How Fast Can a Marathon Be Run?

Is there an absolute minimum time to run a marathon? Will humans ever break the 2 hour mark? What does it take to set a world record marathon time? 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #259

Is there a minimum time needed to run a marathon?

So will humans ever be able to do better than a two-hour marathon? Statistical models, like those developed by Dr. Mark Denny and published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, suggest that, although the precise limits may not be clear, those limits exist. In other words, there are maximum running speeds for racing species including greyhounds, thoroughbred horses, and elite human athletes.

Dr. Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, and his colleagues Drs. Alejandro Lucia and Jonatan Ruiz, developed a model of marathon performance to answer the question of whether or not there is a minimum time needed to run a marathon. When all parameters like runner strength, runner efficiency, and course conditions are set to their optimal values, their model predicts the fastest time to be one hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. Joyner and his colleagues predict that the two-hour lower limit will be broken relatively soon sometime between 2025 – 2030 and by a runner of small stature that has been exposed to high altitudes and significant physical activity since childhood.

This last prediction raises an interesting question—do you have to be East African to set a world marathon record? Recent records sure do seem to suggest it! All top 10 current marathon record holders are East African, hailing from either Kenya or Ethiopia. However, historically, Eastern Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders have also had extended periods of success in setting long distance running records. The key appears to be a combination of nature versus nurture.

A small stature helps runners to be more efficient and so does having lived extensively at high altitudes. With less available oxygen in the air at high altitudes, the body will compensate by increasing its red blood cell count which in turn can increase your VO2 max. Another key to raising your personal VO2 max ceiling is having been consistently physically active as a kid. Of course, the most important ingredient for a winning race that all current record holders have in common is training really, really hard.

How can I improve my marathon time?

Elite runners tend to have “best” marathon times that are 4.6 to 4.7 times their fastest 10k race times. So if you have a 10k race time, you can get a rough estimate of what to expect from yourself in a marathon, given the proper training of course. Once you’ve done what you can to improve your strength and your efficiency within the allowance of your genetics, your best bet to improving your time is then to pick a flat course on a cool day. If you can arrange for a tailwind, that might help too.

Of course, motivation can also help. Some experts suggest that after marathon record times were somewhat stagnant in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they began to improve again once larger sums of prize money were offered. So if the physical activity alone is not enticing enough, pick a race that also rewards you with money or perhaps a little fame.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.