Image
(Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty)
Sweat Science

Why Are Runners Suddenly So Fast?

Records are falling and times are dropping. Is it the shoes, or something else?

Image
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
Image

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Consider the Paris Diamond League meet in early June. Jakob Ingebrigtsen smashed the two-mile world best by more than four seconds, becoming just the second man to run back-to-back sub-four-minute miles. Then Faith Kipyegon notched her second world record in a row, outsprinting the reigning record-holder over 5,000 meters just a week after becoming the first woman under 3:50 in the 1,500 meters. Then, to cap the night, Lamecha Girma took down the steeplechase record.

It was a great night—but it was just one of many great nights that track fans have been treated to recently. A week later, at the historic Bislett Games in Oslo, eight men broke 3:30 for 1,500 meters in one race, setting a new record—including Yared Nuguse, who set a new U.S. best. Meet records fell in almost every event. At the collegiate level, an analysis by Oregon-based coach Peter Thompson shows that the number of middle- and long-distance runners hitting elite benchmark times has doubled, tripled, or in some events even quadrupled in the last two years. Earlier in June, four high-school boys broke four minutes for the mile in a single race, matching the total number of people who’d done it in history prior to 2011.

I could go on.

There are two main questions that arise from this buffet of speed. First, is it real? Are runners getting faster across the board, or are we just being fooled by the brilliance of a few individuals and random fluctuations in the depth of different events? Second, if it’s really happening, then why? The easy answer is, “It’s gotta be the shoes” (or, in this case, the super spikes), but does the data really back that up?

I don’t have any definitive answers at this point, but here are my thoughts on some of the possible explanations.

The Data

It’s easy to make an anecdotal case that runners are faster than ever. Backing that up with data isn’t quite as straightforward. If you look only at whether the top-ranked time in the world is getting faster or slower from year to year, any trends will depend on whether you happen to have a generational athlete in the event at a given point in time. The effect of an Usain Bolt is bigger than the effect of, say, a new shoe design. Even if you go deeper, the top ten times in any year often come from just one or two races that took place in exceptionally good conditions. So you’re better off looking farther down the list.

For example, here’s some data for the men’s 1,500 meters between 2009 and 2022, drawn from the World Athletics database. I’ve shown the first, tenth, 100th, and 1,000th ranked performers (not performances) for each year. The horizontal dashed lines show the average for 2009 to 2018. The first super spike prototypes had shown up on the circuit by 2019 at latest, and were widely available by 2021. The big spike of slower times in 2020 is because there were so few races due to the pandemic.

(Illustration: Data from World Athletics)

The number-one times don’t show any particular trend. The tenth-best times show a dip since 2021, but no bigger than the dip in 2014-2015 (which corresponded to two particularly fast races in Monaco). For the 100th and 1,000th best times, the pre-pandemic data finally starts to look more consistent, which makes the dip since 2021 more telling. The 1,000th-best performer is now 0.9 percent faster than the pre-pandemic average, and the 100th-best is 0.5 percent faster. This is smaller than the 1.3-percent estimate derived from lab testing of super spikes, but in the ballpark.

Here’s comparable data for the women’s 5,000 meters:

(Illustration: Data from World Athletics)

Again, the first- and tenth-ranked times fluctuate too much to draw any conclusions. The 100th and 1,000th places do show an apparent drop in the last few years, by 1.9 and 2.0 percent respectively—more than the lab estimate. There are lots of possible explanations for this discrepancy, including that the benefits of super spikes are reduced at faster speeds.

I’ll add one more graph just for context. Supershoes came to road running way back in 2016 (for prototypes) and became widely available by 2018. I think most observers agree that these shoes really have affected road-running times. So what does the comparable data show for, say, men’s marathon times? Here it is:

(Illustration: Data from World Athletics)

The data is confounded by the effects of the pandemic, particularly in 2020. Still, the post-supershoe improvement looks fairly similar to the track data. Compared to the 2009 to 2016 average, last year’s times were 0.7 percent faster at tenth, 1.6 percent faster at 100th, and 1.3 percent faster at 1,000th.

The conclusion I take from all this data? It does like there’s something going on, both on the track and on the roads. But it’s way less obvious in the data than I expected. My subjective feeling was that the last few years have seen records broken and times redefined at a totally unprecedented rate. I thought I’d see robust improvement of at least three or four percent. But that scale of change is not there, at least in the events I sampled.

So with that in mind, what explains the changes we do see?

The Shoes

My starting assumption is that any performance improvements we’ve seen in the last few years are because of the shoes. I’m not going to belabor that point here, because I’ve already written plenty on both road supershoes and super spikes.

But I do want to make one key point. The reason my prime suspect is the shoes is that we have direct laboratory evidence that both types of shoes improve running economy, by around 2 percent on the track and at least 4 percent on the roads (and, to complete the circle, lab evidence that improved running economy directly translates to faster race times). It would take some weird and hitherto undiscovered science in order for the shoes not to make us faster. In contrast, the other hypotheses that I’m going to discuss below may be compelling to various degrees, but all rely on some assumptions and guesses and hand-waving.

Better Pacing (and Drafting)

Here’s a sentence you wouldn’t have read prior to 2018, from Letsrun’s description of Kipyegon’s thrilling 1,500 world record in Florence: “Kipyegon sprinted away from the pacing lights with 200m to go, lengthening her gap from the green lights as she rounded the turn and entered the home straightaway.” I wrote about World Athletics’s introduction of Wavelight pacing lights when Joshua Cheptegei set the 5,000-meter world record in 2020, positing that more even splits could make a notable difference to times. Good pacing has been a hallmark of this year’s records too, all assisted by Wavelight.

Wavelight doesn’t factor in on the roads, but ever since Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two marathon exhibitions, big-time marathons have devoted more attention to providing top-notch pacers for their elite runners. That has the double benefit of saving the mental effort of setting the pace, and of reducing air resistance. I think good pacing and drafting are both beneficial. But that can’t explain why the 100th and 1,000th performers seem to be getting faster, because Wavelight and paid rabbits are generally reserved for the front of the pack.

The Pandemic Training Camp

Freed from the tyranny of over-frequent racing during lockdowns, runners spent 2020 building up a massive base of endurance that has catapulted them to new levels. It’s even possible that, having learned their lesson, they’ll continue with this more patient approach to training. This theory has the disadvantage of being both unprovable and unfalsifiable. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue, but if performance levels don’t start regressing to their pre-pandemic means over the next few years, I’ll remain skeptical.

The Norwegian Factor

It’s the “big, sexy thing” in endurance training these days, as miler Hobbs Kessler put it in a recent interview: lactate-guided double-threshold training, as popularized by Norwegian Olympic champions Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Kristian Blummenfelt. As I explained in this article, the approach emphasizes high volumes of threshold training with very tight control on the intensity to avoid going too hard. Whether it’s objectively better than other training approaches remains to be seen—but it hasn’t yet been adopted widely enough to make a noticeable impact on the top-1,000 list.

Drugs

In the past, when I’ve looked at broad trends in performance over time, one of the first factors I’ve considered is changes in drug availability or drug testing. It’s extremely noticeable (though of course not proof of anything) that long-distance track times took off like a rocket shortly after the introduction of EPO in the early 1990s. If you look carefully, you can find what seems to be the performance signature of various drug-related events like the introduction of EPO testing and, more recently, the implementation of athlete biological passports.

Is there something new on the scene over the last few years? Or are we still seeing the effects of pandemic-related disruptions in out-of-competition drug testing? I certainly hope it’s not the case, but you’d have to be amnesiac to discount the possibility entirely. Once again, the best counterargument is that the performance improvements are noticeable even at the 1,000th-best level—though perhaps I’m being naive.

Broader Shifts in Culture and Knowledge

As you can probably tell, I don’t think any of the alternative explanations I’ve offered so far hold water compared to my default assumption that it’s the shoes. But this last category is a little different. If you spend enough time arguing with people about why runners are getting faster, you’ll encounter a number of broad, hand-waving theories that are hard to substantiate but nonetheless sound reasonable.

For example, I can attest to the fact that the Internet has made training knowledge far more widely accessible than it was when I was a young athlete in the 1990s. Ideas and approaches (like the Norwegian model) are endlessly debated and dissected, and any student of the sport is exposed to multiple perspectives. (In contrast, when I arrived at university and found that the workouts were different from those I’d done in high school, I thought the world was ending.) This theory has been offered frequently over the last decade or more as an explanation for steadily improving U.S. high school times. Maybe it’s true more broadly: people everywhere simply know more about the principles of training, and are doing it better (or at least fewer people are doing really stupid training) compared to the past. Even if elite coaching was always pretty good, this creates a wider pyramid of prospective talent feeding into the elite coaches.

I also have the sense that the pendulum has swung away from sit-and-kick racing towards aggressive front-running. After the 2019 world championships, where super spikes first made headlines, I wrote an article about the unusually fast early paces of the races. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the current king of the 1,500, is notable for running from the front and pushing the pace rather than relying on a finishing sprint—which likely helps explain why he led those seven other men under 3:30 in Oslo. If runners these days are more focused on running fast times rather than trying to win sprint finishes, it stands to reason that times would get faster overall.

And there are plenty of other theories out there—broader support for professional training groups, better nutrition and recovery, the inevitable march of progress, and some that I’ve undoubtedly missed completely. As I said at the top, I don’t know the answers, and I don’t think anyone else does either. Times do seem to be improving, but not as much as I would have guessed based on all the hype about recent record-breaking. The shoes almost certainly play some role—but if there’s some other secret sauce in there, it’ll be fun trying to figure out what it is.


For more Sweat Science, join me on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check out my book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

Lead Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
sms