The Technology Helping Athletes Smash World Records
Athletes who aren’t sponsored by Nike are inherently at a disadvantage right now
A common misconception is that running is a cheap hobby. I bought the famed Nike Vaporfly Next% shoes, which were controversial when they first came out because they include three carbon-fiber plates inside the shoes that help people run faster. In fact, according to Andrew Dawson at Runner’s World, the shoes were used by Eliud Kipchoge when he broke the two-hour marathon in October 2019.
When I got the Nike Vaporfly Next%, I wasn’t in shape. But at my local running store that holds the running club I’m a part of, I ran a mile on the treadmill with the Next% shoes and instantly felt like I was on springs. I simply couldn’t run slow — they were too good, and it felt like cheating. I would run times I was certainly not in shape to run, all thanks to the newest advances in running technology.
The price I paid for the shoes? $200. And that was with a 20% discount.
Technology has taken the world of running a long way, and most recently, they have helped athletes break world records widely seen as unbreakable. Sean Ingle at The Guardian reports on Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey, who obliterated the 5,000 meters world records. Cheptegei also broke the 10,000-meter world record, and he broke the records on Kenenisa Bekele, arguably the most dominant distance runner of all time who I idolized growing up. I would remember races where Bekele would just turn a new gear at the very last lap of a race, beating his competition by almost 50 meters. British track star, Mo Farah and Ethiopian Sifan Hassan also broke the one-hour world records.
This is to take nothing away from the accomplishments of Cheptegei, Gidey, Farah, and Hassan, who are terrific athletes in their own right. The athletes used new technology on the track to help them with their records. In particular, the athletes used racing spikes called the Nike ZoomX Dragonfly Spikes, which have been called the “fastest shoes ever.” The spikes include a carbon plate and a unique foam, and the carbon plate allows Nike shoes to have an advantage over their rivals. Spikes are the track version of racing shoes, so athletes are using the Dragonfly Spikes on the track, and Vaporflies on the roads.
There are some regulations to the Vaporfly shoes, which limit the thickness of the sole to 40mm and rule out modified versions of the shoes. Research shows that the shoes can help runners improve race times by as much as 2.5%. According to sports technologist Bryce Dyer, the shoes have a polymer rubber known as Pebax, which when combined with carbon fiber plates work together to absorb and return the energy a runner puts into them. That leads runners to “spring” forward and also leave legs less sore.
Critics of allowing the Vaporfly shoes in races call wearing them “technological doping.”
The shoes aren’t the only technology that’s helping athletes break world records. To be clear, I think Cheptegei and Gidey are world-class athletes, and their own merit and talent matter more than any technology can contribute. But tracks currently also have Wavelight technology, lights on the inside of the track that flash at an assigned pace. Wavelight technology has mitigated the need for pacers, who are athletes that only run a portion of the race to make sure an athlete is on the right pace for their target goal, although athletes still use pacers during races. Pacers not only help establish speed, but they block wind, and a human reference is much better than a technological reference any day of the week.
According to Rick Maese at the Washington Post, previous generations didn’t have the aid of the Wavelight technology. At some point in a race, the pacers drop off. Watch Eliud Kipchoge establish the ratified world record in the 2018 Berlin Marathon, and it’s clear he had to do a heavy amount of the work himself in the second half of the race. The lights are a visual pacing technology that helps athletes have a pacer throughout the race. Cheptegei defended the use of Wavelight technology as a means for the sport and business of running to adapt.
“We are in 2020…We are not in 1980s, we are not in 1990s, we are not in 1970s. So every time, we have to accept the new developments in the sport, the new technology,” Cheptegei said.
Not only that, but the racing shoes have helped Nike dominate the racing shoe industry. Rachel Bachman at the Wall Street Journal reports on how the new Nike shoes have made rival shoe companies struggling to keep up. Saucony allowed one of its sponsored athletes to wear Nike shoes since the athlete felt like he would be at a disadvantage if he didn’t wear them. Saucony has made the Endorphin Pro, but the company acknowledges everyone is playing catch up to Nike.
One Saucony executive, Shawn Hoy, the VP of global product at the company, expresses frustration that one head of World Athletics has a conflict of interest. Sebastian Coe, a British athlete who won four Olympic medals, has a building named after him at Nike, and was sponsored by the company. However, a spokeswoman at World Athletics said Coe wasn’t involved in shaping the regulations.
Another factor helping athletes break world records isn’t related to technology at all — the COVID-19 pandemic. Jere Longman at the New York Times states that because athletes are not training for competition, many are training for record attempts and personal bests. It might sound like a contradiction, but with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the Olympics, ending races, enforcing lockdowns and social distancing, the championship racing season was over.
Championship races are run very differently from world record attempts. Simply put, the goal is different. In championship races, the goal is to win. In world record attempts, the goal is to break the world record. When you want to win, a tactic is often to conserve energy and use tactical genius to win a race, and that means not running the fastest pace at all times. In most of Mo Farah’s legendary victories, he won’t take the lead until the very end.
Races are also a massive expenditure of energy in other ways. Having a heavy racing schedule requires significant investment and travel and training to adapt themselves to racing best instead of pursuing world records. Longman emphasizes that Cheptegei and other athletes also didn’t have to travel much — most trips for Cheptegei from Uganda to Europe often require 24 hours of travel, which takes away time spent training and with family and the local community.
When Lance Armstrong admitted to doping to Oprah, he said he didn’t feel like he was cheating. He felt like he never got an advantage over the rest of the field because blood transfusions and performance-enhancing drugs were very common, and even universal in the field. He expressed wanting to catch up more than he wanted to gain an unfair advantage.
The difference between doping, blood transfusions, and performance-enhancing drugs and the new running technology is that the governing board of running has condoned the technology, despite some restrictions. But athletes using shoes like Vaporflies or Dragonflies need to do so to keep up, not to get ahead. And the byproduct of this race to keep up is resulting in world records being smashed left and right.
On December 6, in Valencia, four athletes shattered the previous half marathon record in Valencia, with the new record being set to 57:32 for the event by Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie. Records that seemed unbreakable only a couple years ago are now being swatted away like flies.
Again, Nike has dominated the racing shoe industry. The top racing shoe companies in the track and distance races I’ve been in are Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, and Nike. So far, Brooks has made the Hyperion Elite, which has Brooks lightweight stretch woven upper and the Brooks DNA Zero midsole that it’s famous for. The DNA Zero midsole apparently adapts itself to the shape of a runner’s feet. But because of Nike’s patented technology, according to TRT World, competitors can’t simply copy the design and have to invent their own technology.
“It’s super frustrating that someone has an amazing race and we go, ‘what are they wearing?’” American Olympian marathoner and winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Desiree Linden said.
But athletes who aren’t sponsored by Nike are inherently at a disadvantage right now. And that’s exactly what’s best for Nike’s business interests in the world of racing shoes.