THE Tokyo Olympics have brought some of the fastest times ever seen on the athletics track. At an astonishing number of races, athletes are beating personal bests along with national, Olympic and world records. Elaine Thompson-Herah set a new Olympic record in the women’s 100 metres, breaking Florence Griffith Joyner’s record set over 33 years ago. World records were smashed in both the men’s and women’s 400 metres hurdles, by Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin respectively. In both these events, the silver medallist also ran faster than the previous world record.
Is this just an unusually good Olympics for record-breaking races or is something different going on? Part of the answer can be found by looking down at an athlete’s feet.
If you look closely, you might spot some new technology known as “super spikes” – and underfoot, there is a high-tech track.
Recently, track spikes – shoes that have spikes on the underside to give runners grip – have seen a similar shift in the performance-enhancing technology that previously took over marathon racing shoes. Marathon “super shoes” first emerged in 2017 with Nike’s Vaporfly 4%, which gave athletes average energy savings of 4 per cent compared with competitors not wearing them. By now, almost every brand has a super shoe, and the new technology is being applied to track spikes.
Similar to their super shoe counterparts, super spikes combine soft, compliant and resilient foam with a stiff, curved carbon-fibre plate. The exact benefits of super spikes are difficult to quantify, but each component probably plays a role.
Traditionally, track spikes have tried to lessen the amount of midsole foam to reduce weight and energy absorption. However, new technology is lightweight and the foam is better at returning energy to the athlete than foams before it, giving back as much as 80 to 90 per cent. In this way, the foam acts as a spring with each step the athlete takes.
The role of the carbon-fibre plate is less clear. Research has shown that stiffening track spikes will reduce the amount of energy lost during toe flexion. This may increase the demands on the ankle. However, it has also been shown that if an athlete is strong enough to meet these increased demands, the plate allows them to get a more effective push off.
Another new technology contributing to athletes’ speed in Tokyo is the track. While it may look like a regular track, Mondo, the company behind it, spent three years researching and developing the surface specifically for Tokyo 2020. The track has been precisely tuned to allow shock absorption and energy return, playing a similar role to the foam in spikes.
Research on engineered track surfaces is as old as 1978, when it was found that a compliant, resilient track surface could improve times by as much as 2.9 per cent. Although the exact savings of the Tokyo track are unknown, its developers have said it could improve times by as much as 2 per cent compared with previous Olympic tracks.
While it is tempting to attribute the record-breaking times to the new spike and track technologies alone, other factors are at play too. The games being delayed by a year due to the covid-19 pandemic may actually have benefited some athletes, giving them more time to train. Other, more variable, factors, such as the weather, can affect how an athlete performs on any given day. And above all, we cannot ignore the effort and talent of the athletes competing in these races. It may just be that we have got a particularly talented crop this year.
Overall, the record-breaking times seen in Tokyo are likely to be a combination of all the above, including fast shoes, fast tracks and extremely talented athletes. ❚
Laura Healey is a manager of footwear innovation at Puma
More on these topics:
Read more at New Scientist