How physics and teamwork can propel marathon runners to new records

Breaking barriers: How air resistance is redefining marathon performance

TOPSHOT-ATHLETICS-MARATHON-AUSTRIA-KENYA Eliud Kipchoge runs unofficial time of 1hr 59min 40sec in Vienna

In the world of marathon running, where seconds can separate champions from contenders, the synergy between physics and teamwork has paved the way for athletes to shatter records previously considered unattainable. Recent research sheds light on how elite marathoner Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier with the help of clever drafting strategies and the principles of aerodynamics.

In a historic, unofficial race held in Vienna in 2019, Eliud Kipchoge achieved what many believed to be impossible - completing a marathon in less than two hours. Clocking in at an astonishing 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds, Kipchoge's performance was nothing short of breathtaking. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A on August 16, 2023, now reveals the critical role that physics played in this remarkable achievement.

Central to Kipchoge's success was the utilisation of a rotating group of pacers, fellow runners whose strategic positioning helped reduce his air resistance through a process known as drafting. Wind tunnel tests conducted using action-figure manikins have provided crucial insights into how these pacers made Kipchoge's feat possible.

The study, led by mechanical engineer Massimo Marro of the École Centrale de Lyon in France, involved measuring the drag force experienced by these manikins in a wind tunnel. This allowed the researchers to experiment with different drafting configurations. Kipchoge's 2019 formation, consisting of five pacers forming a V in front of him with two more in the rear, was replicated inside the tunnel. This arrangement was found to reduce approximately half of the drag felt by the athlete, resulting in a time-saving of approximately three and a half minutes.

Moreover, the researchers discovered three new drafting formations that could further optimize performance. One notable configuration placed the five pacers in front in a lowercase "t" shape: one pacer behind another, followed by two side-by-side, and then one more behind that pair. This innovative arrangement was estimated to save Kipchoge an impressive 4 minutes and 22 seconds.

Rodger Kram, a physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, commended the innovative "t" formation, noting that it allows runners to "slice through the air with a narrower wedge," significantly reducing air resistance.

While official races typically permit only two or three pacers, the concept of "cooperative drafting" has emerged as a potential strategy for competitive athletes. This involves runners taking turns coasting in each other's slipstreams to enhance performance further.

The research underscores the profound impact that physics and teamwork can have on marathon running. By harnessing the principles of aerodynamics and drafting strategically, athletes can shave precious minutes off their race times, pushing the boundaries of what is physically achievable. As air resistance is proportional to the square of speed, even small reductions in drag force can translate into significant performance improvements, making every second count in the pursuit of marathon glory.

In September, Eliud Kipchoge and his competitors will attempt to break the two-hour barrier in an official race in Berlin, where Kipchoge set the current official marathon record of 2 hours, 1 minute, and 9 seconds in 2022. Massimo Marro emphasised, "The limit is close, but it's not reached. These collaborative strategies could help improve the record."