When Will We See a Sub-2 Marathon, Really?

After analysing marathon records over the last 60 years, researchers have come up with a surprisingly specific prediction - and it’s not as imminent as we think.


Hailey Middlebrook |

– After researchers crunched data from world marathon records over the last 60 years, they predicted that men will break 2:00 in the marathon in 2032, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

– The study also determined that women should have broken 2:10 in the marathon in 1996.

– Future world marathon records will likely be impacted by advancements in gear, training, nutrition, and mental strategy.

Of all the world records in running, few are as alluring as the men’s marathon record, which every year inches closer to that seemingly untouchable 2:00 barrier. Athletes, fans, and scientists alike are raising similar questions as those asked before Roger Bannister broke four minutes in the mile: Can it be done? Who will do it? And when will it happen?

Currently, Eliud Kipchoge holds the world marathon record of 2:01:39, set in September of 2018 at Berlin. He shaved nearly a minute and 20 seconds off the former record held by Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57). So it seems likely that two-hour barrier will fall sooner rather than later.

But when the 2:00 barrier will really be broken is up for debate. Now, in a new study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers from Australia used statistical calculations and analysis to predict what year men will break 2:00 – and when women will go sub-2:10 (the gender-adjusted equivalent time, as determined by the study).

To create their model, they pulled data from marathon world records set in the last 60 years. For men, these ranged from Jim Peters’s 1952 record of 2:20:42 to Kipchoge’s 2:01:39. The women’s model started with Merry Lepper’s 1963 record (3:37:07) to the current record set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003 (2:15:25).

 

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The study predicted that there was a 10 percent likelihood that men would break the 2:00 marathon in May of 2032. Before that year, there is still a chance that men will break the barrier, but the odds are much lower, according to the study: In 2024, there is only a five percent likelihood of it happening.

Looking at the Breaking2 project, it seems like sub-2 will come around much sooner, study author and ultrarunner Simon D. Angus, Ph.D., told Runner’s World. But there are some important things to keep in mind.

“First, the Breaking2 project intentionally broke IAAF rules to increase the translation of power to speed,” he said. “Second, the same athlete, in near perfect conditions in Berlin 2018, ran 99 seconds outside the sub-2 record, much further away than the Breaking2 attempt.

In fact, Kipchoge’s record-breaking performance in September goes to show that sub-2 may not be as close as we think.

“From the model predictions, the chances of that run occurring on that day in Berlin were about 1 in 4. Even if he’d run a 1 in 10 (10 percent likely) time on that day, he’d still have been far outside the sub-2 barrier,” Angus said. “I think this all just shows how the limiting marginal returns are really biting for the elite male athletes.”

Basically, it boils down to one obvious fact: As runners get faster, their rate of improvement slows down. (That’s why in their model, the researchers graphed improvement rates on a curved line, rather than a linear one.)

They found that in the 1950s, world record marathon times improved by 30 seconds every 11 months. In our current decade, however, it’s taken six years to drop the same amount of time. So while Kipchoge has certainly closed the gap on 2:00, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll blow past it anytime soon, the study reported.

As for the women? Well, according to the calculations, the 2:10 barrier should already have been broken back in 1996. But 23 years later, the fastest time for women is still over 5 minutes slower than that mark.

“While the spotlight on the sub-2 record for men is great, I think the lack of an equivalent focal point for women has drawn opportunity from women who I think may be capable of reaching the mark with the right support,” Angus explained. “One hope of my study is that a major brand or movement arises to support elite female marathoners [in the same way as males].”

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Still, the researchers are quick to point out that the numbers they reached certainly aren’t binding: Their models does have a few flaws, mainly that it relies chiefly on data from the last 60 years, and doesn’t consider certain unknown factors that could impact world record marathon times in a big way – think advancements in gear, training techniques, nutrition, in-race pacing strategy, and mental training.

“If there is some radically different mechanism of performance improvement discovered that was not a feature in the past or present, then my model is no longer helpful,” Angus said. “For now, my assumption is that our progress in the last 60 years will continue in the same way into the future. At least until 2:00 is broken.”

This article originally appeared on runnersworld.com.

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