Running shoe biomechanics help athletes excel in Tokyo

Norway’s Karsten Warholm’s spectacular run to break his own world record in the 400m hurdles at the Olympics on Tuesday — winning gold in just 45.94 seconds — was the latest example of “super shoes” propelling athletes forward. Experts say this innovation will continue to radically change the landscape of runway and runway.

A slew of not only new world records, but a slew of national records and staggering personal bests since the 2016 Rio Olympics show athletes thrive on new technology that has taken running shoe biomechanics to new levels.

When the Olympic athletics program kicked off in Tokyo on July 30, some athletes wore the super-light shoes with a stiff plate and unique foam that imparts a propulsive sensation to every step.

Critics claim the shoes, first developed by Nike, are the equivalent of mechanical doping, while supporters hailed them as revolutionary progress after decades of stagnation.

“There seems to be an acceptance now that the new generation of shoes is part of the sport that is moving forward,” Geoff Burns, a biomechanics and sports performance researcher at the University of Michigan and an expert in running shoe technology, told AFP.

“We definitely don’t hear people calling for the shoes to be banned so much anymore.”

US-based journalist Brian Metzler, author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes, said there has been wider adoption largely because “all brands have caught up with Nike and because there’s a better understanding of how the shoe technology works”.

“The most important factors in acceptance are ensuring there is a level playing field and also the idea that no extra energy is created by the shoes, but instead a greater energy return from the force the runner exerts with each step,” Metzler told AFP.

Athletes, added Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and former editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine, “just to run fast, and they’ve realized they have to wear new shoes — from whatever company — if they want to keep up with the competition”.

He said: “I doubt the general public cares much about the shoes or understands them. That leaves only the sports historians and sports statisticians to debate what to do about the rapid new performance.”

‘A real time difference’

The technology, which consists of ‘flat’ running shoes and spikes, has been approved by the athletics board, World Athletics, albeit with parameters that are set, among other things, on foam thickness.

The designs “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,” Metzler said.

“Some athletes have told me that the new spikes can give a boost of five to 15 seconds in the 5,000 meters, so that’s a real time difference.”

Burns said it took time to understand the rarity of a performance, saying the sport was “still adapting to the faster times”.

Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia wore the shoes when she broke the world record in the women’s 10,000 meters in June. Her time of 29 minutes 1.03 seconds was one minute less than her previous record.

And Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei used the shoes to set the men’s 5,000m world record of 12:35.36 last year.

“The way the rapid achievements in the distance and middle distance races are celebrated by fans, announcers and the media is probably still exaggerated because of their respective importance,” Burns said.

“That is to say, the sport still hasn’t completely recalibrated what’s good and what’s great. That takes a little more time and more racing.

“I suspect we will be close by the end of next year, and in two years we will have a good sense of what is truly an exceptional achievement in the new era.”

The more advanced technology is, Burns continued, the more it invites “complexity in the sport, for the athletes, fans and governing bodies.”

Metzler added: “With running events, the die has been cast and we are already at a place where the new shoes have increased human performance.

“Usually that’s a good thing, I think, but we have to realize that a 5,000m (for men) of less than 13 minutes today is not the same as it was in the era of David Moorcroft, Said Aouita or Bob Kennedy” in recent years. decades .

All three experts agreed that many elite athletes had not seen their form drop during the Covid-19 pandemic, and said many had benefited from the extra rest and training.

“Athletes are healthy, ready, enthusiastic and wearing super shoes!” said Burfoot.

( Jowharwith AFP and AP)

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