How You Can Break Your Own Barriers Just Like Eliud Kipchoge

Looking for a PB in any distance? You can steal the strategies that helped Kipchoge break two hours in the marathon.


Cindy Kuzma |

Looking to run faster? Read on and learn from the literal best.

In October, the running world held its collective breath when the world’s most dominant marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, staged his second attempt at running 26.2 miles (42.2km) in under two hours.

RELATED: Kipchoge Makes History Breaking The Two-Hour Marathon Barrier!

After coming so close the first time in 2017—falling just 26 seconds shy on a racetrack in Monza, Italy—Kipchoge broke the elusive barrier by clocking a time of 1:59:40.2 through the Prater, a park in Vienna.

While his time doesn’t count as an official world record for a number of reasons—like his use of multiple sets of rotating pacers—Kipchoge going sub-two should be an inspiration for whatever goals you have in the new decade.

And even marathoners who lack a team of sport scientists, the ability to log 225-km training weeks, or access to heralded prototype shoes from Nike can still learn from his effort. Here’s how, with help from running experts—many involved in the INEOS 1:59 Challenge.

Set Big Goals—and Believe

Before Monza, the leap from his previous personal best of 2:03:05 felt large and unfamiliar, Kipchoge admitted later. In the days before Vienna, though, he expressed complete confidence.

“Once we did Breaking2, he knew this was possible—he needed to knock off less than a second per mile, and he knew he could do that,” says sports-medicine physician and exercise physiologist Philip Skiba, D.O., Ph.D., who consulted on Nike’s Breaking2 Project.

And then there was his purpose: “It’s like the first man to go to the moon,” Kipchoge said beforehand. The drive to break new ground for humanity likely helped him keep pushing when it hurt during his run.

To fuel your own self-belief, first reflect on your own “why.” Then review your past performances, suggests Adrienne Langelier, M.A., L.P.C., a sport psychology consultant in Texas. If you’ve fallen short before, take those races not as failures but as data points. Analyze what went well and adjust what didn’t to continue getting better.

Sports scientist Robby Ketchell agrees with the importance of motivation. His expertise may lie primarily in areas like aerodynamics—he helped design the course and logistics in both Monza and Vienna—but in 2018, Ketchell ran the New York City Marathon for his son Wyatt, who was born with Down syndrome. Though he fell short of his 3:21 time goal—set to represent the three copies of the 21st chromosome that cause Wyatt’s condition—he carried his son across the finish line and raised funds for the LuMind IDSC Foundation. He ran in Wyatt’s honor again in 2019.

Search for the Ideal Temperatures

When the INEOS team sought out a spot for the attempt, they knew it had to stay within two time zones of Kipchoge—per his request—and close to sea level. From there, the most important consideration was the weather. Ideal conditions for Kipchoge’s physiology were between 7.2 to 13.8 degrees Celsius with humidity below 80 percent, no rain, and little wind.

Of course, you can’t control what race day brings. But if you’re aiming for a fast time, scout historical data to find an event with average temperatures around 5 to 10 degrees, where most runners perform best.

If the day dawns warmer or more humid than you’d hoped, adjust your goal, says Ketchell. Slow your starting pace, drink cold fluids, step away from other runners to catch a sweat-evaporating breeze, and stay in the shade when possible.

Find the Perfect Course for You

Once they narrowed down potential cities, Ketchell and his team next had to find a venue. The Formula 1 racetrack in Monza boasted an ideal surface, but they wanted fewer curves and undulations. The Prater’s flat, tree-lined straightaway fit the bill.

Another key factor? Local officials allowed them space and time to tinker. “They wanted us to be there,” he says. Ketchell spent 80 percent of his time in Vienna between June and October, remeasuring the course 15 times and fine-tuning each aspect.

You don’t have to make course recon your part-time job, but a little research goes a long way. Topography matters—if you choose a hilly course, you’ll need to train for it—but it isn’t the only issue, Ketchell says. Less-tangible factors like familiarity with the local area and a well-organized operation—think plenty of well-stocked aid stations and clear on-course directions—are also worth considering.

 

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Yes, You Can Draft

At all times during Kipchoge’s run, five pacers ran in an open-V shape in front of him, with two behind—a configuration that proved superior after testing about 100 options in computer simulations and wind tunnels, Ketchell says.

Not only did the pacers take on the mental task of maintaining speed, they also optimized the air flow around him. The less air resistance Kipchoge faced, the less energy it took to run every step at around 4:30 pace.

Even at slower paces and on still days, drafting offers benefits, says exercise physiology researcher and Olympic middle-distance runner Shalaya Kipp. Find someone who has a greater surface area to block the wind for you—or better yet, tuck yourself into a pack of runners traveling at your goal pace to get an aerodynamic boost from the runners behind you, too, Ketchell advises.

Steady Your Nutrition

Most marathoners gulp down their carbs in large chunks—a gel at this aid station, a cup of sports drink at the next—which can tax the gastrointestinal system. Kipchoge, meanwhile, employed what Skiba called an “incremental feeding strategy.” Cyclists handed him small bottles of Maurten energy drink, which he consumed a mouthful at a time for a steady release of energy.

Absent a personal nutrition sherpa, you can carry your fuel of choice in a belt and simply use aid stations as opportunities to top off, Skiba says. Aim for about 60 to 90 grams of carbs per hour and train your gut to practice taking it at goal pace—for instance, running a half marathon at marathon pace during your buildup, he suggests.

RELATED: 6 Common Race-Day Fuelling Mistakes

Run Relaxed

Maybe you weren’t gifted with Kipchoge’s fluid stride—but you can work to stay smooth and calm even when you’re running fast, says Michael Joyner, M.D., an expert in human performance at Mayo Clinic.

Tune in (or out): In some situations, paying closer attention to your body’s physical cues aids in maintaining a hard effort. Focus on a single part of your stride, like your breath or the rhythm of your footstrike, to stay in the moment. In other cases, focusing on something external works better—like listening to music or picturing yourself at the finish. Practice both during hard workouts and notice which works when.

Step silently: Runners who were told to run more quietly reduced their peak vertical ground reaction force, a measure of impact that could increase injury risk.

Use a cue: Kipchoge famously smiles during hard efforts, a strategy with some research behind it. You can also try reducing tension in your hands and face, or repeating a mantra like “this is normal” to calm yourself during moments of fatigue.

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