Journal of Applied Physiology

Modeling: optimal marathon performance on the basis of physiological factors

M. J. Joyner


This paper examines current concepts concerning "limiting" factors in human endurance performance by modeling marathon running times on the basis of various combinations of previously reported values of maximal O2 uptake (VO2max), lactate threshold, and running economy in elite distance runners. The current concept is that VO2max sets the upper limit for aerobic metabolism while the blood lactate threshold is related to the fraction of VO2max that can be sustained in competitive events greater than approximately 3,000 m. Running economy then appears to interact with VO2max and blood lactate threshold to determine the actual running speed at lactate threshold, which is generally a speed similar to (or slightly slower than) that sustained by individual runners in the marathon. A variety of combinations of these variables from elite runners results in estimated running times that are significantly faster than the current world record (2:06:50). The fastest time for the marathon predicted by this model is 1:57:58 in a hypothetical subject with a VO2max of 84, a lactate threshold of 85% of VO2max, and exceptional running economy. This analysis suggests that substantial improvements in marathon performance are "physiologically" possible or that current concepts regarding limiting factors in endurance running need additional refinement and empirical testing.