This weekend, Nike set up an event where they declared three athletes would run the world's fastest marathon. They were amazing athletes, to be sure, but the real news was how Nike controlled every possible condition to give the runners just the tiniest of speed boosts. And some of these are things you can do yourself.
Illustration by Elena Scotti/GMG
Those tweaks helped Eliud Kipchoge run 42km in an unprecedented two hours, 24 seconds. The official world record still stands at 2:02:57, because Nike didn't follow the IAAF's rules for record-eligible races. They knew that, of course, and achieving an unofficial record is still a big deal.
Nike was hoping to break the two-hour barrier, but Kipchoge just missed it and his teammates didn't even come close. During the race, one of the commentators noted that the attempt would only be successful if a ton of unpredictable factors came together in just the right way. "It's possible, but not probable," they said.
So here are the factors besides your strength and skill as an athlete that can affect how fast you run. Put these to use in your next race:
Pick a day with cool weather. Most people will run their fastest on a 7.2C, overcast day. You can't control the weather, but you can decide when and where you will run. Nike chose the Monza racetrack in Italy for its predictable weather, and decided to be flexible about timing: They picked the first weekend in May, but if the forecast for Friday didn't look good, they were prepared to postpone the race until Saturday or Sunday.
If you'd like to beat your personal best time, don't race in the middle of the summer. You'll run 20 per cent slower on an 27C day, for example. Pick a race in spring or autumn instead. Consider the time of day, too: An 8AM start will get you cooler temperatures than a 10AM start.
Run on flat ground. Hills can really slow you down, even if you know how to run them without getting tired. You'll never make up as much time on the downhill as you lost on the uphill, so pick a route that's described as a "flat, fast course". Then look up the elevation chart and see how flat it really is.
If you can manage to find a race that's all (or mostly) downhill, that will give you a faster time, you cheater. If you must choose something with ups and downs, consider where they fall in the race. You might prefer to have the uphill at the beginning or middle of the race, and the downhill at the end when you're more tired.
Draft behind somebody. If you run fast, you're actually creating a little bit of wind resistance for yourself. It isn't as significant in running as in cycling or car racing, but if you run 13.7km/h or faster, the air hitting your body can be enough to slow you down just a little. Try to hide from the wind by running right behind somebody else. Since you and I aren't the kind of people to be leading the pack (probably), it should be easy enough to find somebody in front of us to be a wind break.
Keep up with your pacers. There's another advantage to running in a pack: Seeing other people running your speed helps to convince your subconscious that you can keep up. In Nike's marathon, Kipchoge ran in a pack with six other runners at all times. (They had to take shifts, because none of them could keep up his pace for two full hours.) These other runners gave him a wind break but also a psychological boost. The pacing team is what disqualified Kipchoge's event from the record books: The IAAF, which keeps the records, only considers races where everybody starts at the same time. That means you can't have a fresh group of pacers come in for the last few kilometres, like Nike did.
Since you and I aren't setting records, we can take advantage of pacers without breaking any rules. In your race, just insert yourself into a mini-pack that's running about the speed you'd like to match. Most big marathons will have pace groups available for different goal times, so take advantage. If you think you can finish the marathon in four hours, for example, look for somebody holding a "4:00" sign on a stick. That's your pace group leader.
Drink water but don't stop for it. The water stops in races are usually tables where volunteers pour water or Gatorade into cups, and sometimes they're kind enough to stand with a cup in hand on the side of the road so you can grab one as you run by.
Kipchoge and friends got their drinks (with specially calibrated nutrients, but that's another story) handed directly to them so they didn't even have to break their pace. You can mimic this convenience by running with a hydration belt (the Fuel Belt ones are nice) so you have your bottles of water or sports drink already on you. I ran a 30K race this way, and it was so nice to have my water available any time I wanted it. I didn't have to dodge a crowd at the water station, or ever spend a second longer feeling thirsty than I had to.
Don't run a step more than you have to. Kipchoge and his teammates followed a specific path through their race track. If your race is on a road, with plenty of twists and turns, know that the distance is measured along the shortest legal path. So take each turn on the inside, or else you're adding unnecessary distance.
Finally, pick the right shoes. Nike is happy to use the two-hour marathon as a giant ad for its shoes, and they claim the athletes' custom shoes made them four per cent faster. You can't buy these exact shoes (although if you wear a men's size 8, 9 or 10 you can enter to win a pair), but you can experiment with the shoes that are on the market. Nike is selling a watered-down version of their shoe called the ZoomX, and Adidas has a similar model called the Boost. Both have bouncy foam that acts a little like a spring.
Almost any shoe will give you a little bit of bounce, especially if it's made with EVA foam. This isn't likely to make a big difference to your overall running time, although that's a complex calculation. Shoes with more foam may give more bounce, but be heavier, for example. This one is probably best evaluated with trial and error: Do you feel great and run fast in your favourite shoes? If you're comfortable and happy, that's going to help you out no matter what your shoes are made of.