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 Biases, 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.


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    1. The Sean on February 25, 2011 at 8:24 pm

      Race your strength, train your weakness.

    2. Daniel on February 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      You might just be intentionally over-simplifying, but I think Lydiard would not necessarily say that Ryan needed more aerobic base. He would look at the races Ryan ran, then analyzed based on his observations. Lydiard was a proponent of developing and maintaining true speed throughout the year. I could imagine Lydiard possibly saying each of those statements except for the core comment.

    3. stevemagness on February 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      I am oversimplifying to a large degree. Notice I said "Lydaird Disciple." Not Lydiard. That was intentional because what often happens is that people become too stuck to the system and not how Lydiard or anyone else actually worked.

      The point remains though.

    4. Daniel on February 26, 2011 at 2:39 am

      Gotcha. I often think Lydiard is very misunderstood. Glad to know you see more to Lydiard than many "disciples." Thanks for this and other great posts.

    5. Blazing Bayou Running on February 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

      Man oh man, am I glad you wrote this, Steve.

      No matter what we coach we need to look at the big picture and keep open minds. There are a lot of STRONG opinions out there in the coaching world: some based on science, some based upon experience.

      I think the best coaches do what you did with Ryan. Study, listen, know your individual athlete and combine the best blend to help them. Dogmaticism is dangerous in coaching. An open, analytic mind is much better for our athletes.

      Robin Judice

    6. Anonymous on February 28, 2011 at 10:37 pm

      Wonderful post man. Keep it up. Thanks

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