Eliud Kipchoge: How performance analysis is shaping sporting success and pushing boundaries

“The greatest athlete of all time… In any sport”, renowned performance coach Steve Magness on marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge.

This bold statement came shortly after Kipchoge became only the third person ever to win back-to-back olympic marathons. His latest Olympic gold at the Tokyo Summer Olympics is the most recent addition to a long and milestone-heavy list of accolades.

Eliud’s recent achievements have provoked two reactions from Skylab. The first being, we’d like to extend our congratulations to Kipchoge and his team for his Olympic success at Tokyo. In the same vein as Michael Jordan in the 90s, Tiger Woods in the mid-noughties and Messi and Ronaldo in the 2010s, with Kipchoge we are witnessing someone at the very peak of their abilities and has truly mastered their chosen discipline - it is incredible to witness. The second reaction was, what is the relationship between breaking milestones and performance analysis. How have the Jordans, Woods, Messis, Ronaldos and Kipchoges of the sporting world been shaped into boundary transcending athletes with Performance Analysis? 

In 2019, Kipchoge took on the INEOS 1:59 challenge and successfully broke a huge athletics milestone, running the first ever sub-two-hour marathon. We at Skylab: Elite Performance Analysis are very proud to have played a part in Kipchoge’s momentous run that day.  We worked with Eliud and INEOS to establish the optimum running formation for his support runners. This involved optimising when the support runners should rotate in and out and protect Kipchoge from air and wind resistance in the best and most efficient way possible, allowing him to make history. We carried out testing with a university athletics team to establish the best shape for the pacemakers so that Kipchoge could be as aerodynamic as possible throughout his run. Once optimised, our findings were then applied to the INEOS team of support runners.

“100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team”, Eliud Kipchoge.

It is without doubt that Kipchoge’s achievement would not have been possible had it not been for the support around him, as well as the influence of science, research, technology, and analysis. The INEOS 1:59 challenge was a brilliant showcase of applied ingenuity, connecting every aspect that influences modern day sporting performance to push the boundaries of what is humanly possible. 

Advancements in performance analysis and technology have been shaping sporting milestones and breakthroughs for years. In 2016, the Swedish women’s curling team was ranked 22nd in the world. That soon changed when they adopted Performance Analysis and expert Gerry Geurts to aid the team. Skipper Anna Hasselborg said, ‘I thought it was strange in a sport like curling, where we constantly use odds and risk and award judgements, that we didn’t use this type of statistical information about your team and your opponent’s game’. With the help of Geurts, Hasselborg and the Swedish team found that in close games, the opposition having the final throw (the hammer) was more likely to lead to success, challenging the established view which assumed the opposite was true. The Swedes utilised their data, implemented their plan to perfection and came away with gold in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Sweden beat South Korea in the final, stealing points in the 4th and 5th end when South Korea had the hammer. 

In the NBA, there has been something of a three-point revolution. In the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Houston Rockets attempted more three-point field goals than two pointers, an unimaginable proposition in years gone by. When the three-point line was introduced in 1979, little research and seemingly arbitrary placement suggestions informed how the line should be placed on the court. This resulted in some shots outside of the area being closer to the hoop than those inside.

Kirk Goldsberry, former Vice President for the San Antonio Spurs and now an analyst on ESPN, has documented the rise in three-point shooting. He states that the three-point shot has negated the need for the mid-range two-point field goals. The reason being,  the chances of scoring are similar, meaning the higher scoring attempt is more valuable and equally possible.


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Via @kirkgoldsberry

This recent change in strategy has also altered the positional roles that players have, in that roles are becoming less defined. Centres and Power Forwards are shooting from outside the area more often in the current NBA era, again something that was unheard of 20 years ago. Goldsberry showed newly crowned NBA Champion, Milwaukee Bucks’ Center Brook Lopez as the perfect example of this change, stating that in 2015-16 he took 1% of his field goals from three-point range compared to the 2018-19 season where a huge 66% of his shots were from beyond the line.

Another example of many hours of analysis culminating in one pivotal moment in a match is the famous ‘corner taken quickly…Origi!’ goal in Liverpool’s 4-0 Champions League semi-final win against Barcelona in 2019. A moment that would become vital in the clubs’ journey to winning a 6th Champions League title. Liverpool, 3-0 up with 79 minutes on the clock, the scores locked at 3-3 on aggregate, when the ball went behind for a corner. In the weeks prior to the game, the Liverpool performance analysts had noticed that Barcelona players were slow to set up defensively at set pieces, in part due to contesting the referee’s decisions. Manager, Jurgen Klopp, relayed this information throughout the club - from captain Mohammed Salah to the teenage ball boys on duty that night. The seemingly tiny detail spotted by the analysts became one of the most important pieces of information shared in Liverpool’s history as a corner ball was fed immediately to Trent Alexander-Arnold,who feigned to walk away from the corner, before playing the ball into the box, catching Barcelona cold, and allowing Divock Origi to fire into the top of the net. The comeback from a 3-0 loss in the first leg was complete. The 14 year old ball boy became a legend. History was made.

Not only are analytics affecting strategy on pitch, but they are influencing organisational and club strategies off the pitch. In the NFL, analysis has shown that passing plays are significantly more effective than running plays, and there is no significant difference in the effectiveness of high-profile running backs compared to average running backs. This insight has led to a significant decrease in the amount of running backs selected in the first round of the NFL draft. In 1983, 20% of first round-selections were running backs compared to just 6% in this year’s draft. 

Performance analysis at elite levels is changing the face of sport performance and strategy across the globe. It is actively pushing the limits of what we know is physically possible with extraordinary athletes such as Eliud Kipchoge and offering up new, previously impossible milestones for future athletes to break.

A film documenting the success of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, Kipchoge: The Last Milestone, releases on streaming services on the 23rd August and is currently available on Sky Documentaries. To learn about what boundaries can be pushed and how to find your competitive edge, please get in touch at hello@studioskylab.com

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