Can Any ‘Normal’ Man Run a 2:30 Marathon?

“Any ‘Normal’ Man can break 2 hrs 30 min for a marathon!”

“Really? Who would claim such ‘nonsense’ these days? This was the often-mentioned and often-proved claim made by New Zealand’s late, great running coach Arthur Lydiard. I know, because I was there, and remember well how that time was not considered any sort of “barrier” to the many ‘ordinary’ athletes in our New Zealand running clubs of the 1970’s and 1980′s. Whatever the native talent, every man and his dog was extremely fit.” – Keith Livingstone

Earlier this week, a thread on the letsrun message boards posed the question: “can any normally healthy, “average” man on the street, training with well-structured principles, beat 2 hours 30 minutes for the marathon?” The question was inspired by the quote, above, from an essay by Keith Livingstone on a website promoting a training system based on Lydiard’s principles.

Having posed the question, Livingstone answers it with a resounding “Yes!” Any normally healthy, “average” man can average 5:43 per mile for 26 straight miles if he applies Lydiard’s principles and trains properly for the next 7-10 years. Livingstone offers plenty of anecdotes to make his case.

The letsrun thread generated plenty of discussion, with the majority of posters disagreeing with the author’s conclusion and arguing that only a very small percentage of men would have the natural talent to ever run sub-2:30, no matter how hard they trained.

It’s easy to understand why this thread generated so many comments: the thread is one more way of asking about the relative importance of nature vs. nurture in producing highly successful athletes and champions. There’s nothing like a good nature vs. nurture debate to draw a crowd and provoke heated discussion.

But honestly, given the terms of the question, the debate seems like a waste of time.

Taking the question exactly as posed, any possible conclusion depends on the definition of “normal” and “average,” and defining these things is a rat’s nest of complexity. Which of the hundreds of physical traits that affect running ability do we consider? But even were we somehow to come up with a multi-factored standard for “average,” the proposition is utterly untestable because very few people will ever willingly choose to do the training required to find out if their ordinary physical talents can be leveraged to achieve an extraordinary performance. Almost by definition, anyone who chooses to do that training is far from normal, and even if some apparently normal men manage to achieve the standard, their number is still comparatively few. Far from being “often-proved,” as Livingstone claims, the proposition has never been proven. How could it have been?

Livingstone appears to be a legitimate authority on Lydiard, and if he says that Lydiard made that comment about average men being able to run 2:30 with the proper training, I believe him. But context is everything, and I would guess that Lydiard was just trying to find another way of saying this:

Very few people know their potential. And until they get cracking, and exercise properly, and start to get the benefits, they will never know. You can’t tell potential by looking at people and taking tests because endurance can be developed by anyone… I’ve often told audiences, however mixed, that there is no good reason why any person could not go out and become a reasonably good runner. Physiologically, there is no reason why they couldn’t all be trained to run many miles in a day and get up again the next day, fresh, and do it again. It can be done with the proper training.” (Arthur Lydiard, Running to the Top)

The point, then, is not to deny the existence of natural talent among champions or elite runners, but to underscore the importance of training in allowing any individual to realize his or her athletic potential. I might be wrong, but if he had access to the latest genetic research, I think Lydiard would agree that some athletes have an in-borne talent for responding to aerobic training and that those athletes would be the ones running fast marathons.

It’s entirely the wrong question to ask whether an average man off the street can run 2:30 for the marathon. If you answer yes, then you’ve begun creating a narrative in which all those who meet the success criterion do so with hard work, and all those who don’t meet it lacked the work ethic. In his book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein points out that this narrative is particularly generous to those who are “high responders” to training, and particularly cruel to those who are “low responders.” Epstein presents evidence that the ability to respond to aerobic training is one of those hidden genetic gifts that separates elite distance runners from everyone else.

Instead, we should be asking what is this individual’s potential, and what type of training will be most beneficial in helping him or her reach it.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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