Written by Daniel Quin – Runner’s Tribe

For obvious reasons Nike would have us believe that an integral part of Eliud Kipchoge’s 2-hour marathon performance in Monza last month was due to his shoes. More objective analysis pointed towards the pace car and huge timing clock. Others have written that the crucial factor was the effect of the pacing athletes, including Australia’s Collis Birmingham. It is also self-evident to any distance runner that a temperature of 10 degrees, minimal wind, flat course, and no sharp corners were crucial. Finally, Len Johnson has pointed out that Kipchoge has displayed form worthy of the marathon world record, without all of the precision planning.

Eliud Kipchoge runs during the Nike Breaking2: Sub-Two Marathon attempt at Autodromo di Monza.

In amongst all of this science the Sub2Hour Marathon website has an intriguing topic – psychobiology. The website suggests that benefits exist in dissociating from physical and mental strain. Unfortunately no further information is provided so I followed this up.

Previous research has reported that elite marathoners frequently tune into their technique, temperature, breathing, and muscle fatigue. That is they associate with how their body is adapting to the pace, conditions, and competitors. Further, elite marathoners tend to use these association techniques more than lesser marathoners.

Eliud Kipchoge KEN shares his drink with Stanley Biwott KEN after the latter had missed a feed station in the Elite Menís Race. The Virgin Money London Marathon, Sunday 24th April 2016. Photo: Jon Buckle for Virgin Money London Marathon

In comparison non-elite marathoners were more likely to disassociate. They use distraction techniques like mental calculations, thinking about other things, and rigidly adhering to pre-race strategies. Unfortunately, these techniques can contribute to the runner not adjusting their pace, technique, and breathing, in response to changing race circumstances

This doesn’t mean that disassociation shouldn’t be used. It would be mentally exhausting to seek non-stop feedback for more than 2 hours. Psychologically, Kipchoge and the other athletes that participated in the Sub2Hour project, would have benefited from not needing to monitor the pace, respond to hills, tight corners, drink stations, and other competitors. Instead Kipchoge would have been free to associate with his body and ensure he was relaxed at 2.50/km for 42kms! It is difficult to measure accurately but my guess is that by removing the usual range of big-city and championship marathon variables Kipchoge would have been more free to disassociate.

Recently I witnessed another world record attempt. My colleague (and brother-in-law), Dr. Mitch Anderson, successfully broke the world 12-hour cycling record. Like the Sub2Hour project Mitch had a clear and even pace strategy. Further, Mitch was successful in having an almost perfect weather day. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to have a closed circuit. Instead at various times he was required to negotiate traffic and a flat tire. On multiple occasions Mitch had to slow, associate with how his body was adapting to these unplanned changes, and get his pace back up to 41km/h. The physical toll was obvious but the psychological toll to remain calm and respond to these regular changes was became apparent.

If you are not attempting a world record what should you take from all of this? Similar principles apply when aiming for a personal best. The first goal should be to reduce the number of adjustments you need to make in a race. It is preferable to get into the correct rhythm and associate with your body and make minor and infrequent adjustments to form and pace, as appropriate. If you are confident that the pace and race strategy is appropriate at the time then some dissociation would be a good psychological break.

Practice makes perfect. For example, it would appropriate in a set of 3 minute intervals to practice associating with pace and technique for the first 30 seconds. Then if you are satisfied allow yourself to dissociate. But importantly keep coming back to your body (association). Are your shoulders tense? Are you overstriding? Does the pace feel right? And so on. This “body check” may happen regularly for the middle 2 minutes and then the goal would be to 100% associate again for the last 30 seconds to squeeze out every tenth of a second.

The Mitch and Kipchoge examples further illustrate the principles for training. An athletics track is perfect for practicing this. The Tan (Melbourne), on a balmy spring evening, not so much. The Tan has too many external variables. An uneven surface and unpredictable runners means that associating exclusively with your body is much harder. Common-sense is important though. If you are a trail-runner or training for a tactical 1,500m then you absolutely must be able to associate with how your body is responding to variations. Kipchoge and the Sub 2 hour project removed all of these variables. Mitch needed to rely on his years of experience to quickly alter his mental state and adjust to the semi-regular disruptions.

Finally, a point relevant to 2017, would be how does listening to music contribute to disassociation? I suspect this isn’t just my old age showing (I was competitive when portable music was a Discman). Music is likely to be a distraction for elite marathoners seeking to squeeze out the absolute maximum from their performance. But maybe for the recreational athlete, that isn’t so concerned about a extra 1 – 10sec/ km, enjoying the marathon experience, via disassociation is more important. Sometimes it is more important to enjoy your exercise than always strive for marginal gains.


About the Author: RT columnist, Daniel Quin has run numerous Zatopeks, National XC’s, has raced in a Chiba Ekiden, and won a state 5000m and 15km title. In “retirement” he did a marathon. It hurt! He still runs a fair bit. Professionally Quin is a teacher and psychologist, and researching student engagement- Click Here to Learn more. But the best bit for Quin is being a Dad. 

Video: Nike // Breaking2

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