Why advances in running shoe technology are hurting the credibility of record times

The gold spikes worn by American 400m legend Michael Johnson and a similar pair on the feet of the greatest sprinter Usain Bolt were striking. But the only talking point was how good they looked on the feet of those multiple gold medalists.

Athletes these days have had to defend their shoe choice. Not because of the color but the materials used to make them. Carbon plate, thick soles, advanced foam in these latest shoes, many believe they helped athletes run faster. World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, has woken up and introduced stricter guidelines and simpler rules on sole thickness come into effect from 2024.

Major brands invest heavily in hours of testing in race labs and ask contracted athletes for feedback after wearing prototypes on tracks to produce the “fastest shoe”.

The black and green spikes worn by Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan in the women’s 100 meters hurdles were “plain Jane” shoes compared to the eye-catching gold shoes made famous by Johnson and Bolt. Yet modern shoe technology immediately put a question mark over his record run in the semis.

This despite the fact that Amusan does not wear the super spikes but uses the shoe that suits him best. She stormed the gold wearing middle-distance shoes. The Adidas Adizero Avanti is one of the popular pairs worn by mid to long distance runners. The shoe choice worked for Amusan as it helped cushion an injured knee tendon. She ran with the wind in 12.06 seconds in the final and 12.12 in the semi-final, a new world record.

“I had patellar fasciitis at the start of the season which set me back for a while. I spoke to Adidas and asked if I could get spikes with a softer sole,” Amusan told The Guardian. “My abilities are not centered around spikes.”

In accordance with the regulations in force, the thickness of the sole of the sprint crampons must not exceed 20 millimetres. Thus, Amusan’s middle-distance shoes would have had specifications that complied with the rules.

Will shoe tech skeptics be satisfied with his explanation?

At the World Championships, American Sydney McLaughlin smashed her own world record in the 400m hurdles and left everyone in her wake. She has yet to face questions about shoe technology, but after the Tokyo Olympics, where a fast track at the Olympic Stadium also helped runners, the debate was reignited when the event ended. masculine and feminine.

Sydney McLaughlin of the USA celebrates after winning the women’s 400 meters hurdles final at the World Championships in Athletics. (AP)

The men’s 400 meter hurdles was an all-time classic. Norwegian Karsten Warholm improved his world record by 0.76 seconds and edged out American Rai Benjamin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s time for the silver medal was half a second short of Warholm’s previous mark of 46.70. National records and continental marks were set by six of the seven finalists in the men’s final in Tokyo.

Warholm pointed his guns at what Benjamin wore on his feet, a pair of spikes that seemed thicker than his own but within the rules.

“He had these things in his shoes, which I hate,” Warholm said. “I don’t see why you should put anything under a sprint shoe. I think it takes credibility away from our sport.

Warholm wore Puma shoes and Benjamin ran in Nikes. A little later, Warholm tried to tone down his remarks, but said he thought the credibility of the fast times set by was taking a hit.

“What I said was misunderstood in a way, because I had a comment about it after the race and it just blew up and that wasn’t my plan at all,” said Warholm.

“To be honest, I don’t know if this shoe [Nike] is the best shoe. my shoe [Puma] may be just as good, but that’s not necessarily what it’s all about. I didn’t do science. When someone puts on a great performance now, everyone will wonder if it’s the shoe. It’s the issue of credibility.”

Karsten Warholm of Norway wins a heat in the men’s 400 meters hurdles at the World Championships in Athletics. (AP)

Thick shoes with multiple plates have been controversial. Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, the current two-time Olympics marathon winner, ran the first-ever sub-two-hour marathon (a non-competitive one-time event) wearing Nike Alpha Fly (prototype) shoes in Vienna in 2019. This sparked a debate over the amount of assist the shoes, said to have more than one plate and thicker than 40mm, gave Kipchoge. Athletes wearing thick-soled Nike shoes have recently won the majority of marathon races, raising questions about technological doping.

World Athletics have introduced updated regulations which have been in effect since the start of this year. A major change was introduced in January 2020 when athletes were told they could not run in prototype shoes. This meant that a shoe had to be available for purchase on the open market for at least four months before it could be worn by an athlete in an official race. This rule made the sport of running more equal. Most of the top athletes who endorsed the shoe giants had an unfair advantage because they had access to the latest models before they were released to the general public or competitors who didn’t have a contract.

There is a shoe thickness table under the regulations. For track events below the 800 meter distance, including hurdles, the tread thickness must be 20 mm. In track events over 800 meters, it may be 25 mm. When it comes to cross country racing, if it is a spiked shoe, the thickness can be 25mm and for shoes without spikes it is capped at 40mm. In road races, such as the marathon and for walking events, it is 40 mm, and in mountain races there is no limit to the thickness of the shoe.

Restricting the thickness of shoe soles is one of the steps to ensure that athletes do not take an unfair advantage of better cushioning and better ground energy generation.

A shoe must also not have more than one plate or blade in the sole, according to the regulations. This rule was intended to control multiple plates, including carbon fiber ones, used in shoes to help athletes get more spring energy from the ground.

The greatest sprinter Usain Bolt has called advances in shoe technology unfair. Bolt was referring to the superspikes – with a plate and foam bedding – introduced in 2019 by Nike, after which other manufacturers released their own versions.

“When I was told about it I couldn’t believe that’s where we went, you know what I mean, that we’re really adjusting the spikes to a level where it now gives the athletes an advantage to run even faster,” Bolt told Reuters in an interview last year.

Rojas pays the price

Interestingly, a world-class triple jumper’s bid to win a major medal in the long jump ended because she was using the wrong shoe.

Yulimar Rojas, who won his third consecutive gold medal at the World Championships, had to miss the long jump event in Eugene.

Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela competes in the women’s triple jump final at the World Championships in Athletics. (AP)

The sole thickness of her shoes when she jumped 6.93 meters to qualify in June was 5 millimeters thicker than what is allowed in the long jump. Rojas had jumped 6.93 meters at the Reunion de Atletismo Ciudad de Guadalajara in June to book his ticket to the Worlds.

According to the current “sports shoes regulations” which came into force on January 1, 2022, the maximum thickness of the sole of a shoe for field events must not exceed 20 millimeters or two centimeters. However, an exception is the triple jump in which the sole can be 25mm thick.

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