Dissecting a Marathon – an excerpt from The Science of the Marathon

A marathon is more than just running 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers. Taking a closer look or “dissecting” your marathon and training runs is a tool that ensures the training and effort is a success. Learning to dissect your running performances establishes running ability, aerobic profiles, running intensities, and strategy. Examining a race performance can indicate where your brain says no more, but the legs still have it. Unfortunately, most runners only resort to analyzing the details of their performance after a bad event. Many people are eager to tell you why you ran poorly in a race, whether it be strategy, fuel, heat exhaustion, or bad running economy. But none of it matters unless you take a more-in-depth look into what happened during that run. At the BillaTraining.com headquarters, we have a team dedicated to dissecting running performances.

Figure 5.  Analysis of the world marathon record of Dennis Kimetto in Berlin (2014) detailed over 1-kilometer intervals.

Dissecting a World Record Marathon Performance

Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 marathon performance in Berlin (Figure 5) is important because it shows a world record marathon performance over 1-km intervals, the only ones we currently have. The red horizontal line represents the speed bar for the sub-2-hour marathon. Looking closer in Figure 5, we can see that, Kimetto started very quickly for 1 km and then slowed down during his world record attempt. Then he ran in a varying or oscillating pattern, accelerating to more than a 2:42 minute/km or a 4:49 minute/mile pace towards the end and then finishing below his average speed. At the thirty-first and thirty-fourth kilometers, his speed was on par for a sub-2-hour marathon. Further analysis reveals speed variations of 10 – 15 percent of his average speed (in km/min).

It is interesting to look at the relative speed variations in elite male runners in several marathons (Figure 6); the top three finishers consistently show a convex-shaped (U-shaped) curve in their race from start to finish, whereas the rest have a clear linear downward trend. When we look at the elite women, they show a concave-type curve (peaking about the twenty-fifth or thirty-fifth km). The only exception was in the Athens Olympics, where the top elite women ran a convex curve like the men. These convex and concave curves are essential because there are specific reasons for these patterns. For example, there was much more at stake in the women’s races than to simply run a fast time. The winners of an Olympic marathon are well compensated. In the Athens marathon, the heat was a factor, but even that did not slow them down. Even more, we do not observe a systematic correlation among the runners before the thirtieth kilometer. The rewards of a race often dictate how it will play out and the variation in speeds observed. In the elite men, the field is dense, the competition is fierce, and the pacers (rabbits) strongly affect the dynamics of the race. In contrast, pacers are seldom used in women’s races. Looking at the world record run in Berlin, the winner led the race from the fifth kilometer!

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