Can Sport Science Help You Run a Marathon?

Whether you're a beginner or Mo Farah, just what help can sports cience give you for running a marathon? Surely it can't do everything?

The first marathon was run by the soldier Pheidippides in 490 BC. He ran from the battlefield in a town called Marathon to the Greek capital Athens to tell the king about the victory of the Greek army. According to the legend surrounding Pheidippides, he ran to the king, delivered the message and then collapsed and unfortunately died. We can safely assume that Pheidippides never got to enjoy the benefits of sport science and temperature-regulating gear.

Despite all the advances made in sport science, there are always people who want to go back to the roots. However, it cannot be denied that as sport science advanced runners got faster and faster. In 1896 the world record for a marathon completion was 2:58:50. Today Wilson Kipsang holds the world record when he completed a marathon in an astonishing 2:03:23. But how exactly can sport science help a runner to complete a marathon?

It is true that some people have a natural advantage. Especially runners from east Africa. They have a physiological advantage when it comes to running because they tend to have slim calves and slim lower shanks. However, Dr Steve Ingham, director of science and technical development at the English Institute of Sport, says "Give me an athlete, and a sports scientist should be able to make them go faster."

A discovery that changed the running world was made in the 1970s when scientists found out that it wasn’t protein that helped runners to cover long distances but carbohydrates. There was a shift from a high-protein to a high-carb diet. The invention of isotonic drinks furthermore increased running performances as it let the athletes replace water and electrolytes efficiently. This can give them a much needed boost.

Furthermore, it became more and more important to monitor the body when running a marathon to run a great time. There are a few things that should be monitored during the training sessions and the actual run. The VO2 max and the lactate threshold. The former is the maximum amount of oxygen that is transported from the environment to the muscles while the latter indicates the threshold when lactic acid starts to build in the muscles because the body can no longer process it.

Sport science has proven to help runners perform better during a marathon, but it is not everything. As the BBC reported recently, marathon runner Mo Farah struggled to perform as well as expected during the London 2014 marathon because he found himself behind the lead group too early and his two pacemakers ran too far in front of him. Every single misjudgement that is made on the 26 mile run will be reflected in the overall time, so even if one makes use of the latest advancements sport science has to offer, this is no guarantee for a good placement.

The winner of the last London marathon was the Kenyan runner Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich who completed the run in a record breaking time of 2:04:29. Kipsang trained hard for his fantastic placement and he knows how important even the smallest detail can be. "You must think about what kind of time you want to run and then understand the paces you must prepare for. You must find the right partners for your training group; you have to figure out the right place for training. There is a lot that goes into it."

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