Sondre Nordstad Moen, the first European to break 2:06 for the marathon, says becoming a full-time athlete and a change in training were the main reasons for his dramatic improvement of more than seven minutes this year.

The 26-year-old Norwegian clocked 2:05:48 to win the Fukuoka Marathon on December 3, to take four minutes off his personal best set last spring. Having started the year with PBs of 28:25.23 and 2:12:54 for 10,000m and marathon respectively, it would have seemed improbable that he would break the European record jointly held at 2:06:36 by Benoit Zwierzchlewski and Antonio Pinto.

Naturally, some cast a suspicious eye was cast over the breakthrough, while others painted a picture of an athlete who reaped the results of living a spartan lifestyle for a year. The reality would appear to be that the outcome was based on several factors.

Moen was a talented youngster, as an under-18 clocking 8:12.10 for 3000m, which in youth terms was a Norwegian record and the best in the world in 2008. His 13:44.43 for 5000m two years later puts him in the European all-time top 20 juniors.

He progressed to 13:30.22 in 2011, but he knew his potential lay at the marathon.

“Before I got injured in 2012 I wanted to have at least two or three years on the track before I moved to the marathon,” he told Fast Running. “But then I got injured for two or three years and then I had to restart everything in 2014.”

Always on his feet

Losing financial support, he ended up with a heavy work schedule while also trying to spend some time at Kenyan training camps. “In Kenya I didn’t work so when I came back to Norway I had to work close to 100%, standing on my feet in a running shop for eight hours a day while running 200k per week,” he said. “The body just burned out completely. I was able to run 62 for a half and 28:25 for 10k, but it was not possible to recover.

“I was also a little bit stuck in my training. I was not improving my training. I did the same workouts for two or three years… If you try to do longer, harder workouts, you may be able to recover, but it’s easier to get sick or injured and you don’t have the continuity in your training compared to someone who works just one or two days per week.”

He ran 2:12:54 for the marathon in 2015, which ultimately would see him on to the Norwegian team for the Olympics. Although he was disappointed with 19th in Rio, additional funding it granted him meant he was able to make a big change.

Italian and Keynan factors

Being self-coached up until that point he had felt unable to take risks with his programme going into the Olympics, but in autumn 2016 he linked up with successful Italian coach Renato Canova, with whom he had several long conversations about training before.

“I lived like a Kenyan in 2009 but just for short times,” he said. “I was still in high school and my former coach didn’t have time to watch me all the time. Many factors prevented me going all-in. But last year I had double the amount of days at altitude.”

Asked what he thought was the main reason for his improvement, he replied: “It’s that I don’t need to work full-time, more days in altitude, more focus on getting enough massages. The main thing is I changed a lot of things in my training.”

He spent January, February and most of March at altitude in Kenya, working with Canova and his group, which included 2009 and 2011 world marathon champion Abel Kirui. He trained at altitude in Europe – either in Sestriere, Italy, or Norway – up to the World Championships and then went back out to Sestriere in the build-up to a breakthrough 59:48 at the Valencia Half Marathon. That time made him the second fastest ever on a course legal for record purposes.

He was not too surprised about the result in Fukuoka, feeling his track performances this year were not a fair reflection of his ability. “I’ve always been sure about my capacity for the marathon,” he said. “I’ve never been a really fast runner but I am able to keep up a pace for very very long.

“Let’s say I could run maybe 3:45 or 3:44 (for 1500m) when I ran my 13:20 (for 5000m) this summer. If you are not able to run 3:33-4 as a 5k runner there is no chance to take a medal in a major championships. I understood this 10 years ago.”

In Valencia and Fukuoka, he wore the new Nike Vaporfly shoes which have been linked to recent breakthroughs for athletes such as Galen Rupp and Shalane Flanagan, but he does not believe they gave him the 4% improvement that has been talked about.

It is normal to expect eyebrows to be raised after athletes set big PBs, but often we are too quick to try to credit one means – legal or otherwise. One or two great performances, or one season of sharp improvement, don’t come about overnight; they are the result of many years of training, affected by several different factors. Moen’s 2017 is no different.

Moen’s training in 2017

Sondre Moen spent more than 200 days at altitude this year. His coach listed on his training following the Valencia Marathon – and Moen himself confirmed this as valid.

The first week after Valencia – starting October 23, six weeks from marathon day – he ran 210k (130 miles).
15k at 3:50>3:40 pace (9.3 miles at 6:10>5:54)
Rest day as flying to Kenya
20k at 3:40>3:35 (12.4 miles at 5:54>5:46)
17k at 3:50>3:45 (10.6 miles at 6:10>6:02)
24k at 3:45>3:40 (14.9 miles at 6:02>5:54)
12k at 4:05>3:55 (8 miles at 6:34>6:18) + 12x80m sprints uphill
4.7k warm-up at 3:56 (2.9 miles at 6:20) + 21.3k (13.2 miles) fartlek (5 x 3mins fast+1min moderate, 5 x 2mins fast+1min moderate, 10 x 1min fast +1min moderate, 15 x 30s fast+30s moderate)
15k at 3:55>3:50 (9.3 miles at 6:18>6:10)
16k at 3:55>3:40 (9.9 miles at 6:18>5:54)
13k at 3:50>3:40 (8.1 miles at 6:10>5:54)
41k at 3:31 (25.5 miles at 5:40)
Week 2 226k (140 miles)
Week 3 222k (138 miles)
Week 4 211k (131 miles)
Week 5 172k (107 miles)
Week 6 131k (81 miles)