, who led the new study, recently published online in the journal Sports Medicine.
The study uses the baseline physiological capacity of current world record holder, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, whose time of 2:02:57 was set at the Berlin Marathon in 2014. The team then considered biomechanical changes, or the interaction between the runner and the ground, that could reduce energy consumption and improve running economy.
“It’s fun to think about the limits of human performance and now the math and science are telling us it’s very possible to run a marathon in less than two hours,” said study co-author Christopher Arellano, assistant professor at the Department of Health and Human Performance at UH.
First, to shave 57-seconds off a marathon time, the athletes would need shoes roughly 100 grams lighter (about the weight of a deck of cards) than Kimetto’s world record shoes, which weighed 230 grams each, or just over eight ounces.
In addition, a record-breaking elite runner would do better by running the first 13 miles as a loop course behind a wedge of marathon “pacemakers.” He would need to draft behind them on a route that blocks the wind like a paved loop through a pine forest, said study co-author Roger Kram of the CU Department of Integrative Physiology.
The second half of the race should be slightly downhill but still within the regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with four top runners in single file. Arellano says the runners would shift positions every three minutes, reducing the metabolic cost of the drafting runners by about 5.9 percent, shaving about three minutes off the current world record.
“The runner in the front has to overcome air resistance while the three runners in the back are drafting -- much like competitive cyclists -- running at the same speed but at a lower metabolic cost. They save energy,” said Arellano.
One challenge to breaking the record as a collaborative team is the cash prizes for winning a major marathon, which can be several hundred thousand dollars, said Kram. This issue could be solved if there were an incentive agreement between racers to equally split the prize money awarded to the top finishers.
“This study is different because we take an integrated approach by combining our understanding of exercise physiology along with biomechanics to answer this question of whether it’s possible. It turns out it is possible,” said Arellano.