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CH 04 THE SCIENCE

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FOR NIKE'S WORLD-CLASS BREAKING2 RESEARCH TEAM,
the entire pursuit revolves around one question: How can we help the world’s most elite distance

runners be faster—and not just incrementally, but faster than any distance runner ever.

When you’re trying to shave minutes—not seconds—off the world’s fastest times, you need all that science has

to offer. Skin temperature monitors and muscle imaging to inform hydration and sugar intake.

New types of apparel to help minimise drag. And of course, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite footwear.

To understand how we got here, on the precipice of our historic quest to break the two-hour

marathon barrier, we need to start at the beginning.

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ATHLETE SELECTION To identify the runners most likely to run under two hours in the marathon,

our science team tested many of Nike’s elite distance athletes, measuring

three primary factors that help predict performance:

Exercise Capacity:
an athlete’s maximum capacity for exercise, expressed as VO2 Max, or the

maximum rate of oxygen consumed.

Running Economy:
how much energy a runner needs to run a kilometre at a given speed.
Sustainable Velocity:
the speed a runner can sustain for a long period of time without needing

to slow down.

Of the athletes initially screened, three emerged as the most promising: Eliud

Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea.

The testing process yielded key physiological data that allowed our science

team to project each athlete’s potential. The team compared each athlete’s

personal records against their projections in order to identify areas of focus,

and began brainstorming strategies to close these gaps for race day.
For example, while Eliud has refined his hydration techniques over his

competitive years, Zersenay, the world-record holder in the half marathon,

hydrated minimally. Although Zersenay has incredible running economy, he

is the slower marathon personal record of the three athletes, so his hydration

is a factor the team has worked to improve.
Another example is nutrition strategy. "Marathoners can hit a wall at 30-35k",

said Brett Kirby, Lead Physiologist of the NXT Generation Research team in

the Nike Sports Research Lab. "This is commonly associated with depletion

of their muscle sugars. So how do we keep those sugars up? Maintaining

energy levels throughout the marathon could give us another percentage

point. We started looking at that and working towards a personalised

solution for each athlete".

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THE JOURNEY OF RACE DAY OPTIMISATION—FROM SELECTION TO NOW Before the team could work with the athletes to refine their training and conditioning,

we needed to understand their current training schedules. In order to do so, our science

team met the athletes and their coaches at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton,

Oregon. At this first team camp, the science team provided each athlete with GPS

watches and heart-rate monitors to begin tracking the training load of each athlete. In

addition, each athlete was connected to internal Nike performance prediction analysis

software. This helped to facilitate individualised athlete learnings, as well as forecast future

running performances.

Next, the science group teamed up with the product group and went to the athletes’ home

training grounds in Kenya, Ethiopia and Spain. They tested and integrated insights across

the Nike Breaking2 project, gathered new data and observed first-hand the athletes daily

training regimens and lifestyles, constantly looking for avenues where support

could be provided.

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At the first team camp, the science team introduced hydration and nutrition strategies,

which have been regularly adjusted month by month. Skin temperatures and sweat

rates were monitored. Fit details for the revolutionary Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoe

and race day apparel were obsessed over.

And the closer we get to the attempt, the more important temperature becomes for our team.

For the success of Breaking2, the most important temperature reading is the difference

between the body’s internal core temperature and skin temperature. This is known as

the temperature gradient.

"We’re looking at what core body temperature does in relation to skin temperature and

we want those two numbers to be as far apart as possible", Brad Wilkins Director of the

NXT Generation Research team in the Nike Sports Research Lab said. "That means that

the gradient, the temperature gradient, from the core to your skin is really high".

In order to maintain a high temperature gradient for each runner, the team is focusing on

optimising the environmental conditions for race day. During our half marathon test event,

internal and external monitors were used to measure core temperature and skin temperature,

respectively. This provided the constant data needed to understand the impact of thermal

factors on each athlete’s performance. To try and optimise for temperature, cloud cover

and wind, the race will happen over a three day "launch" window. Over that three-day

window, the team will pick the optimal morning for the race. This should maximise the

core to skin gradient, allowing for the least impact of thermal factors on the athletes’

performance outcomes.

Another important factor that is affected by environment is hydration. Throughout training,

the team weighed runners before and after their runs, which tells the team how much

water each individual runner has lost through sweat. Then, our team observed how the

body of each runner responded to their respective fluid strategies—a carefully crafted

sugar-water liquid mixture. This mixture continues to be customised to each athlete’s

sweat rate and will evolve as we approach race day.

Other tests, like muscle imaging, showed how much sugar was in the muscle of the

athletes. This was crucial, because sugars could help the runners avoid the burnout that

is synonymous with the marathon. Or, taking in too much could upset their stomach and

throw them off their game.

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The next step in race day optimisation brought us to the wooded setting

of the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, 13 miles north of Milan for the half

marathon simulation. It’s also where we will be for the two-hour marathon

attempt. Monza’s flat track with gradual curves, as well as Northern Italy’s

temperate climate, make it a good location for the attempt. The half marathon

test event was not a race for the athletes to test their fitness. Rather, this was a

test of how the Breaking2 team will manage the Breaking2 attempt, logistically.

The team asked the athletes to run at a 60-minute half marathon pace.

Small alterations, such as Eliud taking a beet root bar with carbohydrates as

opposed to beet juice as a pre-run meal, were tested at the trial run. Temperature

gradient and, of course, the footwear and apparel were also tested.

All of this data has been collected before, but never with athletes of this

calibre with the intent of breaking such a barrier. Whether we break the

two-hour barrier or not, we’re already in uncharted territory. Territory that

can only help all athletes look towards what’s next.

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Come race day, we will put everything we’ve learned into practice.

We’ll use a dynamic formation with pacers to reduce wind drag for

our athletes. We will make sure that the athletes are getting the

hydration that’s been perfected for each one of them. And of course,

we developed a shoe—the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite—designed to turn

every advantage into performance.

Breaking2 isn’t just a race and it is not an experiment. It’s a model for

how much faster we can go when cutting-edge science meets unwavering

passion and commitment to the goal. After years of research and

development, Breaking2 will debut a system of ground-breaking

innovation that has the potential to elevate every runner.

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