How does Mo Farah run that fast? Preview to the Olympic Champion’s London Marathon Attempt

Interview with BBC radio on his London marathon attempt - click image

Interview with BBC radio on his London marathon attempt – click image

“Being in that shape does have a short window. That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to say to Mo. Appreciate it while it’s there. When you’re there you think it’s going to last forever, you think you’re just unbeatable. “

                                                      – Paula Radcliffe, Current Women’s World Record holder in the marathon (2:15:25 hrs)

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Race Strategy

On Sunday (13th April) Mo Farah, the 5,000m & 10,000m World & Olympic champion, is aiming to break the British record in the marathon. That record is currently held by Welshman Steve Jones, at a time of 2 hours 7 minutes and 13 seconds set at the 1985 Chicago marathon.  The British athlete seems in fine form

Pipped to the line at the Great North Run - Guardian's coverage, click image

Pipped to the line at the Great North Run – Guardian’s coverage, click image

after he was narrowly pipped to the line (by one second) by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele in last month’s Great North Run, just failing to becoming the first British male winner in 25 years at the half marathon. But of course this has been a long process, with his coaching team careful to select the optimum build-up for over 2 years for this April 13th date. This preparation has included his ‘reconnaissance mission’ at the 2013 London Marathon in the form of a ‘half-way trial run’ – in which some critics accused him of being ‘a mercenary’ due to his race appearance fee –  but assured us that at least this distance (and at this event) he looked comfortable among the highest quality field at world record pace  (2hr 2min for the first 10km) even with his response to the press:

“When I was coming off the bridge, I thought ‘are they going to keep this pace going?’ and I got quite a shock’

Eventual winner, Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede, celebrated his triumph at 2hr 6min 4sec – coming from 5th with 4 miles to go and overtaking Kenya’s Emmanuel Mutai with just 800 metres – and this would have been added curriculum to the day’s lessons for Mo – timing the 26.2 miles to perfection.

[The famous ‘Have you run before?’ Mo Farah interview at New Orleans half marathon]

It seems that even with Mo’s British record at the New Orleans half marathon in Feb 2013 at 61 minutes (fellow Briton Scott Overall finished 7th at 1:04:52 for you keen marathon runners out there) the runner & coach – Alberto Salazar – have elected to be paced by the great Haile Gebrselassie (who came 3rd in the 2014 Great North Run) in a second group that will be paced to the halfway point 30 seconds behind the lead group – 62min 15sec [As you would expect from this massive race, the lead group will be put within striking distance of Wilson Kipsang’s world record of 2hr 3 min 23sec, set at the Berlin marathon in Sept 2013]. However this strategy will inevitably lead to a ‘fascinating tactical battle on the streets of the capital’, with Farah hoping to rein in the faster lead group in the second half – conversing energy and making use of his track experience; a view shared by Gebrselassie:

“Athletes like Mo and Kenenisa Bekele, who come from the track, are used to speed, so running two minutes

Gebrselassie breaking World Record at 2008 Berlin Marathon - click for interview with Athletics Illustrated

Gebrselassie breaking World Record at 2008 Berlin Marathon – click for interview with Athletics Illustrated

55 seconds for each kilometre is not difficult. Athletes like them are used to running 2.20 or 2.30 per kilometre, so for them to run 2.55 feels just like jogging”. Haile drawed attention to the fact that this race is a marathon not a sprint [pun intended] – “After 35k the body starts to react. That’s the hard part. Any marathon race always starts after 30k”.

Altitude training

Farah has been training at nearly 8,000 feet in Kenya with a weekly mileage of 130miles – his workouts for the track events included ‘only’ reps of 400,600 or 1,000 metres, now his speed sessions are at least one mile reps. These trips of up to 3 months is to use the benefits of altitude training – improvement in red cell mass, maximal oxygen uptake, uptake of O2 at ventilatory treshold – to enhance sea level performance. Based on published mathematical models (and it is fascinating to have a ‘stat’ on this) “a marathoner with a typical or average running economy who performed ‘live high, train low’ altitude training could experience an improvement of nearly 8.5 minutes (or approx 5%) over the 26.2 mile race distance” – as reported in Chapman & Levine 2007 conference paper – Altitude Training for the Marathon.

Smashing it in Kenya

Smashing it in Kenya

 

As you would expect there is actually quite a fine science on the certain training time needed at altitude – too long can in fact reduce performance.  Altitude acclimatisation does improve 1) oxygen delivery to the muscles & 2) oxygen utilization in a hypoxic environment, yet with chronic exposure the reduction of oxygen transport from capillary to mitochondria during hypoxic training may in fact reduce the adaptive stimulus to improve oxygen extraction capabilities in skeletal muscle. As a result since the mid-1990s many coaches have used the ‘live high, train low’ model which includes the inclusion of daily sojourns to lower altitudes for training. I have even read that sport scientists have found that “simply going to low altitude for high intensity interval sessions, while staying at high altitude for ‘base’ or gentle training is just as effective in augmenting performance as ‘complete’ high-low training”.

Running technique

Just like in sprinting mechanics – this is a great discussion on Usain Bolt’s form – foot landing techniques play a vital role in distance running both to improve performance and prevent injuries. In passing, for

Mo Farah running technique analysis at 'Balanced Runner' blog - click image to see post

Mo Farah running technique analysis at ‘Balanced Runner’ blog – click image to see post

those bare foot running enthusiasts, I would recommend a read on this Sports Med 2013 publication – Barefoot running: Does it prevent injuries?; in which it was stated:

Based on a review of current literature, barefoot running is not a substantiated preventative running measure to reduce injury rates in runners. However, barefoot running utility should be assessed on an athlete-specific basis to determine whether barefoot running will be beneficial” – seems to match observations.

This 2007 article in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research – Foot strike patterns of runners at the 15-km point during an elite-level half marathon – documented actual foot strike patterns during a half marathon for elite international & Olympian runners. As expected it found that a “shorter contact time and a higher frequency of inversion at the foot contact might contribute to higher running economy”. Additionally it found that the percentage of midfoot strikes (MFS) increases as the running speed increases due to the kinetic differences.

In the case of Mo Farah, this detailed post [complete with video] at the balanced runner compared the runner’s technique with Kenenisa Bekele & Haile Gebrselassie at the 2013 Great North Run. The author concluded that Mo had the more powerful stride (they are keen not to write ‘best’ as that is not definite) with a very aggressive strike to get as much speed as possible:

“pumping” not only with his arms but somehow with his torso, pushing harder against the ground and driving his legs through the whole cycle by tremendous auxiliary motion of his trunk. This is strength, not economy, that he calls upon to perform his best”

With the fact that Farah beat Bekele [who appears to have a more ‘relaxed’ & forward-leaning form] in the Olympics 10,000m, these small differences could have a big impact on race performance. Notably Gebrselassie displays a form which is somewhat between the two (“displays amazing speed & lightness), a technique which has obviously done him well being a previous World Record holder. I suppose we will have to wait and see on Sunday whether Mo’s powerful ‘track running’ will translate efficiently to the full marathon distance. Should be an interesting race.

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