Just as the sun rose on May 6 over Monza, Italy’s Formula One racetrack, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya took off running as part of Nike’s Breaking2 attempt to break the two-hour marathon barrier. The current marathon world record is 2:02:57.
Kipchoge finished with the fastest marathon time ever run at 2:00:25, although the 2016 Olympic marathon gold medalist knew the race technically didn’t meet the International Association of Athletics Federations’ guidelines and therefore wouldn’t be considered an official world record.
Nike’s drive to break the two-hour barrier is bold, but envisioning the possibility becomes far more feasible when Philip Skiba, DO, PhD, and his mathematical algorithms enter the picture.
Optimizing training for the individual
Athletes who train with Dr. Skiba work with him to turn their athletic performances into data that can be used to mathematically optimize strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Skiba’s individualized approach allows athletes to adapt their training to what works specifically for them.
“Every athlete responds differently to intensity, for example, and volume,” says Dr. Skiba. “Most people require a unique mix that many coaches never go through the trouble of figure out.”
This unique training modality has made Dr. Skiba a highly sought-after individual in coaching elite athletes.
Dr. Skiba, the director of sports medicine for Advocate Medical Group in suburban Chicago, was invited to join Nike’s Breaking2 team in early 2016 after they discovered his research about the mathematics of human performance and his expertise training elite athletes such as Joanna Zeiger, who worked with Dr. Skiba before winning the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
Coaching near and far
Helping the Breaking2 athletes train from across the world meant monitoring many of their training sessions with a GPS watch. Dr. Skiba and the rest of the science team created an iterative process of reviewing and adjusting training protocols for the majority of their training until Nike flew the team out to Kenya and Ethiopia in February to work directly with the athletes.
“It kind of blows your mind to spend a couple weeks training with them where they have to get their water out of a well and have to drive to get internet,” says Dr. Skiba. “When you talk to these guys and say ‘you need to be drinking Gatorade,’ for example, they laugh at you and say ‘where do you think I’m going to get Gatorade?’ ”
The humbling trip led Dr. Skiba to reconsider his understanding of poverty and perseverance, as he returned home and to coaching remotely.
Every athlete is an individual
Dr. Skiba’s coaching of the athletes was from a scientific perspective rather than through the eyes of a clinician, but his holistic and individualized approach embodies the osteopathic philosophy.
“The American coaching model is very much, ‘Throw all the eggs against the wall and whichever ones don’t break become champions,’ ” says Dr. Skiba. “What I do is the exact opposite. I look at every athlete as an individual and adapt the training program to what’s going to work for that athlete. No two of my athletes have ever been trained alike.”
Even though Nike didn’t break the two-hour marathon mark, Dr. Skiba’s approach has led about a half-dozen athletes he’s worked with to win championships. In the Breaking2 race, he and the science team helped Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea to beat his personal best marathon time by more than four minutes.
“When you treat an athlete like an individual and adapt their individual strengths and weaknesses into training methods, you’re going to get a great performance,” he says.