Updated: Jan 14
Eliud Kipchoge's sub-2 hour marathon has received a lot of publicity and is unquestionably a staggering achievement, with the man himself likening it to going to the moon and back. But while the the sporting world applauds, I'm particularly interested in what we can learn from this incredible athlete that can help us mere mortals improve our running.
Investing some time studying the very best performers in any discipline can reap big rewards, with studies showing that having a role model can significantly increase our unconscious motivation, which in turn boosts results. And the beauty nowadays is that our ability to study the greats is so much easier to access thanks to the endless online articles and YouTube videos.
When it comes to Kipchoge, there is so much to admire. And while we could spend days and weeks analysing his beautiful technique, I'm instead going to see what we can learn from some of the other areas that contribute to his success.
Have fun when you run
There's a reason that young children always seem run everywhere – because it's fun. But as many of us get older we can lose this enjoyment and the idea of lacing up your trainers feels like a chore. For Kipchoge, however, having fun when you run is paramount and it's something he is passionate about.
In an interview with the Daily Tepegraph a few years ago, he said: “It is a long time now since I started running but I still remember running up and down hills and running to school as a kid. When I was young I would run for fun and I didn’t know back then that this would be my career. I like to remember that feeling. Your mind and your heart are what push you on. Your mind drives your legs.”
So if you sometimes struggle with motivation, ask yourself if you can find a way to enjoy running. You do something child-like such as trying to avoid the cracks in the pavement or ensuring that no two steps are exactly the same; or you could find a running partner you get on with so you can chat on the way. As a running coach, one of my favourite techniques to keep things fresh is to have a background focus on my technique, trying to gently tweak things here and there as I go along, but with no judgement if things feeling as good as I'd hoped. Come up with your own ideas and give it a try.
Put a smile upon your face
Closely linked with the above tip is a ploy that Kipchoge uses which may at first seem a bit strange, but in fact has proven scientific backing.
The great Kenyan has spoken in the past about how he deliberately smiles when he runs, especially when things are hard, in order to relax and work through the pain.
Recent research at Ulster University and Swansea University supports this. In the first study to look specifically into the effect of facial expressions on runners' times, the researchers worked with a group of 24 runners on treadmills and used special breathing masks to measure oxygen consumption as they completed six-minute running blocks on a treadmill – both while smiling and while frowning. The results, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, showed that runners who smiled used less oxygen and had a lower perceived rate of exertion than those who frowned and those in the control group. The smilers also had a 2.8% improvement in economy – which over the course of a marathon equates to a 5-minute cut in race time for a 4-hour runner.
“When we make a facial expression, we may experience the emotional state we associate with the expression,” Noel Brick, co-author of the study, is quoted as saying in Runners World. “We associate smiling with happiness or enjoyment, states that make us more relaxed, so when we smile, we are consciously trying to relax. By adopting the facial expression of frowning, however, we are experiencing an emotional state of feeling tense or less relaxed.”
So the lesson to take away is this: even if you're not feeling at your best, try to put any grumpiness aside, replace it with a smile and you'll run with greater freedom.
Be humble and generous
One of my favourite things about Kipchoge is that he is a very humble person. He doesn't boast about his achievements or belittle his competition; instead he respects people and their choices and he genuinely seems to take pride in his position as a global role model. He also sees his personality as one reason why he runs so well.
"The more you are humble, the more you become successful," he once said. And this goes beyond just achieving success on the road.
"In life, the idea is to be happy," he added. "So I believe in a calm, simple and low-profile life. You live simple, you train hard and live an honest life. Then you are free."
Kipchoge spends a lot of his time at his training camp in Kenya where he trains with and inspires dozens of young runners. But on top of this, he also houses and feeds them at his own expense. And when he's not running, he works on his farm and collects and chops vegetables.
Set yourself goals
"I would like to win all six Marathon Majors before I stop. I love the sport. That's what drives me. When I wake up in the morning that's my ignition key."
This is a lovely insight into what keeps Kipchoge motivated. Born in 1984, he's not young as far as professional athletes go, yet he keeps on improving thanks to having specific goals to work towards.
So whether you are an occasional runner or an elite competitor, set yourself some achieveable goals. They could be performance-based such as running a certain distance in a certain time or averaging a cadence of 170 steps per minute, or they could be technique-based such shortening your stride length. Have a think and come up with some ideas goals you genuinely want to achieve. And when you add a timeline in which you want to achieve these goals, you'll quickly see results.
Mix up your training
Training regimes naturally need to vary depending on your ability, available time and the distance you want to run. But one thing that we can all benefit from is variety in our routines.
“I run around 200km-220km every week," Kipchoge has said. "42km is the longest I run in a day. I think it is good to do short intervals as well as long runs. Long runs improve your endurance but shorter intervals improve your speed. They are mutually beneficial for a distance runner. If you do 5k runs it will help your marathon.”
Likewise, always give yourself time to recover and enjoy some down time, particularly if you are covering long distances or training for a marathon or ultra. “When you train hard it is important to take time to relax and recover," Kipchoge has said. "After training I like listening to music and reading books. During the day I will sleep in between training sessions and I am in bed by 9 o’clock every night.”
And while the night owls among us might raise their eyebrows, the value of rest cannot be underestimated.
Taking a look at what makes Kipchoge tick is a fascinating experiment. And the more I do it, the more I realise that a key part of his success is down to his personality. His calmness, generosity and humility, along with a genuine love of life, all feed into his running and allow him to train and perform with a positive outlook. And when one has this frame of mind, plus a deliberately simple lifestyle, the stresses of modern life don't take their toll so much and he is free to achieve mind-boggling feats.