A sub-2 hour marathon would be one of the most incredible feats of human performance the running world has ever seen. Here’s how it might be able to happen.

If you’re a runner or an endurance sports enthusiast, by now you’ve heard of Nike’s plan to break one of the most challenging (and so far, impossible) barriers of all time: running a sub-2 hour marathon. Nike isn’t the only one – it’s been reported that Adidas has been working on a sub-2 hour project since 2014, and the concept itself has been talked about by runners and sports scientists alike for years.

Breaking2, which Nike has entitled the endeavor, has recruited 3 of the world’s top marathoners: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. Together, these men will forgo their usual spring World Marathon Majors to race against the clock on an expertly curated course chosen by Nike. In addition, during their next 6 months or so of training, they’ll be fully equipped with a team of professionals whose sole purpose is to “unpack performance at the molecular level”, according to Nike’s press release.

The current record is 2:02:57 set by Dennis Kimetto (an Adidas athlete) of Kenya in 2014. To break 2 hours, Nike’s recruited athletes would have to average 4:34 pace over 26.2 miles, which is about a 3% increase in pace from the current record.

Back in 1954, Roger Bannister made headlines across the world when he broke 4 minutes in the mile at Iffley Road track in Oxford, England. Today, going sub-4 is basically a rite of passage for any elite runner, and 475 Americans have already achieved that status. Is going sub-2 the next frontier?

Despite the major press the sub-2 feat is getting, the running community is skeptical. Shaving 3 minutes off an existing record in a matter of 6 months is asking a lot. If we look at the marathon world record progression, the trend would say it’s likely impossible.

How does Nike’s “innovation moonshot”, as they describe the program, plan to unlock human potential? Only a few details have been divulged, but here’s how it might happen:

  1. An expertly curated course: A course with minimal turns, no uphills, predictable optimal weather, and perfect footing would eliminate a lot of variables. Dr. Mel Williams, chair of the Science Advisory Board for Marathon & Beyond, says that a uniquely designed fast track could help.
  2. Overall descending elevation, or a completely flat course: It’s no secret that you go faster on the downhill portions of a course. However, a completely flat course might make more sense, considering downhills generally means you’ll have an uphill at some point.
  3. Steady stream of pacers: Nike has already confirmed there will be pacers. These pacers would eliminate the usual jockeying of pace that happens in most marathons as the runners initially take turns leading the race.
  4. State-of-the-art running gear: Nike says it will create running gear for the race that aids body temperature regulation, aerodynamics, and propulsion.

If all of these factors come together perfectly on the day of the race, perhaps a sub-2 hour marathon will be possible. Skepticism, however, still remains. Even if the runners do hit 1:59:59, many argue that the race would be far too contrived to be considered a real competition.

What’s unclear is how they’ll be monitoring training throughout the process. While both Nike and Adidas say they’ll have a team of experts, including top coaches, physiologists, sports scientists, and physical therapists, a plan hasn’t been revealed as to how they’re going to cohesively use performance data from the runners to make such a dramatic leap in time. On top of that, they have to do it in less than 6 months.

To achieve this, Nike and Adidas will have to monitor their athletes on a 24/7 basis if they want to know everything they possibly can about each individual runner’s physiological baselines, training loads, and recovery patterns. Every second in this race counts, and risking any unknown factors could cost these athletes the whole goal of the race.

As more details surface about when the race will happen and where it will be held, it will be interesting to see what training methods Nike is utilizing to unlock quite possibly the greatest human potential the world has ever seen.