Are runners getting faster and faster?

The highlight of the world championships in track and field, which ended in Eugene, Oregon, on Sunday, was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin breaking her own world record, and the rest of the field, in the 400 meters hurdles. It was a dominantly set record, the kind of performance fans watch sports but rarely get to see.

World-class racers compete in two different planes simultaneously. They’re trying to beat each other, but they’re also chasing ghosts and trying to run faster than anyone has ever done before.

We are in what some call the golden age of people running fast, with records across the spectrum being broken and more people than ever before – from elite professionals to high school students – run times that would have previously been unheard of.

A small example: at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Rai Benjamin of the United States ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, which was faster than any man had run before. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Karsten Warholm of Norway, on the track next to him, finished 0.23 seconds faster, setting a world record that still stands.

Records are falling largely from a combination of better training and technique, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the accelerated use of high-performance tennis across all disciplines.

Data from World Athletics, the athletics governing body, on official meetings shows that more world records were set in the past year than in any year since 2008. (It should be noted that very few official meetings were held in 2020.) If one more world record is set in 2022, would mark the most number of world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.

However, there are still interesting variations, especially at the top of the sport, where records are dropping the fastest.

For the set of individual race events held during this year’s world championships, a total of 22 races, the number of records set was still lower than some years in the 1980s and 1990s, however.

As in 2021, the peaks of new world records often coincide with the Olympics. It’s the most important event on the racing calendar, and its races feature the fastest fields in the world, the best athletes in the best shape of their lives.

But a deeper analysis of the data shows that the simple shorthand conclusion that everyone is getting faster is incomplete and obscures major differences between different types of racing.

All the world records set since the start of the pandemic have taken place in a small group of races that include hurdles and long-distance events. In other events, however, no world records have fallen in decades. This is most apparent in flat (no obstacles) sprints of 400 meters and shorter.

In women’s sprints, no world records have been set since the 1980s. Florence Griffith Joyner, who died in 1998, still holds the records in the 100 and 200 meters, while Marita Koch set the 400 meters world record while competing for East Germany.

It is worth noting that suspicions of doping have followed Griffith Joyner since she set her records, although she was never credibly accused of doping. It seems clear, however, that Koch and many other East German athletes participated in a state-sponsored doping scheme. Mandatory out-of-competition drug testing was first introduced in 1989, and waves of athletes – especially sprinters – have been drugged ever since. It is extremely difficult to say for sure which records are immaculate.

In the men’s sprints, the 100, 200 and 400 meters, runners set new records throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but only one since 2009. Why? Usain Bolt of Jamaica, perhaps the greatest sprinter of all time. His world records still stand today despite his retirement in 2017.

Focusing solely on world records to understand whether people are getting faster, however, risks losing the forest for the trees. In some races, the top of the field is steadily rising, posing new threats to the records held by long-retired competitors.

For example, after experiencing a lull in the 1990s and 2000s, the 200 female competitors are faster than ever. The lull could be because of the introduction of out-of-competition doping tests, or perhaps because Jamaica’s women’s running program hasn’t grown in dominance until the last 15 years or so.

Griffith Joyner’s world record in the 200 meters has not been broken, but in the past year, two athletes – Jamaican Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah – have come closer than any other. Given the strength of the field, it seems appropriate to say that Joyner’s record hasn’t been broken “yet.”

There are many reasons why athletes may be getting faster. The strategies and techniques are always engaging, as is the understanding of sports and nutrition science.

Most explanations, however, point to the shoes. In 2017, Nike released its Zoom Vaporfly 4%, a running shoe with a carbon fiber plate in the midsole that acts as a catapult, delivering energy more efficiently to the wearer. A New York Times analysis found that runners who wore these shoes and the like ran 4-5% faster than runners who wore regular shoes.

After a brief period of exclusivity, competing brands released their own version of a shoe with carbon fiber plates on an elastic midsole, and now the treadmill spikes also incorporate versions of that technology. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have been new world records in both men’s and women’s marathons since the introduction of these shoes, and many of the fastest times of all time have been set in recent years.

There are many other explanations and technologies that have been postulated as reasons for the recent fast times. Modern tracks are made of better materials that help with speed. The elastic surface at the Tokyo Olympics has been compared to a trampoline. WaveLight technology – a system of lights that flash around the track at a specific pace – helped improve the pace of world record attempts. And fewer anti-doping tests were carried out during the pandemic.

By their very definition, world records are atypical events. Attributing them to a cause, like the super shoes, is a silly task. After his world-record performance in Tokyo, Warholm, who is sponsored by Puma, criticized the Nike spikes that his competitor Benjamin was wearing during the race. “He had these things on his shoes, which I hate,” Warholm said.

The women’s 10,000m world record was broken twice in just a few days last year, first by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and then Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia. Both raced on the same fast track in Holland equipped with the WaveLight system which is not used in most major competitions. Both races were more or less set up for world record attempts, using track technologies and pacemakers, runners who lead the attempt for as long as possible before giving up.

Gidey also set the 5,000 world record at the end of 2020 and added the half marathon world record at the end of 2021. Amid these feats, however, she managed only one bronze medal in the 10,000 at the Olympics. A great achievement, no doubt, but also one that demonstrates the difference between bespoke world record attempts and championship races, where pushing, strategy and play – and consequently slower times – are paramount.

Gidey finally got his gold medal in the 10,000 at the world championships last week. His time was over a minute slower than his world record.

World records are often simply the result of a generational artist, or artists. Gidey holds three of them. Warholm lowered the men’s 400 hurdles world record twice in 2021. Sydney McLaughlin of the United States lowered the women’s 400 hurdles world record four times in just over a year. The quality of the men’s 800m competition, by contrast, has barely improved since the 1990s, and the competition has not performed so well since Kenya’s David Rudisha in early 2010.

It is, in a way, perhaps a bit of comfort. In a sport defined by shoes, technology, the spectrum – real or imagined – of doping, the key ingredient to unfathomable performances is the same as always: an incomparably good athlete.

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