The era of Prefontaine, Nike and the jogging boom were not yet borne, but they were coming....
Today, over that rainbow era of running, we are lead to believe that improvements in shoes, “performance” wear, nutrition, biomechanical analysis and training methods are pushing us on to bigger and better things, new horizons and - naturally - faster times. The truth is somewhat different.
Elites aside, marathon runners are fatter, slower and more injured than ever before. Heck, the rise of the hipster means it's even questionable if today's runners are better turned out than Gary & co back in the day! But as sports scientists concern themselves pretty much exclusively with that 2 hour benchmark debate, the pack is being left behind. No-one really cares what they're wearing, what they're eating, or why they're getting slower.
Just 2% of all marathons run today are completed in under 3 hours and the fall off in absolute numbers (as opposed to % of finishers) achieving the “sub 3” has steadily - and quite dramatically - declined since the 70s.
So what’s going?
Any analysis of these figures that I have seen tends to stray right into mileage territory.
“They don’t train as hard, run as long or get into that hurt locker like we used to do back in the day.”
But that just doesn’t add up. In the 70s, marathon running was the ultra race du jour. It was THE craziest thing you could do as a runner. Today, Ironman and ultra running are the growth sports. If anything, the frontiers of human performance have gone way beyond anything we could have possibly imagined. The hurt locker is bigger. The races are longer. The numbers are bigger.
And yet we get slower.
So here’s my stab at it all.
It seems to me that the 1970s created a perfect storm for the future downfall of your “average” marathon performance - and human health in general. The Swedes original research into carb loading was coming to the fore thanks to the mighty marathon performances of the great British athlete Ron Hill - a carb loaded European Champion & 1970 Boston Marathon winner.
Eat pasta. Run faster. Look at Ron. QED, right?
That message would of course marry quite beautifully with the ongoing demonization of fat and its ultimate put down in the shape of the (low fat, high carbohydrate) food pyramid. The narrative was impeccable.
Run a marathon to save yourself from heart disease! Eat pasta and run it even faster!
Of course, we now know that diet is a very individual matter, so the prospect of 50,000 entrants gorging themselves at a pasta party before hauling themselves around the streets of New York seems fairly illogical these days. That less than 1,000 of these runners will probably complete a “sub 3” makes it even more nonsensical.
3 hours is a damn good marathon you see.
To get there an athlete must have a very good endurance base with a helping of speed in the legs. Good mechanical form also goes without saying. What doesn’t is the ability to efficiently convert your choice of fuel to an optimal running output for the duration of the race. The wall (or bonk) awaits for those who get it wrong - and it can happen at any level.
If the pasta party approach is beautifully simple, so is the book on bonking. You can store a maximum of circa 2,000 cal of energy from all that pasta. You take that easily accessible fuel with you to the starting line. As you run, you deplete that tank but you know this, the science knows this, and Gatorade knows it too, so you do your best to top up your tank with sports drinks and gels along the way. If you miscalculate, you bonk. Game over. That can happen because you run too fast and/or your body cannot convert the fuel you are supplying efficiently enough to meet demand.
So here’s the rub. Of the 50,000 on that start line, 49,000 or so are not very good endurance runners at all. Through any combination of ability, age, weight or poor preparation, these folks are running 26 miles on a spectrum of pretty good to flat out awful. The one ability they all share is a complete inability to run fast. And when you can’t run fast, your requirement for fast, sugar based fuel should be vastly diminished for a whole host of reasons.
If carb loading makes you run faster, why bother with it when you can’t actually run fast in the first place?
Endurance training is not a license to eat whatever as “fuel”. Although they swore it blind back in the 70s, endurance training will absolutely not stop you having a heart attack (Tim Noakes was the spoilsport there). The health impact of utilizing sugar as fuel for anything but highly glycolytic activity (that sprinting you never do because you can’t) are now legion so you don’t get that pass unless you’re a) sub 3 and b) a proven insulin sensitive type - at a minimum check your HbA1c/triglycerides and see if your old school pants still fit at the waist. If you want to get really down and dirty go get your fasting insulin measured.
Anyway, wherever you are on the spectrum of endurance performance, the ability to increase your body’s ability to burn more fat offers health benefits beyond the clock - more on that here. And if you’re within 15 minutes of that magic 3 hour mark, I’d wager that a switch back to the real foods (start here) those running hipsters would have habitually eaten back in the day may well do the trick.
When you do that, come back and let us know. The carb funded scientists will say you’re just an anecdote of course. Nothing to see here. Move along. We’re all about the 2 hours.
But hey, you just broke 3 hours - do you really care? Thought not.
p.s - Just to be clear here - completing a marathon is a monumental achievement for anyone at any speed. The point here is there may be better strategies to do so than those we're being fed by carb interested research and advertising dollars. In a nutshell, if you're not elite, then elite strategies are probably not for you.