Bob Stephens

Nigel can probably remember the days when Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, presumably in bare feet or Greek Sandals. And probably on rough roads, tracks and possibly just true cross-country. And in some versions, in full body armour. But we can add any details we want. Roger Robinson, in Running in Literature, indicates that the whole story is probably just a myth.

So running gear has moved along way since then, with many a change leading to new records. The change in technology has not just been in running, but most sports as well. The newest buzz on the track and road is the Nike Vaporfly, with the claim that they give a 4% advantage. Does that mean they should be banned? Is the Vaporfly the latest ‘technology doping’, or just a further development that we will adjust to?

I would like to see the Vaporfly banned, just as I would like to see the new ‘Vaping’ cigarettes abolished. Fat chance, though. Maybe I am just a Luddite who wants to see athletics remaining a battle of ability and training rather than one of technology and degree of carbon in the shoe.

We have already seen new technology come in, result in records, and then be banned. Steroids is the obvious one, but in 2008 a new Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit came in, with competitors setting 25 new world records. The next year the International Swimming Federation banned these new full-body polyurethane suits, even though 98% of swimmers in the 2008 Olympics wore the new suits. 

In 2009, the world of athletics debated whether Paralympian Oscar Pistorius could (and should) compete against able-bodied runners because it was argued that his prostheses were performance enhancing. (He eventually ran in the 2012 Olympic Games.) And the unique string pattern on tennis rackets known as “spaghetti stringing” was ultimately banned in the 1970s because it made shots easier to control and made it easier to create spin on the ball. But the shift to carbon-fibre frames from wooden frames was allowed, though that probably made more impact on the speed of serve and volley etc. 

Carbon fibre golf clubs have improved the length of drive off the tee, but that is not much use if that sends the golf ball further into the rough. Ability counts somewhere in the equation. And carbon sprung poles revolutionised pole vaulting, and were allowed, while the simple change in high-jumping to the Fosbury Flop required no technology, but equally controversial when launched by Fosbury at the Olympics,

But before we get too carried away with shoes, let us think of other developments that have significantly improved running times, ranging from running tracks, to training methods, to singlets, shorts and socks, to devices such as Garmin, as well as professionalism in the sport allowing full-time training and rather than fitting in training around work, changing nappies and doing the garden. International competition is far easier using the cheaper and technologically advanced Airbus Max or Jumbo Jets than 6 weeks sailing on (by today’s standards) small passenger boats.

Running tracks are an obvious start: gone are the days of rough grass paddocks, with tree roots and other obstacles, or bare earth, moving to smooth grass lawns, then cinders, with the fine dust kicked up into those following (I finished several races with bloodied feet). The old cinders track in Melbourne had a ‘soft spot’ where many of the unwary stumbled – the older members should remember John Landy going back to pick up Ron Clarke when he fell in the soft spot, and still doing 4.05 for the mile! 

The shift to the current rubberised mondo tracks must have had a significant impact on times, as well as reducing injuries. Some of the current tracks are ‘hard’, helping sprinters, others bouncier, better for middle and long distance. Past times are really not comparable, but the race is fair, and I don’t think anyone would advocate for a track race on the Granada North bog.

The men have moved away from baggy shorts and heavy cotton singlets and t-shirts to light-weight wicking singlets (and Aussie Rules style brief shorts). The women have first of all been allowed to run more than 200 metres to the full gamut of distances. And they have gone from long skirts to shorts and bra-tops if desired. Thin cotton socks have been replaced by light weight custom-made socks. 

These changes will have made some difference, at least to the comfort of running, and hence willingness to go out on a strong Wellington Southerly. The change from heavy and baggy track-suits to tailor-made and body fitting has improved body image and appearances, but hardly running times.

Then there are those gadgets that the young keep on wearing and comparing. You can tell my age – I just like going out for a run, not worrying about how many steps I have taken, or kilometres per hour, or distance covered: just run and enjoy. Heart monitors may have their uses, but you can just listen to your body, without resorting to technology. 

I gather that Arthur Lydiard was once asked how many intervals Dick Tayler was running, what distances they were over, and at what time per lap – he just replied: I don’t know, he said, nor the number of laps or time per lap. He is just running as he feels. 

Lydiard did popularise the long-slow-distance approach, basically for strength, and then had a freshen-up with speed work. But the endurance, strength work was in vogue long before Lydiard. My school coach, Don McMillan, who represented Australia in the 800 metres in 1948, then the single sculls in 1952, said that his basic training was endurance before doing repetitions. Repetitions were good for getting fit fast, getting used to race pace, and being able to do it on an existing track, rather than having to cross roads etc. 

Gold medallists Russian Vladimir Kutz, Marathon and 10km 1952, and Czech Emile Zatopek Marathon and 10km both did their endurance training running in boots in the snow as well as repetitive intervals. I don’t think training regimes have really had that much an impact on times: the old formula of endurance, speed and rest still holds, with the split dependent upon individual preference and proximity to the major event. Physios allow us to recover from the inevitable injuries, with ACC reducing the cost, making recovery quicker: I just consider injuries as allowing the rest of the body to recover.

Which brings us back to shoes. As mere youths, many moons ago, we had either bare feet or very thin sand shoes with no padding or moulding to the foot. Spikes were long, when on grass and cinders, and just a flat sole giving no bounce. Then Nike and Asics appeared, giving some competition in footwear, and something that could be worn without serious risk of stress-related injury from pounding the pavements. My first pair of Nike spikes had an innersole! 

And running shoes soon followed. Then one got half-sizes, and different widths, and I imagine separate men’s and women’s shoes. Then separate types of shoes for different events: cross-country spikes being longer than track, off-road trail shoes, light-weight flash-harry coloured shoes for the young and beautiful (not you, Michael W), and for those of us with rather bruised feet (and egos), shoes with much padding, and special podiatrist fitted inner-soles. And all of these improvements were available to all, though the price seems to be substantially higher. So what is different with the Vaporfly, except that it is new?

Similar to other elite racing shoes, the Vaporfly is impossibly lightweight. But unlike the shoes made by competing brands like Adidas or Saucony, the Vaporfly’s midsole contains a thick layer of super squishy foam, which Nike calls ZoomX, and a carbon fibre plate. The change represents an intensification of concern that the Vaporfly design was turning the humble trainer into an unfair form of performance enhancement. Carbon fibre is not new, nor is energy efficient foam – the vaporfly just combines to the two. 

Ultimately, the proposed gains of the Vaporfly shoes will not suddenly turn recreational donkeys into racehorses. But at an elite level it is possible for a top athlete to suddenly become uncompetitive if they don’t keep up with the kind of innovation Nike has demonstrated. Olympic medals, world records and prize money are at stake. Irrespective of the World Athletics decision, running has moved from being a footrace to an arms race. Sporting ethics is the issue, not technology. 

Image credit of Pheidippedes: Patrick Gray at Flickr