Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Post: The Lowering Trend of Marathon Times

Geoffrey Mutai made a mockery
of Boston and New York course
records in 2011
Today's guest post is by Sarah Charles. Sarah owns and manages her own exercise education site, Exercise Science Degree. She considers herself to be a fitness guru and enjoys writing articles about staying healthy and fit.

The first marathon of the modern Olympics in 1896 was won by Spiridon Louis, with a time of 2:58:50. Since then, marathon times have continued to get faster and faster. A century ago, the men’s times came in just under 3 hours; now the ultimate goal is to run a race under the 2 hour mark. Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai holds the best marathon time at 2:03:02, which he ran at the Boston Marathon. (Note: This time has not been considered for the official world record due to factors of elevation and Boston course measurements). For a visual representation, see this interactive graph showing the lowering trend in marathon world record times for both men and women.

Why have marathon times improved so much in the past 100 years? A 2010 article from the Journal of Applied Physiology called, “The Two-Hour Marathon: Who and When?” , noted that the adoption of high volume and year-round training in the 1950s has shaved 16 minutes off the world record time, falling between 1 and 5 minutes each decade. The report also notes other factors that have come about in the past few decades, such as increased prize money and competitive opportunities to become a professional athlete. In addition, there have been significant improvements in running gear, as well as our scientific understanding of athletic performance.

2011 Chicago Marathon winner, Moses
Mosop, thinks he can run 2:02
As far as physiology is concerned, we have learned that many factors go into deciding how well a person can run a race. Through a combination of genes and training, a person’s maximal oxygen intake (VO2 max) values, lactate threshold, and running economy all play into his or her performance. Oxygen intake can be affected by age and gender, but also fitness level and training. Similarly, running economy (how efficiently a runner uses oxygen at a given pace) is affected by fitness level and training, along with various factors related to their running technique and environmental conditions.

Thus, it is easy to understand why improvements in our understanding of sports physiology have contributed to the significant improvement of marathon times. We have a better idea than ever before of how runners can improve their times. For an example, take the knowledge that interval training helps increase a person’s lactate threshold.

While outstanding running economy seems to be much more prevalent in elite runners than high VO2 max values, scientists still have much to learn about the relationship between them. As the world’s best marathoners continue to pursue that elusive 2-hour mark, who knows how marathon times will improve in the next 100 years?

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