The secrets of the world's fastest marathon runners

Joe Mackie
·16-min read
Photo credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

From Runner's World

Professor Andrew Jones has played an integral part in some of the greatest marathon stories in history. The University of Exeter professor of applied physiology helped to guide Paula Radcliffe to her stunning, long-standing world record in London, in 2003; and he also worked with Eliud Kipchoge on the Breaking 2 project, the culmination of which was the first sub-two-hour marathon in history. In a long and distinguished career exploring the science behind speed and endurance, Jones has written more than 350 original research and review articles, and worked as a consultant to UK Athletics and the English Institute of Sport. This year, he has been working towards a defining marathon performance that’s a little easier for us all to relate to – his own attempt to break the hallowed three-hour mark for the first time, at the age of 50 – and translating his unparalleled wealth of experience into his training. We caught up with him to hear about the scientific knowledge he has employed to help the world’s best get even better, what he has learned about them that sets them apart, and how we can apply it all to our own running.

RW Where did your running journey begin?

AJ It started with me as a reasonably successful junior runner [Jones is being rather modest here as this included numerous Welsh Schools/AAA titles, coming third in the British Schools 3000m, running a 3:58 1500m and an 8:38 3000m in 1986, which ranked him as one of the fastest Youths in the UK; in 1987, he ran 30:13 for 10K and 66:55 for the half marathon, which were UK Age 17 best performances].. Like a lot of people, I was somewhat self-coached, and I just became fascinated by the science that underpinned running performance. That led me to study sports science at university, where my various injuries and illnesses came along and my own running fell a little by the wayside, but I continued to be fascinated by physiology, by what it is that makes some people run faster than others and what we can do to make people run faster.

I did a PhD in exercise physiology and I became fascinated with the research side, but having a link with sport was always important to me. Along with doing the more sophisticated lab-based work, which was all about trying to discover the mechanistic basis behind athletic performance, I was always keen to apply that knowledge in the real world to help athletes run faster. So I kind of lived a bit vicariously through some of the athletes I supported over those years.

And it was the idea of enabling the human body to move as fast as possible that captured your imagination?

You know that debate that you sometimes have in the pub after a training session…would you rather win an Olympic Gold medal or set the world record? I was always in the latter camp because I thought you can win an Olympic Gold by beating the people who are there on that particular day, which is obviously no mean feat, but to beat the fastest athlete of all time at a given distance… I thought that was something really special. Of course at some point it might be beaten, but at least for that period of time you can say that you are the fastest athlete who ever lived over that distance, and that really appeals. As scientists, we are fascinated by how fast people can run.

And what is the particular appeal of exploring and pushing those boundaries in the marathon?

I think when it comes to distances like the 100m or the mile, those distances are run so frequently that we are probably approaching the limits. The marathon is different because the athletes race the distance so infrequently, and the courses that marathons are run on aren’t necessarily ideal for the fastest times, and when the top athletes do get together it’s generally at a major championships, so the goal is to win rather that to run as quickly as possible. So when it came to the Breaking 2 project, it was about creating a real opportunity to discover what was humanly possible. It’s those ultimate limits in terms of how fast can people run and what prevents them from going faster that continue to fascinate me.

You’ve worked with some of the fastest marathon runners in history; could you give us an insight into what makes them so special?

First of all, they are physically phenomenal; there’s no getting away from that. You simply have to have the underpinning physiology. However, there are probably other people who are similarly physiologically talented, and so you also have to have the right psychology. I don’t necessarily mean just in the race itself – clearly you have to have the confidence, the motivation, the ability to hurt yourself in the race – but it’s also about having the patience, the longevity. This is especially true when it comes to the marathon because you might not hit your very best until you’re in your early to mid 30s. You might have shown your early promise as a teenager, like both Paula and Eliud, so that means you’ve got to train for about 15 years. We all know how hard maintaining training can be and when you scale it up to the top athletes it means running as much as 10 or 12 times per week every week for 15 years consecutively.

It also means that you have to get everything else right around training and recovering and you really have to sacrifice a lot. It’s that monk- or nun-like existence that you have to buy into if you’re going to achieve what you’re ultimately capable of in the long term, whoever you are.

So it’s all about hard work and self-sacrifice?

These are certainly lessons that you can learn from the greats, but obviously you’ve got to dial it back. And especially when you get a bit older. One thing I have learned as I have continued to try to run over the decades is that you’ve just got to be kinder to yourself. As you get a bit older, you become more susceptible to injury, you simply can’t take the load and the speed in the same way that you used to. Your bones, tendons and muscles become more prone to injury so you have got to build in a lot more recovery.

That’s certainly a lesson to be taken from the Kenyan approach. I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with [Kipchoge’s coach] Patrick Sang in Eliud’s training camp in Kenya and one thing that comes through very strongly is that while they train pretty hard most of the time and certainly very consistently, when they are not training they really do relax. They enjoy each other’s company and they really know how to chill out.

Is understanding when to take it easy something we can all benefit from?

Another thing about the top Kenyan runners is that they don’t stick rigidly to a training formula. As a scientist, I really like to plan my training and to stick to it meticulously if I possibly can, but, actually, you have to be flexible. It’s that old adage that you’ve got to listen to your body, but is absolutely true.

I don’t think the Kenyan athletes I spent time with really know exactly what they’re going to do from one day to the next because it will be modified by Patrick according to how they responded to the last session and how they feel. So being a little bit looser in the way we structure our training is probably one of the lessons.

And really it was the same with Paula – she would quite often train as hard as she could for as many days in a row as she could, but then she’d then wake up one morning and feel that she was barely capable of running at all. When that happened, rather than run a half-hearted session she would take a complete rest day. She wasn’t afraid to do that. It’s about having courage and confidence in your training and that doesn’t always mean training harder and harder, and doing more and more all the time, it sometimes means backing off. You have to be able to maintain it. It’s better to train at 90 per cent effort for a long period than to overdo it and get injured or burn out psychologically. And I think that’s perhaps a surprising lesson: that it isn’t necessarily the case that these great athletes are always training so much harder than the rest of us, they just train more sensibly.

On the subject of training smarter, is the strength work we often dodge a key part of the elites’ success?

There isn’t any real consensus on this, so you do get people espousing different views and methods. When it come to the elites, they certainly all do a bit of it, but the important thing is that strength training doesn’t override your running training. It needs to supplement and complement the running training you do.

It also depends a little on the type of runner you are and the type of event you’re training for. You clearly need to have sufficient strength when it comes to shorter distances, but it’s less crucial when it comes to the marathon. The type of training that can be really beneficial to marathon runners is plyometric-type work, which can augment running economy adaptations. I don’t think you need to be lifting particularly heavy weights.

The key thing you have to remember is that every training session you do – whether it be running or weight training or whatever – takes something out of you, so it’s all about the balance. If the strength training doesn’t drain your energy resources and prevent you from getting the maximum from your running training sessions, then that’s fine, go ahead. But if you’re so tired or sore that you can’t put in a good long run or interval session, that might well mean that you’re doing too much.

Also consider if your strength training takes a lot of time – say an hour, three times a week – and that’s cutting into the time that you would otherwise spend running. So doing some is probably a good thing, but you have to make sure that you don’t do too much as it will never be a substitute for the running itself.

Paula used to do a couple of weight training sessions per week, which was enough, but not enough to compromise the endurance work that she was doing. As for Eliud, he and the other Kenyan athletes I spent time with don’t do much strength work when they are in their specific marathon training block. They do some conditioning, so they recover after their most recent marathon, then they start to do some easy running and some conditioning and body weight exercises. They do maintain core-strength exercises, which is something that has changed in their approach over the last couple of years, but there’s no weight-training facility in camp, so when they are doing their final 10-12 weeks of marathon training they really don’t do a lot of weights.

How about building strength on the run?

What the Kenyan athletes certainly do is run across a lot of undulating terrain. From speaking to some of the physios who work with the leading east African runners, it’s clear when you look at their feet and their lower legs, they are extremely muscular. They’ve got muscles on their feet that you didn’t know existed. That’s partly because they are barefoot a lot of the time, but it’s also because the terrain they run on is really rugged – it’s up and down and it’s side-to-side and it’s quite often in heavy mud as well. So, in a sense, they are doing a fair bit of resistance training while they run.

What’s your take on the best way to fuel yourself over a marathon?

I’m definitely in the high-carb camp. I think if you’re a very slow marathon runner or an ultra endurance athlete then because the intensity is so much lower, training yourself to use fat as fuel may be the way forward. However, when it comes to trying to run a marathon quickly or any shorter distance, then the most efficient fuel to use is carbohydrate – that will keep your oxygen uptake low, so it will maintain your running economy.

My experience has shown that it’s really important that not only do you go into a marathon with lots of carbohydrate already within your muscles in the form of glycogen, but also that you make every effort to take as much carbohydrate into your system as you can while running. You should just about have enough carbohydrate to get you through a marathon if you go into it glycogen-loaded and you take in a further 60-70g per hour at the elite level, or a bit less for us non-elites. If you do so, you’ll have the right fuel to run at the intensity you want to sustain.

It’s also important to take the carbohydrate in at an early stage. I think the mistake many people make is that because they don’t feel thirsty, or because they feel full of energy in that first hour they don’t pay sufficient attention to their nutrition then, but doing so will pay huge dividends later in the race.

Kipchoge and other elites look serene and effortless in motion, but how important is their capacity to embrace and endure pain below the surface?

Paula didn’t want to stop. She would rather fall off the treadmill than quit. Eliud is a calmer, more reserved character, but he’s also mentally extremely strong. He and the other Kenyan athletes I’ve spent time with certainly do know how to push themselves, but I don’t think that is expressed in their running form to such an the same extent.

When I was consultant physiologist to British Athletics, I accompanied some of our runners up to altitude training camps in Kenya on a few occasions and it’s really interesting when you watch groups of Kenyans and groups of Brits do their track sessions. I’m certain that they are working equally as hard and yet when you watch the Brits finish their reps their form falls to pieces – you can tell that they are fatigued just by looking at their stride and their upper bodies, but the running economy and the running form of the Kenyans doesn’t seem to deteriorate to the same extent. I’m sure that they are hurting just as much and working just as hard, but it doesn’t seem to impact their running form to such an extent.

Is that ability to maintain form through fatigue what sets the greats apart?

You can measure the various parameters and variables – VO2 max, lactate threshold, running economy – that we think are key to marathon success at the start line, but you have to remember that those variables all change as the marathon progresses. And that’s something that we can’t measure in the lab. So my VO2 max and my running economy will get worse as I run, and if you measured me after two hours of my three-hour marathon run, the numbers you would get then would be very different to what they were on the start line. I suspect in people like Eliud the numbers don’t deteriorate anything like as much – he has incredible fatigue resistance. I think that’s the other dimension that makes runners like Kipchoge so special. Interestingly, when we measured his numbers in the testing and selection for Breaking 2, they were obviously right up there with the best, but they weren’t necessarily the best of the lot.

And how about the psychological element?

A key thing I take from my experience of working with Kipchoge, and on the Breaking 2 project in particular, is his self-belief. Of all the athletes that we tested and we selected, Eliud was probably the only one who genuinely believed it was possible. He had unwavering, unshakeable confidence in his own ability and coaching, training and preparation. He dares to think beyond the current limits.

How important is it that we everyday runners really believe we can achieve running our goals, whatever they may be?

I’m on slightly shaky ground here as I’m a physiologist not a psychologist. I do believe that you need to dare to dream and I love Eliud’s slogan that no human is limited, but I also believe that we do have our limits and my job as a physiologist is to determine exactly where those limits are. There’s no point in you or I dreaming that we can run a two-hour marathon because we simply haven’t got the ability. You have to make sure that your dreams are realistic as a well as challenging, but I agree that if we put our minds to it, dare to dream, and then prepare accordingly then we can all achieve a little bit more than we might expect.

Kipchoge’s sub-2 certainly embodied achievement beyond expectations. Do you think we can now expect more in elite marathoning?

We saw Eliud run 1:59 and he did not even look particularly stretched. When we gave him an honorary doctorate at the University of Exeter last year we asked him how hard it was, and could he have gone any faster. He said it wasn’t that hard and he could have gone a lot faster!

People may say it was all about the manufactured course and everything else and that it’ll never happen in London or Berlin but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, especially if he had a bit of competition and people to draft behind for a little bit longer. My mind certainly wouldn’t be blown if we saw sub-two on a regular marathon course. It could be by Eliud, but there’s great strength of depth in the athletes coming through now – some of the athletes coming out Uganda at the moment are incredible. So I think that we’ll see sub-two happen again in other competitions.

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