Tech Talk

Colombia's Rigoberto Uran racing a time trial during the Giro d'Italia with aero bars and disc wheels.     Photo: Fabio Ferrari/Associated Press

Is Gear a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Athletes keep breaking records, but improved fitness is only part of the equation. So before we start congratulating ourselves, let’s take a look at the tech that’s made us faster—and the next records our gear will allow us to break.

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.

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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