Skip to Content

Science Reveals Top Marathon Runners' Secrets

FRIDAY, Jan. 15, 2021 -- What makes a marathoner great?

New research pinpoints the physical attributes of top marathon runners, and could help others improve their marathon performance.

Elite male distance runners were asked to run on treadmills at a range of speeds and also on an outdoor track at a speed of 13.1 miles per hour, comparable to completing a marathon in two hours.

While the marathoners ran, researchers measured their heart rate, oxygen consumption and levels of lactic acid in the blood, to determine efficiency of oxygen use during exercise.

The study also assessed the marathoners' running force, stride length and body composition.

Only seven of the 16 participants achieved a VO2 steady state (stable oxygen consumption) when running at the two-hour marathon pace. That highlights how extremely difficult it is to complete a marathon in under two hours, the researchers said.

Overall, the athletes maintained a VO2 of 67 milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min) at just over 13 mph, about twice as much as the average person can achieve when exercising at their maximum.

Also, the marathoners' lactic acid threshold -- the speed at which it builds up in the body -- occurred at a very high fraction of their VO2 max. Lactic acid is produced by the body as it turns food into energy during exercise; in the muscles it's related to fatigue.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

"These top athletes have the perfect combination of physiological characteristics for the marathon: They have a very high VO2 max; they are very economical [efficient] when running at submaximal speeds; and they can run at a high fraction of their VO2 max without accumulating lactate in their blood [making them very resistant to fatigue]," study author Andrew Jones, from the University of Exeter in England, said in a journal news release.

Further research of "strategies which enable a higher mean oxidative metabolic rate to be sustained and/or enhance running economy will play a significant role in future improvements in marathon performance," the researchers wrote.

© 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

Posted: January 2021

Read this next

AHA News: Finally Getting Around to That Annual Physical? Here's What You Might Find

MONDAY, March 1, 2021 (American Heart Association News) -- Some patients looking to reschedule annual physicals, wellness visits or other routine medical appointments long delayed...

AHA News: Which Blood Pressure Number Matters Most Might Depend on Your Age

MONDAY, March 1, 2021 (American Heart Association News) -- Systolic blood pressure is the best way to predict future cardiovascular events and death, irrespective of age,...

Vaccinating Oldest First for COVID Saves the Most Lives: Study

MONDAY, March 1, 2021 -- Putting the oldest people near the front of the line for COVID-19 shots will save more lives and may extend their lifespan, too, researchers say. The new...

More News Resources

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Whatever your topic of interest, subscribe to our newsletters to get the best of in your inbox.