Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge came within 26 seconds of running’s holy grail
On his website you can learn many things about Andrew Jones, professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter. You can read that he is the author of more than 220 research articles, chiefly to do with human endurance, and that he has acted as “consultant physiologist to UK Athletics for many years, advising the majority of the UK’s leading distance runners”, including Paula Radcliffe.
A fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, and the European College of Sport Science, Jones is also special adviser (endurance) to the English Institute of Sport.
But what his website doesn’t tell you is that, 30 years on from when he set it, Jones still holds the British junior half-marathon record – run on an undulating course at Stroud in the jaw-dropping time of 66 minutes 55 seconds. No wonder that when Nike was looking for someone to devise a training and nutrition regime to help an elite runner break the sub-two-hour marathon mark, it was Jones who got the call.
Speaking over the phone last week from the Monza racetrack in Italy, where Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge on Saturday produced an awe-inspiring performance to run 26.2 miles in two hours 25 seconds, Jones was keen to stress that all runners, not just the elite, would benefit from the secrets and training strategies they had employed in their assault on Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57.
“When you’re at the Monza Formula One track, you talk to the top people at Mercedes and they say the tweaks they’re making to their F1 cars will eventually filter down and become standard in their regular road cars. I think it’s the same sort of thing with running. You can only understand normal physiology if you can understand perfect physiology.”
So what is it about their physiology that has allowed African runners to dominate distance running so comprehensively in recent years? “Their body types tend to be smaller and naturally leaner,” Jones said. “Their limbs have slightly different proportions, which make them run more efficiently. They have slightly longer shanks; their lower legs tend to be relatively long compared to their thighs, they don’t tend to carry a lot of muscle on their calves and they have quite long achilles, which can be quite advantageous. Their V02 Max [maximum oxygen uptake] may not be much higher than what you’d find in a good class of distance runner in the UK, but they’re much more economical and they’re able to operate at high fractions of their max almost without fatigue.”
Understanding how they achieve this economy is running’s equivalent of finding the holy grail, but Jones believes simple tweaks to diet could help even modest runners become more efficient. He is particularly evangelical about the performance-enhancing virtues of a certain root vegetable, having celebrated it in numerous scientific papers. “I’m responsible for the beetroot revolution,” Jones conceded with evident pride. “I do think it can be effective in a lot of people. It’s less effective the more highly trained you are, but at lower levels we find the nitrate in the beetroot juice causes people to be a bit more economical when they run. They use a bit less oxygen for the same speed and that should translate into better performances. There are plenty of studies to indicate that’s true. You should use some on race day, maybe a couple of hours before, and take it for a few days running up to the event.”
Those who can’t abide the idea of drinking the distinctive juice will be relieved to learn there are alternatives.
“A whole load of leafy green vegetables – rocket, lettuces and spinach – are rich in inorganic nitrate that our bodies convert into nitric oxide,” said Jones, who suggested that consuming such vegetables regularly might mean runners did not need to take nitrate supplements.
“My experience from visiting Kenya is that the runners eat a lot of stewed spinach and so maybe their dietary nitrate content is pretty high compared with what we consume. Arguably they may benefit less from nitrate as a supplement because they already have a lot of it in their daily diet.” Runners of all levels can benefit from taking another legal substance, too, Jones suggested.
“All three of the athletes have used caffeine, a little bit before and then during the last half an hour or so. That kind of pick-me-up is just what you need. Anecdotal reports going back 30 or 40 years suggest that athletes were drinking flat Coke in the latter stages of marathons and finding it gave them a bit of a benefit. It’s the mental stimulus; it gives them that little bit of je ne sais quoi towards the end of the event.”
But no amount of supplements can make up for poor fuelling. “The ability to run fast for long periods depends on how much carbohydrate you can use. You can only store a certain amount in your muscles and therefore getting as much on board exogenously – ie through food and drink – as you run is really important. It’s a real skill and a lot of athletes don’t practise it enough.
“If you try to do it on race day and you are not used to it you will probably have stomach problems and you may find it unpalatable. So we’ve been doing our best to really increase the amount of carbohydrate in the beverages and gels that they take and feed it to them a bit more frequently than in a conventional marathon.
“In the marathon, it’s usually only every 5k [they take on fuel] and if you need to drink 100ml or 200ml of fluid, that’s quite a lot to take on board. If you can take 50ml, 60ml or 70ml every two and a half kilometres then that’s much easier to manage. But you have to make sure the athlete has trained their digestive system, so we’ve had them concentrating hard on that in their training runs in Africa.”
Having spent time with the runners on their home turf, Jones believes he has learned as much from them as they did from him. One eye-opener was the way they approached training.
“Runners will typically do a bunch of medium runs at a steady pace and a long run, say, on a Sunday at a slightly slower speed, and then a couple of interval training sessions. That’s grown out of [Percy] Cerutty and [Arthur] Lydiard [two respected antipodean running coaches] and that’s what people do in the US and all across Europe.
“But in Africa it’s somewhat different. When they go for most of their runs they’re quite slow, but when they do their long run – 22 to 25 miles is not uncommon – they’ll run those sessions quite fast. They might start easily but it will get progressively faster and faster and it’s almost a case of the last man standing. It’s a very specific form of training that we don’t expose ourselves to.”
Rest is another clear point of demarcation between runners in Africa and the west, said Jones.
“They go to bed when the sun goes down and they get up when the sun comes up and often go out and run immediately. For the remainder of the day they chill out. They don’t seem stressed about doing chores or going on social media. They switch off, relax, chat with their friends over a cup of tea. That doesn’t mean they’re any less serious about their training but they do take their recovery very seriously.”
This is something Jones wishes he could have told his younger record-breaking self.
“I think I’d tell myself to do a bit less training. If you look at the Kenyans, they really listen to their bodies. In the western world we are very regimented about our training. We structure it really precisely and we get anxious about it too much. We’re obsessed with running our intervals in precisely the same time. What you get in Africa, and Kenya in particular, it’s much more relaxed. They listen to their bodies and they back off when they need to.”
Despite Kipchoge’s phenomenal performance, some will view , record breaking performance as nothing more than a Nike marketing gimmick. But Jones believes that running is richer for what was achieved at Monza and that the challenge, not just to achieve a “sub-2” marathon, but for everyone to run further and faster, has been thrown down.
“I hope people have been really inspired and motivated by it. It’s been about working out what are the limits of human performance. It’s only when you know what they are that you can work on strategies to overcome them.”