Science helped me run my first marathon in 3 hours and 21 minutes
Running is in our DNA, but training for a marathon is a careful mix of muscle, mental, and technological strength.
UNTIL JUNE 2018, I HAD NEVER RUN more than 14 miles at once. I jogged often, and had completed a couple of half-marathons, but nothing more. As such, doubling that distance seemed far out of my reach.
But shortly after, I was given the opportunity to gain a spot reserved for media to run the 2018 Chicago Marathon in October (through Nike, one of the marathon’s official sponsors). With access to top-level coaching and gear, I had an opportunity to see how elite athletes set themselves up for success—and I wanted to find out what the average human can learn from their tricks. I set out to understand how evolution, technology, and know-how can come together to propel the human body across 26.2 miles. Here’s what I learned, and how it can help you run a marathon of your own.
Marathons have become far more popular in the past few decades than they had been at any other time in the past—and especially among women. After a sharp rise starting in 1990, a peak in 2013, followed by a slight decline in the following years, marathon participation has leveled off, but remains a popular event for amateur and elite runners alike. In 2000, some 299,000 Americans ran one, 37.5 percent of whom were women. In 2016, more than half a million folks crossed the finish line, 44 percent of them women. Alongside this popularity, scientists—and shoe companies—have advanced research into the physiology and technology that make athletes speedier.
At first glance, nothing in my background suggested I could run such a long course. I participated in a few sports in high school, but not track or cross country. My dad jogs strictly for health reasons, my mother abhors the suggestion, and I don’t have any sprinters hiding up my family tree. But many scientists and anthropologists maintain that you don’t need to be from a long line of elites; the skill is in our DNA. Christopher McDougall argues in the runner’s cult classic Born to Run that evolution hard-wired the human body for jogging. The hypothesis goes that back when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared hunting territory, our super power as a species was our ability to chase down prey by steadily trotting behind it until the animal collapsed from exhaustion—what anthropologists call persistence hunting. Small pockets of modern hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Kalahari Bushman of southern Africa and the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) people of Mexico’s Chihuahua region, still use this method, albeit far more infrequently.
While humans aren’t as fast as some sprinters in the animal kingdom, we rule at endurance because of a key physiological difference. To cool off, other mammals expel extra heat by panting. It’s a great method—until they start running and all of a sudden their bodies need deep breaths of oxygen to keep going. Unable to pant and breathe at the same time, they ultimately overheat and collapse. Humans have a marvelous workaround: Because we sweat through pores in our skin, we’re able to keep our respiration steady as we trot. Our species’ history means that most healthy humans should be able to jog a marathon.
Like running a marathon itself, training for one is most fun at the start. But fMRI studies show that our brains react to novel experiences by releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Surprised by the resulting happiness, we seek out the reward again and again. That scientific insight certainly applied to me: I had never trained rigorously for a race before this one, so each workout was an entirely new experience. That’s my first takeaway: You shouldn’t assume the process will be miserable or grueling. It’s going to be difficult, but the fact that it’s new will make it kind of addictive.
The exact amount of time it takes for someone to train varies. Elite or professional runners who already have a high level of conditioning, or physical strength, might need as little as 12 weeks, whereas someone with little or no experience might require 6 months or more. I had recently run a half-marathon, and hadn’t lost much of my conditioning. My heart, lungs, and muscles still worked together efficiently as I ran. My coach, a Nike-affiliated trainer named Jes Woods, decided to give me a 14-week training plan.
Getting your body ready for a marathon means ensuring your muscles will be able to perform for 26.2 miles. That ability, and how fast you can complete the distance in, depends on a multitude of factors including weight, sex, genetics (to a certain extend), and the energy efficiency of our form. Even tiny things that are almost unnoticeable can make a difference. For instance, Woods pointed out that I tend to cross my arms in front of me, which is inefficient. Some runners tend to strike the ground heel first, also not optimal. Your performance also depends on what shape or condition you are in, what many people colloquially call fitness. That’s where proper training comes in—which enables you to run faster and for longer before your muscles fail you.
Ambitiously, I told Woods that I wanted to run the race somewhere in the range of three hours and 40 minutes—fast but not crazy-fast. For reference, qualifying times for the Boston Marathon are, as of 2020, three hours and thirty minutes for women in my age group (18-34) and three hours flat for men of my same cohort. The Boston Marathon is unique in that you must qualify to compete, whereas others, like my race, the Chicago Marathon, is lottery-based. I chose my goal time based on how I did in my most recent half-marathon. Running at about an 8-minute-mile pace, I remembered being tired but not exhausted, and I recovered quickly; there was definitely room for improvement. Woods conservatively said we’d start with that goal and see how I did. Fitness builds up slowly. It’s hard to predict how someone without years of experience will react to an increase in mileage.
Luckily for me, Woods is an expert. Whatever query I had, she always had the answer. And I had many: How long is the break between these two sets? What actually is a progression run? Should I get one of those belt things that holds your hydration gels?
Her quick, detailed, and accurate answers were vital, but even more valuable was the security I gained from them. A runner’s coach erects an athlete’s confidence like a brick wall: Each tailored workout, question answered, and shared training session slowly builds a sturdy base of self-assurance and a barrier between the runner and any misgivings. A coach is by no means necessary. But if you’ve got the resources to hire one, it’s definitely helpful.
My curated plan included four different phases (or “blocks”) of workouts: base (with paces that matched my current fitness state), initial, transition, and final (with paces that were a bit faster than my goal for the marathon). The first three phases lasted a month each, and the last one two weeks.
I followed the same workout pattern throughout: Mondays I cross-trained (almost exclusively by swimming, a sport I’d competed in through high school). Tuesdays I usually did some type of track workout focused on speed rather than endurance. On Wednesdays I always did a recovery run, a less-demanding pace that encourage muscle growth. Thursdays meant either hill repeats (just as it sounds: You run up a hill and then back down, just so you can tackle the beast again) or a sustained speed run. These runs are faster than a marathon pace but are performed for a shorter period of time. An ideal example is a tempo run, which is a steady clip that’s just below your maximum effort. Woods explained it to me as a speed you could handle for an hour (if necessary). Fridays were a rest day. Saturdays were reserved for crucial long runs, and on Sundays I could choose between a recovery run and a rest day, though I almost always chose to run.
With each new phase, my marathon pace (the time per mile that I could run steadily) would improve, and as Woods slowly increased my mileage and the speed, the times within the phases increased as well. For both long runs and total weekly mileage, the number of miles ebbed and flowed, with “down” weeks with less miles and “up” weeks with more. This allows your body to further recover throughout the process. Woods also tried to keep my longest runs slow, but, as it turns out, I hate a good slow jog, so she set a limit of no faster than an 8:30 minute per mile pace for any recovery, easy, or long run—no exceptions. For ideal training, though, long runs should be at a pace that is about 60 to 90 seconds slower than your goal speed for the marathon.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the hardest workouts for me to nail were the Wednesday recovery runs. Running slowly—knowing you are physically capable of going much faster—is a mental struggle. However, as Woods routinely pointed out, recovery runs are crucial. Prior to this training, I’d prepared for all road races the same way: Run at the same pace for an increasing number of miles. Sadly, I was way behind on the evidence-based best practices. Seriously: If you want to get faster, sometimes you gotta go slow.
Recovery runs, which indeed sound like an oxymoron, are an important counterpart to speed workouts. The latter ever so slightly breaks down the muscles, causing tiny tears that heal over with more muscle cells: a net gain. But this can happen only if you give the muscles a chance to recover. You have to have rest days if you want to put on muscle, and if you’re training for a marathon, you have to spend some days running at a maddeningly slow pace.
You also have to get used to running for long periods of time. Each week, I logged more miles, starting at 8 and culminating with two 20-mile runs six weeks and four weeks before the race. This is crucial for training the mind to handle marathon day. The more runs you do, the more familiar you become with them. And though they don’t actually get shorter, you’ll get better at tuning out the passage of time and focusing on your body’s machinations.
As I was puffing up the same slope for the fifth time one morning—my last hill workout, just a few weeks before the race—I found myself falling off pace by a second or two with each additional climb. I remember wondering if a fancier shoe might give me the boost I needed to keep up my speed. That wasn’t total fantasy: What you put on your body—and especially your feet—makes a difference. Items such as a properly fitting bra, for example, can make all the difference.
The brunt of running research has gone into sneaker tech, and running shoes have come a long way. Designers have modified for better comfort, support, grip, and tread. The focus these days is on the shoe’s energy return and weight: More of the former and the less of the latter means a faster performance. With each stride, muscles generate energy. Some of that power transfers down to the shoes. Energy return, then, is the percent of that energy a shoe gives back as a runner lifts up the foot—and it comes largely from the foam inside the midsole. It should be both compliant (to stretch and hold that energy) and resilient (to give it back). Researchers started experimenting with this concept in the 1980s, but it was Adidas’ 2013 launch of its Energy Boost shoes that reignited the trend. Since then, companies including Brooks, Nike, Reebok, and Saucony have followed suit with their own models.
The Vaporfly 4 percent, so named because they’re meant to make the average runner 4 percent more efficient, are Nike’s fastest racing shoes (kicks meant for race day as opposed to training) and the ones I used for my race. They’re ultralight: Biomechanical studies show that, on average, every 100 grams of added mass per shoe increases the metabolic cost of running by 1 percent. They have a new proprietary foam called ZoomX, and boast a somewhat-controversial carbon-fiber plate that propels a runner forward. In a marathon, researchers say, a 4 percent improvement could make a huge difference.
Tests at the University of Colorado Boulder and at Grand Valley State University came to the same conclusion: The shoes have got speed. So much so that some coaches and exercise scientists have questioned whether they should be banned. But not every runner who toes the line in the racing shoes consistently experiences the same improvement. In fact, some study participants got more than a 4 percent boost while others saw far less. That inconsistency makes sense, because no one is quite sure how the shoes provide such a good return. Some think it’s all about the notorious carbon-fiber plate, while others suspect the boost is all in the super-responsive ZoomX foam.
We need more data—and more varieties of foam and carbon-fiber plates to test—to know for sure. They might be on the way. Professional distance runner Des Linden, who’s sponsored by Brooks Running, ran the 2018 Boston and New York City marathons in a Brooks’ prototype shoe believed to have a plate—and other companies are rumored to be developing similar tech.
But it’s not merely tech that makes us faster. Another runner with me on my hill workout day told me he’s “old-school” and thinks high-tech-shoe claims miss a big point: For most non-elite runners, anyone can run a faster marathon on any given day, regardless of what’s on their feet, given they put in the proper training. And studies back him up, as there are so many variables that affect performance. According to Wouter Hoogkamer and Rodger Kram, physiologists and biomechanics who study running economy and shoe technology at the University of Colorado Boulder, the bulk of the work still comes from the runner. Even if a shoe were to give 100 percent energy return, that’s paltry compared with the power that muscles provide with each stride. Training status, Hoogkamer told me, is by far the most important parameter.
The bottom line: Some shoes will give you a shot at running faster, but you still need to be in damn good shape to run your fastest marathon. For me, that meant finishing those hills.
I ran the Chicago Marathon as if riding a train fueled by adrenaline—until I was just about to hit mile 24. Suddenly I had an extreme desire to stop. All runners experience this at some point late in the race, I’d been told. And while there are a million and one tactics you can use to get yourself through, working out my mind helped the most.
Paces, mileage, and physiological numbers such as VO2 max (the upper limit of oxygen consumption used during exertion) or lactate threshold can dictate how well someone will do. But it’s nearly impossible to crunch those numbers into a perfect prediction of someone’s finish time, which I found fascinating. No matter how well you prepare physically, your brain can still do a lot to help or hurt you on race day.
In his latest book, Endure, Alex Hutchinson defines endurance as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” Because the body wants to conserve energy, and distance running uses so much, your mind is going to tell you to stop moving far sooner than your body will actually break of exhaustion. You can usually keep going for a bit after you begin to feel certain that you can’t.
Scientists have done multiple studies of this phenomenon, but perhaps my favorite involved the tactic I remember as the swish and spit. To prevent themselves from running out of available energy, marathoners swallow gels—single-portion packets of easy-to-digest carbohydrates—throughout the race. Once I’d hit 16 miles in my training, I knew I had to start practicing with them to make it through the length of a marathon. I’d been dreading this. Not to get too much into the details, but every time I’d tried to use them in the past, I’d throw them right back up. I blame a super sensitive stomach, not enough blood flow to the gut while running, and the strange texture of the products themselves (you’ll know once you try ’em).
Searching for a workaround sent me down a PubMed-fueled research spiral on how to take in carbohydrates, and I came across a 2010 paper entitled “Mouth rinse but not ingestion of a carbohydrate solution improves 1-h cycle time trial performance.” Boom. Exactly what I was looking for: I don’t need to actually swallow the stuff, I can just rinse and spit.
The study found that during a 60-minute cycling session, participants who swished a sports drink containing carbohydrates and spat it out performed better than those who did the same with a non-carbohydrate containing placebo (meant to taste like a sports drink). That’s because our mouths contain carbohydrate sensors linked to the brain—detectors that tell our bodies it’s okay to keep going because fuel is on the way. With just the knowledge of energy coming, sans any actual food, participants in the study cycled faster than those who swished the placebo, which didn’t trigger the same brain signals.
Unfortunately, in a race that would take me more than three hours to complete, I’d definitely have to do more than swish, but the idea that you can ignore what your brain tells you stuck with me. Your mind tells you to stop even when you are physically capable of powering through. In other words, I could probably push harder than instinct advised.
I crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in 3 hours, 21 minutes, 55 seconds—about eight minutes faster than the qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon, and almost 20 minutes faster than the time I initially had planned.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made me surpass my initial goals. I imagine a battery of tests would help: looking at genes related to running economy, gait analysis, even a breakdown of my gut microbiome. But I bet that we’ll never be able to predict anyone’s marathon time with 100 percent accuracy, which, to me, is the fun of it all.
Perhaps the best takeaway I can share is that as soon as it was over, I forgot almost instantly both the mental and muscular struggle I’d just endured. Some psychological studies have shown this to be a common phenomenon in distance runners. In one study, runners were asked how painful the marathon was directly after the race and then three and six months later. On average, all subjects remembered less pain overall in the months following the marathon compared to the day of the event.
Forcing yourself to the finish line takes time, support, and patience. But the end result is worth the effort. Ask anyone who’s run a marathon how many they’ve completed. Chances are, it’s more than one. If you’re ready to run a marathon, trust that your body is designed to go the distance, and consider using the latest technology for a slight speed boost. Just remember: You have to put in the work. But my end result surprised me—and yours could, too. We’re all runners, after all.