Empowering Human Performance | Athletigen Blog

The Science of Elite Marathoners

Posted by Nathan Navidzadeh on Wed, Apr 15, 2015

With the Boston Marathon just around the corner, Athletigen decided to explore the science behind these elite endurance runners. What do we know that distinguishes these marathoners among themselves but also from the rest of the population?

Does gender truly make a difference?

To enter the Boston Marathon, runners need to submit registration using a marathon time that qualifies them by age and gender. This year, males aged between 18–35 must submit to register with a time under 3hrs 05mins whereas females in the same age group are allotted an extra 30 minutes. How is this gender difference justified scientifically?

Actually, hormonal differences between genders play a huge role in athletic performance!

For example the surge of testosterone in males increases their red blood cell count allowing men to use more oxygen to fuel themselves than females. Estrogen in females causes fat to accumulate on their hips and affects their race times. Even the leanest female marathoner’s percent body fat is still double that of the male equivalent. Additionally, studies of Olympians have shown that an important trait for the athletic success of female runners is to not develop commonly wide hips. Currently the female record time for The Boston Marathon open is 2:18:57 by Rita Jeptoo and the male record is 2:03:02 by Geoffrey Mutai. No matter what, the Boston Marathon shows women getting closer to previous male records, and males continuing to break world records!

The Marathoner’s muscle fibers are different


Slow-twitch muscle fibers are generally associated with endurance athletes whereas fast-twitch muscle fibers with power athletes. Are these differences in muscle fibers developed through training? Or is it due to inherent body composition?

No studies have ever been able to cause human muscle fibers to switch from slow-twitch to fast-twitch through training. That being said, strength training will allow slow-twitch fibers to become stronger and aerobic training can make fast-twitch fibers more endurant.

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Athletigen users can see how their genetics affect their body’s inherent balance between Power and Endurance and adjust their training to attain their goals.

How hot weather can slow you down

Your central nervous system forces your body to slow down dramatically when your core temperature passes about 40°C. Being able to dissipate heat is crucial for endurance performance and being smaller allows you to cool down more quickly. This is because smaller individuals have a larger skin surface area compared to the volume of their body, allowing them to unload heat more quickly than taller and larger individuals.

Interesting to note, Paula Radcliffe at 5’8’’, is the world record holder in the women’s marathon with an 8–0 record for marathons between 2002 and 2008 in cool or temperate conditions but 0–2 during the hot summer Olympic races.

“VO2 max” and “Running Economy” are key for elite marathon performance



VO2 max is a measure of your maximum capacity for oxygen uptake and a strong indicator of endurance capacity. Athletigen enables their athletes to look at the influence of their genes on VO2 max to manage their training efforts.

Running economy is the measure of how much oxygen a runner uses to run at a given pace. Proportionallylong legs and specifically thin lower legs (calves and ankles) have been shown to separately contribute to good running economy in athletes.

Will we see any new records made this Monday? Athletigen will be there with you to see it in action!

Topics: athletigen, endurance, marathon running, sports genetics, vo2max, Editorial, marathon

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