Doctor Michael Joyner M.D. is a renowned scientist studying the limits of human physiology, he is well-known in running circles for his paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology, back in 1991, that speculated that the “hypothetical best subject” could run a marathon in 1:57:58. This was at a time when the current world record was 2:06:50, set by Belayneh Dinsamo in the 1988 Rotterdam Marathon. The variables that went into formulating this prediction were maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), lactate threshold (as a percentage of VO2 max) and running economy. For those interested, the hypothetical values he used were “a VO2 max of 84 ml kg-1 min-1, a lactate threshold of 85% of VO2 max, and exceptional running economy.” His paper at the time left a lot of people confused and very sceptical, but with Kipchoge’s recent performances closing in on this hypothesised ideal performance (albeit with a long way yet to go), Joyner’s prediction no longer seems so far-fetched.

Why am I talking about Michael Joyner’s predictions of the fastest conceivable marathon time? Well, Joyner and a number of other researchers have published a paper (again in the Journal of Applied Physiology) on the female equivalent of the two-hour marathon, addressing “physiological, historical, and social factors that contribute to current and past sex differences in marathon performance.”

This paper was published in 2015, when the world records stood as follows: 

Men: Dennis Kimetto, Kenya – 2:02:57 (2014 Berlin Marathon)
Women: Paula Radcliffe, UK – 2:15:25 (2003 London Marathon)

Their initial approach to establishing the equivalent mark is to determine the difference in marathon performance by elite athletes of each gender in terms of a percentage. The difference between these two records was approximately 10%, meaning that the equivalent to a two-hour marathon for women would be 120 minutes plus 10%, 2:12:00. However, when analysing the top marathon times (at the time of writing their study), it appeared that the difference between men and women was more significant than 10%, coming in at closer to 12-13%. Interestingly online predictors such as the Mercier Score suggest that the two-hour equivalent sits at 2:15:34, and this had already been achieved by Radcliffe (and subsequently smashed by Kosgei).

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