World Rowing asked the question: Could the sport of rowing see a barrier-breaking performance as spectacular as distance running’s Eliud Kipchoge, who in 2019 became the first human in history to run the marathon distance in under two hours?

Dr Sarah Davey, current research fellow at Coventry University’s Faculty Research Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences, thinks it’s possible – but there are some big differences to overcome. “There is more competition and opportunities to compete in running,” she says.

She should know. Davey is herself a long-time runner and athletics coach. Coupled with previous work as an exercise physiologist with British Rowing, she has seen the best of both sports.

“There is also more individualisation with regards to sport science support,” she continues, adding also; “In athletics there is more freedom technologically to improve the running surface or personal equipment such as running shoes,” says Davey.  

What’s in a shoe?

When it comes to Kipchoge and many other top elite runners in recent years, the most controversial part of their record-breaking performances is cutting-edge shoe technology integrating carbon plating inside super-thick soles. Prototypes of American shoemaker Nike’s famous – or infamous – Vaporfly and subsequent Alphafly seem to be pushing other footwear off the podium.

It has been so successful in fact, that World Athletics, running’s global governing body, has responded with new regulations.

While such a shoe would be impractical for rowing, biomechanical expert Dr Volker Nolte still sees similarities between the sports.

“In running, you have a very short time for the foot contact to propel the runner; this is where you can use the benefit of the energy return from a shoe,” says the German-born former elite coach and retired professor of biomechanics at Canada’s Western University.

A rowing example might be how a carbon fibre oar stores and then release a rower’s energy through the stroke. But the best comparison, according to Nolte, is a piece of rowing technology he helped develop that was ultimately banned due to the major boost in performance it gave rowers. “A sliding rigger is a similar means to use all of an athlete’s energy for propulsion,” says Nolte.

Individual support

“It is difficult at times to decouple the effect of advances in technology with advances in physiology. There is a tendency to try and improve both at the same time,” says Davey.

When Nike decided to find and develop someone to run the two-hour marathon, “they tested a group of the world’s best male distance runners using a range of assessments to measure the athletes’ maximal aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and speeds at relevant distances” says Davey. “Sports scientists used this information to understand the athletes’ ability to hold the speed required to break the two-hour barrier.”

“Rowing utilises similar physiological tests,” adds Davey. “The main difference is the level of tailored sport science support provided to each individual runner.”

“Would the same thing happen if this approach occurred in rowing?” ponders Davey. “If the same selection process and ‘individualised’ support was provided, could a male rower break 5:15 or a female rower break 6:00 (for 2000m) on the ergometer?”

“In rowing, it would be an interesting challenge,” she says. “If we could select the very best international rowers, test them, train them for a while, see who has room to improve, provide the most suitable coaches, biomechanists, physiologists, psychologists etc to assist with the training and the challenge itself; if we could do all of that, we might just see records falling like in distance running.”

It’s all about the approach

Looking beyond Kipchoge’s shoes and his exceptional sport science support team, the runner’s attitude is central to his remarkable success.

“I definitely think there are some elements of Kipchoge’s approach (to training) that can apply to other sports, particularly endurance ones,” says physicist-turned sports science communicator Dr Alex Hutchinson,

One of those things is the level of respect and cooperation between Kipchoge and his coach. “I think his relationship with his coach, Patrick Sang, is great,” says Hutchinson. “They have huge respect for one another, but Kipchoge has complete faith in the workouts Sang prescribes, so he’s not doubting and second-guessing the plan.”

“He’s also well-known as an absolutely reliable and consistent trainer,” adds Hutchinson. “He always shows up ready to do the work, but doesn’t feel any need to try to ‘win’ every workout.”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Hutchinson points to Kipchoge’s positive outlook on what he can accomplish. “His ‘no human is limited’ mantra has got lots of attention,” says Hutchison.

“On the surface, it seems a bit facile—most of us are well-acquainted with limits that fall far short of a two-hour marathon—but I think the underlying confidence and self-belief that he’s expressing are a huge competitive advantage when he races.”