Feeling inspired by last weekend's London Marathon? Find out how we're helping the world's fastest runners break new boundaries with Vodafone technology...

Last weekend thousands of people were lacing up and running around some of the world’s most famous monuments and landmarks. For most people, the London Marathon is the challenge of a lifetime, with a four-hour time being the ideal. But for a few elite athletes and a team of top scientists, less than half that time is an achievable dream.

This year we teamed up with SUB2 – a team dedicated to achieving a sub 2-hour marathon – to provide state of the art connected technology, the likes of which has never been used before in competitive running. To get the inside scoop, we’ve been speaking to Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton and the founder of the SUB2 project…

A clean break

“The SUB2 Project is a clean marathon running project,” Yannis explains. “We wanted to create an alternative to the problem of drugs in professional sports and capture people’s imagination while doing so. How are we doing that? By tackling something that many of the scientific community believe isn’t possible – to break the two-hour marathon running barrier.

“There was a lot of excitement 50 years ago when Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Scientists in those days didn’t believe that a human could run that fast. They thought the limits of human physiology put it out of reach. And now, some 63 years later, we’re trying to do something different and bigger.”

So what kind of innovations are Yannis and his team cooking up to allow increased speed while staying clean?

“We’re talking about a whole series of new things like revolutionary sports drinks, a new approach to running shoes, and now we’re launching our latest innovation with Vodafone, which allows us to have real time feedback between athletes and their support teams.”

And it’s that last bit that we’re excited about, because it’s a world first in the sport.

Harder, better, faster, data

As Yannis explains it, “having accurate real time data during a race is probably the most important parameter we have yet to master to improve performance. If you’re trying to break a world record, that kind of information is vital – not only during the race, but during preparation and training.”

Which is where we come in, providing the team with a mobile app, developed by our Network Centre of Excellence, which aggregates a range of data feeds to assist the athletes and the support team. The Vodafone SUB2 app runs on Android Wear 2.0 smartwatches, the first generation of smartwatches to not only boast a standalone 4G data connection – which means they don’t need to be paired to a smartphone – but also standalone app programming.

The Vodafone SUB2 app speaks to a dedicated cloud server, sending real-time information, to the support team in a way that’s much more accurate and robust than relying solely on GPS, and sits on the arm of elite athlete, Kenenisa Bekele, the current world and Olympic record holder for the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.

“Trying to achieve our goal requires innovation in nutrition, biomechanics, engineering… all of this information needs to be integrated,” Yannis explains. “When we’re out in the field in places like Ethiopia and Kenya, and our athletes are doing long 40 km runs, we can’t run with them so we don’t know what they’re experiencing. Now though, with this revolutionary technology, we can monitor exactly what they’re doing, along with their physiological response in real time and from anywhere in the world.”

“A good analogy,” he adds, “is F1, where the pit crew receive real time information about the car and the driver, and apply what they learn to the rest of the race and learn vital lessons for future races. Up until now that has not been possible with running, where traditional training tools can be off by anything from 800m to 1.5km. What’s great, is that in training, the SUB2 app has been showing GPS location data up to 10 times more accurate – which is much more useful when you’re trying to break the world record!”

“A good analogy is F1, where the pit crew receive real time information about the car and the driver, and apply what they learn to the rest of the race.”

Armed with this new Vodafone-fuelled tech, the next stop on SUB2’s journey was the London Marathon, which took place last weekend.

“For London, because this was our first prototype, we were being quite conservative,” Yannis tells us. “We wanted our athlete to use the smart watch as a virtual pacemaker during the race. To inform the runner when to speed up, slow down, or when to maintain the race pace, and do so in a very accurate way – more so than has ever been achieved before. During trials in Ethiopia, the SUB2 team were able to monitor heart rate and running economy in real time, with the data being sent to the support team over Vodafone’s 4G network.”

Running in the right direction

Speaking of the future, where does Yannis see this kind of telemetric data taking us?

“The next phase is to incorporate physiological responses,” he says. “In training we’ve been able to look at things like core temperature, skin temperature and land surface temperature around the athlete in real time, all thanks to the connectivity that Vodafone provides.

“In the longer term, I can see this kind of innovation really helping the medical world – a great use for live telemetric data is the way it can let patients interact with doctors – the case of telemedicine. There’s already a lot of activity going on around the world in the development of new sensors,” he reveals. “Skin-based wearable displays and sensors that can monitor, record and assess almost anything, from sweat composition to lactic acid levels, are already in the works. So the future’s absolutely bright for this kind of technology.”

And as for that elusive 01:59:59 marathon time? It could be just around the corner.

“We first started thinking about all this back in 2007,” Yannis says in closing, “and at that time we thought getting real time information – with high accuracy – to transfer from athlete to a support team would be the hardest part of all. So I am surprised and delighted that we’ve managed to do it so soon after the official start of the project in 2014. With this technology in place, the possibilities are limitless.”

Check out all the other work the SUB2 team are doing to bring clean innovation to professional athletes.

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