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The Biomechanical Question:
How much of an advantage should athletic equipment provide before it is banned?
By Dan Feeney Kate harrison
Follow on @Dfeeney31 and @running_geek
- There is a blurry line between innovation and equipment doping across sports.
- Each sport creates rules based on its philosophical disposition.
- Brands are continually trying to innovate products that improve performance; once they accomplish that goal, do they take it too far?
I love sports with a clear outcome: running, swimming, really anything with a clear winner and without judges or anyone to depend on but yourself. Yet, despite the perceived simplicity of swimming and running, the performance advantages swimsuits and running shoes give athletes regularly cause controversy. Despite my desire for pure sport, my job in the Performance Fit Lab is to test products to ensure they provide athletes with superior fit and performance. The line between innovation and equipment doping lives in a grey area full of slippery-slope fallacies and philosophical debate. While most agree putting motors in a road or mountain bike is cheating, wearing shoes instead of running barefoot, which makes most runners faster, is considered okay. Defining the line between innovation and cheating requires nuance, and the line is not consistent across sports.
Running and swimming are unique from other team sports. They test the limits of the human body with less influence from luck and circumstance. That said, human innovation will always drive forward, fueled by the natural curiosity of how far and how fast the human body can go under its own volition. From shoes to surfaces to training tools, advancements in technology helped athletes set new standards in performance, particularly over the past 50 years. As a sports scientist, I am excited by innovation and curious about how we can help athletes maximize their potential. I want to know how we can better harness the effort put forth in competition and how we can keep athletes training at a high level consistently and without injury. Short of having all athletes train and compete in bare feet, differences will always arise in the athlete-equipment interaction, creating variation in performance that is nearly impossible to quantify precisely. While easier said than done, ensuring athletes have equitable access to equipment would allow athletes to get the most out of their natural abilities while keeping sport fair and exciting.
The purpose of the Performance Fit Lab is to ensure BOA-powered products meaningfully improve performance. Equipment should enable athletes to reach their true potential without limiting them. We push boundaries so can we know what is possible. We already demonstrated that improving the fit of a shoe improves athlete performance in agility movements by 3-9%. We will continue innovating and finding additional ways to improve performance through enhanced fit.
Research on the Topic
New models of sports equipment – be it shoes, clubs, bikes, etc. - come out each year and are often met with the groans of consumers who were happy with the last version. Product designers iterate on products with each release to improve them year over year, usually with insignificant performance implications. However, occasionally, a technological advancement arrives that shocks the world, like the Nike 4% racing shoe, ultra-buoyant swimsuits, and clap skates on the ice. Because significant performance enhancements are rare, when designers succeed in creating a product that causes a perceptible jump in performance, controversy immediately ensues - quite the catch 22!
Abebe Bikila made history winning the 1960 Rome marathon barefoot! Legend has it that he bought shoes in Rome, but they gave him blisters, so he decided to run barefoot. Running barefoot is more difficult for most runners due to the uneven terrain covered and the energy required to absorb the impact of landing. Thus, despite bare feet being lighter than shoes, running barefoot confers no energetic advantage relative to shoes, even for experienced barefoot runners. Moreover, runners have different responses to midsole foams. Some runners gain a disproportionate advantage with the added foam. Even your average, low-tech shoes provide most runners with a non-uniform advantage over bare feet, and yet, very few people believe we should ban footwear completely.
Since 1960, innovations made to running shoes include carbon-fiber plates (see the Fila Racers and The Adidas Adistar Competition in the early 2000s), resilient midsoles such as Boost, and a rise in maximalism and minimalism (see Hoka and Vibram). These products promised improved performance or injury reduction. In 2017, Nike created an amalgamation of these ideas and put them into the Nike 4%- named for reducing the energetic expenditure required to run at a given intensity. The conversation immediately shifted from incremental gains to “are these new shoes fair?” Since 2017, most brands have come out with their own carbon-plated, highly resilient racing shoe to compete with the Nike 4% and provide their runners with similar performance benefits.
After witnessing a monumental shift in performances from runners in these new shoes, World Athletics put some guard rails on shoes for competition. Now, shoes must be commercially available, feature a midsole no more than 40 mm thick, and contain only a single plate. They have a list of approved shoes to help athletes navigate the ever-changing shoe landscape. These rules help keep competition fair by banning prototypes that only a few elites sponsored by a specific company can obtain while still allowing innovation to occur.
Nike’s breakthrough relied on material innovations and the synergy between the highly resilient Pebax foam and the stiff carbon-fiber plates. We believe future breakthroughs will continue to come in the form of new materials and shoe geometries. We are starting to see this technology trickle into trail running with the launch of the Speedland SL:PDX, featuring a dual-dial Li2 BOA PerformFitTM Wrap, Pebax-infused midsole, and a Carbitex plate that is stiffer in the longitudinal direction than laterally.
Much like running, swimming saw a monumental shift in performance with the introduction of the Fast Skin in 2000. A whopping 83% of medals won in Sydney were won by athletes in this specific type of suit. Over the next decade, polyurethane panels made swimsuits so buoyant that governing bodies banned their use in competition in 2010. A scientific study concluded performance improvements were between 2% and 5.5%. Interestingly, athletes using legal suits have since broken more than half of the world records set in the super-suits, proving athletes are still more than just the sum of their equipment!
While the parallels to running are undeniable, the governmental bodies made dramatically different decisions. Swimming banned polyurethane suits, a move analogous to running banning PEBAX and carbon-fiber plates. The difference in approaches could be due to differences in the ideologies of the governing bodies, the amount of funding various companies supply to these bodies, or the mass-participation nature of running, where lots of runners want to use a pair to set a new PR. The accessibility of high-performance products also likely plays a role in these decisions. While super-shoes are considerably more expensive than a traditional running shoe (retailing for 200-300 USD versus 120-160 USD), they are more feasible to purchase than the super-suits, which retail for 500 USD and only last for a handful of races.
Few sports embrace technical gear like the bike industry; from intelligently-tuned shocks to electronic shifting and ultra-aerodynamic time trial bikes, cyclists love tech! As a result, egregious equipment doping can occur in cycling. For instance, mechanical doping refers to placing a motor inside the bike, causing a substantial increase in power. However, while using motors to multiply riders’ power output is cheating, adding shocks to mountain bikes, which allow riders to navigate trails that may otherwise be unrideable, stays well within the rules.
The unique rules developed in cycling are worth examining. For example, the UCI (the international body for cycling) banned several seemingly small technological advances, such as the Supertuck and Superman time trial position. They even regulate the height of riders’ socks! Many of these bans are due to safety; riding on your top tube at 80 km/hr in the rain could lead to some unfortunate crashes. But other rules, like the regulation of sock height, reveal the general philosophy of the UCI: they want to keep the sport progressing at a slow rate while nipping any drastic changes right away.
Golfers rival cyclists in how much they love gear, and this sport is no stranger to the blurry line between innovation and cheating. Due to the strong influence of ball shape and weight on aerodynamics in ball flight, strict regulations define what is considered a legal and illegal ball. Non-legal balls can correct hooks and slices and add yards to a player’s swing. Moreover, drivers can be modified to increase contact time with the balls, although it appears that ball characteristics play a larger role than clubhead material in determining how long the ball is in contact with the driver. Other driver modifications included increased face size, longer shafts, and different materials to lengthen and straighten golfers’ drives.
The PGA and LPGA regulate the equipment used in play, drawing lines at the length of clubs, size of club faces, contact time between club and ball, and shape of the balls. Strict regulation resulted in an uptick in the finding of illegal equipment among pros. There is a long history of controversial bans, including the recent ban on anchor putters, which sparked fierce debate among players and fans. In the Performance Fit Lab, we observed that specific shoe upper configurations can improve the repeatability of golfers’ strokes. If we scientifically demonstrate in a peer-reviewed paper that footwear can improve the repeatability of swings, would that result in regulations around footwear?
The examples discussed illustrate that the line between doping and innovation is blurry at best. And our list is by no means exhaustive. Consider golfers receiving Lasik, baseball pitchers covering balls with tacky material, and even the revolutionary-at-the-time Fosbury Flop. Companies working to provide athletes with the latest and greatest gear will always toe the line between accepted innovation and equipment doping.
For athletes, coaches, and retailers
To find the optimal gear for you, your team, or your customers, you must wrestle with philosophical questions that vary depending on your sport. Is your goal to place as high as possible while staying within the rules of competition? If so, you might consider Jake Riley’s plan to remain unsponsored before the 2020 US Marathon trials so he could wear the top-performing shoes at the time. After qualifying for the US team, he signed a deal with ON Running and is helping them develop their marathon super shoes. Many professional runners feel pressure to compete in the best shoes on the market, regardless of whether their sponsor makes the shoe.
If you are in a technologically driven sport, like cycling, swimming, golf, are you willing to use gear to your advantage? If so, finding the gear that helps your performance is key. Perhaps you try out a few different models of shoes in the same type of workout to compare performance and effort. Or, like Malindi Elmore, you could take your shoes to a lab to precisely measure your running economy and put hard numbers on your performance. While lab testing is more readily available to professional athletes, labs such as the University of Memphis Human Performance Center (running shoes) or the A2 wind tunnel in North Carolina (cycling) can help you take the question marks out of equipment choices.
On the other hand, do you care about comparing your times year over year without any influence from your gear? If so, you should stock up on multiple pairs of the same shoes, tennis racquets, and golf balls. There are minor changes made to most products each year as company’s attempt to keep innovating. While most of these changes will have little impact on performance, a few changes will make monumental improvements that leave the world debating what is fair or foul.
We can be found on Twitter @Dfeeney31 and @running_geek.
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THE SCIENCE OF FIT
How much of an advantage should athletic equipment provide before it is banned?
DAN FEENEY & KATE HARRISON