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Athletes : Athletes

Is Gear a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Cycling’s most prestigious record—the distance an athlete can ride in an hour—is about to get smashed, and it’s not because the riders are training harder or doping smarter. In this case, it’s all about the bikes.

The Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, announced last week that it will allow aero bars, disc wheels, and aero helmets in hour-record attempts. It’s a complete reversal of its restrictive ruling in 2000, which stated that all attempts at the record would only count if riders used a bike similar to the one ridden by Eddy Merckx.

Merckx rode 30.7 miles in one hour back in 1972, a record that stood for 12 years until Francesco Moser beat that distance by almost a mile. The difference? Moser was on a full aero set-up, which was far more technologically advanced than the bike Merckx rode. That record kept improving thanks to new technology up until 1996 when Chris Boardman set it at 35 miles, nearly five miles longer than Merckx’s original ride. Then the UCI changed the rules. Today, the hour record stands at 30.72 miles—a mere 883 feet farther than the record Merckx set in 1972.

The UCI’s recent ruling marks a significant victory for the use of technology in all sports, and it touches on one of the key questions all competitors face: where will the next big performance gains come from? New technology, new training, or some combination of both?

The Sports Gene author David Epstein aimed to answer at least part of that question in a TED talk this past March. He pointed to three main ingredients that have led to record-breaking changes in sports: technology; genetic makeup (the Kalingen runners of Kenya, for example, are genetically predisposed to excel at running) and changes in body type; and an athlete’s mindset. But while fitness and nutrition have made a difference in some sports at some times, technology has made a difference in all sports, said Epstein.

Take track surface advancements for professional runners. If 1932 Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens were to run against current 100-meter world-record holder Usain Bolt on today’s synthetic track—not cinders—and with the use of the now-standard specially designed starting blocks, the separation between the two would come down to just one stride, said Epstein.

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The fourth element making us faster, though, might be a mix of technology and training. The real performance gains will probably come from increased data and sensors that can quantify information for athletes. That’s right. Wearable tech might be the next big breakthrough for human fitness. 

“Equipment is always improving—in cycling’s aerodynamic parts, special skin suits, and helmets, in faster skis and waxes in skiing, and in lighter shoes for running,” says Scott Schnitzspahn, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of high performance. But it's the new techno-training tools that might offer the most promise: monitors for activity and sleep, GPS, biofeedback, cryotherapy, targeted compression devices, and sports psychology. “We’re not only enhancing training,” adds Schnitzspahn, “but allowing athletes to have more training days uninterrupted by injury.”

Those new tools and smarter training have also prolonged the careers of record-breaking athletes. “The fact that we have swimmers competing into their 30s now is evidence that we understand how to train better,” says Scott McLean, chair of the department of kinesiology at Georgetown, Texas' Southwestern University.

“In the old days it was all volume, but now quality is understood to be more important. Michael Phelps will try to qualify for his fifth Olympic games in 2016. He will be 30 when he does this. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.”

And while the record-breaking potential of wearable tech remains to be proven, other records—in swimming, skiing, cycling, and ultrarunning—are sure to fall thanks to some less-heralded technological tweaks. Already, swimming has benefitted from suit design (despite the ban on the world-record-breaking full-coverage, low-drag suits of the 2008 Olympics), as well as improvements in deeper pools and better gutter designs.

The latest breakthrough may be the new backstroke start device (a kind of wedge like the one used by track sprinters) that gives backstrokers a small ledge to stand on. Although it hasn't yet been introduced (there’s talk we’ll see it by the next Olympics) it “may be,” says McLean, “where you’ll see some big drops.”

And while significant records in the shorter distances have probably plateaued, the role of footwear for long-distance running records could hinge on shoes with greater cushioning. There’s attention being paid right now to new foams for foot beds, for one, and because many track shoes have energy return plates, “perhaps this may assist longer distance road runners as well,” says Dr. Wendi Weimar, director of Auburn University’s Sport Biomechanics Laboratory. “The trick here is to find the shoe that encourages you to run with an optimal stride.”

It’ll also be hard to break the records in women’s running, many of which were set during the questionable 1980s—an era of virtually undetectable doping. Whereas the doping police were always a step or more behind the dopers in the past, that’s not so much the case anymore.

“The rationale here is that these records were set by athletes who were taking illegal substances but were undetected, a situation that will not occur in the future,” says Professor Matthew Curtner-Smith, head of the University of Alabama’s department of kinesiology. “On the other hand, if the rules are changed or relaxed regarding drugs, and some substances that are currently deemed illegal by governing bodies are approved, that could lead to breakthroughs.”

Similarly, for skiing and cycling, advances in suits, lightweight materials, and aerodynamics should lead to new standards. “Skiing is essentially limited by friction, so there’s not much to be gained there, but cycling is always a good sport for equipment gains, specifically individual events against the clock,” says Senior Sports Scientist Eleanor Jones of England’s University of Birmingham. “Anything that reduces air resistance is advantageous. But I don’t think you can really get a substantial improvement from kit—if you work within the equipment rules set by the UCI.”

Unless, of course, a sport’s governing body embraces changes in technology—the way the UCI has with the hour record. Then you’ll see records falling left and right. “The exciting thing is,” says USOC’s Schnitzspahn, “we can all use these same devices and improve our own performance—within sport and in our general lifestyle.”

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The Man Who Brought Running to Boulder

In 1970, Boulder, Colorado, was the only town above 5,000 feet in the United States that had a permanent indoor track. That alone was reason enough for Frank Shorter to pack his bags. “I could do interval training all year round,” says Shorter, who had just graduated from Yale and was training for the 1972 Olympic marathon. “That’s why I moved there. I didn’t know it had 300 days a year of sunshine and was the best place in the world to live.”

At that time, the running community was just beginning to understand the benefits of training at altitude. And at 5,400 feet above sea level, Boulder seemed optimal. “I was the first athlete to intentionally move here to train," says Shorter, who coached himself and went on to win gold in Munich. “I had a pretty good idea of how to go down to sea level from altitude and race—what the adjustment periods were.” 

Since then, the Boulder running scene has boomed. “I would go to the indoor track in 1970, and there would be the University of Colorado track and cross-country team in there, and then about four other people—that was it,” Shorter says. “But, over time, more and more people began to realize it worked.”

When Shorter started several retail businesses in town, he made a practice of hiring recent college graduates who were also runners (among them Stan Mavis and Herb Lindsay). “It was a whole community of people who came out to run,” he says. “We created an environment here that was very inclusive.” 

And that inclusivity extends beyond running. After all, what is Boulder without triathletes? Well, Shorter can be thanked for bringing them to town, too. He attended his first Ironman World Championship in 1982. “And guess who told the triathletes about Boulder?" he asks. “Me. Other people found that, for them, Boulder was just right, too. Sort of a Goldilocks thing.”

Local race director Cliff Bosley agrees. "Frank picking Boulder at the time he did popularized altitude running; it really created an influx of runners—and all endurance athletes—who came, and still come, to Boulder."

Shorter maintains that it's not only the athletes, but people of all stripes who thrive in Boulder. “People think the granola-crunchers control what’s going on, but that isn’t the case,” he says. “It’s a city where no one subculture dominates. And by subculture, I mean the university, the business community, and the sports scene.” If you want to excel in your field, Shorter argues, you’ll find support in Boulder.

And he would know. In the late ’70s, Shorter suggested to Steve Bosley, president of the Bank of Boulder (and Cliff's father), that a 10K road race might do well in their town. On May 27, 1979, 2,700 runners, including Shorter, completed the inaugural Bolder Boulder, making it one of the largest first-time races in the state.

"When the race was started, a lot of the early credibility happened as a result of the fact that guys like Ric Rojas and Frank Shorter agreed to run," says race director Bosley. "And so right from the beginning, having world-class athletes was, and continues to be, a part of the Bolder Boulder."

In 1981, the University of Colorado agreed to have the race finish at its Folsom Field Stadium; by 1983, the field had grown large enough to warrant a wave start. In 2011, a record 54,554 runners registered, making it the third-largest 10K in the country. 

Shorter thinks many participants use the race as an excuse for a reunion of sorts. “They come because they have relatives here, or they went to school here, or they have friends here; it’s truly something that people plan for the whole year,” he says. “The experience is being here and doing it with people you know, even for the people who come from out of state.”

This year’s Bolder Boulder takes place on Monday, May 26. Shorter will be the official starter, which requires a different type of endurance than running. He'll have to fire the starting gun 94 times—once for each wave. Thankfully, he's been training at altitude.

Need to Know About Boulder:

  • Population: 101,808
  • 43 miles from the Denver airport.
  • Boulder has made several of Outside’s Best Towns lists, most recently in 2012 and 2011

Frank Shorter is the commentator for the Boston Marathon. Read about his experience during the 2013 bombings.

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What Are the Best Snacks for the Trail?

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July Issue Videos

In the July issue of Outside, we took a wild ride down the freed Colorado River and let Clint Dempsey fire soccer balls at us in an enclosed studio. And we brought our cameras along too. Feast your eyes.

What happens when you let America's best striker in front of a camera with a soccer ball? Some amazing footwork. And a lot of ducking:

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The 2014 Colorado River Pulse Flow gave a ragtag group of Outside reporters and environmentalists the chance to paddle where no man has paddled before —or at least in a very long time. Pete McBride takes us along for the ride:

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My Hometown: Beach Volleyball Player Todd Rogers on Solvang, California

Pro beach volleyball player Todd Rogers lives less than half an hour from the Pacific Coast. But surprisingly, the beach isn’t his favorite thing about living in sunny Solvang, California. “It is focused on families and children,” says the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, who moved to town in August 2002, when his kids were 3 and 1. “People are friendly, and everyone knows everyone else—I could never get that in a big city.” 

Located in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, Rogers says Solvang operates at a slow pace. "That is why my wife and I moved here," he says. "Neither of us are into the hustle and bustle of the city. We like to enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir on our porch while enjoying the natural view."

Here’s what else the five-time AVP world champ has to say about life in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Describe Solvang.
The Santa Ynez Valley is made up of five small little towns: Solvang, Santa Ynez, Buellton, Los Olivos, and Ballard. Solvang, where I live, is a quaint Danish town with windmills, wineries, and great places to eat. The Santa Ynez river runs through it, and it is bordered by the coastal mountains.

One thing most people don't know about Solvang?
It isn't as big of a secret as it used to be, but the wine industry is blowing up here. We are becoming well known for our Pinot Noir and the Santa Rita Hills Appellation. Once the movie Sideways came out, people started buying up all the Pinots from the area.

Favorite place to get outside?
The Santa Ynez River. It runs through the entire area, and I am down there almost everyday running, walking my dogs, jumping in with my kids, or generally exploring what the river has to offer.

Best time of year to visit?
All year long in my opinion, but I am biased. Weather-wise, either spring or fall are the best times. Usually it is a bit nippy (50 degrees or so) in the mornings, but warms up to around 80 in the afternoons.

Best restaurant?
Trattoria Grappolo. This quaint little Italian restaurant has been the go-to restaurant for my wife and me since it was opened about ten years ago by immigrant Italian brothers. Great wine list, great food, and great ambiance for both locals and tourists.

Must-see attraction?
The city of Solvang itself is great. Spend a day going into wine tasting bars, eating delicious Danish food, and shopping. Another favorite spot of mine is Sunstone Winery. You'll feel like you're in France or Italy. Ask about the "Villa" while you are there. Simply amazing!

Best place to stay?
My house because we have a beach volleyball court! But if you aren't invited there, I've always liked the Hadsten House.


Need to Know:

Population: 5,343

Solvang is 130 miles from the Los Angeles airport, and 300 miles from the San Francisco airport.

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