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Can the Two-Hour Marathon Be Broken?

Elite sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis says yes—and he's trying to make it happen.

Endurance training is a subject Yannis Pitsiladis, Ph.D., professor of sport and exercise science at the U.K.’s University of Brighton, knows a thing or two about. The 47-year-old has sat on two World Anti-Doping Agency committees, advised the International Olympic Committee, and, during his two-decade career, built the world’s largest biobank of the DNA of elite athletes. In 2014 he also launched the Sub2hr Project, a multimillion-dollar research initiative aimed at helping a runner achieve the mythic sub-two-hour marathon. Skeptics abound: When Pitsiladis posted that he’d accomplish the feat in the next five years, the Internet responded with mocking derision. We tracked him down to learn more. 

So what’s the significance of the two-hour marathon? Isn’t it just a number?

Yes, but I think we need an alternative approach to performance enhancement. Athletes need better medical and scientific support that’s evidence-based and doping-free, to be able to cope with the demands the public places on them. We see so many situations in which athletes push themselves too far, then have problems with their bodies in retirement. Ironically, F1 motor racing is probably one of the only sports with which very little is left to chance, but that’s mainly due to the car. We can learn so very much from F1. The pit crews help drivers make real-time adjustments on their driving lines, their braking points and rate, and their throttle levels. These efforts can really change a field.

“Garbage”— that’s what you called “99% of today’s most popular endurance training techniques” in your announcement about the Sub2hr Project. How can that possibly be the case?

We have a good understanding of exercise physiology, and we can theorize what should work. But we’re still doing it blindly. We can set training thresholds that we think are good for either the “average person” or the ”elite athlete”—but we don’t know what might be good specifically for you or for me. In other words, we can set a training protocol that we think will work for a lot of people, but we don’t have good markers to suit individuals. That’s why, when you give the same training program to various athletes, some improve and others don’t. Some athletes even manage to get worse.

The typical runner does many things wrong, you say. Would you give us an example?

Take fluid consumption: When I run, I see all these people with water bottles in their hands—they’re drinking huge volumes because that’s what the recommendations are online. You know, “Drink early and at regular intervals, and consume as much as possible, within what you consider tolerable.” That’s absolutely wrong. You should actually drink to thirst because there’s considerable variability in sweating rates and sweat electrolyte content between individuals. People are drinking too much.

So much of your project is about athletes recognizing their limitations. How can the average athlete get better at that?

Record everything you possibly can. Most of the monitors on the market will suffice. You want something that can easily measure body weight and heart rate in the morning, as those are simple to record and are informative. When you see something that’s fluctuating beyond the norm—not just a one-off, but fluctuating and staying different, which also tends to go with not feeling so great—you’ll know. A difference in resting heart rate or appetite can signal that something’s off. Frankly, that’s the best you can do at the moment.

What would you tell young guys who want to endurance train as a way to get into great shape?

Until we work out ways to individualize training, preparation, performance, and recovery, don’t push through pain; record everything and try to detect patterns; and always follow your instincts. Don’t overdo it.

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