Step away from your Specialty

Step away from your specialty

This month a scientific journal article came out that discussed what it would take physiologically to run a sub 2 hour marathon. This paper first grabbed attention a couple months ago when it was discussed on such websites as While the paper was interesting, what caught my opinion were the comments that were just now released.

The commentary on the paper isn’t just some random comments from internet message board experts. Instead we get to see a glimpse of what some of the top scientists around the world think is the key to running a sub 2 hour marathon and where they think that runner will come from. The interest in the topic was obvious as the commentary covers 17 pages and around 50 different individual comments.

While there were a lot of thought provoking comments, this blog isn’t about what it takes to run sub 2hrs in a marathon. What caught my attention is how much perspective and human nature affects everyone’s analysis. If I could sum up my thoughts after reading through everyone’s take it would be:
Everyone thinks there particular field is the key.

Everyone took the challenge of running a marathon that fast and attempted to give the answer based on their specialty. Now this isn’t ground breaking at all. We all do this. Take a strength coach, and he’ll say that runners need to spend more time in the weight room getting strong and powerful. Or if you want a an example from within running, take Brooks Johnson and the key to endurance performance is sprinting/speed. Take Arthur Lydiard and the key to running the same race is aerobic development and mileage. I’m simplifying but the point is we all analyze things from our own perspective.

What this left us with is different expert scientists making points that perhaps the following factors are important in reaching that performance.

Factors important in the sub 2hr marathon?:
-Improved nutrition and fueling strategy.
-Foot strike
-Heat storage capacity
-Greater mass participation
-VO2 slow component
-Other high altitude dwellers
-Women (!?)
-Physiology based training
-Early activity
-That the men’s WR is 25yrs behind the women’s.
-oxidative stress
-Haile Gebersalassie in 2000 (!?)
-Pulmonary vascular resistance
-Breathing economy
-cerebral oxygenation

The point isn’t to criticize the author’s thinking but to be aware of our own bias.  Researchers are a great example because by necessity they have to be deeply ingrained in their field.  You can't fault them, it's the job.  And sometimes you get so deeply ingrained that you start seeing everything through that perspective.  So, those calculations that tell you a sub 2hr marathon should have already happened or that a women will do it first seem perfectly fine.  But if you step back and see the whole picture (i.e. running a fast 10k and a fast marathon are different, and that women's marathon times were improving at a faster rate because they've only been competing since the 70's or so...) you would realize quickly how crazy it may sound.  On the other hand, all of the factors above might play a role.  In fact, many likely do, but we should realize that none of them are the "key".  Performance is a complex thing and it is likely that many of the above factors work together in creating such a fast performance.

Applied to Training:
You are probably asking what the heck a bunch of research scientists comments on a paper have to do with your training or coaching. The answer is that the same line of thinking bias our coaching. Let’s look at a quick example.

I like using examples from the real world, so we’ll look at a runner I worked with way back when he was a freshman in HS, Ryan. He got outkicked by everyone left and right. So let’s imagine you are the coach when Ryan was 15 and you went around asked a bunch of experts on how to improve his kicking ability. What kind of answers do you think you’d get? My guess/experience is the following:

Ask a Lydiard disciple/Endurance based distance coach- They’d say “He needs to get more endurance so that he is more aerobic when it comes time to kick. The answer is a stronger aerobic base.”

Ask a Sprint coach: “More pure speed work. He’s got to learn how to sprint so he can use that at the end of the race.”
Ask a mid-distance coach/Coe disciple: “More speed work under fatigue.”
Ask a Strength coach: “He needs to get stronger and more powerful. He’s got to learn to produce more power so he can accelerate during the kick.”
Ask a strength coach who likes core stuff: “We’ve got to get a stronger core so he can hold together his form better.”

I could go on, and yes I’m stereotyping, but the point is that we have one simple question “how do we improve our kick” and we’d likely get a myriad of answers and the answers would be biased towards their specialty. If we relied on only one of these experts and went solely in that direction, we likely wouldn’t reach our true potential in solving the problem.

The real answer, in my opinion, is a mixture of almost all of the things mentioned above and more. Just for informational purposes, we took the route of developing him aerobically, working on his pure speed and biomechanics, and increasing strength endurance to kind of bring things together. Essentially a combination of the answers above.

The point is that we need to recognize our biases and that of those around us. Biases aren’t bad, but we need to know that they are there. A track coach is essentially someone who has to take all these different fields and decide how much importance to assign each one. We don’t have the luxury of a strength coach for example who only works with power athletes. And be aware when you talk to experts from single fields, that they likely will tell you that the key is from their field. There idea might be important, but it’s likely not the sole key to everything.

Be aware of Biase, both yours and others, when making decisions. Realize that your perspective influences what you think is important. It’s hard being a generalist in a specialist world. But keep the big picture in mind.

Non Running Related- Plug for my brother's book on Lincoln

I don't plug many things or get off topic from running related content much, but I figured a plug for my Brother's new book can be the exception.  Just in case any of you runners out there are History buffs or like reading about Abraham Lincoln, my brother has a new book book coming out soon that brings a lot of new information to the Abraham Lincoln Saga.  In particular, he found out that Lincoln was working on a plan to ship slaves to South America during/after the Civil War.  You can read more about it more in the articles from the Washington Times and the London Daily Telegraph below.

To buy:

Back to Running Content shortly...

180 isn't a magic number- Stride Rate and what it means

Speed= Stride Rate X Stride length
It’s simple. It warrants repeating. Through in Ground contact in and you’ve got a nice model….But I digress…

There have been a recent surge in articles and blogs in regards to stride rate. It seemed to start with Jay Dicharry’s blog on stride rate and impact forces. Which led to Amby Burfoot and others to join in on the foray.

This post isn’t to address that particularly point, but rather a different one that Alex over at Sweat Science brought up in a recent blog and one I’ve discussed with Peter Larson lately. That issue is quite simply “how do we increase speed,” and further more is a focus on stride rate necessary?

Muscle Tension- Running Times article available online and New job

For those who didn't buy the magazine, my article on Muscle Tension that was in the March issue of Running Times is now available online:

Also, as some of you might have heard, I have a new job:

Watch more videos on Flotrack

Running Times magazine- Muscle Tension.

In the March issue of Running Times magazine, which is out now, you'll see an article on Muscle Tension that I wrote.  It's a very interesting topic that I've explored here on the blog in a previous post, but the Running Times article let me dig much deeper.  Former elite runner Marius Bakken provided some great insight.  Just my opinion, but it's worth a read.

For those of you who pick it up and give it a read, I'd love to hear feedback.
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