Can We Calculate The Limits Of Human Performance? Nailing Down When We Might See A Sub-2 Marathon

It might happen sooner than you think...

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The sub-2-hour marathon has been an elusive target for elite runners for decades. Each year, the marathon world record gets closer and closer to that elusive barrier that it seems inevitable to be broken in the near future.

We found a study published in the Journal of Medicine and Science of Sports and Exercise that used previous data trends to estimate when and how likely it is we might see someone run a sub-2 marathon.

When Kelvin Kiptum broke the marathon world record at the Chicago marathon, running 2:00:35, he bettered the previous mark, set by compatriot Eliud Kipchoge, by 34 seconds. 

This was the first time ever that the world record in the marathon had been broken by over 30 seconds.

kelvin kiptum crossing chicago marathon finish line
Chicago Marathon 2023

Simon Angus, Associate Professor at Monash University, compares the progression of the marathon world record to following developments in technology.

Many factors can lead to a performance gain in both marathon running and technological developments. In the world of marathon running, we have seen modernizations in physical training, nutrition, equipment, and mental training. 

Angus used his background in statistical and economic analysis to model the historical progression of the fastest marathons and fit them into a mathematical formula to give insight into what the future of marathon running may hold.

Prior to Kiptum’s breakthrough performance, Angus’ calculations showed a 1 in 10 chance that the two-hour barrier would be broken in May 2032 and a 1 in 4 chance that it would be broken in March 2054.

Based on Angus’ calculations, Kipchoge’s world records set in 2018 and 2022 follow along the 1 in 4 progression almost perfectly. 

Can We Calculate The Limits Of Human Performance? Nailing Down When We Might See A Sub-2 Marathon 1

However, Kelvin Kiptum’s world record run in Chicago was something unexpected that took the world by storm, including Angus’ analytical world.

After Kiptum’s shocking performance, Angus remodeled his graphs and calculations, using the same maths as before, but this time factoring in Kichoge’s 2022 and Kiptum’s current world records.

As a result of Kiptum’s 2:00:35 in Chicago, the 1 in 4 likelihood line for a sub-2-hour marathon went from March 2054 up to March 2027.

The 1 in 10 likelihood line moved up to November 2018.

What this means is that, theoretically,  since November 2018, there is a 1 in 10 chance that we will witness a true sub-2-hour marathon.

Angus’ analysis shows us that Kelvin Kiptum has been able to push forward marathon world-record history enough to make it a likely reality that we will witness someone run a sub-2-hour marathon in the next few years.

Not only did Angus put into perspective how likely it is we will see a sub-2 marathon within the next few years, but he also went beyond to see what the fastest time any human may ever run in the marathon.

Angus essentially calculated the limit of human performance.

What his calculations found is that the curve settles around 1:55:40.

This study showed us that in the world of marathon running, it has now become a when, not an if, the sub-2 marathon will happen. In addition, once someone does break that barrier, his analysis suggests, we still have over four minutes before we reach the limit of human performance.

When do you see that sub-2 barrier being broken? Do you think we can quantify the limits of human performance?

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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