Enduring Questions: Armstrong vs Marathon: Preview

In the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong devoured riders over 2,000-plus miles. Could he do the same over 26.2? (Non-subscriber preview)

Posted: 3 July 2006
by Amby Burfoot

Some people think Lance Armstrong is a pretty decent cyclist. Me, I’m fascinated by his running. The legendary cyclist has entered this autumn’s New York City Marathon and many of us are itching to see how he will fare. Armstrong won the first distance race he ever entered as a teenager. He obviously had legs, guts, and stamina from the go.

He also won a more recent running race. This time it was a run-bike-run affair called the Dirty Duathlon in Rocky Hill, Texas, back in December 2002. An upstart named Jason Saeger beat Armstrong by more than two minutes in the mid-event 12-mile mountain-bike leg, but Saeger paid for his audacity. Armstrong comfortably beat him on the concluding three-mile cross-country race, running the fastest leg of anyone in the competition (20:16) and winning the event overall.

Aside from these running achievements, Armstrong has enjoyed unparalleled success in the Tour de France. Last summer he won it for the seventh time, before announcing his retirement. While I realise that's pretty impressive, when it comes to endurance sports I see things through a runner's eyes. I naturally wonder how tough the Tour really is, and what kind of marathon Armstrong could run. The answer hinges on stuff that's familiar to runners - aerobic fitness, biomechanics, lactic acid, and energy supply - but also less familiar things such as power output and gravitational force. Most important, there's the je ne sais quoi that separates the champs from the chaff.

The best runners are incredible oxygen-delivery machines who know their VO2 max and use the impressive numbers to bolster their confidence. Armstrong knows his VO2 max, too. His long-time friend, confidante, and coach, Chris Carmichael, has had his star pupil tested on several occasions. In one, Armstrong put oxygen into his legs at the astonishing rate of 83 millilitres per kilogram per minute.

This figure wouldn't mean much if it weren't for the pioneering research of the famed running coach Dr Jack Daniels, who first published his Oxygen Power: Performance Tables For Distance Runners in 1979. According to Daniels, who's rarely off by more than a smidgen or two, a VO2 max of 83 roughly suggests a 2:06 marathon....

RW magazine subscribers can see the article in full here. If you'd like to to subscribe and see them all (and many other benefits), you can save 30% and get instant access right here.

Previous article
Enduring Questions: Mile Markers
Next article
Enduring Questions: Armstrong vs The Marathon

cycling, Enduring Questions

Discuss this article

Ooh! Looks interesting!

Didn't he say he reckoned he could go sub 2:30? I reckon he could, but the idea of a sub 2:10? hmmm... Not too sure. What do you lot think?
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:30

Cougie is hoping for at least 3:15 otherwise he loses a bet!

I think he'll take it easy and chat to fans, maybe get round in about 3:30. Although on slowtwitch a guy said he saw him running and he was motoring.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:37

Well yeah... Used to be a triathlete innit...
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:38

Eithger a commonwealth level performance (sub 2.20) or outside 3.30 with the chatting to fans thing.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:39

I think sub 2.30!

motoring to stop peeps asking for his autigraph
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:39

If Armstrong really could go under 2:10 that would be fantastic, a rare example of a top athlete transferring from one discipline to another.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:39

I can't see him getting 2.30, if can get 2.45ish he'll have done well off 6 months training. I think he's talking more about sub3 these days as the target. You'd think anything under that is respectable even for someone with his background.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 12:59

You can bet your bottom dollar that he'll run it as fast as he possibly can. Autographs - aye right. He'll be as driven to try to win this as much as he was driven to win the Tour.

(Ok, I don't think for a second he'll actually win the race, but he won't be taking any prisoners).

My guess - 2:40.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 13:08

Definitely not under 2:10. That's ludicrous!
But I'm not putting any money on it based on my recent World Cup predictions...'thought Brazil would take it, switched to Germany when they got knocked out and now my hypothetical money's on France. (So it'll probably be Portugal and Armstrong'll run a 2:09:59)

Running and cycling are quite different and even with mind-blowing VO2 Max it doesn't follow that if you're fast at one you'll be as good at the other, so it's a tough call. Between 2:30 and 2:45 based on the fact that he's such a motivated guy, and if he's going to do it at all he's going to try and master it.

Posted: 05/07/2006 at 13:25

i think close to 2:30 and it wouldnt surprise me to see him go under. 2:10? maybe next year!
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 13:28

It'll be bloody fast. He was a respectable triathlete and cycling (esp endurance) isn't that different to running. He has also changed the way cyclists ride, higher but more consistent revs so that you use your heart and lungs rather than muscles to power up hills, so he is already immensly fit. VO2 max is supposed to detemine your potential performance limit so he won't go sub 2:10 but it won't be far off...

As a 7 times Tour winner and with his personal background you can bet he's been sweating in training as well and will be going into this thinking in terms of challenging the estblished order.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 13:33

I really can't see him doing it as a fun run so I reckon he'll be well under 2:30. Not sure 2:10 is possible........... this year!
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 13:53

I'd love to see him run 2:10 but I don't honestly expect it.

I do think he'll do sub-2:30 fairly easily tho.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:00

... but also quite unlikely. Yes, he's had years of cycling and was highly successful at it, but he lacks the years of specificity of running training.

His recent other running race times are good, but not sub-30 minute 10K. I'd expect any 2:10 runner to be doing a sub-30 10K, given that only allows you to slow to about 31 minute 10K to go under the 2:10 for the marathon.

His effort at the Fertile Hope 10K (april 8, 2006) was 18:20. That's 6 minutes outside the pace he'd need to do per 10K for the 42.2K... even if he was taking it easy, that's still a long way off.

He is now also too old to expect to get faster when he reaches his peak for his age.

from his official bigraphy, his triathlon career was at age 16 - a long time ago now...
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:20


He's not even taking it seriously.

"I've been training some, but I wouldn't call it serious. It's just something to fill a void in my life after I quit competing as a professional cyclist."

Or see this

Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:22

Many see VO2 max as being very UNreliable for predicting marathon performance - level of lactate threshold relative to VO2 max a far more effective indicator. But both are sport specific. What's his VO2 max on a treadmill test?

If the two sports were that closely related the same people would win the London Marathon, Tour De France and World Duathlon/Triathlon.

They don't.

Even world class triathletes don't make the top level at either running or cycling.

It's a bit like saying Lance would have been the world's best soccer player if he'd done that as his incredible bike handling skills show awesome co-ordination and his fitness means he'd blow everyone off the park.

He was an awesome cyclist. Why worry about what he can do for a marathon?
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:37

He was an awesome cyclist. Why worry about what he can do for a marathon?

spot on! but competitors will always be just that.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:41

"His effort at the Fertile Hope 10K (april 8, 2006) was 18:20. That's 6 minutes outside the pace he'd need to do per 10K for the 42.2K... even if he was taking it easy, that's still a long way off."

Jeez, I predict about 1:40 then!!!
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 14:41

5K - ooops...

Posted: 05/07/2006 at 16:14

He won't go sub-2.10. I think a better example to look at would be James Cracknell who is obviously a fairly fit lad in cardiovascular terms but is carrying a bit too much muscle to get competitively fast. When LA was on telly recently (John Stewart show), he didn't look that slim in comparison to competitive mara runners.

New York also isn't that easy a course from what I remember. What did Radcliffe get there in comparison to London?
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 16:22

I don't think its very fair to compare Lance to James Cracknell!!! Lance may be a bit heavy for marathon running at 75kgs but Cracknell is more like 100kgs! He's a totally different body type.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 16:32

It was more to do with comparing people at the top of their sports who then go into running. Cracknell was aiming at around 3hr despite his obvious fitness. Armstrong has a similar level of fitness (give or take) but slighter of frame so will probably be looking at around the 2.30 - 2.45 if everything goes according to plan.

The recent Chris Boardman interview shows that just because someone is at the top of one sport, they won't necessarily be competitive at another.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 16:43

Are we going to start talking lung capacity and V02 max?
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 16:48

The sub 2.10 thing is a bit like saying a top marathon runner could compete in the Tour de France in 6 months because of their vo2max. The article is really a bit of hype for the people being quoted - all that nonsense about him training more intelligently.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 18:41

Surely he is the wrong build for marathon running - have you see the size of those thighs?

Still I don't suppose he'd do anything by half measures - he's not that kind of guy.

Just being supremely fit is gonna help some, and the mentality is there.

I reckon if he wanted he could do it in 2:15
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 20:32

I really would not be suprised if he goes all out he never does anything in half measures and I would say for his first marathon 2.30ish.

he is such a competitive guy with his lung and Vo2 I cant wait to see how he does


Posted: 05/07/2006 at 20:39

Muscles and body shape are (in a large part) a by-product of training. You spend 8 hours a day spinning pedals you get big thighs. You stop and start running instead and the legs will change shape.

If he wasn't taking it seriously why do all the press and enter NY? Why not go low key and enter a local marathon?
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 23:32

I can't see that he's 75 kilos ? He must have put on a wodge of weight since he rode last in that case.

I'd think he'll probably do something like 2.30 - 2.45 if he's taking it seriously.

(I was kinda hoping he wouldn't a la Redgrave)

Posted: 05/07/2006 at 23:49

never mind lance, is anyone else alarmed about this skinner guy aka-'the streets' rabbitin on about maybe startin as an elite!?!?!?!?!?!?! ..............wots that all about!?!?!
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 23:59

I think he is going to surprise us all, and do it good.

While I think sub 2:10 predictions are a bit wild, for some reason I think he might go sub 2:30. He is a cyclist, but has the fitness to transfer well to running so by any means, he should actually do a pretty good time.
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 00:40

First things first, it all depends on his motivation and what he wants to do. There is also the question of how technically adept at running is he. What about training, could he go from 0 to 100 miles a week in a relatively short time without injury. Possibly as he is a full time athlete.

Let's now nail the mistruth about cyclists not making good runners. I have never known a road cyclist turn into a slow runner,not even my brother who was 15 stone when he started running- his pb for 10 miles was 71 mins. Cyclists turning into elite runners maybe not, but always decent runners.

But let's look at me, i had a personal best of 56 mins for 25m on the bike and was maybe capable of 59 mins when i started running at the age of 35. I went down to the local running club after 1 week of training and they asked me what pace are you running at. I answered 7 min pace and they thought oh yeah! Still they were astonished that i kept with this pace group. After 6 weeks i did 32 mins for 5 miles and after 3 months a 1-27 in a 1/2 marathon. I did this on no more than 35 miles a week training.

Now if i was capable of 59 mins for 25m, what would lance have done- answer about 46 mins. So it is easy to see he must be in the zone for a sub 2-20. His main problem is he will probably be like me, good on the downhills , adequate uphills and no good on the flat! His quads will make him a little slow on the flat and marathons are nearly always flat.

Another point is heart rates, mine is 36 and actually running has made it come down from 40 although it was 34 in 1979. But the question is how low is Lance's. I would guess about 28 and it may come down further. That will probably mean a rate while running 5 min pace of about 150-160. We know his max is over 190 so this could be a jog for him( the only problem here could be running style)

So to recap, his vo2 is 83, his h/rate is 28, his max on a bike is over 190 and some people are suggesting he wouldn't beat 2-30. That's got to be way off the mark. I would say about 2-12 but i would imagine he will stay with the leaders. That will either crack him and he won't finish or he'll win!
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 09:15

On the other hand, I'll be dissapointed if he doesn't treat this as a serious event, and instead did opt to take it gentle.
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 09:25

But Pete - we know he's phenomenally strong cardio wise, but he wouldnt have great running legs. And can he cope with the impact of getting all those miles in ?

He's only slight, so thats gotta be a help to him, but avoiding injury and strain that would make a big difference.

I'm a cyclist too and I always seem to go better uphills than most - I thought that was because of cycling calfs ?
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 10:26

cougie - that's becasue you are a whippet!
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 10:26

Peter - history is against you - Jalabert managed 2.55 and he's done a couple of marathons, he might not be Lance but there's a big gap between 2.55 and 2.12. I'm looking forward to this now.

I'm like you Cougie, cycling has made me good running up hill. Last time I did a half I even had a couple of people warn me I was going up the hill too fast and I'd blow up! I thought it was more quads than calfs though - I suppose both would make sense.
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 12:40

Spooky - in Bala I had people tell me to slow down on the run. So I did. And I blew anyway !

I guess we'll get a feel for how well LA is going if he does any Half marathons. His 5k time isn't much better than mine - and I'm not quite running 2.12.....
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 12:48

To repeat: "I've been training some, but I wouldn't call it serious. It's just something to fill a void in my life after I quit competing as a professional cyclist."

So no matter how serious he is on race day if he's telling the truth here he ain't going to be in tip top shape.

Pete - If you take Lance as a 46min for 25M on a bike and you as 56min and say his half marathon time will be proportionate he'd run a 71.30 half. If you take your 59min that still only gives 68min.

You're saying 2.12?

"Cyclists turning into elite runners maybe not, but always decent runners."

I think that maths bears that out.

(On Lance's resting heart rate take a look at what Lance himself & his coach Chris Carmichael says on the subject - resting HR is irrelevant to what your VO2max/threshold HR is.)

One person who doesn't think he can breeze 5min miles himself is lance.

See the second bottom paragraph.
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 13:04

He could do 50min for 26 miles

He rides a bike and is really good at pedalling fast right?

Bit unfair on those people running though. Unless he gets a puncture.

Will they let me give it a go on my scooter.
Posted: 06/07/2006 at 13:11

I gave you my 1/2 time after 3 months training and was only doing 35 mile a week tops. If lance can do more than 80 miles a week and if he's got the time he can, then i would stand by the 2-12. After 2 years i was doing 45-50 a week and achieved a 1-21 on a flat 1/2 and later did 1-23 at Watford, a v.hilly 1/2.

He will be doing more than this if he is serious. Using your rather simple mathematical calcs. that comes down to either 63 or 66 for 1/2 marathon. And i guess i don't accept a simple calculation as running is a much more severe activity in terms of effort. Just take the diffrence between me and my brother. I would beat him by 3 mins in a 25m tt and by about 10 mins in a 10m run. Another example is a faster man in my old cycling club, did a 53 for a 25 and i think a 1-13 for a 1/2 mar.

I also think he will lose weight, i was 12 stone when cycling and now am a shade over 11 stone.

You don't think h/rate is relevant, maybe resting is not but if you have a low h/rate while racing that's a good thing and as for lance's comments, well he is maybe getting his excuses in first(an old cycling trick). If you hear he's only running 50 miles a week that could be another cycling trick, always underplay your mileage. Different psychology to running, really only Lance will know. He will not tell us if he is doing 120 miles a week.

Going back to h/rate- resting h/rate may be irrelevant to vo2 max but i don't think its irrelevant to threshold h/rate. That's not my experience anyway.

Posted: 06/07/2006 at 18:02

Peter - how will Lance lose weight ? He was almost skeletal at the last Tour.

He's got business commitments now - flying all over the place for Nike, his foundation, seeing his family, his sponsors - so he'll be fitting in runs when and where he can.

Gone are the days of 6 hour rides and weighing food.
Posted: 07/07/2006 at 10:50

See more comments...
We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.