Over the next several weeks on the Natural Running Center website, Dr. Phil Maffetone will thoroughly examine all facets — physical as well as mental –of what it will take to go 1:59 in the 26.2-mile marathon. He believes it’s “no longer a question of if, who, or when, but how.”  Part One questions the relevance of using the VO2max test as an accurate predictor of  athletic performance.– NRC

 by Dr. Philip Maffetone.

With the wind at their backs, Kenyan’s Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop battled each other on the Boston Marathon’s hilly course until Mutai pulled away in the final 400 meters to win by four seconds in the 2011 race. His time, 2:03:02, easily beating the world record of 2:03:59 set in 2008 at the Berlin Marathon by Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie.

Since the 1600s in England, where foot racing grew in popularity, many race distances have evolved. These included running events from 50 meters to one thousand miles, but in recent times the mile and the marathon have been most popular. Whenever some magic combination of time and distance sufficiently entertains the population, it brings intrigue, excitement and large audiences. Such was the case in 1954 when many years of the four-minute mile barrier debate ended with Roger Bannister’s 3:59. The same buildup is now taking place in the form of the 1:59 marathon.

Unfortunately for Mutai, another factor entered the Boston arena: the 26.2-mile course isn’t record-eligible and the race results were not official. Nonetheless, he took close to a minute off the world record, unofficially. Mutai’s prize money included $150,000 for first place, plus an additional $25,000 for a course record, and $50,000 for running a world’s best marathon time. As did Gebrselassie’s mark in 2008, Mutai’s race triggered more debate about a 1:59 marathon.

The notion of 1:59 is nothing new. In 1998, I wrote an article called “The 1:59 Marathon.” I ran across it the other day, and now, it’s time for a greatly expanded update. I’ll write a series of articles from the perspective of a coach and doctor, helping a runner train for what would be the race of his life. The kind of race Roger Bannister ran.

As a coach, all I would ask of the 1:59 marathoner is that he reach his athletic potential by following the somewhat open training and lifestyle plan—and nothing more.

In the popular press, the debate-style discussion about the 1:59 marathon is emotional chat, and is usually divided between those who know it will happen and others who feel it won’t, at least in the foreseeable future. Former world record holder in the marathon, Alberto Salazar, said in a recent New York Times article that it won’t happen in his lifetime. But it can happen soon, I believe. It will take an extraordinary runner, much like Alberto was in his prime, to run 1:59. This runner most likely would also have proved himself great in shorter distances too, although it’s not a requirement.

In the medical journals and in exercise physiology textbooks, discussions, presentations and analysis also ensue about running faster, often with questions about human physical limitations. The books lay out the individual pieces of the puzzle needed for optimal training for faster performances, based on the many studies that become the foundation of exercise physiology. But hardly any studies are performed on truly elite runners—those who have the potential for a 1:59 marathon—so we’re far away from understanding the details of what limitations exist in the great athletes of today.

A recent journal article was more specific about this topic. “The two-hour marathon: who and when?” was written by Dr. Michael Joyner (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota) and colleagues, and appeared in The Journal of Applied Physiology (August 5, 2010). The authors discussed some of the common physiological issues surrounding a 1:59 marathon. They concluded: “Current trends suggest that an East African will be the first to break 2 hours,” and “from a physiological perspective, more information is clearly needed on the relationship between VO2max and running economy and the influence of running economy and body size on thermoregulation and fuel use.”

Certainly the popular media will change its tune when a runner performs his 1:59 feat. Perhaps it will shift to the issue of whether a woman can accomplish the same performance. (I’ll address this in a later article.)

Roger Bannister going all out on the final lap. As he recalls in the accompanying video, he needed to run 59 seconds.

All the debate of 1:59 reminds me of what must have taken place from the late 1940s until Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59 in 1954. The tide started shifting when Bannister himself, in 1952 just after a disappointing Olympics where he was fourth in the 1500-meter finals, made a new goal—to break the 4-minute barrier. What changed in such as short time? Was it improved training, better shoes, track surfaces, or nutrition? No. The only change was Bannister’s mind. Once he broke the elusive barrier, others quickly followed—46 days later by John Landy, and only twenty-three days later Anne Leather broke the women’s five-minute mile. (The current men’s and woman’s mile records are 3:43 and 4:12, respectively.)

Today, for the handful of elites capable of running 1:59, establishing this goal is the very first step in accomplishing it. It’s not just psychology—it will help the brain plan ahead so the body can properly prepare and execute.

Like the magic mile race of years ago, and marathon has naysayers claiming things such as physiological limits prevents breaking the two-hour mark. Yet, these so-called limits are only theories like the many marathon training plans coaches develop.

Using statistical analysis, the trickle-down effect is sometimes used to show that records are broken by some predictable pattern and usually not by large differences in time. Certainly there are many instances of new marathon records where runners take 30 or 45 seconds from the previous world best. Steve Jones’ 2:08:05 (1984) bested a three-year record held by Rob de Castella who ran 2:08:18. But before that, Australian Derek Clayton’s 2:09:36 (1967) was almost two and a half minutes better than the previous world best by Japan’s Morio Shigematsu at 2:12:00 (1965). Looking back further, the U.K.’s Jim Peters ran 2:18:40 in 1953 to break his one-year old marathon record of 2:20:42. But the previous record was 2:25:39 by Korea’s Suh Yun-bok in 1947—a drop of seven minutes and a change of about five percent.

While such time differences can be misleading, the improvement by percentage is a better gauge. To run 1:59, an athlete would have to break the current world record by 3.2 percent, and even less using Geoffrey Mutai ‘s unofficial Boston record.

Who will become the marathon’s Roger Bannister? There are probably dozens of runners right now who have the potential to run a 1:59 marathon, some very soon. These might include Geoffrey Mutai, Moses Mosop and perhaps Haile Gebrselassie. Other candidates may not have developed themselves completely for a marathon, at least that we know about, including the current world record holder in the 10K, Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. The feat may require one to break the mold of traditional training and racing, and jump ahead—a runner who is a standout, one willing to go where no man has gone before.

It will certainly take more than just the combination of great aerobic muscle fibers and motivation, optimal body size and genes. There are many key components required for one to run a 1:59 marathon, mechanisms that are influenced through some combination of training and lifestyle. These include a well functioning heart and lungs, nerves and muscles working in harmony, a biomechanical gait that’s almost flawless, optimal nutrition and a sound psychological state. In addition, a focus on health, not just fitness, and the appropriate therapy to offset the wear and tear of each week’s work, can help develop the right athlete to their potential. A great marathon performance, like other sporting events, is clearly multifactorial—and preparing for it requires one to be holistic. This is true whether one is seeking 1:59, 2:59, 3:59 or 4:59.

On the international running scene, other issues play a role in determining world-class performances, such as economic ones—the ability to make a living as a runner, and, specifically, prize money. Without these factors, finding the best coaches, doctors and others to join together as a unique team to get the best athletes to the starting line, would be difficult if not impossible.

When I first wrote about this topic thirteen years ago, Brazil’s Ronaldo da Costa just broke the 10-year old marathon record by 45 seconds with a time of 2:06:05. Since then, the tide of opinion has been slowly shifting with more believing 1:59 is achievable. However, hardly anyone suggests just how the feat could be accomplished, and in particular, the type of training that will be necessary. Instead, they talk of how many more seconds per mile a runner needs to improve (something a 9th grader could determine)—instead I’ll focus on maximum aerobic training pace. Most often, the discussion includes the traditional VO2max numbers (even though this is not a great indicator of performance)—today’s best marathoners don’t have the highest VO2 max numbers. There’s frequent discussion about who would set the pace. But because self-pacing, an important brain-body factor that regulates gait, is key for optimal running economy, a “rabbit” won’t be necessary.

It’s as if the 1:59 debate is by a bunch of accountants, calculating marathon paces from 10K times, how often records are broken, plotting graphs to predict why it can’t happen soon, all with the heavy burden of statistics. Well, statistics don’t apply to an individual athlete. That’s what I want to write about—the practical application of training a runner for a 1:59 marathon. In this series of articles, I’ll address a number of key issues necessary to accomplish the task, the first one being assessment.


As all experienced coaches, exercise physiologists, runners and others who treat or otherwise assist athletes know, there’s no “right way” to train for success. (We do, however, know many of the wrong ways.) Obviously, there’s no formula to guide the marathoner to run 1:59. But assessment is one of the most important factors because, regardless of the training method used, one does not have to wait for race day or ask for subjective information from the runner to obtain objective information about progress.

For me, coaching means helping athletes reach their potential. It involves a strictly individualized approach, and one based on what works today rather than some twelve-month preconceived training schedule of sorts. Objective assessments are necessary all along the way, and often the missing component of a successful outcome. These evaluations are intertwined within daily, weekly and monthly workouts, and are influenced by other factors such as diet and nutritional status, footwear, therapeutic intervention, and other key features necessary to achieve 1:59.

Without assessment, progress is assumed and guesswork follows. Waiting for a good or bad race is the most common way to evaluate a runner’s recent schedule and lifestyle habits, but this is not necessarily the best assessment. Sometimes, even a great race can be misleading. A runner in the early stages of overtraining, for example, may have a spectacular performance on his or her way to serious injury or other breakdown. (The question remains—can a runner be “overtrained” into a 1:59 marathon? Can we take advantage of an athlete and sacrifice health for the sake of 1:59? I would not participate in such an activity—it’s unethical, and would cause harm to the athlete. It would break my rule in coaching, which is to not sacrifice an athlete’s health for more fitness.)

Essentially, each workout can be an assessment. One way to accomplish this with a certain degree of objectivity is by comparing submaximal heart rate and pace. By monitoring these two factors, improvements, plateaus or regressions can be more easily observed, and hidden problems that prevent progress can be uncovered long before they make themselves known as injury, illness, overtraining, fatigue, or a bad race.

Over time, the runner should be capable of quicker paces at the same effort—in particular, getting faster at the same heart rate. By properly stimulating the aerobic system with each run, but without overstressing it, hormones, muscles, metabolism, and the brain, all necessary parts of the body’s preparation, should regularly improve the athlete’s ability to inch closer to 1:59 readiness.

The Tradition of VO2max

Optimal health, fat burning, aerobic speed, and an ideal gait—these are some of the key features I would focus on to help train a 1:59 marathoner. Traditionally, VO2max—ones maximum oxygen uptake—continues to be the gold standard in endurance assessment. With sports medicine as their guide, most athletes and coaches dictate that limitation in performance occurs because of oxygen flowing through the blood. But this may not be nearly as important as once thought. More important is the brain, which monitors and regulates all the body’s physical and biochemical activities, especially the balance of muscle contraction and relaxation. Impairments here can potentially limit performance by slowing a runner’s pace to avoid injury or collapse.

Exercise physiologist Dr. Timothy Noakes has written much about VO2max testing. In a 2008 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that he titled “Testing for Maximum Oxygen Consumption has Produced a Brainless Model of Human Exercise Performance,” Noakes wrote that many people in sport “are apparently wedded to the concept that oxygen delivery alone determines the power output of the exercising limbs, and thus, they appear blind to a converse interpretation.” Noakes believes that the development of the VO2max test probably explains why most people in sports seldom consider that the brain’s effect on muscle function could be an important regulator of athletic performance.

But VO2max continues to be the factor many in the endurance world worship. Athletes often have their VO2max tested, and proudly, or frustratingly, display their number like knowing their cholesterol, blood pressure or other special digit that, by itself, is highly overinflated.

One problem is the VO2max test protocol itself, which evaluates the athlete’s body without input from the brain. By not telling the runner being tested, for example, how far or how much time he or she must run, the brain is unable to most effectively monitor and regulate the physical activity. Instead, the test involves running to exhaustion—no endurance event, including a marathon, is ever performed in this manner—we always know how far the race will be, and this enables the brain to prepare the body to complete the task in the most effective way possible, and without damaging the body.

VO2max is also not a great predictor of performance. Dr. Joyner says that, “VO2max is a good predictor of performance if you test a very large number of people with a wide range of values. However, it does not mean much in a group of elite runners, or any other homogeneous group, or certainly any one individual.”

The recent appearance of African champions are made up of runners who don’t have the highest VO2 max, yet they have outperformed everyone else in the history of many endurance events. And, as these runners train into their early and mid-thirties, performances typically improve while their VO2max reduces. Other examples can be given too. Older male athletes, whose VO2max diminish even more with age, often have lower VO2max levels than younger runners, yet the older competitors often race better. And, most male endurance athletes have much higher VO2max levels than most women in races of all distances, yet a significant number of women outperform these men.

Despite this many scientists continue to focus more on VO2max numbers when discussing peak performance. Stephane Delliaux and colleagues at the Faculty of Medicine, Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France, calculated that Gebrselassie had the “necessary” VO2max of 86 for a 1:59 marathon in the year 2000, when he was 27 years old. Yet, he ran his best race eight years later.

Rather than VO2max or other laboratory tests, I want to know that a runner can continually train faster at submaximal efforts without injury while remaining healthy. And I want to be able to assess this progress in a practical manner. This can be achieved with a running test on the track, and even during most training runs, and is the topic of Part Two.

This essay originally appeared on Dr. Philip Maffetone’s website.