Running is a common activity people partake in. It’s a great way to stay in shape, whether it’s by running two miles or training for a marathon. All that’s needed is an able body and willpower. A recent study however, confirms that running a marathon in under two hours requires more than just will power and legs. There is a necessary balance of VO2 max, efficiency of movement, and high lactate turn points that must be present to accomplish this ambitious goal.
VO2 max is the amount of oxygen your muscles can intake during a minute. The oxygen helps convert energy from food into ATP which fuels muscles during workouts. By training, athletes are able to lower their resting heart rate and increase the amount of blood pumped in a heartbeat. This increases the amount of oxygen being transported to the cells for aerobic respiration and the production of ATP. A runner’s VO2 plateaus when they are no longer able to go faster. With a high VO2 max, runners are able to create more energy, allowing them to run further and faster.
While a high VO2 max allows for runners to be more successful, this doesn’t always put a runner at their best. Good runners have a high efficiency of movement, also referred to as economy, as well. Economy is the runner’s ability to efficiently use oxygen to turn energy into work. The better the economy, the less oxygen is needed. Good form in runners is one way to become more efficient. Having a long and fast stride, steps that fall under the hip, and less bounce in the step, allow the best chance for oxygen to be distributed most efficiently. Additionally, good surfaces and running shoes allow for a better running performance.
The final element needed to sustain a successful and fast long run is a high lactate turn point. This is the runner’s ability to maintain aerobic respiration after reaching the VO2 max before anaerobic respiration takes over. Once anaerobic respiration is the main source of work, it becomes harder for a runner to sustain their speed. Runners often refer to it as ‘the wall’. During aerobic respiration, the oxygen the runner intakes from breathing is used for energy. When the amount of oxygen received can no longer keep up the level of work from the muscles, the body undergoes anaerobic respiration. In the process, the body skips the normal steps of cellular respiration like the Krebs Cycle and electron transport chain. Instead, it repeats glycolysis and partakes in lactic acid fermentation where allowing ATP to be created, but in smaller amounts. The longer it takes a runner to reach anaerobic respiration, the more successful they’ll be.
For the study, sixteen elite runners taking part in Nike’s Breaking2 project, a challenge to run a marathon in under 2 hours, were examined. One of the scientists overseeing the study was Professor Andrew Jones from the University of Exeter. When the VO2 of the runners was measured, he claimed the results of the VO2 max were surprisingly less than expected. This proved the idea that VO2 max alone cannot lead to a successful marathon. Still, results showed that the oxygen intake of the runners at their marathon pace was twice that of the Average Joe sprinting. Additionally, he measured about four liters of oxygen needed per minute to allow a person around 59kg, about 130 lbs, to maintain the correct pace for a two hour marathon. Throughout his observation, Jones noted almost all 16 runners were able to maintain a pace that caused them to come close to the lactate turn point without actually hitting ‘the wall’ because of their experience and knowledge.
Eliud Kipochoge ended up being the first person to complete a marathon in under 2 hours. It was a monumental moment in runner history and was made possible by his understanding of the science behind running and his ability to maintain a balance of his VO2 max, efficiency of movement, and lactate turn point. Through his achievements, scientists were also able to further their understanding of the racing process to help runners in the future.