The GOAT is Eliud Kipchoge. Is it His Goodness?

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The debate was put to rest when Eliud Kipchoge won in Japan’s Olympic Marathon steambath with apparent ease. At this point, there is no doubt that he is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). The defending Olympic champion, the holder of the official marathon world record (2:01:39), and someone who has clocked 26.2 miles in a “sports show” in 1:59:40, what are you going to say to that?

That’s not true. So, now we’re left with an ever-intriguing question: Why? What makes Kipchoge so great?

Researchers at Heritage Family Study such as Claude Bouchard believed the answer was close at hand three decades ago. Previously closed doors were being opened by the Human Genome Project. It wouldn’t be long until researchers were able to link specific genes to everything from sprint performances to marathon records.

This has not happened, however. The experts now acknowledge that elite performance is a “multifactorial” phenomenon, meaning that it is somewhere between extremely complex and completely unknown.

Kipchoge is the GOAT for reasons no one can explain fully. Answers aren’t simple, and there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Heck, we don’t even know if he is grinning because he is sore after running a marathon, or if it is because he read a study researching the benefits of smiling while running.

As Kipchoge’s seemingly-ageless achievements have been studied, researchers have been amazed at how they are explained. They enumerate some of the factors, from VO2 max to muscle fibers to biomechanics, that may be responsible. Observations from others are included in this review of their thinking.

Is training a significant factor in improving performance?

Beginner and intermediate runners are obsessed with training because it makes a huge difference in their performance. It’s not always the case for elites. Training is generally similar, with everyone clocking between 100 and 120 miles per week. The great ones find the squeaky-tight balance between just enough and overkill. Few dare to do less, and no one has ever climbed the Olympic Marathon podium declaring, “I owe it all to my 150-mile weeks.”

Kipchoge probably runs around 120 miles per week, based on what we know so far. Nonetheless, he has admitted that he does not usually exceed 80 percent of his potential during training. Rather than impressing followers with impressive workouts on Instagram, he understands the importance of racing. As well as knowing when to chill, he knows how to take it easy. (We’ll address this later).

Running economy, lactate threshold, and VO2 Max – The Classic Model

A Mayo Clinic endurance expert wrote a paper in 1991 stating that 26.2 miles could be covered in as little as 1:57:58, when the marathon world record was 2:06:50. (Many of us laughed out loud when Joyner suggested this.) She added that this kind of runner would need high oxygen consumption, a high lactate threshold, and, of course, good running economy. In writing then, he wrote: “The results of this study suggest that ‘physiologically’ it is possible to improve marathon performance substantially.

Joyner no longer makes us laugh today. While he hasn’t seen any of Kipchoge’s lab data, he notes: “My guess is that he fits well with my original model.”

The Big Three factors have also changed for Joyner. 85% of maximum lactate threshold pace was the pace he once calculated for marathoners. He believes 90% of the predictions are likely now. Thus suggesting that someone could run faster than 1:57.

Nike sought the advice of exercise physiologist Andy Jones, who has authored numerous books. This makes him one of the very few privy to Kipchoge’s raw lab data. But he can’t comment on specific results; that would violate scientific-medical ethics.

The general comment Jones can make is: “Needless to say, Kipchoge’s combination of the three values was one of the best we saw.”

Back in the 1980s, Jones also tested Paula Radcliffe annually to assess any changes in her physiology. Bridget Kosgei (2:14:04) has bettered Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15:25, which was set in 2003. According to Jones, Radcliffe and Kipchoge are “very similar”. Their credentials are all the same: high VO2 max, high LT, great RE (and high CS). Even though Paula’s head bobbled, she was exceptionally economical, so her bobbing head did not affect that. She couldn’t run as smoothly as Kipchoge.”

It’s time for Critical Speed to take over

The vital speed (CS) metric Jones likes to use is one of the newer endurance metrics, and Kipchoge stands out particularly well in this area. Lactate Threshold pace or Tempo pace are similarities to CS. Running faster and longer without hitting the wall increases a marathoner’s CS. (Alex Hutchinson examines CS, including Jones’s work in the field, in Outside Online.)

In other words, he’s under his red-line pace; he can keep going at 2:10 marathon pace. “Kipchoge’s critical speed is probably higher than anyone else’s,” Jones told me.

CS declines after about two hours, which is an important aspect of it. During the first two hours of a marathon, you might have a critical speed of 10 (it is not really a number, only an example). As a result, running at the age of 8 is comfortable for you. Twenty miles later, things change. In order to maintain an 8 effort now, you’d have to contend with a CS of 6. Your bonk, your hit, your done.

The Olympic Marathon was similar in this respect, says Jones. Galen Rupp, who finished second in the first half, kept Kipchoge company during that time. The field crumbled when Kipchoge accelerated from 30K to 35K (runnin 13:05 for 5K). Despite the red-line being crossed, he was still slower than his CS.

This video shows Kipchoge’s determination to keep going when others could not. Kipchoge exerts himself at 30K and causes the lead pack to explode into many pieces. The importance of CS increases with heat, reports Jones.

The essential question is posed and answered by Jones himself. What are the factors that determine CS, then? Athletes use this metric to determine their highest sustained oxidative metabolic rate. This is measured by muscle oxidation (mitochondrial capacity plus their cardiovascular ability to transport oxygen to the muscles) and running economy.

Muscles that Resist Fatigue – The Fourth Component

Michael Joyner conceded that he was still not fully understanding what was happening, despite the advancement of science. One of these has come to be known as “muscle fatigue resistance.” Do some runners have muscles that just don’t get as tired as yours and mine? Joyner wondered if some champion distance runners manage to use more of the fast-twitch fibers usually reserved for sprinters. “And if recruited,” he wrote, “can these fibers be trained to fire and contract repeatedly for several hours without fatigue?”

In his view, fatigue resistance is a critical, yet little-understood component of marathon success. According to Kipchoge, this “fourth component” is not as likely to decrease in percentage as it does in other elite athletes.

Anatomy: It’s Beautiful to Be Small

The performance of extreme marathoners was left unexplained by geneticists and exercise physiologists. A variety of parameters were measured, including Achilles tendon energy return, leg (calf muscle) mass, short and long toes, etc.

It is well-established that shorter overall body sizes (height, weight, BMI) are conducive to faster marathon performances. A male Olympic Marathon winner is approximately 5’6″, weighs about 125 pounds, and has a body mass index of about 19. Although Kipchoge’s weight appears to have decreased 11 pounds in 2021 over five years earlier, his body size seems similar – small – to many other marathon greats.

Marathon runners tend to be small because their efficiency is improved, their injuries are limited, and their body temperature is regulated better. This last factor is especially important in summer marathons at the World Championships and Olympics.

It is not uncommon to see tall marathoners, but it is rare. Galen Rupp, who stood over most of his competitors during the recent Olympics, was easy to identify. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, the four-time Boston Marathon champion, stands 6’3″. This is an exception to the rule.

In his research on the riders and distance runners on the Tour de France, Alejandro Lucia has become a leading expert in endurance research. Occasionally, he collaborates with both Jones and Joyner. Using world-class Spanish runners as a comparison, Lucia studied Eritreans. Eritreans had smaller, longer and skinnier legs, but had roughly the same VO2 max as the Chinese. This combination gave them a superior running economy.

Lucia states that Kipchoge follows a high-carbohydrate diet and has well-toned legs, similar to many Kenyan athletes. “This enables him to race at a speed which represents a smaller percentage of his maximum aerobic capacity than the others.” He also doesn’t face any challenge when oxygenated blood is delivered to the foot muscles, the brain, and to the skin to regulate his body temperature.”

What is the effect of leg stiffness on leg speed?

Geoff Burns published a paper in Scientific Reports in which he concluded that elite runners have “stiffer” legs than highly trained but slower runners. Burns states that a runner’s “leg stiffness” is indicative of how they compress and decompress on the ground.”

Running a stiff body usually means not compressing into the ground before impact except under extreme conditions. (In contrary, Groucho-running causes the knees to bend exaggeratedly.) The body’s flexibility comes from its tendons and ligaments along with full body tension.

Several fast Kenyan 10K runners (about 28 minutes) and recreational runners (about 43 minutes) were compared in a forthcoming study. The Kenyans had much higher relative leg stiffness (per body weight) than the recreational runners. These patterns also resemble simple, efficient bouncing systems.

Burns says Kenyans synchronized their movements with a pogo-stick-like system. As Kipchoge orchestrates his brisk movements with his body and hands, bouncing exceptionally well on the ground, I imagine he does the same.

Are you bouncing? It doesn’t look like it when you observe Kipchoge’s form.

He and other top runners waste little energy by bouncing unnecessary. (This video shows him at the end of his marathon in 1:59.) Running efficiently is characterized by greater stiffness – less compression against the force of the ground. As a bounce-to-bounce system, a pogo stick is “ideal,” Burns says. In addition, he says, “there is no perfect runner, Kipchoge included, but one with a stiff ‘spring’ and coordinated forces may be losing less energy step-by-step.”

A Major Role for Altitude According to Bill Rodgers

His fourth Boston Marathon victory in 1975 marked the start of a lifetime study of top marathon performances. Rodgers has also won a marathon in 2:09:27, and he has also won four times in New York City. He has always placed a high value on real estate. East African runners generally live high altitude lives due to the births and deaths that occur at those high altitudes.

Moreover, other factors, such as financial support, work wonders for poor countries, he says. The athletes in East Africa do not have much opportunity, and even modest prize money means a lot. In addition, Eliud is simply a strong-looking runner. His physique isn’t big, but his mind is also strong. These qualities are what allow him to win over and over again.”

A Master Marathoner’s Mind – The Final Frontier

Even though there is no simple test to measure Kipchoge’s mind, everyone who has ever met him has been impressed by his Yoda-like approach to life and challenge. Those deeply-lined, wizened features make him look like Yoda. The key to Kipchoge’s success is that he lives simply, emphasizes hard work, studies sports as well as other spheres of success, and frequently pushes the boundaries. “No human is limited,” he likes to say.

A personal anecdote can be added to all of this. We visited Kenya’s Rift Valley and the training camps of top athletes in 2005 with a small group of American runners. After a 4-mile run with the Kenyans and the requisite tea drinking, we spent one afternoon with Kipchoge’s group at Kaptagat (8000 feet).

A slow runner, my wife was concerned about how the altitude and hills would affect her. So I approached the Kenyans and asked if anyone was willing to join us at about 11:00/mile pace. A relaxed smile spread across Kipchoge’s face as he raised his hand. Those were his only four years as a marathon runner, and his first marathon would take place eight years later. His mile time dropped to 3:50 the summer before, and his 5000 meter time dropped to 12:46. Interested? Perhaps you would agree.

Kipchoge stayed alongside us even in the face of everyone else speeding ahead. I don’t think many other elites would have or could have done this. They are too driven, especially in their development years. But Kipchoge was preternaturally wise even then; he knew one slow 4-miler would not derail his running career.

Except for one question, I don’t remember our conversation on that run. My question was whether he was worried about the strong finishing kicks of Ethiopians like Haile Gebrselassie when racing them. A chuckle escaped Kapchoge’s lips. It’s not important to me,” he replied. “My own speed is plenty fast.”

Certainly.

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