The 2-hour marathon and the 4-min mile

16 Dec 2014 Posted by
In the last month or so, I’ve been involved in some lively debate about the prospects of the sub-2 hour marathon within five years.  At issue is not whether it will happen some day, because it would take a fool to say with certainty that it will NEVER happen.  At issue is whether it can happen WITHIN FIVE YEARS.

That’s because a campaign to help achieve the sub-2 hour marathon was launched this past week, on the premise that “the project team believe they can achieve this feat within 5 years by applying a dedicated scientific approach“.  That is further expanded on in one of the project member’s newly created website:

“The project is going to select particular runners, possibly not even having currently run a marathon, but having the suitable credentials over a shorter distance. Those runners will then be exposed to the best that medicine and science can currently offer. They will get medical back-up, ranging from injury prevention to treatment, training schedules utilsing the best scientific training methods to refine current programmes, either working with the athletes directly, or through their coaches in the cases where that is applicable; monitoring of training status to prevent over-training or over-racing, the inclusion of refined altitude training techniques (there is more to it than just living at high altitude), monitoring ad refinefent of trainig diet, and importantly, customised recovery nutrition, pre-race nutrition, and in-race nutrition. The runners, in addition, will work with sports psychologists, and biomechanists and be given guidance on the use of legal nutritional ergogenic aids that  have a basis in science for potential benefit”


Science doesn’t offer enough leverage to ‘mature’ practices

All good and well, in principle.  If you are a high performance manager, then the list above is what you should be doing to optimize performance.  You already knew that.  Certainly, I wish the project well.  However, I remain certain that this will not happen in five years, because as much as we as scientists want to believe our interventions make huge differences, they simply do not offer the leverage they are claiming here.  In fact, the kind of thinking above is what oversells and ultimately hurts the application of science to performance coaches.

On first reading the above, I found the entire concept to represent a misperception of science and medicine as a “white knight”, because implicit in the above approach (tactical and operational at best, which is failing – always start with strategic thinking) is that a) the answers reside with a select few, and b) the current runners are far off the ideal standard of those few.

How far off the standard would they need to be in this instance?  Well, in order to hit 1:59:59 by 2019, we are talking an improvement of 2:57, or 2.4% on the current world record, within five years.  That is the equivalent of applying science to help Usain Bolt (or one of his countrymen) to run 9.35s, or to get David Rudisha or Nijel Amos down to a 1:38.5.  These improvements simply do not happen unless there is:

a) emergence of an entirely new population, or;

b) unrestricted application of technology, which in this case could include doping.  It may also include the design of shoes that incorporate springs, either active or materials that don’t lose elastic energy on landing.  This would push the sport back into the territory that Oscar Pistorius took it in 2008, when the IAAF created a rule banning such assistive devices.  That loophole remains open.

The question for the prospects of a sub-2 hour marathon within five years is whether either of these are viable?


The 4-min mile and what it teaches us

This is where the 4-min mile comparison enters the debate.  This has been offered, again on the same website I quoted from earlier, as support for why skeptics of this 2-hour (IN FIVE YEARS) project are like sheep following blindly without doing their analysis (or apparently, understanding the physiology of the marathon.  Go figure).

So here’s the thing about the 4-min mile.  You probably know the basic story – it’s 1954, and the world record is “stuck” at 4:01.4.  The world is watching a race to see who can be the first to crack this mythical four minute barrier.  Down in Australia, John Landy is leading the charge, and runs within 3 seconds of the barrier no fewer than 6 times in an 18-month period.  He becomes the poster boy for the impossibility of the 4-min mile, something he is taken to confirm when he is quoted as saying “The four-minute mile is a brick wall, and I shan’t attempt it again”.

Then a medical student, Roger Bannister, takes to the track in Oxford, on May 6, 1954, and runs 3:59.4.  The barrier is conquered, the wall is broken, and lo-and-behond, John Landy, he who failed six times, goes out and runs 3:58.0 six weeks later!

It suggests, NAY PROVES!!! that the 4-min mile barrier was purely mental or psychological, and it took Bannister’s mental strength to show Landy the way.  Since then, the record has been lowered to 3:43 and 1,034 men have done it.  So much for “impossible”…Right?

At least, that’s what you’ve heard, and been led to believe.  And while I’ve no doubt that mental factors do play a SIGNIFICANT role in performance and our acceptance of limits (there are other cases in history where a broken barrier is followed by a relative deluge), there’s a little more nuance to this story than you might have thought, and it adds some context to our sub-2 hour discussion.

First, Landy had done all his 4:02s in what were effectively time-trials.  He was isolated and alone, and working harder than he might have with the support of pace-setters or the spur of rivals.  Having other runners either setting the pace or challenging you may have a very small effect, but 0.5% would have been worth 1.5 seconds to him.  That puts him right on the cusp.  Bannister, on the other hand, used two Chrises – Brasher and Chataway, to set the race up for his final lap, and they pulled him through three laps in just outside 3:00.  That’s a significant advantage.

Ironically, when Landy eventually broke 4-min with his 3.58, he not only had a pace-setter for 600m (at the insistence of his Finnish hosts), but he had the very same Chris Chataway for company – not as a pace-setter, but as competitor who pushed him all the way through the bell.

Second, Landy would eventually break 4-min running in Turku, Finland, thanks to the assistance of Finnish athletes who brought him over.  In fact, Landy had been enticed to Finland in April 1954, with the intention of training and racing against Finland’s best, because he knew that they might be just what he needed to go 2 seconds faster (see above, re pacing and competition).  What is more, Finland offered Landy something he did not have in Australia – quality track surfaces, at least compared to Australia.

The difference that track surface makes is enormous – biomechanists estimate that modern synthetic tracks are worth 1.5% compared to the cinder tracks that Bannister and Landy ran on (some cinder being better than others, of course).  And that’s why, as my friend David Esptein so elegantly presented at TED, of the 1,034 men who have broken 4-min for the mile since 1954, only 530 would remain if you applied that “correction factor” that predicts that synthetic tracks are worth about 1.5% per lap compared to the cinder tracks of the 1950.

It means only 10 men per decade have joined the club since Bannister created it, and that should give you some context to this argument that “Four minutes used to be impossible, and now it is easy”.

The point is, what we see as huge physiological advances in the 60 years since Bannister’s great run are in fact at least partly, if not largely (50% of the group falls away) driven by technology.

Therefore, for the sub-2 hour marathon debate the question is this: What technology is going to take 2.4% off the time in five years, short of doping?  Remember that the 1.5s that Bannister needed back in 1954 represented a 0.6% improvement in the old world record.  Talking about a sub-2 hour marathon means you believe that 2.4% is possible, from science, applied to a population that is already mature (Kenyans have been running as fast as possible for 20 years with huge economic incentives). When the marathon world record hits 2:00:40, then we can start talking about the small gains and leverage/ROI of science to nudge it down.

I’m afraid the kind of science being spoken about simply does not offer that kind of leverage to mature practice.  A new shoe, on the other hand, is a game changer, but I’d argue that it corrupts the achievement, in much the same way that the swimsuit wars of 2008 affected swimming.


Emergence and culture – the key drivers that scientists miss

The final point, and maybe the most important reason why comparing the sub-2 hour marathon to the 4-min mile does not work is that we are now seeing the result of globalization in sport that did not exist in 1954.

You must remember, the 9 year gap between the 4:01.4 world record (set in 1945 by Hagg) and Bannister’s 1954 run was not simply because mankind had a mental block against running under 4 minutes.  There was a huge war in the 1940s, and it took hundreds of thousands of young men, potential athletes, out of the pool of eligible record breakers.  That’s not to mention that running track races was hardly a concern for nearly a decade while war and its subsequent rebuilding took place.

This was particularly relevant and harmful to Europe, of course, which is why Bannister emerged from what was a relatively small population of eligible athletes to take his place in history.

The same cannot be said now.  Since 1990, Kenyan men in particular (more recently, their women too) have dominated track and road distance events.  My friend Jordan Santos and I recently wrote a paper look at just how staggering their dominance has been – in some years, 80% of the best marathons performances come from one tribe in Kenya, the Kalenjin.  All 25 were Kenyan.

Now, the thing to appreciate here is the big picture – Kenya’s dominance is unquestionably the result of many, many factors.  If you say altitude, OR economics, OR culture, OR diet, or GENES, you’d be only partly right.  The interaction of all these factors have created a perfect storm to produce outstanding runners from a very small portion of the world’s population.  That’s something I’ve written on in the past too – this BJSM review article describes the relative contribution of genes, and arguably, the body type of the Kenyans (genetic) is a crucial factor too.  We only beginning to understand the physiology (and genetics) of these runners, but it all points, I hope we agree, to SOME CONTRIBUTION from genes.

Therefore, what has changed in athletics and running between 1954 and 2014 is not only technology and knowledge, but also that a new population, perhaps better endowed or predisposed to distance running success have targeted distance events as a means to earn a living.

The economic factor is huge – it means, literally, that thousands of Kenyans aged 18 to 25 are training with current champions (that’s culture, and it creates a staggering “institutional memory” across generations) to break records and win big races.  This drives performance more than science ever could – it is truly a high leverage input, because when you have culture plus economics, you have the two ingredients to grow knowledge through “institutional wisdom”.

The point there is that the athletes learn what works.  I was lucky enough to spend an hour with Haile Gebrselassie in 2012, and two hours talking to Wilson Kipsang in 2014, and these men know how to train.  They already receive advice from very good coaches and scientists, and they learn through their own mistakes and those of others, what works and what does not.

That is why I get so annoyed by claims by scientists that they can ride their white stallion of knowledge into Kenya (or Ethiopia) and simply help them by doing good science and monitoring recovery.  These are runners who laugh at westerners for their heart rate monitors and gadgets, because they understand their bodies so well already.

Back to the 4- min mile analogy, the key point is this – a new population came along, and so of those 1,034 men who have run under 4-min, or better still, of the 530 who have done so even after technology is corrected for, many of them are African-born.  In fact, I’d say most will be African-born.

So when you point to 1954 and say “the 4-min barrier is no different to the 2-hour barrier of 2014”, you are in fact wrong, because you have not recognized how emergence of a new population into a professional sport has driven performance and culture (and thus knowledge).

This is the macro-economic view of sports performance.  The analogy here is that an economist who tries to predict and then alter the future behaviour of the US Dollar based on what happened in the 1950s is going to be totally wrong, because the world has changed – it’s flat!  New markets emerge, globalization occurs, and for instance, in this analysis, the impact of China, India and other BRIC nations was not a factor in 1954, they are now.  Similarly, we can’t infer much from a “limit” or barrier in 1954, because 2014 has seen the sporting equivalent of “globalization” and new market emergence.

The greatest leap in performance in the last 50 years (outside of technology and doping) has come not because of science but because of this expansion, part of the maturation of sport – the world of sport is now flat, and so the best athletes, genetically, are focused on their optimal events.  Changing that, to the tune of 2.4%, is simply not possible, in my view.

That’s why the comparison between horses and greyhounds is so important.  Since the 1970s, horses have not gotten faster.  Since the 1960, greyhounds have not gotten faster.  What does this tell us?  It says that despite the incentives to get faster (there’s plenty of money in both), a limit has been reached, because horses and greyhounds have always been bred with a specific purpose.  Thus, in a rapid form of evolution, the genetic pool was first expanded, then filtered, to the point that a limit was reached.  Emergence was made impossible because the genetics were “maxed” out, and so there is no longer a possibility, within that very best, “optimized sample”, of advances.  Nor is it likely that a new sample will emerge.

Similarly, unless you can find a new population, emergence is nearing its end in humans too.  Jamaicans and African Americans never used to dominate sprints, now they do.  East Africans dominate distance races.


Bottom line – a disingenuous campaign

It is disingenuous to compare Roger Bannister looking for 0.6% to a project looking for 2.4%, when world records are already becoming asymptotic (there are a lot of papers showing this).

It is disingenuous to overlook the culture of running that has emerged over ten generations of champion runners to think that typical sports science will make that kind of difference – it over-estimates the leverage.

It is disingenuous to have ignore the fact that emergence of a new group is a driver of progress, and that is not worth 2.4% in five years, at this stage of the life cycle of marathon running.

And finally, the promise is not benign.  Yes, I am being cynical, but when sports science promises and then under-delivers, it actually hurts us in the long run.  That’s the issue to me.  It’s not the science, or the scientists, despite what you might think.  In fact, many of the scientists on the project are outstanding, and I have the greatest of respect for their work.  Highly published and deserving of their reputations, all of them.

This is a PR, marketing issue, dealing with the translation of science and its “sale” to the sports world.  I just don’t think it’s helpful.

However, I with the team luck, I’d love to see a 1:59 by 2019, but I say it won’t happen.  In fact, I’m offering a $1000 bet to Dr Andrew Bosch on that – if it happens, I pay you.  If not, that’ll buy me some nice dinners.

Oh and finally, also for Andrew, since the sheep have followed without any analysis, here’s my attempt at a different viewpoint – a little bit of history, economics, culture and physiology.  It includes some mention of horses and greyhounds.



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.