Professional runners with the ability to run a marathon in under two hours take in oxygen twice as fast as a regular person of the same age, a new study revealed.
University of Exeter researchers analysed the rate of oxygen uptake among elite athletes as part of the sub-two-minute marathon Breaking2 project run by Nike.
Elite runners need a specific combination of physiological abilities to have any chance of running a sub-two-hour marathon, new research shows.
Among these skills is the ability to hit the ‘perfect balance’ of VO2 (rate of oxygen uptake) during a run – and experts found it is twice as fast as a ‘normal person’.
Some of the elites runners were tested at Exeter Arena and researchers revealed they take in twice the amount of oxygen of a normal person of the same age
Professor Andrew Jones, study author, said the findings reveal that elite marathon runners must balance VO2 with efficiency of movement.
They also require a high ‘lactate turn point’ – which is the point above which the body experiences more fatigue also known as the wall.
VO2 MAX: MAXIMUM RATE OF OXYGEN CONSUMPTION
VO2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise of increasing intensity.
It can be used as a measure of the level of endurance fitness for comparison of training between two people.
Higher oxygen consumption reflects fitness and endurance capacity.
Recent studies found that an elite marathon runner takes in twice the level of oxygen of a normal person the same age.
It is expressed as an absolute rate in litres of oxygen per minute or a relative rate of oxygen per kg of body mass.
‘Some of the results – particularly the VO2 max – were not actually as high as we expected,’ Professor Jones said.
‘Instead, what we see in the physiology of these runners is a perfect balance of characteristics for marathon performance.
‘The requirements of a two-hour marathon have been extensively debated, but the actual physiological demands have never been reported before.’
The runners in the study included Eliud Kipchoge and they fell just short of the two-hour target – but later achieved the goal in 1:59:40.2 in the Ineos 1:59 challenge.
Based on outdoor running tests on 16 athletes in the selection stage of Breaking2, the study found that a 130lb runner would need to take in about seven pints of oxygen per minute to maintain two-hour marathon pace of 13 miles per hour.
‘To run for two hours at this speed, athletes must maintain what we call ‘steady-state’ VO2,’ Professor Jones said.
‘This means they meet their entire energy needs aerobically (from oxygen) – rather than relying on anaerobic respiration, which depletes carbohydrate stores in the muscles and leads to more rapid fatigue.’
In addition to VO2, the second key characteristic is running ‘economy’, meaning the body must use oxygen efficiently, explained Jones.
This has to happen both internally and through an effective running action.
The third trait, lactate turn point, is the percentage of VO2 max a runner can sustain before anaerobic respiration begins.
‘If and when this happens, carbohydrates in the muscles are used at a high rate, depleting glycogen stores,’ Professor Jones explained.
‘At this point – which many marathon runners may know as ‘the wall’ – the body has to switch to burning fat, which is less efficient and ultimately means the runner slows down.
‘The runners we studied – 15 of the 16 from East Africa – seem to know intuitively how to run just below their ‘critical speed’, close to the ‘lactate turn point’ but never exceeding it.
‘This is especially challenging because – even for elite runners – the turn point drops slightly over the course of a marathon.
Marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge was involved in the monitoring and has run a marathon in just under two hours. Here he was being monitored by Professor Andrew Jones to find out what it takes to hit the magic sub-two-hour marathon mark
‘Having said that, we suspect that the very best runners in this group, especially Eliud Kipchoge, show remarkable fatigue resistance.’
The testing, conducted in Exeter and at Nike’s performance centre in Oregon, USA, provided a surprising experience for a group of amateur runners in the UK.
‘We tested 11 of the 16 runners at Exeter Arena a few years ago,’ Professor Jones said.
‘Some local runners were there at the time, and it was a real eye-opener for them when a group of the world’s best athletes turned up.
‘The elite runners were great – they even joined in with the local runners and helped to pace their training.’
The findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.