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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Interesting news from the marathon

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 (link on the right of the page) 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!



Anonymous said...

I thought you guys might pick up on that article.

Knowing a little about this camp I would suggest that the journalistic licence has been taken when interpreting the information. Given the fact that the media attribute Paula retiring in Athens due to heat related factors; it is easy and popular to write an article that UK A are countering it this time round. I would suggest that although hydration will be monitored, the main reason for the camp is as you suggested psychological (doing everything possible), morale building (individual athletes in a team environment) and mainly due to the fact that senior UK A coaches are predominately not the individual athlete coaches and they have little idea what winter training an athlete has been doing and what shape they are in! Obviously there are exceptions but this is unfortunately the reality for most.

It is Paula’s choice to only go for 10days, the camp is on for over a month and I know work with several athletes going for a minimum of 4week prior to UK indoor trials.

My comment about the camp would be its chosen altitude. By choosing a venue at an altitude of 1300m are you not sacrificing some element of intensity and recovery without the added benefit of true altitude training? Would it not be better to either do a high (1700-2400m camp) if you want altitude or a sea level camp if you just want warm weather?

UK A have a training base in Macau arranged for a month before Beijing where I suspect that any acclimatisation and hydration strategies will be sorted out.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Running Physiologist

Yes, I gathered the whole Paula vs heat is the 'selling point' behind that article! I hear you also the altitude, which is a strange choice. Again, it comes back to the REAL motivation for the camp, which I do think is a good idea, as I mentioned, because it tells the athlete that they are doing everything to prepare.

I know from rugby, the English team in 2003 and the SA team in 2007 both utilized the services of a "Vision specialist" to improve performance. There's no evidence that this type of function even helps, but both teams believed it made a difference. And I once heard Clive Woodward saying that it didn't matter whether it worked or not, the only thing that mattered was that his players would walk onto the field believing that they had done more than any other team to prepare!

So this kind of camp serves that critical purpose. And then of course there is the oppportunity for coaches to monitor the athlete's status, which is something I wish we'd do in South Africa!

As for the altitude, fair point. Again, I would go for the sea level camp because the altitude effect would be timed incorrectly anyway. So rather than add the additional stress of altitude so early in the season, I'd advocate a the sea level option.

Looking ahead at Beijing (which is going to be a great topic of discussion in the future), it's the pollution and heat that are going to be major factors. I would forgo any altitude training in favour of heat adaptation - more to lose from the heat than to gain from altitude. So given a choice of a high altitude camp in the Pyrenees (and it's clean mountain air), the Macau option is the way to go!

Good to know that you guys are at least doing it right (hydration aside!!!). Here in SA, our wise coaches and administrators sent the team to Beijing to prepare for Osaka earlier this year! Just when everyone was going the OTHER way around and planning to avoid Beijing in 2008, we actually went there on purpose!

The result was that some of our athletes could barely jog for two weeks leading up the their events in Osaka! One, who should have won a medal, did basically no training, the pollution hit him so hard! And they failed to cater for the athletes, so they ate badly too! How many medals did SA win in Osaka? A grand total of zero...

So it's good to know some countries are thinking ahead, even if the fluid approach is unnecessary!


Anonymous said...

Good points. I think we can also assume that Paula's 10 days is more a gesture on her part to boost morale and forestall criticism of the post-Athens sort by doing the team thing.

Europe to SA flight time is around 12 hours, so she'll barely be in a state to get anything useful done before it's time to head out.

Pre-Macao, the word is she will be training in Albuquerque, New Mexico (5280 feet with access to 8-10,000 feet).


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say it is all sunny skies over here. The UK A set up has more than a few huge pot holes that need to be filled in before real prgress can be made. The camps make complete sense but for a governing body to fund an athlete and then have little or no control over the training they do or way of tracking the progress they are making except for a few training camps seems madness to me. Why athletics hasn't switched to a more centralised system like the sucessful ones in the UK of cycling, sailing or rowing I will never know. It seems like in athletics that because a coach trains an athlete to be quite good (international but not world class) they have the right to keep training them enough though in the majority of cases the athlete has out grown the coaches knowledge and skill level. (anyway that's completely off topic)

I completely agree with your comment on the overkill about hydration. It seems in the UK especially that athletes have been hammered home with the need for 'proper hydration' (whatever that is) that i think some of our athletes are in danger of carrying around kilo's of extra weight in the form of fluid every time they train.

Unknown said...

Talking about Lel, found a bit of an outline of his training at the Running Times website here:

Unknown said...

Just wanted to mention an interesting new hydration tool that is now available. Its called "AquaJoe" and it gives the athlete an easy way to transport & dispense sports drink powders while performing the activity. No more plastic baggies. It can even be used instead of energy gels!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hmmm. . .if we didn't know any better we might think that was a shameless plug for the AquaJoe product. . .

In any case, a clever invention but I must admit I do not see the application for runners and cyclists. For running it would require you to run with a 500+ mL water bottle, which is not really realistic, and if you are running slowly enough that it is not an issue, then why not just pop into a garage along the way to grab a coke or something?

In cycling, it would require you to mix your drink on the bike. . .but anyway if you prefer a sports drink then wouldn't you just fill your bottle before you left? And if refilling en route, wouldn't you just again buy your drink from a garage?

Anyway, good luck with it!

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Running Physiologist,

It is refreshing to hear someone who is as involved with athletes as you agreeing with us on the hydration issue.

I can just think of so many other things they should be spending time/money/effort on. In fact with the humidity the sweat rates are going to be quite high in Beijing, and if endurance athlete tries to replace a large percentage of their sweat losses their performance is likely going to suffer as a result of GI stress.

Before our time at UCT our department did a study on full fluid replacement during a two hour running bout: 90 min at 65% VO2max followed by a 30 min time trial. Try Pubmed for "Daries HN."

Two of the eight subjects could not complete the 30 min time trial, and the extra fluid did not make the others run faster.

People cannot seem to accept that the solution can be as simple as drinking to thirst, and instead are convinced that fluid replacement must be according to some set volume and time frame.

Thanks again for your input!

Kind Regards,

Francois said...

I would just like to come back to the sub-2 hour angle and more generally, to the human's physiological limits and their implications for world records.

Yesterday, several medias reported the imminent release of a major time series study by the France's Institut National du Sport (INSEP) about the implications for world records of the physiological limits of human elite athletes.

I spoke to the author Geoffroy Berthelot from INSEP this morning and he told me that the study will be released in a "major scientific journal" in mid-January. I can't wait.

I am providing here for your readership one of the summaries that were published in English (this one is from UK's Telegraph)

Humans to reach 'physiological limits by 2060'
By Henry Samuel in Paris
Last Updated: 3:08am GMT 19/12/2007
The Telegraph

There will be no new sporting world records after 2060 as humans will have reached their physiological limits, French scientists have claimed.

The conclusion by experts at France's biomedical and epidemiological institute of sport, Irmes, followed analysis of 3,260 world records set since 1896 - the year of the first modern Olympics.

Then, athletes used 75 per cent of their physical capacity, while today, according to the study by the body linked to the French sports ministry, they use about 99 per cent.

advertisementAfter looking at five disciplines - athletics, cycling, weightlifting, swimming and speed skating - the researchers are convinced that the human race will soon hit a brick wall in setting world records.

"It's the beginning of the end," said Jean-Francois (cedilla) Toussaint, head of Irmes.

"We are reaching the limit in terms of physiological capacities of the human race."

The number of world records being broken has already begun to slow down, he told the newspaper Libération.

"One can observe phases rich in records at the start of the century, and in the 20s and 50s to 60s, and two sluggish periods corresponding to the two World Wars.

"But since the 1970s, the graphs show an inexorable decline in the number of records beaten," he said.

The study takes into account progress in timing methods, clothing, equipment, training methods and diet.

Some sports will reach their limits earlier than others, the study predicted.

Athletics will be one of the first to go but swimming has more room for improvement.

Women's pole vaulting has the brightest future in terms of records.

Some current records are likely never to be broken, such as the fastest women's 100 metres set by Florence Griffith-Joyner, alias FloJo - unbeaten since 1988 at 10.49 seconds.

The men's 100 metres can still improve, but, "It is improbable that a man on two feet will one day run the 100 metres in nine seconds," said Mr Toussaint.

By 2027, half of all disciplines will have reached their limit.

By 2060, to detect new records in events such as the 100 metres sprint races will have to be measured to a thousandth of a second, marathons to a hundredth of a second and weightlifting in grammes.

Even then it will take 50 years to beat a record, Irmes claimed.

The same "universal biological rules" apply to the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Mr Toussaint added.

He suggested that in the future records should be less important than the way a race is run and the quality of the sporting contest.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Francois

Thank you so much for that link and your comments!

We love it when the readers give us content ideas and information for the future, and this article is definitely something we will have a great time writing about!

I am also then looking forward to the study - I will keep my eyes open for it, it might even be available now in an electronic form (the University academics often get the articles they're printed)

Once we've got it, we'll definitely do a post or two on it!

One thing I will say is that scientists have made some BAD mistakes like this in the past. I forget who it was, but in the 1970's a group of very well respected and competent scientists did some advanced maths and concluded that the women's Marathon World Record would be FASTER than the Men's Record by about 1995! Needless to say, they were very wrong!!!

So I look forward to this one!

Thanks again, and join us hopefully soon (or else next year) when we try to look at it.


Francois said...

As promised, Professor G. Berthelot from ISEP, one of the authors, sent me the background study today (it was published today!).

Here's the link:


As an economist having a good background in statistics/econometrics, I have to say that I was quite impressed by the thoroughness of the statistical analysis. Readers not interested by the technical intricacies can jump right to the section entitled "Discussion".

Conclusions are of course the same as my previous post. Here's the executive summary:

The Citius End: World Records Progression Announces the Completion of a Brief Ultra-Physiological Quest

Geoffroy Berthelot1, Valérie Thibault1, Muriel Tafflet1,2, Sylvie Escolano1,2, Nour El Helou1, Xavier Jouven2,3, Olivier Hermine3,4, Jean-François Toussaint1,3,5*

1 Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology (IRMES), Paris, France, 2 INSERM, IFR69, U780, Villejuif, France, 3 Université Paris-Descartes, Paris, France, 4 Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) UMR 8147, Hôpital Necker, Paris, France, 5 Centre d'Investigation en Médecine du Sport (CIMS), Hôtel-Dieu, Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP), Paris, France

World records (WR) in sports illustrate the ultimate expression of human integrated muscle biology, through speed or strength performances. Analysis and prediction of man's physiological boundaries in sports and impact of external (historical or environmental) conditions on WR occurrence are subject to scientific controversy. Based on the analysis of 3263 WR established for all quantifiable official contests since the first Olympic Games, we show here that WR progression rate follows a piecewise exponential decaying pattern with very high accuracy (mean adjusted r2 values = 0.91±0.08 (s.d.)). Starting at 75% of their estimated asymptotic values in 1896, WR have now reached 99%, and, present conditions prevailing, half of all WR will not be improved by more than 0,05% in 2027. Our model, which may be used to compare future athletic performances or assess the impact of international antidoping policies, forecasts that human species' physiological frontiers will be reached in one generation. This will have an impact on the future conditions of athlete training and on the organization of competitions. It may also alter the Olympic motto and spirit.