How fast can a marathon be run? | everyday einstein

Humans are pretty quick. In 2009, Usain Bolt flew down the track at over 23 mph; in 2014, Dennis Kimetto, the marathon world record-holder, cruised along at 12.

8 mph — about a 4:42-per-mile pace — for 26.2 miles. Scientists are uncovering what makes the Bolts and Kimettos of the world tick, and how we evolved to do both.

That knowledge is redefining what’s possible and may help you speed up, too.

Muscle Fiber Types

Muscle fibers come in two general types, fast- and slow-twitch, and everyone has a mix of both. Fast-twitch fibers are for short, powerful bursts; they contract quickly but also fatigue quickly. Slow-twitch fibers have more mitochondria — the cells’ powerhouses that use oxygen to make energy — so they don’t fatigue as easily and are ideal for longer activities.

As you’d suspect, sprinters have more fast-twitch fibers, while endurance athletes have more slow-twitch. Although partly genetic, there’s some evidence we can train in order to change the proportion of fibers our muscles have. For example, distance running at a slow pace may increase a person’s percentage of slow-twitch fibers.

Leg Muscle Cross Sections Left: More FAST-TWITCH fibers (light): better for sprinting. Right: More SLOW-TWITCH fibers (dark): better for endurance. Alison Mackey/Discover

The Anatomy of a Runner

Fast Factors: Sprinting
Everyone takes the same amount of time between steps and the same amount of time to pick up their leg and put it back down again, but faster sprinters propel themselves farther in that time.

“The difference in speed really comes down to what happens on the ground,” says Peter Weyand, a physiologist and biomechanist at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “Fast people hit with more force in relation to body weight.

Alison Mackey/Discove

Elite sprinters use their legs to “essentially throw a punch at the ground,” he explains. They get that extra force from their characteristic knee lift: Raising the knee higher gives the leg more space to gain velocity before hitting the ground, so it hits with more force.

To sprint faster, Weyand suggests two things. First, try to get the foot that’s behind you off the ground faster.

As the front foot lands, the back leg’s knee should be even with the landing knee; if it’s still behind the landing knee, the knee lift in front of the body can be compromised, weakening the punch. Second, try to keep your body stiff when you land.

Elite sprinters don’t let anything collapse — no floppy ankles, buckling knees, or even head movement — so they don’t lose any force as they pop back off the ground again.

Fast Factors: Distance Running

To run fast for a long stretch, energy supply is key. If you run faster than your body can supply energy, you’ll have to slow down. “So the game for the distance runners really is economizing,” Weyand says. “The faster you can run at a lower rate of energy burn, the better off you are.”

There are two ways to improve energy supply while maintaining a quick clip: either produce more energy or burn less. Producing more means increasing something called VO2max, the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in and turn to energy while exercising.

Having a high VO2max is partly genetic, but also somewhat trainable, especially for new runners. To boost it, run interval workouts: After a warm-up, run hard for 3 to 5 minutes, then jog for 2 to 3 minutes to recover.

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Repeat about five times before a cool-down jog.

To burn less energy, you’ll need to improve efficiency, or running economy. Ways to do this are less fleshed out than methods of increasing your VO2max, but Weyand says the typical approach of tapering before a big event — reducing mileage and running faster workouts — can help.

But Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, says the best thing is simply to run more. However, he acknowledges that most recreational runners are pressed for time and injury-prone.

In that case, lessons gleaned from two-hour marathon attempts (see “Breaking Point,” right) may help: Optimizing nutrition, race strategy, and maybe even fancy shoes can help us do the best we can with what we’ve got.

A prehistoric cave painting in Libya depicts a hunter chasing prey. Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Endurance Adaptations

According to a theory made famous by Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman in a 2004 Nature paper, humans are born to run — and run far.

“There are a bunch of [adaptations] that have nothing to do with walking,” says Lieberman, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. “They’re just slam-dunk running adaptations.” The theory proposes that early humans evolved these adaptations, along with tracking, to chase antelope until the animals collapsed from exhaustion and heat stroke. Winning the footrace meant dinner.

Keeping Cool: In addition to being furless, we have far more sweat glands than most other mammals, giving us an advantage over fuzzier animals that have to stop and pant to cool down.

Baby Got Back: A large gluteus maximus muscle — a big butt — is a distinctive human feature. We rely on it minimally for walking, but it’s crucial to stabilizing us when we run.

Springy Tendons: 

How Fast Can a Marathon Be Run?

The fastest marathon ever run on record was by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya in the 2014 Berlin marathon for a time of two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds. That means he ran an average pace of four minutes 41.4 seconds per mile over the entire 26.2-mile course. Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopian runner Guye Adola came very close to breaking this record at the Berlin marathon earlier this year.

While the fastest marathon time for men has been slowly but steadily improving for the last 30 years or so, the women’s record has held firm since 2003. Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain set the time to beat at two hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds (an average pace of five minutes 9.9 seconds per mile) in London over a decade ago.

Is there an absolute minimum time to run a marathon or will runners just keep getting faster? Will humans ever break the two hour mark? What does it take to set a world record marathon time? How does someone run a faster marathon?

What do you need to run a fast marathon?

There are three categories of conditions that must be met to get the fastest marathon time possible. A runner has to be strong, a runner has to be efficient, and the course conditions have to be ideal. Some of these conditions can be created or trained for while others are up to our genetics.

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Strength: The strength or power behind a runner is usually measured by the rate at which oxygen flows through the runner’s body.

How fast can the body deliver the oxygen it takes in to the muscles so that they can use it to produce energy? This rate, measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute, is known as VO2 max.

Your VO2 max depends on your age, your sex, and of course how much you train, but on average, healthy adult men have a VO2 max of 35-40 mL/kg/min while healthy adult women have an average VO2 max of 27-31 mL/kg/min. Elite runners, however, have rates of more than double those values at somewhere around 85 mL/kg/min for men and 77 mL/kg/min for women.

Fastest Marathon Time | Marathon World Record

Maja HitijGetty Images

Below you’ll find tables detailing several marathon superlatives:

  • the 10 fastest marathoners in history on record-eligible courses;
  • the 10 fastest American marathoners in history on record-eligible courses;
  • the 10 fastest performances on record-eligible courses;
  • the progression of the world records since 1988.

Note that we said “on record-eligible courses.” That’s why Eliud Kipchoge’s 1:59:40 in Vienna isn’t on the list.

That time doesn’t count for record purposes because standard competition rules for pacing and fluids weren’t followed. Similarly, Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston Marathon course record of 2:03:03 isn’t on the list.

Because of its point-to-point layout and too-great net elevation drop, Boston’s course doesn't count for record purposes.

[10 Crazy (And Super Impressive) Running Records]

Each marathoner appears on the first list, for the fastest performers in history, only once. The third set of tables, for fastest performances in history, allows for a runner to appear more than once. For example, world record-holder Paula Radcliffe appears three times in the fastest-performances list.

The tables are current as of March 1, 2020.

Above, watch Eliud Kipchoge run 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Looking for 13.1 miles? We also have a list of the world’s fastest half marathoners.

10 Fastest Marathoners on Record-Eligible Course: Men

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) 2:01:39 4:38.4 Berlin, 2018
Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) 2:01:41 4:38.5 Berlin, 2019
Birhanu Legese (Ethiopia) 2:02:48 4:41.0 Berlin, 2019
Mosinet Geremew (Ethiopia) 2:02:55 4:41.3 London, 2019
Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) 2:02:57 4:41.4 Berlin, 2014
Wilson Kipsang (Kenya) 2:03:13 4:42.0 Berlin, 2016
Emmanuel Mutai (Kenya) 2:03:13 4:42.0 Berlin, 2014
Mule Wasihun (Ethiopia) 2:03:16 4:42.1 London, 2019
Getaneh Molla (Ethiopia) 2:03:34 4:42.0 Dubai, 2019
Sisay Lemma (Ethiopia) 2:03:36 4:42.9 Berlin, 2019

10 Fastest Marathoners on Record-Eligible Course: Women

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) 2:14:04 5:06.8 Chicago, 2019
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:15:25 5:09.9 London, 2003
Mary Keitany (Kenya) 2:17:01 5:13.6 London, 2017
Ruth Chepngetich (Kenya) 2:17:08 5:13.8 Dubai, 2019
Worknesh Degefa (Ethiopia) 2:17:41 5:15.1 Dubai, 2019
Lonah Salpeter (Israel) 2:17:45 5:15.2 Tokyo, 2020
Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) 2:17:56 5:15.7 London, 2017
Gladys Cherono (Kenya) 2:18:11 5:16.2 Berlin, 2018
Roza Dereje (Ethiopia) 2:18:30 5:17.1 Valencia, 2019
Vivian Cheruiyot (Kenya) 2:18:31 5:17.1 London, 2018

10 Fastest American Marathoners on Record-Eligible Course: Men

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Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Khalid Khannouchi 2:05:38 4:47.5 London, 2002
Galen Rupp 2:06:07 4:48.6 Prague, 2018
Ryan Hall 2:06:17 4:49.0 London, 2008
Dathan Ritzenhein 2:07:47 4:52.4 Chicago, 2012
Leonard Korir 2:07:56 4:52.7 Amsterdam, 2019
Abdi Abdirahman 2:08:56 4:55.0 Chicago, 2006
Meb Keflezighi 2:09:08 4:55.5 Olympic Marathon Trials, 2012
Alberto Salazar 2:09:21 4:56.0 Fukuoka, 1983
David Morris 2:09:32 4:56.4 Chicago, 1999
Jerry Lawson 2:09:35 4:56.5 Chicago, 1997

10 Fastest American Marathoners on Record-Eligible Course: Women

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Deena Kastor 2:19:36 5:19.5 London, 2006
Jordan Hasay 2:20:57 5:22.7 Chicago, 2017
Shalane Flanagan 2:21:14 5:23.2 Berlin, 2014
Joan Samuelson 2:21:21 5:23.5 Chicago, 1985
Amy Cragg 2:21:42 5:24.3 Tokyo, 2018
Sara Hall 2:22:16 5:25.6 Berlin, 2019
Emily Sisson 2:23:08 5:27.5 London, 2019
Sally Kipyego 2:25:10 5:32.2 Berlin, 2019
Emma Bates 2:25:27 5:32.8 Chicago, 2019
Laura Thweatt 2:25:38 5:33.3 London, 20017

10 Fastest Marathons on Record-Eligible Course: Men

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) 2:01:39 4:38.4 Berlin, 2018
Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) 2:01:41 4:38.5 Berlin, 2019
Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) 2:02:37 4:40.6 London, 2019
Birhanu Legese (Ethiopia) 2:02:48 4:41.0 Berlin, 2019
Mosinet Geremew (Ethiopia) 2:02:55 4:41.3 London, 2019
Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) 2:02:57 4:41.4 Berlin, 2014
Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) 2:03:03 4:41.6 Berlin, 2016
Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) 2:03:05 4:41.7 London, 2016
Wilson Kipsang (Kenya) 2:03:13 4:42.0 Berlin, 2016
Emmanuel Mutai (Kenya) 2:03:13 4:42.0 Berlin, 2014

10 Fastest Marathons on Record-Eligible Course: Women

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) 2:14:04 5:06.8 Chicago, 2019
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:15:25 5:09.9 London, 2003
Mary Keitany (Kenya) 2:17:01 5:13.6 London, 2017
Ruth Chepngetich (Kenya) 2:17:08 5:13.8 Dubai, 2019
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:17:18 5:14.2 Chicago, 2002
Worknesh Degefa (Ethiopia) 2:17:41 5:15.1 Dubai, 2019
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:17:42 5:15.1 London, 2005
Lonah Salpeter (Israel) 2:17:45 5:15.2 Tokyo, 2020
Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) 2:17:56 5:15.7 London, 2017
Gladys Cherono (Kenya) 2:18:11 5:16.2 Berlin, 2018

Progression of World Record Since 1988: Men

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Belayneh Densamo (Ethiopia) 2:06:50 4:50.3 Rotterdam, 1988
Ronaldo da Costa (Brazil) 2:06:06 4:48.6 Berlin, 1998
Khalid Khannouchi (Morocco) 2:05:42 4:47.7 Chicago, 1999
Khalid Khannouchi (United States) 2:05:38 4:47.5 London, 2002
Paul Tergat (Kenya) 2:04:55 4:45.9 Berlin, 2003
Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) 2:04:26 4:44.8 Berlin, 2007
Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) 2:03:59 4:43.7 Berlin, 2008
Patrick Makau (Kenya) 2:03:38 4:43.0 Berlin, 2011
Wilson Kipsang (Kenya) 2:03:23 4:42.4 Berlin, 2013
Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) 2:02:57 4:41.4 Berlin, 2014
Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) 2:01:39 4:38.4 Berlin, 2018

Progression of World Record Since 1988: Women

Runner Finish Time Pace/Mile Marathon
Tegla Loroupe (Kenya) 2:20:47 5:22.2 Rotterdam, 1998
Tegla Loroupe (Kenya) 2:20:43 5:22.0 Berlin, 1999
Naoko Takahashi (Japan) 2:19:46 5:19.8 Berlin, 2001
Catherine Ndereba (Kenya) 2:18:47 5:17.6 Chicago, 2001
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:17:18 5:14.2 Chicago, 2002
Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) 2:15:25 5:09.9 London, 2003
Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) 2:14:04 5:06.8 Chicago, 2019

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