If you watched the men’s Olympic marathon race, you had a front-row seat to a master class in running. The instructor: 36 year-old Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, who covered the 26.2 mile course in Sapporo in 2:08:38 to win the race and his second consecutive Olympic gold. The legend now holds two of the top five fastest times ever posted in Olympic marathons, and he can go even faster – his PR is the world record time of 2:01:39, set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. In comparison, Jan Frodeno’s 2:44:21 marathon at the Battle Royale in Allgäu, where he set a world record for fastest-ever Iron-distance race, seems sluggish. (It’s not – Kipchoge is just that good.)
So how do you take the lessons from Kipchoge’s masterclass and apply it to your own training and racing? We asked Greg Billington, 2016 Olympic triathlete, 2021 Paralympic triathlon guide, 2019 San Francisco Marathon champion, and Olympic trials qualifier in the marathon to break down the lessons from Kipchoge’s victory. Billington, who holds a 2:15:31 marathon PR, knows how to become a faster runner, and a lot of it boils down to “run like Kipchoge.” Here’s how:
“What is unique about Eliud’s run form is how fundamentally perfect it is,” Billington said. “He is everything your coach tells you to do. He has a mid-foot strike, his feet land directly below his knees so he’s not overstriding, and he has a flawless forward lean that goes from ankles to head.”
Triathletes who want a faster run split could certainly benefit from focusing on form. However, that doesn’t mean you should overhaul your form overnight, said Billington. “All running form is dependent upon your body and your strengths. Trying to adopt Kipchoge’s form won’t be sustainable for folks who haven’t trained appropriately to maintain it. The fundamental concepts that give them success, however, are translatable.” For example, while the average triathlete may not be able to have their heels nearly touch their glutes with every stride like Kipchoge, they can work on hip flexor mobility and core strength to ensure that each stride is more efficient. Choose one element of running form to focus on, and practice that before moving on to the next.
Not sure where to start? Billington recommends video footage. “Everyone has a camera. If you want to know how you look running, it’s pretty simple to videotape yourself running. This will usually reveal imbalances and opportunities for improvement.” If possible, try to get video footage from mid-workout, not during a simulated one-off stride, where it’s easy to fake good form. From there, look to cues from top marathoners (like Kipchoge), compare and contrast.
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“[Kipchoge] has an incredibly strong torso that he enables him to maintain stability and speed from stride to stride,” Billington said. Triathletes can also strive to have the strength necessary so that the power generated during each stride doesn’t dissipate through a weak core. Kipchoge’s strength routine includes lots of core work via single-leg bridges, fire hydrants, and planks.
Short ground contact time is critical to fast running. Kipchoge runs with a cadence of around 190 steps per minute – well above the 160 steps per minute most triathletes average. Boosting your cadence can be hugely beneficial, but again, this is something that should be done gradually. Experts say that instead of going straight to the ideal cadence, athletes should gradually build up five percent at a time—similar to the way you’d build up your mileage. In other words, if your current cadence is 160, shoot for 168 at first. When you can hold that cadence on a long run, bump your goal up to 176.
“Kipchoge’s consistency is unique in the marathon and is part of what has made him an icon,” Billington said. “He has won an unparalleled 13 out of 15 marathons. This seems to be down to his training and preparation.”
Kipchoge is said to consistently run between 110 and 120 miles per week in Eldoret, a town located more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Triathletes usually can’t put in those kind of miles, and relocating to high-altitude locations isn’t always an option. However, the key element – consistency – is achievable for all. The biggest secret is no secret: Kipchoge simply does the work day in and day out.
In addition to logging the miles, he pays careful attention all the things that make one a well-rounded runner, from strength work to technique drills. “Kipchoge’s flawless form doesn’t just mean additional speed, it improves the likelihood that he stays healthy,” Billington said. “And this is proven out – aside from an ear blockage at the London Marathon, which is not exactly stride related, he has been uninjured (publicly at least) for about a decade. Consistency is key to success and good form is critical for that.”
Some have described Kipchoge’s lifestyle as that of an ascetic monk. Despite great success in running (and with it, impressive prize winnings and sponsorship deals), Kipchoge chooses to live in a basic 8×10-foot dorm room with his teammates.
“Our life here is simple, very simple,” Kipchoge said of his living conditions in a 2020 interview with BBC Sport. “Get up in the morning, go for a run, come back. If it is a day for cleaning, we do the cleaning, or we just relax. Then go for lunch, massage, the 4 o’clock run, evening tea, relax, go to sleep. As simple as that.”
Though quitting one’s job for a singular focus on training isn’t possible for most triathletes, a simplified lifestyle is. This can come in a lot of different forms – for some, it might be removing distractions (like social media apps), while others might emulate Kipchoge’s predictable schedule. Having a set routine can make it easier to stick to the plan, whether it’s moving straight to a core workout after a run or hitting your scheduled bedtime every single night.
“Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” Kipchoge said in a 2018 speech. “If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.”
Triathletes have a tendency to bolt out of the bike-to-run transition. Instead, they should be like Kipchoge and settle in. The marathon is a long race – not just in miles and time, but in the way events unfold. A lot can happen over 26.2 miles, and this was on full display in the Tokyo Olympic race, where Kipchoge displayed his trademark patience, seeing how things went and not going too deep too early. It also seemed he never really got into his own head; when his competition was grimacing, Kipchoge was grinning. At one point, he even shared a laugh and a fist-bump with Brazil’s Daniel do Nascimento.
“I think we can all learn to be as relaxed as he is,” Billington said. “If you look at him throughout the marathon (except when Galen Rupp bumped him!), his entire upper body looks relaxed, from his hands through his face.”
The Bottom Line
Though lessons from Kipchoge’s masterclass can benefit triathletes, it’s important to remember that the likelihood of a triathlete ever dropping an Olympic-style 2:08:31 marathon in the final leg of an Iron-distance triathlon is pretty slim.
“It’s key to remember that triathlon is not swimming, biking, and running in a sequence. It’s its own sport,” Billington said. “Kipchoge doesn’t need to drop 1000 watts out of corners or battle his way through a crowd of swimmers, so he can be purely efficient for running.”
Becoming a faster runner is a good goal for triathletes, but it shouldn’t be the only goal. Being a well-rounded athlete is. After all, one can be the fastest runner in the world, but it won’t matter much in a triathlon if all strength and energy is zapped in the preceding swim and bike. While many of the same form principles that took Kipchoge to gold can apply to the average triathlete, triathletes should use their swimming and cycling strength as an advantage on their run.
Instead of focusing too much on becoming like Kipchoge as a runner, they should instead strive to become like Kipchoge as a human. “Kipchoge as a person is inspirational,” Billington said. “His focus on the process, teamwork, discipline are all admirable traits we can bring to our lives and running.”