Is it humanly possible to break the two-hour marathon barrier? Spoiler alert: Yes. And researchers from two universities have collaborated to map out exactly how it’ll go down.
First, a recap. The current world record is 2:02:57, set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon. Since then, shaving off the last 3 minutes has become a near-obsessive aim of elite runners and the sports companies that sponsor them.
Last year, two runners finished within eight seconds of Kimetto’s time, but a sub-two-hour time remains elusive. The editors at Runner’s World studied the data, crunched the numbers, and announced that—yes—it’ll happen. In 2075. Others say it’s a physiological impossibility. Humans simply aren’t built for such speed.
Of course, the same was said of the 4-minute mile until 25-year-old Brit Roger Bannister crashed right through that barrier in 1954. Since then, the racing community has shaved another 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.
The 2-hour marathon will soon suffer the same fate, say researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Houston. In a study published in the journal Sports Medicine last month, they report that runners are just a few steps away.
“Our calculations show that a sub-two-hour marathon time could happen right now, but it would require the right course and a lot of organization,” contends the study’s lead author, Wouter Hoogkamer, a postdoctoral researcher in sport neuromechanics at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he means:
Condition #1: Less Wind Resistance
A seminal study from 1971 showed that a runner can reduce wind resistance by 93 percent by “drafting,” or tucking himself behind other runners.
Of course, you can’t draft the entire race—at some point, you need to pull ahead. But doing so for the first half would enable the athletes to conserve enough energy to improve their running efficiency for the second half.
Hoogkamer’s team found that reducing wind resistance by as little as 36 percent would reduce a 2:03:00 time to 1:59:59.
Condition #2: A Favorable Course
By that, the researchers mean a slightly downhill slope. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, a marathon course cannot decline more than 140 feet from start to the finish, so it won’t be like running down Lombard Street. But every little bit helps. Even better would be a course that cuts through a lengthy wooded area, to further cut wind resistance.
Condition #3: Lighter Shoes
The researchers are specific here: Each shoe should weigh no more than 8 ounces. This is 3.5 ounces lighter than the shoes Kimetto wore when he set the world record. That difference alone could have shaved another 57 seconds off his time.
Both Adidas and Nike unveiled so-called sub-two shoes this spring, weighing in at between 5 and 7 ounces. The companies claim that reduced weight is just one benefit. The shoes also improve efficiency, reduce the energy needed to lift each foot, and actually propel the runner forward.
How far forward? Roughly 3 minutes, they hope.