There’s another arms race in track and field and this one has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. It’s the arms race of the feet. High-tech shoes have been increasingly impacting the sport the past few years, stirring up controversy along the way, and now they could be responsible for a big spike in performances on the track.
“Times for NCAAs this year are outrageous,” says BYU coach Ed Eyestone.
Each year for the last 10 years, an average of 32 collegiate men ran sub four-minute miles indoors, topped by last year’s high of 38. This year there are 90.
The 16 fastest runners in each event qualified for this weekend’s NCAA indoor championships. The slowest qualifying time for the mile is 3:56.60 — a time that would’ve won all but four of the NCAA indoor championships going back to their start in 1965.
Using a 4:36.0 as the cutoff for women in the same race — which is within seconds of the women’s equivalent of a men’s sub-four mile — 24 met that threshold this year, which doubles last year’s total. Over the previous decade the average was 10.
The same thing is happening in the other distance and middle-distance races, but, notably, not in the sprints.
Here are a few examples:
800 meters men
2021: 7 under 1:48
2022: 23 under 1:48
2021: 14 under 2:05
2022: 34 under 2:05
2021: 38 under 4:00
2022: 90 under 4:00
2021: 12 under 4:36
2022: 24 under 4:36
2021: 5 under 7:50
2022: 38 under 7:50
2021: 14 under 9:05
2022: 37 under 9:05
2021: 29 under 13:50
2022: 71 under 13:50
2021: 8 under 15:50
2022: 27 under 15:50
Part of the performance spike might be attributable to the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted athletes to make up for the 2020 season that was canceled by the pandemic. But Eyestone and Diljeet Taylor, the head coach of the BYU women’s team, believe shoe technology is the biggest factor.
“It’s the shoes,” says Taylor, emphatically.
“No question,” says Eyestone. “It’s like aluminum bats in baseball. I’m old enough to remember when tennis players switched from wooden rackets. It’s the same thing. New shoes have destroyed what used to be fast times.”
“It’s the shoes. Absolutely. No question,” says Bob Wood.
Wood, a longtime agent for runners on the track and road, is the former chairman of long-distance running for USA Track and Field and was once listed as one of the most powerful men in the sport. It would be difficult to find anyone more knowledgeable about the running world. Asked why the performance spike is occurring this season when the shoes have been around a few years, he says, “Not everybody had them last year. Before, it was mostly Nike people. Now other shoe companies are getting the technology.”
Both Taylor and Eyestone also mentioned the increased availability of the shoe for the spike in performances this year. The shoes will show up in high school races this spring.
Bryce Dyer, who is considered an expert in sports technology, told NPR that the shoes are made of rubber polymers combined with carbon fiber plates that “work together to absorb and then return a percentage of the energy that the runner puts into them.”
The bottom line is that they provide added spring to each footstrike while also absorbing the fatigue-inducing pounding that runners normally experience. World Athletics — the governing body of track and field — was pressured to ban the shoes, but refused. The shoes are here to stay.
Eyestone could see the writing on the wall years ago. “Super shoes” began showing up in road races in 2016 and on the track in 2019. Since then, all world records from 5,000 meters to the marathon have fallen, and runners have produced seven of the top eight marathon men’s times and nine of the top 10 women’s times. The arrival of the shoes was especially discouraging for Eyestone. One of his runners, Jared Ward, placed sixth in the Olympic marathon but he was the first one across the line who wasn’t wearing the high-tech shoes.
In 2019, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge was wearing a prototype of the super shoes when he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours.
At the outset of 2020, World Athletics ruled that they would put limits on shoe designs and athletes would not be allowed to wear prototypes that haven’t been available to the public for at least four months. But this was all too late to help non-Nike athletes in the Tokyo Olympics six months later. Clearly, they were at a competitive disadvantage. Business Insider reported that athletes wearing Nike shoes claimed 21 of 33 podium spots — about 64% — in the individual events of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The super shoes might account for a couple of stunning races at last summer’s Olympic Games. Kevin Young’s world record of 46.78 seconds had stood for 29 years before Norway’s Karsten Warholm finally broke it in July of last year by .08 of a second. That’s the way records are normally broken — incrementally, by a tenth of a second or less.
But In the Tokyo Olympics a few weeks later, Warholm ran a next-generation time of 45.94 and two other competitors behind him also broke the world record. The same thing happened in the women’s 400-hurdle race. No woman had ever broken 52 seconds before 2021.
The world record set by Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina of 52.34 had lasted 16 years until it was broken by American Dalilah Muhammad in 2019 and again in 2020, with times of 52.20 and 52.16. American Sydney McLaughlin ran 51.90 in the Olympic Trials and then an eye-popping 51.46 in the Olympics, with countryman Muhammad second in 51.58 and the Netherlands’ Femke Bol third in 52.03.
Warholm slammed the shoes worn by runner up Rai Benjamin — Nike’s controversial Air Zoom Victory shoes — comparing them to running with a trampoline under his feet. He also worried aloud that the evolving shoe technology would hurt athletes’ credibility — that the first thing fans will wonder after a fast race is whether it’s because of the shoes (similarly to the same way people suspect drugs after fast races). It should be noted that Warholm himself wore a pair of shoes that contained the carbon fiber plate that had been produced in a collaboration between Puma and Mercedes Benz.
Ultimately, shoes might do to track what steroids did to baseball and what polyurethane suits did to swimming. When track and field began to move from cinder tracks to synthetic surfaces, records tumbled and there was a tectonic shift in the sport. There was no objective to the arrival of the track, but the emergence of the high-tech shoe has sharply divided aficionados of the sport; one side sees it as unfair, the other as evolution.
Swimming endured a similar challenge with the arrival of polyurethane swimsuits that covered the body almost entirely and made swimmers more buoyant and hydrodynamic; the sport banned them from competition in 2010 after records began tumbling in rapid succession — some 130 world records in about a year and a half. Some called the suits “doping on a hanger.”
Performance-enhancing drugs undoubtedly revolutionized performances in track, just as it has in other sports, and drug testing has been only moderately successful in stopping them. Florence Griffith Joyner set sensational and highly suspicious world records in the 100 and 200 in 1988 — 10.49 and 21.34 in the 100- and 200-meter dashes — that no one has come close to challenging — until last year when Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah ran times of 10.54 and 21.53 while wearing carbon fiber spikes.
The shoe advancements “have proven that they allow a runner to be more efficient and that’s a big change, especially from 800 meters to 10,000 meters,” says Brian Metzler, author of “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes.”
“Some athletes have told me that the new spikes can provide a 5- to 15-second boost in the 5,000 meters, so that’s a real time difference.” Studies show that the carbon fiber shoes provide about 4% more energy efficiency.
If nothing else, it will be difficult to compare runners of different generations. Asked about the situation in general, Wood says, “It’s off-the-charts stupid. Records are going to get broken by people who aren’t nearly as good as the (previous record holders). What would Jim Ryun do today? He ran a 3:51 mile in high school on a cinder track wearing grandma’s shoes. Put him in today’s shoes on today’s tracks and he would’ve run 3:44.”