How Do They Do It?

Last year's sub 2hr marathon by Eliud Kipchoge and a 2hr14m marathon by Brigid Kosgei has resulted in the question asked of me many times “How do they do it?”

The marathon distance is no longer just a test of endurance. It is now a fast race that takes a little longer than others to complete. Male athletes who regularly run track 1500m or 5000m also turn out for sub 60 minute half marathons. In the case of women, a sub 70 minute half marathon is now taken for granted if you want to finish at the front of the bunch, with the very top competitors running 65 minutes. These half marathons and marathons also feature women that excel in shorter track events. It shows that coaching and attitudes towards training and the longer distances have changed.

Even severe heat or humidity does not change the front runners’ mind-set. In the recent Doha World Championships the top dozen men were merely slowed to times between 2h10 and 2h12. Given that a lot of these runners were capable of running under 2h5 you could argue it was also because of the tactical nature of the race, rather than just the conditions, that produced slower times. While it can be acknowledged that new shoe technology has resulted in a number of fast times, runners since 2003 have been able to run under 2h5m. Records have slowly crept downwards as more and more top athletes understand the training is all about speed endurance i.e. running the pace needed, for longer.

Running a fast half marathon or marathon doesn’t happen overnight. Most of the top performers have been involved in athletics for over 10 years with most starting in middle distance track events. Coaching and progressing athletes from beginners to longer events is an art that uses some exercise physiology science and a progressive approach to muscle loading. That loading is individual to each athlete and therefore the pathway to the eventual goal is different for everyone. Overall, the quality of the training is more important than the quantity. Running endless long slow miles to develop aerobic capacity creates slow runners. Quality and intensity are two key ingredients that need to be included in the recipe. The fastest person always wins the race, hence the need for speed.

While there are always exceptions, most athletes wanting to run long distance races need to start with the shorter middle distance events. These have considerable aerobic demands but the training has to emphasise the lactate / anaerobic energy systems. Sessions need to practise utilising the energy from lactate but also prepare the muscles to efficiently remove the excess lactic acid that can slow you down. These types of sessions will help later when athletes want to move to longer distances. Every session counts as being productive, even recovery runs. One of my most criticised blogs is when I stated that a 20 year old female, who could only run 57s for 400m, was too slow to be labelled a sprinter. The third and last laps of many women’s 1500m are now run at sub 60s. This shows that speed endurance is key for middle distance runners. Repeating reps over distances of 400m and longer, while sustaining that same 60s pace is key if you want to become a world class female performer in 800m up to 10,000m. Moreover, a multi-pace training programme which includes 400m, 800m, 1500m and 3000m paced sessions prevents athletes from being locked into one pace and one distance to race.

Unfortunately not everyone can become the best in the world. If it was that easy, we all would have done it. However a systematic and progressive approach to your training load suggests that if you can run 30 minutes for 10km, then in 3 – 4 years’ time there is every possibility you can run 60 minutes for 21k. It just means increasing the load so that you are trying to run 5km extra, at that same pace, every year. During that time your 10km would also reduce to 28 minutes. As well as running longer at the same pace, you would also have run shorter distances at a faster pace. Over a number of years, athletes should concentrate on each successive marathon race segment, until they are ready for the main event.

This rules applies for any marathoner or in fact any distance athlete. It is the same rule for 30 minute, 40 minute and 50 minute 10k runners. If you are running the same pace and the same distances in training as last year, do not expect to run a faster time in the same race a year later. Think about what factor you can alter – the distance run, the speed or even the recovery between hard efforts.