Learning To Run from the World’s Best

It’s the spring marathon season and we’ll soon be gasping in admiration as the world’s elite runners chase lucrative cash prizes and super-fast times in places like Boston, London, Paris and Rotterdam. But what marathon running tips can we take from the world’s best?

Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll see some of them attempting to challenge the men’s world record of 2hr 2min 57secs set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto at Berlin last autumn. The 30 year-old Kenyan knocked 26 seconds, or one second per mile, off the previous world best set by his compatriot Wilson Kipsang over the same course in 2013. That sort of performance is beyond the bounds of comprehension for the tens of thousands of runners who will follow, at some distance, in the footsteps of the amazing Kenyan and his fellow East Africans in races all over the globe in the coming weeks (note…last year 97 off the world’s top 100 marathon runners were either Kenyan or Ethiopian).

But, have you ever thought about trying to run at world record pace? It’s worth a go, if only to fully understand just how incredibly fast these top guys are running. So, how do you do it? Well, let’s break it down. Kimetto’s record equates to running roughly 17.5secs per 100 metres throughout the whole 42.2 kilometres of the marathon. Can you match that? Maybe you can, but for only a very short distance. Take a trip to your nearest running track and try sprinting 100 metres in under 18 seconds and see how you get on. If you can manage that, then imagine doing it 422 times without a break……that’s what it takes to be world marathon record holder.

Kimetto’s achievement was phenomenal, not only because of the time he recorded, but also because of the way he did it. Although it wasn’t a straight line progression, he generally got quicker and quicker as the race progressed. Each 10km was faster than the one before. And that has been a trend in many world record-breaking long distance performances in recent years. Here’s his split times:

Dennis Kimetto Berlin 2014 World Record – 10Km Splits
Time (min:secs)
0-10Km 29:24
10-20Km 29:11
20-30Km 29:02
30-40Km 28:52

His average pace per mile was 4min 41.5secs and his average pace per kilometere was a fraction under 2mins 55secs. He completed the first half in 1hr 01min 45secs and the second half was even faster, 1hr 01min 12secs. His fastest kilometre was 2:46 (the 33rd kilometre of the race) and the slowest was 3:03 (12th kilometre of the race). His fastest 5km split was between 30 and 35km when he ran 14min 09secs. His pace, over the piece, was remarkably consistent. He ran 30 of the 42kilmotres within three secs either side of his average pace. His opening 5km was run at the same pace as his final 5km. All his 5km splits are shown in the next table:

Dennis Kimetto Berlin 2014 World Record – 5Km Splits
Time (hr:min:sec) Split (mm:sec)
5km 14:42 14:42
10km 29:24 14:42
15km 44:10 14:46
20km 58:36 14:26
21.1km 1:01:45
25km 1:13:08 14:32
30km 1:27:38 14:30
35km 1:41:47 14:09
40km 1:56:29 14:42
42.2km 2:02:57

These are all astonishing stats, but what can we all learn from them? First and foremost, there’s a strong message about pace judgement. Kimetto’s ability to run the second half of the race quicker than the first half is a feature we should all consider carefully. Obviously, the Berlin route, where Kimetto set his world record, is very flat, which makes even-paced running, or even the ability to run negative splits, potentially more achievable and practical than on a course which may be much more undulating.Weather conditions were also ideal, which is another important factor.

Nevertheless, there’s still some important principles to take on board. If you are going to be able to maintain an even pace, or close to even pace, over the course of a marathon, then it needs to feel as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. As muscles become fatigued it becomes more difficult to maintain efficiency and you need to be able to work harder to keep things going. So, you must have something in reserve. Kimetto was able to maintain his pace by distributing his effort over the 26.2 miles. He was definitely working harder over the final 5km than he was in the first 5km, yet his times were identical. He was able to do that because he knew what he was capable of doing and judged his pace perfectly. His ability to run his fastest 5km of the race between 30km and 35km also demonstrates that he had kept enough in reserve to be able to attack and up his game in the later stages of the race.

Some people believe, however, that it’s best to start off a little quicker than the pace you think you can maintain throughout the race. This is possibly true, but you have to get it absolutely right. Run too fast in the first 10-15 miles and you’ll pay back in a big way later on. Equally, if you run far too slowly for too long, then it may become difficult to make up ground. So, you need to judge it carefully and be fully confident and honest with yourself about the pace you think you can sustain.

It deciding how best to pace your marathon, however, you also need to take account of the nature of the course. If there’s a lot of downhill in the first half of a marathon then you probably need to be ahead of an even-paced schedule but don’t be carefree about it. Relax on downhills and let the gradient do the work. Similarly if it’s a windy day it may become harder to run at an even pace as there will be stages when the wind is behind you and stages where it’s in your face. You need to be flexible and distribute your effort accordingly.

The ability to get the pace right often comes with experience and through the training and racing you do in the build-up to any marathon.  Training for the first 10 miles of a marathon is relatively easy. What many people forget to do is to train for the last 10 miles because that’s where the race is won or lost, whether your target is to break the world record, break three hours, four hours or whatever your goal might be. It’s vital to accustom your body to what it’s going to experience. There’s some decent training advice available about how to do this, so speak to knowledgeable coaches, personal trainers or experienced runners who have cracked the marathon in the past. Learn from them and test it for yourself. These are the marathon running tips that we can take from the world’s best time.

Finally, let’s return to Dennis Kimetto again and consider a few more stats. He is, so far, the only man to have run quicker than 2hrs 3mins for the marathon and his performance has once again prompted speculation as to whether, or indeed when, the 2 hour barrier might be breached. As mentioned earlier, his average pace at Berlin was a fraction under 2min 55sec per kilometre. A pace of 2min 50.6secs per kilometre is required to crack 2 hours. Kimetto managed that in just four of the 42kilometres he ran, three of which were between 30 and 35km. So, to hit sub 2 hours we need to see a 2.4{0a00b7f19cfae603d857fe25d0a6cf6f5825db1f256901fb36653366660d6b73} improvement on the current world record.  There’s no doubt that making up that ground will take a phenomenal effort. The debate is open.

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