Breaking the two-hour barrier: Scientists looked at what it takes to be an elite marathon runner

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  • Running a marathon requires specific abilities
  • Scientists have long debated the requirements of being an elite marathon runner
  • Data collected from the Breaking2 project reveal that oxygen and the way it is used play an important role


Running at a "two-hour marathon pace" requires specific physiological abilities. While these requirements have always been a great topic of debate, the actual demands had not been determined – until recently, that is. 

A recent study conducted by Professor Andrew Jones and a team of researchers revealed exactly what it takes – physiologically – for elite marathon runners to tackle a sub-two-hour marathon. The study was based on tests done on athletes participating in the Breaking2 project.

Higher oxygen intake

Breaking2 was a project initiated by Nike to break the two-hour barrier. Findings revealed that runners must possess a perfectly balanced rate of oxygen uptake (known as VO2 max), master moving efficiently and have a high lactate turnpoint. 

To test for these factors, 16 male distance runners took part in a detailed examination while running on a treadmill at a constant speed of 21.1km/h.

According to Professor Jones, “To run for two hours at this speed, athletes must maintain what we call 'steady-state' VO2. This means they meet their entire energy needs aerobically (from oxygen).”

Interestingly, 15 of the 16 runners from the study are from East Africa. It was also discovered that while running a marathon, elite runners take in twice as much oxygen as a normal person while sprinting.

Professor Jones expressed that a standout factor that differentiates these elite runners is that they show remarkable fatigue resistance.

This is because seem to know what their "critical speed" is and run just below this speed, thereby avoiding fatigue.

Eliud Kipchoge is an example of a runner with great fatigue resistance and was one of the participants of the study who ended up winning the marathon and breaking the two-hour barrier. 

Image credit: iStock

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