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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Athletes Attempt to Run Marathon in Under Two Hours; Health Benefits of Ice Swimming Examined; Labs Developing Training Techniques to Combat Physical and Mental Fatigue. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 27, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:14] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: The human body and mind are capable of extraordinary things, always challenging ourselves in new, innovative, and exciting ways. But there is one goal that has remained elusive, and that is for a human to run a marathon in under two hours.

This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

In order to reach unthinkable goals it takes a lot, a lot of time. It takes a lot of understanding of physiology, nutrition, and hydration. It takes understanding products. It takes understanding human performance. And it takes understanding mental fortitude. Here at the Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, they're focusing on all these things, and they want to break a world record and hopefully teach all of us something in the process.

One of the most iconic records was the four-minute mile, first achieve in 1954 by British medical student Roger Bannister. Running at a speed of 15 miles per hours, Bannister did what many considered impossible, suggesting the barrier wasn't just physical but psychological. After years of failed attempts, his record was beaten just a few weeks later.

Since that miracle mile, runners have continued to chase records over longer and longer distances, in particular 26 miles and 385 yards, better known to you and me and a marathon. Today the time set in 2003 by English runner Paula Radcliffe remains unbroken, but it's a different story for male competitors. In the past decade alone the men's world record has been broken five times, dropping by one-and-a- half minutes. The current record of two hours, two minutes, 57 seconds, is held by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto after his remarkable run at the Berlin Marathon in 2014.

But now a different race is underway to reach beyond what many are calling running's last frontier, the sub-two-hour marathon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first place to start is for body weight. We measure your weight and your height.

This is Nike's Sport Research Lab, the NSRL, and it's a rare chance to step inside. In just a few minutes they're going to put me to the test to see how I stack up against three athletes Nike has identified for this record breaking attempt. But a lot happened before anyone ever set foot in this lab, and it started largely with Matt Nurse and Tony Bignell.

How audacious is this?

MATTHEW NURSE, VP, NIKE SPORT RESEARCH LAB: I think it's enormous. And I think it's enormous from a psychological barrier perspective. If you look at sort of the four-minute mile and what a barrier that was, and shortly after Roger Bannister broke it, it just started falling.

GUPTA: Let me ask you, Tony, when you first heard this, was it absolutely, you know, confidence, optimistic -- what was your initial reaction when you first heard this challenge?

TONY BIGNELL, VP, NIKE SPORT RESEARCH LAB: I probably wasn't super optimistic, honestly, because even at a mile, I ran a mile, and you know how hard it is to crack bits of seconds off by training really, really hard.

GUPTA: This is not the only effort underway to break the record. Adidas also has a project in the works as well as another private group in the United Kingdom. Breaking the two-hour marathon mark has long fascinated athletes and scientists alike. Just last month a study was published in the "Journal of Sports Medicine" detailing three factors to break the barrier. Nike has identified five pillars for what they are calling the Breaking Two Project.

When you look at these buckets, Tony, and I know your answer is likely to be that all the buckets are important here, but again, I'll name them. And I'm just curious which of these do you think is the most on important? Whether it's products, training/physiology, nutrition/hydration, environment, or athlete selection? Is there one that is the most important?

BIGNELL: I think you have to say athlete selection.

GUPTA: The hopes and dreams of this project are pinned on three men, all from east Africa -- Lelisa Desisa, a 26-year-old from Ethiopia, personal best 2:04:45, Zersenay Tadesea, 34-year-old from Eritrea with a marathon best 2:10:41, and Eliud Kipchoge, a 32-year-old from Kenya, at 2:03:05, just eight seconds off the current world record.

Two of them are in their 30s. I was surprised at that. Should I be surprised by that.

NURSE: I don't think so. I think there's a training component and there's a grit component. You can't go in and the very first time hit that mile 21, 22, and just see that imaginary wall hit you. And there's something about sort of fighting through that. And like in any championship, you have to have been there a few times sometimes to understand what it means and to know how to push through it.

[14:35:00] GUPTA: In the lab Brett Kirby and Brad Wilkins have been working with the three athletes on everything from nutrition and hydration to a concept known as running economy -- how to use the least amount of energy while covering the most ground in the fastest time. Of course the physical aspect is one thing. The biggest barrier might be a mental one.

It does sort of raise this question, why hasn't it been done?

BRAD WILKINS, DIRECTOR, NIKE NEXT GENERATION RESEARCH: I think one of the things is that in a marathon race, it's exactly that, it's a race. So all they have do mentally is beat the person behind them. They don't have -- it's a mental construct that they don't necessarily have to go after two hours because they're going to get their payday if they just beat the person behind them.

GUPTA: Each of those five pillars does have as to work together, but perhaps no more so than with training and product.

In order to try to achieve a goal like this, there are several things they are focusing on with the athletes. One is the types of products. They're wearing clothes that are a little bit more form fitting. And also the shoes -- these are prototypes of what the athletes are going to be wearing. Another big bucket, as we've talked about, is the type of training and testing they are going through. And I'm going to get an idea of what that entails right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Try to settle into the rhythm here. There you go.

GUPTA: Are there risks or dangers to a project like this for the runners?

NURSE: I don't think so. And I'll say that from part of what we do is we have strict controls on how we conduct science and how we work with athletes. At the end of the day they are human subjects for us to a large degree, too.

GUPTA: We're going to learn how I measure up against the three runners and what these elite athletes are teaching science that could benefit even the casual runner from head to toe.


[14:40:14] GUPTA: It's a Tuesday evening in the Nike Sport Research Lab in Beaverton, Oregon, and I'm working up a sweat. I'm wearing a prototype of the shoe designed for three runners who will try to break a record long thought impossible -- finishing a marathon in under two hours.

BRET SCHOOLMEESTER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, NIKE GLOBAL RUNNING FOOTWEAR: We've taken about three minutes off the world record over the past 20 years. So to go another three minutes in one shot is a huge leap.

GUPTA: Bret Schoolmeester has been working on the footwear for the breaking-two attempt. A thin carbon fiber plate sits between two pieces of foam to make the base of the shoe.

This area right in here, that joint, when it bends like this, you lose some energy.


GUPTA: So is that part of the secret sauce here?

SCHOOLMEESTER: It's 100 percent. So, yes, at the MPT joint -- MTP, sorry -- your foot is doing a lot of work, and there is energy lost in different directions there. What we're able to do is save that energy through the stiffness. Where before you lose energy in every stride, we're allowing you to lose less energy.

GUPTA: Is there a point when you look at a shoe you and you say, it's almost too good? I mean, is it an unfair advantage at some point?

SCHOOLMEESTER: I think frankly the conversation around is this thing so good it should be illegal is really flattering. What we didn't set out to tell the team is make it good but not so good. We said give these athletes every benefit we can give them. We've been making shoes with foams and plates for years, as have many other people.

GUPTA: There is a governing body that looks at these things, as they do in racecar driving and other things as well. Will these shoes have any problems getting approved?

SCHOOLMEESTER: We're confident no.

GUPTA: Ultimately, though, we're not just talking about the three runners. Consider this -- in the United States alone, roughly half a million people cross the finish line of a marathon every year. Though there are consumer versions, the shoes the athletes will wear during the attempt were made just for them, personalized based on factors like the way they run and their weight. That personalization is key in the lab as well.

BRETT KIRBY, LEAD PHYSIOLOGIST, NIKE NEXT GENERATION RESEARCH: I think each thing you learn about the athlete that becomes personalized is the first insight is let's first start with what you need. And that's a huge gain because before it was maybe you just give a template suggestion. Specifically on training, we could easily see that there are some people who respond to long distance type of training, and there's some people who respond to really high intensity trainings.

GUPTA: High intensity interval training combines burst of intense activity with short recovery periods. Research suggests this kind of exercise can be more effective than moderate workouts, and that means pushing the body to the limit is no longer reserved only for elite athletes. We're going to step away from the track for a moment to see what endurance training can look like for the rest of us.

It's a cold Sunday morning here in south London, and while many people are still in bed, a small group of locals are wide awake and ready to go. They're here for British military fitness. They are boot camp style classes led by ex-military personnel like Keith Walkman, a former Royal Marine commander.

KEITH WALKMAN, REGIONAL MANAGER, BRITISH MILITARY FITNESS: So all our instructors at British Military Fitness have to be from the forces, so the Navy, RAF, Army, or Marines. And they have to be personal trainers or PTIs, as well, so we're all fully qualified. (CHEERS)

WALKMAN: The class lasts less than an hour. Most have kind of five, 10 minute blocks where we'll do relays, circuits, team challenges.

Let's go.

The idea is we throw in lots of different things so it's all interesting, because for most people exercise can be a bit boring. So if we throw in loads of different games and routines and exercises, it makes it a lot more interesting, people are actually more likely to come a lot longer and enjoy it more.

So don't be afraid if it gets to be a little bit like hard work.

GUPTA: In the United Kingdom, one in seven people are members of a gym, but British military fitness is part of a growing demand for training sessions that are both outdoors and out of the ordinary.

WALKMAN: One-two, one-two, back down. One-two, back down.

I think biggest thing we bring is sympathy or empathy. When I was in the marines and you go through your commando training, you are going through extreme training. But what they do is they push you to your limits, and then you realize when you get to the point where you go I can't do this anymore, you go through that sort of barrier and out the other side.

GUPTA: Research has shown that high intensity interval training can also have benefits for people with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis.

WALKMAN: Guys, great effort.

[14:45:00] GUPTA: As we continue pushing our bodies to new limits, it does raise a question. Can we get too much of a good thing? Here in Liverpool at the John Moores University, they are trying to find an answer. Working with elite athletes from Real Madrid, British cycling, and the local Liverpool football club, researchers are finding out what happens when we put our body and our heart through training.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that if you exercise regularly, and we suggest around about three hours per week, we know that reduces your cardiovascular risk.

GUPTA: Each day the average heart beats 100,000 times, pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood through the body. When we exercise, we increase the volume within our heart from the right hand side, which pumps blood to our lungs, and the left, which sends blood to our brain and the rest of the body. Although training at the highest level often relies at pushing our bodies to the limit, the benefit of exercise on our heart seems to lie on moderation and recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The most important thing is that moderate, regular exercise is good for the heart, and it will improve your life expectancy.

GUPTA: Coming up, we find out if these long distance runners are on track to break an incredible barrier.


GUPTA: Loch Lomond, Scotland. This breathtaking stretch of water attracts visitors from across the world. Most come in search of peace and tranquility, others in search of something a little more exhilarating.

[14:50:16] This is ice swimming, competing in water colder than five degrees Celsius or 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love ice swimming competitions. It's a sense of energy and sense of life.

GUPTA: Here at the British championship, the U.K.'s best ice swimmers have gathered. Among them, Jess Campbell who holds the British lady's record for swimming an ice kilometer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I swim in really difficult conditions, the water is very choppy, I just have to assure myself that I can finish.

GUPTA: Dr. Ruth Williamson is leading the medical team here at the even in Scotland, making sure that competitors undergo rigorous health checks.

DR. RUTH WILLIAMSON: The ice kilometer and the ice mile are real endurance sports. This is something that you train for, you get your body used to and getting into the cold water and being able to get over that cold shock. And then with training your muscles adapt to working with a lower blood supply.

GUPTA: Early studies suggest cold water swimming could be a potential treatment for depression by activating the sympathetic nervous system. And it offers participants a dose of adrenalin and adventure.

WILLIAMSON: If I think back to the last century, people were exploring and trying to push the boundaries. We can go to the moon. We can do other extreme things. And many of those things have been done. But there is that, what can I do with my own body? You really feel super human when you swim a kilometer in water like this.

GUPTA: These superhuman feats are an extreme test for the body. But one researcher believes that our human limits lie not in the muscle, but in the mind. Dr. Samuele Marcora has spent the past decade studying the relationship between the body and the brain, and his findings have yielded some surprises.

DR. SAMUELE MARCORA, UNIVERSITY OF KENT: Most people think we're limited by muscle fatigue. However we found in several studies that also mental fatigue can limit your endurance performance, not just what is going on in the muscle, what's going on in your brain.

GUPTA: And athletic performance can be improved using brain endurance training. Boring, repetitive, tiring, these computerized tasks target parts of the brain to increase our resistance to mental fatigue.

MARCORA: The key is that in all of these tasks requires what we define as mediatory control. So you have to force yourself to do a certain response in order to achieve a goal.

GUPTA: In trials brain endurance training improved performance by over 100 percent, compared to 40 percent from those who only worked on their physical training. And this isn't just training for elite athletes.

MARCORA: The easiest way to implement something similar to brain endurance training is to train on purpose in a state of mental fatigue.

GUPTA: For Dr. Marcora, training our brain in this way could unlock potential, offering athletes the key to set new records like the sub two hour marathon.

Perfect spot on the treadmill, looks good.

Overcoming mental fatigue is a big focus for the team at Nike trying to break the record. I've been breaking a sweat on the treadmill in the Sport Research Lab while Brett Kirby and Brad Wilkins monitor my oxygen consumption. This is the same test they conduct with their three athletes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to slow you down now. All right. We'll get this off of you. Perfect. A little workout. So we can show you more data on this one. So 185 milliliters per kilogram per kilometer, so a little bit better than you were at 92.

GUPTA: So I was better faster, more economical.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More economical, faster. And you looked just from visually, you looked smoother. You looked like you were kind of cruising a little bit. So that is a really good running economy.

So my numbers aren't bad. And I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised. But get this, what I just did in a few minutes the athletes have to do at twice the speed for a full two hours. A March day in Manza outside of Milan, Italy, this is a formula one racetrack. It's also the site of a marathon attempt, selected for reasons like humidity and altitude.

[14:55:03] Today the three athletes will run it for the first time in a half marathon test, the first chance for the team to find out if they are on target to make history.

This doesn't look like your standard marathon, from the shoes to the clothes to the pace runners, the flat track. Hydration is delivered on mopeds instead of typical water stations, basically optimize each aspect to see if this is even humanly possible and then work backwards from there. Eliud Kipchoge is one of the three athletes and the current Olympic champion. He is considered by many as one of the world's best marathon runners. ELIUD KIPCHOGE: All human being can stretch beyond their thinking and

do something extraordinary. That's why I'm trying to run under two hours to be the first human being to cross and run under that two hours. It will be more than the discovery of the Internet.

GUPTA: While Kipchoge was able to break the one-hour mark for this half marathon test run, there is still a long road ahead.