May 23, 2024

Technology has helped to make our daily lives better in so many ways. From advancements in medicine to transportation and electronics, the list is endless. But, what is seldom considered is how technology has impacted sports. 

One of the sports that has been highly impacted by technology is running, so much so that World Athletics, the governing body of the sport, scrambled to make sense of this sudden skill gap that technology artificially created in their sport. 

The cause of such worry? The Nike Vaporfly running shoe, released in 2017. These would be the shoes ​​Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge would wear when he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours, an unprecedented accomplishment. World Athletics did not ban this shoe for competition, though a modified version is now required for the 2024 Tokyo Olympics. 

This is achieved through the unique way the shoe has been engineered. The shoe assists with the existing mechanics of the human body.

“Think of a tight vs. loose spring – there is an optimal amount of stiffness you’d want to see to achieve maximal ‘bounce’ in the reaction between foot and ground surface (too firm and there’s no bounce, too soft and energy transfer dissipates),” said Andrew Harveson, associate professor of kinesiology. “The VaporFly does something very similar and has been shown to improve running economy by between 2-4%. While this doesn’t always guarantee faster running times, in effect, it can make the mechanical act of running easier for athletes as there is more efficient energy transfer during ground contact, which can then be parlayed into improved performance.”

While 2-4% may not seem like much, the improved energy transference over the thousands of steps you take during a marathon translates into a genuine advantage over athletes who do not employ such technology in their shoes. 

How much of these athletic accomplishments can be attributed to the individual athlete, and how much can be attributed to technology? According to Harveson, the Olympics is the perfect place to answer such a question. 

“In short, research seems to currently indicate that just about all the mean increases we may see in future human performance of Olympic-type events (sprinting, jumping) will be explained by increases in technology,” Harveson said. “These models cannot predict outliers, though, so while it becomes increasingly rare, we can’t completely discount someone who may truly have an inherent biological advantage.”

This can be partly explained by how companies have consistently improved the technology and engineering that goes into their products. The Nike Vaporfly perfectly displays this blend of human biology and sports technology that other companies seek to emulate in their own respective sport.

Even though the Nike Vaporfly may be the epitome of marathon running shoes, it is still not the sole answer to all footwear-related issues. Athletes still have a wide variety of footwear to choose from. The benefits each shoe offers depend on the athlete’s goals and remind us how highly individualized each player’s needs are.

“We have different shoes in our rotation and select them based on the type of run we’re doing. For workouts, we have flats, which are usually lightweight and bouncy. For easy runs, we have heavier shoes that provide more support and less impact on the legs, and for our so-called “normal” runs, we have a shoe that’s in between those two,” said Rikus van Niekerk, senior civil engineering major and member of the cross-country team.

There are other ways that technology can also be incorporated that aren’t always performance-boosting, with some athletes being extra selective about the kinds they choose to incorporate in their training.

“I am using my Garmin GPS watch every day,” said Maja Dzialoszewska, senior business administration major and member of the cross-country team. “From my experience, the Apple Watch is not that accurate and advanced to use for professional runners. Here’s why: Garmin is primarily designed for runners and athletes, offering in-depth running metrics, advanced training features, and long battery life.”

Details that may seem like minuscule aspects of technology can make all the difference, right down to the cleats on a soccer shoe. 

“When selecting a shoe to run in, I look at the sole of the shoe and the weight to make sure it’s comfortable and aids in my form,” said Easton Seip, freshman business major and member of the women’s soccer team. “The spikes of the cleat definitely impact play because there’s a difference between firm ground or soft ground studs in which helps you plant, turn, and get balance on different fields of play.”

Regardless of one’s stance on technology, the impact that it has had and will continue to have on sports is undeniable. While the presence of technology comes with challenges, the positives cannot be underscored enough. 

“You can see the positive impacts of technology in every aspect of running, ranging from shoes that cause less injury to a smartwatch and different applications to help you keep track of your training. On a college team, you can expect each athlete to have at least one pair of carbon-plated shoes and a smartwatch with GPS, such as an Apple watch, Garmin, or Coros,” said Niekerk. “The improvement in technology not only helps athletes to run faster, but it also helps with better recovery, which means less injuries.”

The issues of technology in sports are not going away. How we deal with it will have consequences on future competition and competitors, reminding us how one size doesn’t always fit all.

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