It’s Gotta Be The Shoes, Right?

Nike Air Zoom Victory track spike
I’ve lost count of how many records the Nike Air Zoom Victory track spike has been a part of over the past year or so. Photo: Nike

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the crazy fast track times we’ve seen posted from the 800m on up over the past year and the myriad records that have been bettered in recent months at all levels of the sport around the globe. This past week was no exception as Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay broke the indoor 1500m world record last Tuesday in France, running 3:53.09. Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen ran 3:31.80 at the same meet to claim the European indoor record and annihilate a pretty solid field. On Saturday, Elle Purrier took 8 seconds off Jenny Simpson’s American record in the 2-mile, running 9:10.28 at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in New York. Also at the NBGP, Bryce Hoppel ran 2:16.27 to break the late David Torrence’s American record in the 1000m, Donavan Brazier ran 1:44.21 in the 800m to take 1/100th of a second off his own American record, and Washington’s Sam Tanner ran 3:34.72 in the 1500m to break both the NCAA indoor record and the New Zealand national record. Not to be outdone, Oregon’s Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker ran 3:50.39 and 3:50.55, respectively, for the mile in Arkansas to take over a second off former Duck Ed Cheserek’s NCAA indoor record. That was just in the past seven days—and I’m sure I’m missing a mark or two! My point here is we’ve seen middle distance and distance records falling at an unusually rapid rate, which, of course, begs the question: What the hell is going on?

I’ve speculated about this a few times in past issues of the newsletter and have mostly focused on the impact of the fancy new track spikes that have been all the rage since the the 2019 world championships in Doha, which is when this most recent record run first began to pick up steam. Are they making a difference? No doubt. They’re fast—it’s hard to say how much faster than traditional spikes but I don’t think 0.25-1.0 seconds per 400m is unreasonable depending on the athlete, the event, and how they respond to the new technology. The “super” spikes, which a few different brands have released versions of now, are designed to minimize energy loss and maximize responsiveness. But the spikes aren’t all that’s happening—they can’t be all that’s happening, not with the myriad other variables that have factored into the equation since the pandemic upended everything almost a year ago. Here are a few other factors I’ve been pondering and discussing amongst friends and colleagues, in no particular order: 

— Here in the U.S., many high school and college athletes have been able to train and behave like professional athletes over the past year, with some spending stretches of time at altitude, most training with fewer interruptions and less performance stress overall, thus allowing them to increase their overall workload and perhaps even try things in training they otherwise wouldn’t attempt when racing most weekends of the year. That last bit is also worth calling out: the high school and collegiate racing schedule is relentless in many parts of the country, with the fall cross country season bleeding into indoor track over the winter and then right into outdoor track, which, if you’re a top athlete, extends well into the summer months. It is so easy to over-race as a high school or collegiate athlete and I think some of the incredible performances we’re seeing amongst the scholastic ranks despite limited opportunities to compete is due to the fact that the athletes are just fitter and fresher than they would be in ordinary times.

— Building off of that, there’s something to be said for seeing what’s possible when an athlete can hunker down and train without having to be ready to race by a certain date. It’s cliche to say that consistency is key but really, consistency is key and for many of these athletes, they’ve never trained more consistently in their entire lives.

— I also think the athletes that have been able to race—whether it’s a high schooler, collegian, or professional—are a little hungrier to compete than usual and don’t want to squander an opportunity to pop a fast time. If you know you only have one or two chances to really nail one as opposed to four or five, you probably aren’t going to leave it to chance. There are high school kids who are still trying to impress college coaches and possibly secure a scholarship for next year while there are college and professional athletes who need to secure qualifying marks for championship meets that may or may not happen later this year, including the Olympic Trials and Games, not to mention professionals who are trying to satisfy contractual obligations and cash in on performance incentives in the absence of appearance fees and prize money.

— As I wrote back in October, these super spikes (and their road racing predecessors) seem to reduce leg fatigue, especially in longer races, thus allowing the athlete to maintain a high level of intensity for longer, but also reducing the recovery time needed after a hard effort (which allows the athlete to get back to training sooner). I’ve spoken to eight different athletes who’ve worn various versions of these super spikes for races ranging from the 1500m to the 10,000 and every single one of them told me that they didn’t feel nearly as destroyed afterward as they had in the past when wearing traditional track spikes. This anecdotal evidence is pretty consistent with what’s been reported by runners who tested the Nike Vaporfly for training and racing.

— After he became the first man to break 4 minutes in the mile, Roger Bannister famously said, “Après moi, le déluge” (After me, the deluge) and, lo-and-behold, a month later John Landy ran 3:58, a year later three runners broke 4 in the same race, and eventually it became pretty commonplace amongst top-level milers. I think we’re seeing some of that “Why not me?” attitude happening right now on the track, i.e. “if she can run that fast, heck, why shouldn’t I try to run that fast too.”

— At the top level of the sport—and this is not to accuse anyone in particular of any wrong doing—we know that out-of-competition drug testing has been greatly reduced due to the pandemic. I like to try and maintain an optimistic perspective that most athletes are doing things the right way and playing by the rules but history suggests otherwise.

— Going back to last summer’s record-breaking track season—and we saw it again this past weekend with the Oregon indoor mile assault—a fair number, but certainly not all, of the insanely fast performances we’ve seen have been part of carefully constructed time trials—intrasquad in some cases, a little more inclusive in others—but all with the specific aim of running really fast. That’s worth calling out because most of the variables can be controlled, from the participants to the pacers to the pace(s) and even the weather conditions to a degree. (“Oh, it’s going to be windy on Tuesday—let’s just do it on Wednesday!) In these types of situations it’s not about who wins necessarily but how fast can people run and over the past year we’ve seen a disproportionate number of races set up for folks to just run really, really fast. 

How much of it is this versus that? It’s hard to say for sure what’s the right ratio but it’s too reductionist to say that the fast times we’ve been seeing are all due to the spikes or any other factor that’s acting alone. I’m just going with “all of the above” for now and will leave it at that until someone convinces me otherwise.

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