Nike's Breaking2 project is attempting the impossible — having athletes run a sub-2 hour marathon

The close-to-crazy attempt to run a sub-2 hour marathon is finally coming up. This superhuman feat will be attempted between 6 and 8 May at the Monza Formula One track in Italy. Though a closed event, Nike will live stream the attempt on the Internet.

Nike created ripples in the world of athletics when it announced in December last year its preposterous Breaking2 project, in which a two-time Boston Marathon winner (Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia), the current Olympic marathon champion (Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya) and the half marathon world record holder will attempt to run a sub-2 hour full marathon (Eritrean Zersenay Tadese). A week later rival Adidas revealed that it has been working on a similar project for two years now. To put this in perspective, it is crazy as breaking the 4-minute mile and 10-second 100m barriers. The sub-2 hour marathon, often called “the biggest monster of all” by champion runners, is the one that still hasn’t been tamed.

Nike's Breaking2 athletes Lelisa, Zersenay and Eliud

Nike's Breaking2 athletes Lelisa, Zersenay and Eliud

The current marathon record of 2:02:57 was set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, an Adidas athlete, in Berlin in 2014.

If you are to believe a scientific theory, this feat is possible, but not on this first weekend of May — which is what Nike is out to achieve. In a landmark 1991 theoretical paper authored by US-based Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, a physician-researcher and one of the world’s leading experts on human performance and exercise physiology, proposed that under ideal conditions, the perfect endurance athlete will run a full marathon in 1:57:58. “This analysis suggests that substantial improvements in marathon performance are ‘physiologically’ possible,” writes Joyner in his abstract for the paper. Joyner and his colleagues updated that paper in 2013 and predicted that the 2-hour barrier will be broken, earliest, by 2030.

While the excitement is palpable, there are plenty of questions too. South Africa-born, Mumbai-based sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee had so many questions that he got in touch with sports scientist Yanis Pitsaldis at University of Brighton, who launched his own sub-2 hour marathon project in 2014, and some others involved in Nike’s Breaking2 project. Though Nike has been tight-lipped about the details of this project, Vallabhjee, who is consulting for Kenya Athletics, has dug up enough information to understand how Nike is going to achieve the magic timing of 1:59:59 or less.

“I had lots of doubts but after having spoken to people involved in the project and Pitsaldis I am very excited about this. Some of the things they are doing are just mind-boggling,” says Vallabhjee, who has worked with one of the Nike athletes involved in the project and reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge.

One of the world’s leading running coaches and author of Run Less, Run Faster Bill Pierce dismisses this effort as a marketing effort by Nike: “Is it being done for science or for marketing? If science, why so secretive about how the project is being conducted.” He calls it “a lab project where the factors determining performance are being manipulated. It isn’t a pure athletic competition.” In his view, we are years away from a sub-2 marathon in a regular race. On the other hand, Vallabhjee says Nike isn’t trying to break the world record. “What they are trying to do is show the world that it is possible.”

Five things that Nike has focused on to break the 2-hour marathon barrier:

Shoes and the Pistorius Effect: Currently jailed South African double amputee blade runner Oscar Pistorius created a buzz when he competed in the Olympics. But his prosthetics got even more attention and have been widely studied. “Scientists found that Pistorius used 25 percent less oxygen than able bodied athletes because of his blades. Hence, the blades helped make his VO2 Max much more efficient. For Kipchoge to be able to run a sub-2, he needs to improve by about 4 per cent the efficiency of his oxygen consumption. So, the Pistorius effect can be crucial. Nike has managed to incorporate such a technology in the carbon fibre plate which is present in the soles of its new shoes Zoom Vaporfly Elite, which improve the energy return of a runner by about 4 percent,” adds Vallabhjee. Pierce, chair of the Health Sciences department at Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training, points out that “attempts in the past at producing shoes that provide an ergogenic aid have resulted in minimal effects.” The shoe has already run into trouble and IAAF is conducting tests to see if the shoe meets its strict guidelines.

Nutrition: Nike’s researchers monitored the training of Kipchoge in Kenya, Desisa in Ethiopia and Tadese in Madrid in the days leading up to the big day. One of the things they watched closely was fuelling during the training runs. Nike has developed specialised nutrition and hydration strategy based on each athlete’s needs. “Marathoners can hit a wall at 30-35k,” said Brett Kirby, lead physiologist of the NXT Generation Research team in the Nike Sports Research Lab. “This is commonly associated with depletion of their muscle sugars. So how do we keep those sugars up? Maintaining energy levels throughout the marathon could give us another percentage point. We started looking at that and working towards a personalized solution for each athlete.”

Vallabhjee’s sources lead him to believe that Nike might be testing a new delivery system that bypasses the stomach and goes directly to the intestine and digests immediately. “This makes the absorption of sugars faster and greater (up to 80 percent higher) and hence your fuelling improves, which allows the athlete to operate at the lactic threshold (optimum levels) for longer periods of time,” adds Vallabhjee. Pierce’s only concern with this new nutrition system is that it meets WADA standards.

Clothes: The loose fitting vests that athletes wear result in drag. While for you and me, it doesn’t mean much but in the case of elites those few seconds could cost them records and medals. The current body hugging compression gear available in the market is not the best at regulating body temperature. So, the new clothes that Nike athletes will wear while attempting the record breaking feat is custom-made to fit them snugly and the new fabric does a much better job of regulating body temperature and wicking away sweat without making the garment itself heavy.

Wind tunnel effect: Even though the course will be certified by the IAAF, one reason why the record is unlikely to be officially ratified is because the race will be run in a controlled environment. One thing the Nike team will ensure is that there is no wind resistance. Vallabhjee feels that they are likely to do this by using a massive lead car and a moving wall of pacers in front of the three main runners creating a wind tunnel effect which can again cut a fair few seconds. During the trial half marathon on the Monza course last month, Kipchoge and Tadese recorded fast times behind a Tesla timing car driven by a Formula One test driver and a host of pacers who ran in a diamond formation.

Course: “It could not have been a downhill course,” says Vallabhjee. “While running downhill the hamstring is in eccentric concentration. A professional marathoner takes about 11,000 strides per leg during the race. Moving forward is a concentric motion, not eccentric. That high a number of eccentric repetitions will shatter the runner’s hamstrings and back even if it is a mild one degree downward gradient.” Monza is a flat course and Nike is making all possible efforts to adhere to IAAF regulations. The Monza circuit is 2.4 km long and will have timing mats every 200 metres. A white line runs through it marking the best route.


Published Date: May 05, 2017 03:25 pm | Updated Date: May 05, 2017 03:25 pm