The myth of losing your speed

The autumn marathons are upon us and first we’ve seen Eliud Kipchoge set a world record time in Berlin and then Keninisa Bekele placing 5th in London in under 2hr06. What makes these runs so impressive is Kipchoge turns 38 next month and Bekele is already 40. These are not the sort of times or placings you expect men approaching their midlife crisis to achieve.

Kenenisa Bekele readies himself for the off …

Both, of course have a long history as elite runners with both of them winning gold medals at the 2003 World Championship in Paris. Kipchoge won the 5,000m; Bekele the 10,000m. Since then Kipchoge has become the world’s premier marathoner and Bekele set a world record in the 5,000m. In 2019 he ran the second fastest marathon in history behind Kipchoge.

Both runners are naturally better suited to distance running than the rest of us and at around 3:50 their mile times are some way down on what the best can achieve but it doesn’t make them slow compared to the rest of us. Less than 2,000 men have managed a sub-4 minute mile and basic speed is the foundation of Kipchoge and Bekele’s distance running success.

Two marathon world record holders (Kipchoge and Radcliffe) watch near London’s finish lline

The pace of their recent marathons comes in at 4:36/mile (or 2:52/km) for Kipchoge and 4:48/mile (2:59/km) for Bekele. Few of the runners I meet can even run 400m in a time under 1:12, let alone a mile.

This harks back to a point I often make about how people returning or taking up running at forty say they’re getting old and can’t expect to be as fast as they were when they were young. Technically they’re right, but realistically they’re just making excuses in case they aren’t.

There is no reason why a decently trained man or woman in their forties can’t be near the front of local races, winning their age category and running their best times. One of my good friends ran his first sub-3 marathon (2hr58) at age 38 then spent his forties training properly with a club and was running 2hr34 as he was about to hit fifty. Improvement is easily possible for almost all the runners I meet.

For the most part staying fast as you age is simply about dedication and getting the training right. If you’d like me to help you improve as a runner then do not hesitate to contact me.

More stride length – Eliud Kipchoge

Previously I talked about the stride length of 400m hurdlers, 800m runners and 10K runners. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Eliud Kipchoge – the world’s premier marathoner.

Kipchoge is famed for his excellent running form and economical stride and in Oct. 2019 he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours. I found footage of the run on Youtube and watched a section from the last kilometre to calculate his stride length.

How to calculate stride length manually

You can skip past this section if you’d rather not get into the details

As we know Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency.  We can rearrange that as Stride Length = Speed divided by Frequency. And because Speed is actually the distance covered in a time period (e.g. miles per hour); we can convert it to a Pace (e.g. 15mph is 4min/mile because 60mins / 15 = 4).

We need to find out how fast he’s running and how many steps he’s taking in a set period to be able to calculate the stride length.

Step 1 – Watching the footage I found a section where the camera showed Kipchoge for a decent length of time; the longer the better as it gives a more accurate sample. The particular segment lasted twenty seconds.

Step 2 – I counted the number of times his left arm swings. It doesn’t matter whether you count armswings or footsteps they’re going to match. Generally though I find armswings are easier to count. I counted thirty armswings.

Step 3 – As this was a twenty second clip, I had to triple it to get the cadence for a minute (3×30 = 90). But this was only for the swing of one arm so I doubled it (90 x 2 = 180) to get the total for both arms. Given arms and legs swing at the same rate, it gives the number of steps per minute – 180. Very conveniently it’s also three steps per second.

Step 4 – The marathon was run in 1:59:40 – an average pace of 4:34/mile. I remember Kipchoge was very consistent in his pacing so I’ve got a high level of confidence that his is how quick he was covering the ground.

Now I calculate how many steps Eliud covers in his 4:34 mile. In four minutes he covers 720 steps (180×4) and then in the remaining thirty-four seconds takes another 102 (34×3) for a grand total of 822 steps per mile.

Step 5 – As a mile is 1,609 metres and we know Kipchoge takes 822 steps to cover it, it works out that his stride length is 1.96metres  (1609 / 822).

NB This final step has an implicit conversion from Imperial to Metric measuring systems. I could have gone metric earlier as I know he was running at 2:50/km, so he was taking 510 steps per km (1000/510 = 1.96) to get the same stride length.

Kipchoge’s Stride Length

If you skipped straight down here, let’s recap …. at his marathon pace of 4:34/mile, Eliud Kipchoge is taking 180 steps per minute with a stride length of 1.96 metres. What’s interesting, and defeats those people who say they have little legs, is that Kipchoge is only 1.67m tall (5’6”) – his stride is over 15% longer than he is tall.

I also found video of 18-year-old Eliud Kipchoge winning the 5000m gold at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. His running form looks a little less smooth than these days but he was still able to win in 12min52. I counted steps for one of his 400m laps close to the end of the race – he completed it in a touch under 1min05 – a pace of 4:21/mile. He took 202 steps and that works out to a stride length of 1.83 metres. Surprisingly it was shorter than he ran for a whole sub-2 marathon but may begin to explain why his form looked less smooth.

Nonetheless whichever race you look at Kipchoge’s stride length is bigger than he is tall and that’s worth thinking about.

Mental toughness

In Is this sustainable? I quoted Chris Boardman talking about how it feels during a race. He said “There’s a constant calculation going on between … How far is it to go? How hard am I trying? Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes [to the sustainable question], you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late [because you’ve dropped time by not going harder] so you’re looking for maybe”. I was thinking about this as I ran parkrun and it occurred to me that how you respond to this question shows your level of mental toughness.

The difference between the mentally tough and the ordinary person is that the ordinary person gives up when they realise something isn’t sustainable. The mentally tough person doesn’t accept No for an answer. As I wrote in Denial, they dig in and try to gut it out. They’ll keep trying, hoping to find some kind of energy reserve – they may find it, they may not. In a race against opponents (especially mentally weak ones) not knowing your limitations can make the difference between winning and losing.

It’s fairly obvious that the mentally weak are happy to continue when the answer is Yes and they’ll give up for a No; but I’d venture that it’s the Maybe answer which is enough to get them shutting it down and giving up. As soon as the answer changes to “I’m not entirely sure this is sustainable” which Boardman says is the very thing you’re looking for; the doubt begins to creep in and they give up and fall back to a safe zone.

In recent years, theories of fatigue have moved on from it being caused by a build-up of waste products in the muscles; to being about the brain taking feedback about those build-ups and subconsciously allowing the athlete to keep going, or the mind tempting them to slow down by experiencing build-ups as pain. Therefore elite distance runners are beginning to add mental stress to training sessions to teach the brain, it can cope with more and it’s safe to continue going. You could liken it to walking up a street in the dark. The first time you do it, you’re tentative with each step because you don’t know what’s ahead. But if you repeat the experience and know you managed ten steps safely, you walk those steps quickly the second time.

If you can push through pain in training or races, it’ll give you an extra dimension to your running – it’ll teach your brain that it’s safe to release the unused reserves. This is the bit where mentally weak athletes have a disadvantage. If they aren’t willing to push through the pain, their brain isn’t going to feel safe to allow them to break into their reserves. I’ve met a good many runners who always play it safe. They start off slowly, start at the back of the field, or ease off when exhaustion or heavy breathing threaten. They don’t try to push through the temptation of giving up, they simply give up.

I believe the role of the mental side of running is overplayed in modern literature. No matter how much you want or desire to be the Olympic champion, you still have to train before you can get close to that stage. Physical limitations are still limitations to be addressed by training, not by thinking you can run harder.  But, when Eliud Kipchoge ran the first two sub-2 hour marathon, it’s possible the knowledge of getting within twenty-five seconds on his first attempt was enough to help him find the extra seconds. That’s what mental toughness and training is about, having a confidence to push through Maybe and give it your all.

When the going gets tough, there’s probably more to be eked out than you realise. Pushing hard occasionally in training and races will help the mind know it’s possible.