After New York: how did marathoners get so fast?


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Another major marathon, another jaw-dropping course record — pretty much what we’ve come to expect in 2011. Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:05:06 at yesterday’s New York Marathon, a course record by 2:37, continues the string of unbelievable performances from Boston, London, Berlin, Frankfurt and so on that have redefined our (or at least my) perceptions about what’s humanly possible at this distance. For a great post-race look at what’s going with the marathon, check out David Epstein’s piece at Sports Illustrated (and for more background, read Ross Tucker’s Science of Sport piece from last week).

Epstein gives a nice overview of the various forces that are converging to give us all these 2:03 marathoners — most obviously money (more of it in marathons, less of it on the track), which is bringing talented runners to 42.2K earlier in their careers. But I just wanted to highlight two quotes from his piece. First:

“I think people are starting to figure out the training and physiology better,” said American Dathan Ritzenhein, who made his marathon debut in New York in 2006 at the age of 23 and finished ninth in the Olympic marathon in ’08.

And second (on the topic of whether all these runners moving to the marathon at a young age will end up having shorter careers than guys like Geb and Tergat, because of the inevitable physical toll of the distance):

Krista Austin, a physiologist who works with pro runners, thinks that this generation of young Kenyan marathoners will have a shot at long careers because “the Kenyans are just starting to do some of the basic [injury prevention] things, like stretching and massage and Pilates.”

The juxtaposition of these two quotes made me smile a bit. One on hand, Ritz saying that marathoners are getting faster in part because of greater understanding of physiology. On the other hand, Austin is correctly pointing out that the runners who are most obviously the fastest (the 20 fastest male marathoners of 2011 are ALL KENYAN) are barely taking advantage of even the most rudimentary suggestions of sports science. If we’re judging by results, we might want to think carefully about which approach we emulate!

Obviously it’s a very complex issue, and I won’t even get into the whole genes/environment question. But in addition to money, I think Epstein (citing Gabriele Nicola, the Italian coach of several of the top Kenyans) nails a vital point:

If one person can run fast, well, dammit, you can train or race with them, and you can, too. As much as we might say this is “in your head,” if it’s in your head, it’s in your body, at least within limits.


5 Replies to “After New York: how did marathoners get so fast?”

  1. Not many, more so just the timing of when marathon training/racing takes place in an athlete’s career. Canova sums it up here:

    “Chet. the point is not some my athlete can be better of Gebre on the track. The point is that some my athlete goes to marathon when is able to reach his top performance in 10000m, too, and this is different from what Gebre did.
    If I want the best results in Marathon, I need to move to that distance, and especially I NEED TO TRAIN FOR THAT DISTANCE, when body and mind have still room of improvement, not when already the athlete understands his career on track is over.
    I want choices “for” running your best, not choices “because ypou are no more able running your best”.
    I want that the motivation is “in marathon I can reach better results than on track”, not “I go to marathon because I’m no more able to run fast as before on track”.
    How I explained, to become old, and no more able to have the same speed, is not a good quality for becoming a marathon runner. And we can see from the beginning of one career if the athlete can have specific attitude for marathon or not.
    With Moses, for example, already in 2003, when I planned to run 10 times 300m in 41″ (not very fast for an athlete next year in Olympic), he did, but told me “I prefer running 1 hr 30′ fast”. And many other athletes have this mentality when young. In this case, we have to push them in using speed training, but we must not fear to use already long and fast distances in training, because the right way is to exalt the main qualities of an athlete, working at the same time for reducing the gaps.
    The normal index of specific endurance between HM and Marathon is about 5%.
    This means, for example, that 60′ can produce 2:06, and 59′ in HM can produce 2:03:54, and I think was the index of Haile when bettered the record in Berlin.
    With athletes younger, I strongly think possible to reduce the index at 4%. This means that an athlete able running HM in 1 hour can run a marathon in 2:04:48, and an athlete of 59′ can run in 2:02:43.
    I think this is possible only with athlete at the top of their career, because their body is more fresh and they can recover the very hard workouts they need, in direction of extended fast run.

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  2. I think Dathan’s point is a bit more spot on. It’s not that they’re using physiology or whatever. It’s that the coaching/training of the Kenyan marathoners has become top notch or more systematized? You have coaches like Claudio Berardelli or Renato Canova or the Japanese. There’s been a shift in Kenyan marathon training that helps. Then of course the psychological issue is key too.

    Not sure the answer is pilates 🙂

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