13 February, 2017

The Nike Marathon: science or farce?

Let's start with the facts. On December 12th, Nike introduced Breaking2. It was a project aiming at (unofficially) breaking the 2 hours marathon record barrier. Their announcement starts with a reference to R. Bannister's sub-4 min mile, a reference I find misplaced. While Bannister's record necessitated less than 0.6 % improvement over the record of Hägg, a sub-2 hrs time in the marathon corresponds to a 2.4 % improvement over the current world record. Nike stated that the team behind this enterprise comprises "... world-class experts across biomechanics, coaching, design, engineering, materials development, nutrition and sports psychology and physiology".

The Nike athletes who will participate at this endeavour are two top-class marathoners and one half-marathon specialist. E. Kipchoge, with a personal record of 2:03:05 is the winner of the 2016, Rio, Olympics. L. Desisa has won twice the Boston marathon and  has a personal best of 2:04:45. The third member of the team, Z. Tadese, is the half-marathon world record holder, with a time of 58:23, a curious addition since his performances on the marathon are rather modest.

Desisa, Tadese and Kipchoge

Not many details are given neither in the Nike announcement nor in the Runners World article, which invokes a confidentiality clause of their arrangement with Nike which will give them a "behind the scenes" access to the project. A funny observation is that Nike is planning an assault to the 2 hours barrier already for this coming spring while the author of the Runners World article, Alex Hutchinson, had just two years ago published an article predicting that the 2-hour barrier would be broken around 2075! The Wired article written also by a knowledgeable author, Ed Ceasar, who published last year the book "Two Hours: the quest to run the impossible marathon" is equally poor in details.

But is Nike project the first launching an attack at the 2 hours milestone? In fact, no. In 2014, my compatriot Y. Pitsiladis, who is a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton, launched his Sub2 Project. His goal was to have the barrier broken within five years. A look at Pitsiladis' website reveals among his partners the Athens Marathon and my alma mater, Athens University. And Adidas. Now, this last point is not negligible given that D. Kimetto (2:02:57), W. Kipsang (2:03:13), and P. Makau (2:03:38) are sponsored by Adidas. Pitsiladis and his team claim that A. Ayana, who established the out-of-this-world  record over 10000 m in Rio with 29:17.45, and K. Bekele, who ran 2:03:03 in Berlin in September becoming thus the second-fastest marathoner in history, have profited from timely application of beverages, prepared by them.

Why this special interest in the 2 hours marathon barrier? A look at the world record evolution over the last decade or so shows a clear change of slope.

Extrapolating linearly from the current trend (something one is advised not to do) leads to a sub-2 hr record prediction for a date around 2030. Does this make the Nike claims reasonable? People do not seem convinced.

One who is particularly vocal is Sarah Barker in her article for deadspin.com. A point she is making and which I have not seen in other analyses is her mention of "speedy pacers galore". In fact having fresh pace-makers every, say, 5 km, is something that could be of great help (and definitely ruled-out by the current IAAF regulations). Barker is reporting also the reactions of several specialists.

But what is even more interesting is her, deadspin.com also, interview of J. Hermens, the ex world hour record holder, whose Global Sports Communications company represents some of the biggest names in distance running (H. Gebreselassie, K. Bekele, E. Kipchoge, F. Kiplagat, A. Ayana to name but a few). I was especially startled to see this interview, linked to the Sub-2 project, in which Hermens spoke of genetic testing to identify the best young athletes. He makes the astounding suggestion that they might “manipulate those genes, 'turning up' those that would benefit a long distance runner and 'turning down' those responsible for performance limiting factors like lactate production”. This is pure techno-speak and, given that Hermens is not a scientist, I would simply discard these statements as marketing and/or obfuscating material.

Hermens with Gebreselassie

Ross Tucker in his blog "The science of Sport" addresses the question of sub-2 from a physiological point of view. 

He starts with the remark that his first reaction, when he heard about the project, was that the event would be held in a downhill course. In fact a 1 % decrease in gradient lowers the energetic cost of running by around 4 %. This would mean an altitude difference between starting and ending points of around 400 m. Personally, I think that such a choice would remove all credibility from the event putting it (almost, but not quite) on a par with Gatlin's farcical wind-assisted attempt. (But downhill running presents other disadvantages, from the point of view of muscles and joints, making this choice far from advisable). In fact, Tucker himself discarded his first reaction and decided that Nike would rely on shoe technology. This makes perfect sense since they are selling shoes.

Tucker mentions a research paper that showed that "... the Adidas Boost cushioning material resulted in a 1 % reduction in the oxygen cost during normal running". Now, it is not inconceivable that special shows with in-built springs could reduce the physiological cost of running by an amount greater that the 2.4 % needed for a sub-2 marathon. Will Nike equip their team with such shoes? I guess we'll have to wait for this coming spring in order to know. Tucker surmises that such shoes already exist and have even been field-tested, not only by Nike but by its rival Adidas as well. Anyhow, shoe technology looks more promising that a downhill race. 

The bottom line according to Tucker is that this is a disingenuous campaign. Going for a 2.4 % improvement when the records are already becoming asymptotic is unrealistic. And when sports science promises and  under-delivers, it hurts everybody. But in the case of Nike the project looks more like marketing dressed up as science.

I, and I am not alone, would like to see a sub-2 hrs marathon during my lifetime. However, it has to be a genuine, by the book, attempt and not some almost farcical, marketing oriented, one.

Bekele running at Dubai

PS While I was preparing this article K. Bekele announced that he would make an attempt at breaking the world record during the Dubai marathon. Unfortunately Bekele was jostled and fell at the start and had to abandon at mid-race when all record hope was gone. Had he broken the record we would have had a clear picture of what one can expect from a top-class marathoner under quasi-ideal conditions. I guess that now we have to wait for the Berlin marathon.  

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