Our “Lab Rat” Runners: Marathon Pacing Research

marathon pacing research
This year, runners from The Flying Runner community are helping to build on the innovative research started in 2015 into marathon pacing. Find out about how a group of around 100 runners have taken part in lab tests to assess their physiology and psychology, and about how data from their actual marathon races will now be used by the researchers to help us all understand marathon pacing better…

The Search for a Better Understanding of Marathon Pacing

The latest stage of the research into marathon pacing by Dr Dan Gordon’s Sports & Exercise Science Research Group at Anglia Ruskin University has involved enrolling around 100 marathon runners as “lab rat” runners.

This builds on research started last year, involving profiling the pacing strategies of 777 runners in the 2015 London Marathon. To strengthen this initial research, the same large-scale data gathering will be repeated with hundreds of runners taking part in spring marathons this year, and in addition the researchers are working in the lab with this smaller group for more in-depth assessments.

The Flying Runner helped to recruit this group of 100 spring marathoners, all of whom came in to the sports science labs at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge in February and March for VO2 max testing and other assessments.

marathon pacing research

One of the fantastic test participants in action.

What Is the Research About?

The runners are contributing to developing a deeper understanding of the factors that affect marathon pacing, and how well runners predict their own performances. By looking at a large group across a spectrum of pace, age, gender and experience, the researchers can identify and explore the emerging patterns.

The research findings so far are explained here. They give an insight into how the majority of runners appear to pace poorly, and the inaccuracies involved in predicting likely performance. On the flip side, there were early indications of how some groups of runners appear to be better predictors than others, and an opportunity to explore why, and whether this means they are pacing more effectively.

The research combines physiological and psychological investigation.

The researchers are wise enough to acknowledge the psychological aspects of marathon running, and there are sport psychologists involved in this research project too. Although emotional elements are inevitably hard to measure, it is crucial to look at the broader picture: human beings are not machines that can be simplified into a neat equation. Furthermore, psychology is potentially a significant factor in unpicking why experience makes a huge difference to pacing and prediction accuracy.

Runners in the Lab

As the next stage of research, the team is adding actual physiological data from the group of around 100 “lab rats”, to gain a deeper dimension to the data gathered previously.

Our “lab rats” group took part in a series of tests to assess different aspects of their physiology and fitness, as well as an in-depth psychology questionnaire.

On arrival, runners were whipped off to a preparation room to take bloods (to measure lactate in a resting state), provide a urine sample (to measure hydration), have their height and weight measured, and have resting heart rate taken.

The main element of the lab test was done on a treadmill. There were two main sections of the treadmill test:

marathon pacing research

This whizzy little device measures blood lactate in just a few seconds, allowing quick identification of LT2.

1. Finding Lactate Threshold (LT1) and Lactate Turnpoint (LT2): Three Minute Intervals
The test involved:

  • Three minute intervals starting at a slow-to-steady pace, with one minute break.
  • Bloods were taken during the one minute rest, from a pin-prick to the finger. Lactate level in the blood was measured using a special machine.
  • The treadmill was increased in speed (controlled by a computer) by 1kmph for each three-minute interval.
  • Eventually there is a sudden spike in lactate level in the blood. This indicates the Lactate Turnpoint (LT2), at which point the first section of the treadmill test ends and the runner has a seven minute recovery break.

2. Finding VO2 Max: All-Out Effort

  • After the seven minute recovery, the treadmill was set (via computer) to the speed where the runner’s Lactate Turnpoint was identified.
  • Each minute, the treadmill gradient was increased by 1%, to increase the effort.
    (Some VO2 max tests increase speed, but gradient can be used instead. If increase speed, sometimes runner starts physically struggling to keep up with the belt. Gradient is better for that, but it’s a compromise because as the gradient increases, the runner’s form suffers, which affects their threshold performance… so neither is perfect!)
  • The runner continues for as long as they can possibly manage, with the research team shouting encouragement when the runner starts to struggle. Typically they step off the treadmill after 4-6 minutes.
  • Blood is tested again when the runner stops.

Read more about how lactate and VO2 max measures can be used in your training.


Various physiological factors are measured during the treadmill test:

  • Blood – as explained above, this is taken at set intervals to measure lactate.
  • Heart rate / cardiac function – using ECG and heart rate monitor.
  • Oxygen/CO2 – runners wear a mask which measures oxygen consumed and the CO2 produced.
  • Fat / carbohydrate use – respiratory exchange ratio (RER) indicates the balance between CO2 and O2, which indicates whether the runner is predominantly burning fat or carbohydrate. When RER goes over 1.000, the runner will predominantly be burning carbohydrate. During the VO2 max test, as soon as RER tips over 1.000, it is likely that the runner will stop soon.
  • Breathing frequency – also measured through the mask.
  • Pulmonary ventilation – the volume of air moved through the lungs in one minute.
marathon pacing research

Multiple measurements are monitored by the team, but the runner does not have any feedback about time or speed during the test.

Runners in the lab had to be fairly robust in confidence as well as physicality. They had all manner of straps and attachments fixed to their semi-naked bodies, in a room full of complete strangers. As well as the mask, ECG sensors, heart rate monitor, and various other gizmos, they also had a large harness strapped to the back to trip out the treadmill in case they should slip.

On the treadmill, the runners had no information about their speed, or about how long they were likely to be running for. This could be disconcerting particularly during the VO2 max section, but is in itself an important component of the test.

Probing the Psychology of Marathoners

The psychologists in the team asked the runners various assessment questions.

During the first part of the treadmill test, runners were asked to indicate how they were feeling on an “attention scale”, to see whether the focus became more “internal” as the running became harder.

After the test, runners completed a questionnaire about their training. This included quite detailed questions about experience, how much time they spend running, what their PBs are, and how they have specifically trained for their upcoming marathon. It also asked for predicted finish times, predicted splits, and race strategy.

How Will All This Be Used?

The work is not yet over for the lab rats! They will all now wear heart-rate monitors during their races to measure physiological responses during the marathon. The team will then be able to compare HR and pace data during the race with the lab data.

The hope is that this can then be used to develop more accurate pace predictions and profiles, using physiological data to improve predicted performance.

What Did the Runners Think?

Runner Ian from local club Cambridge & Coleridge said:

“I don’t usually run on a treadmill, so that was strange, and it was a bit unnerving having ten people in the room too! I couldn’t see my feet because of the mask, which was a strange feeling.

“The first half of the test felt very easy, and I was wondering if it had started too slowly. It took a while even to get up to marathon pace. In the second part, the VO2 max test itself, it also felt like it started slowly. It was strange not having any real concept of how long I needed to keep going.”

Stephen is aiming for sub 2:25 in London. He said:

“It was as hard at the end as I’d expected. It was a bit surreal having so many people catering for my every need – I’m not used to that when I’m running!”

There are also two excellent blogs written by participants: Charlie Wartnaby and Leonard Symeonides, both well worth a read.

What Next?

The team at ARU are continuing to build on the research. If you are running the London Marathon this year, come and chat to us at Stand 404 at the Expo, where Dan and his team will be joining us on The Flying Runner stand. You can find out more and to see how you can get involved.

Plus: Read more about how lactate and VO2 max measures can be used in your training.

Subscribe to the Flying Runner bi-weekly newsletter for more inspiring articles and promotions on our beautiful gifts!

We promise we'll never spam you or share your details with anyone else.

You've successfully subscribed! Please validate your email address by clicking the link in the email we just sent you. Thank you :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *