At dusk, one day in late August 1960, the marathon of the Games of Rome began. Part of it went dark, partially lit by torches. The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won barefoot on cobblestones, road and bumpy streets, establishing a new world brand: 2 h 15 min 16 s.
Fifty-nine years later, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge runs a custom-designed marathon in Vienna in 59 hours 40 seconds. Break 2 hours for the first time, but it is not considered an official brand. The race is planned outside the rules of the International Athletics Federation as a shoe marketing campaign started a few years earlier.
Kipchoge runs with a prototype of sneakers that is not yet for sale. It is believed that they may involve unfair technological assistance. But what do Kipchoge’s shoes hide? And where is the limit of fair technological aid?
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The technology present in the marathon
In today’s sport, technology is in almost everything, although it is not always visible in competition. One of the most technical elements is clothing and, in it, especially footwear.
At the time when Bikila won the marathon barefoot, he ran with shirts. Footwear barely fulfilled its protective function. In addition, it was heavy by the rubber sole.
A decade later, aerobics break-in. With them appear thousands of popular brokers. Footwear brands start using foamed materials, mainly, of two types:
- EVA ( ethyl vinyl acetates ) harbor small closed bubbles.
- PU ( polyurethanes ) contain interconnected bubbles as a bath sponge.
In this way, it is possible to reduce the weight of the same volume of rubber up to six times and the mid-soles arise; material above the sole and below the textile part. Within them, different inserted damping systems appear that seek to protect the footprint from impact.
Footwear brands of the time talked about the possibility of combining damping with the return of energy in the drive. But there was no evidence that they did it effectively.
With the change of the century, carbon fiber begins to be used in footwear, for various purposes.
A decade later, a new foamed material, lighter and capable of returning part of the energy of the tread, breaks into the ground. These are encapsulated thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU). On the other hand, the evidence is beginning to be recorded that current footwear helps run faster.
A marathon in less than 2 hours?
It is clear that it is not possible to run a marathon in less than two hours without technological aids. To eliminate them completely, we should get rid of not only footwear. Also, among many other things, of all the devices used for training and recovery of effort.
Paradoxically it has been seen that those who usually run barefoot tend to benefit from a better-cushioned footprint with the ground. This has led many footwear runners to adapt their running technique: greater frequency of steps, less amplitude at each step and stepping on the floor or forefoot instead of the heel. However, the shortage of barefoot runners contributes to the fact that barefoot brands such as Bikila have not been seen again in the marathon.
Where is the limit?
The limits of the performance of a human being in sport are closely linked to technology. The regulations ensure that they compete on equal terms. They accept technology as long as it favors the show without distorting the essence of the competition or harming health. The world of athletics would not see with good eyes that the ancient race of Philippi on the Marathon plain became a competition for shoe springs technology.
The International Athletics Federation has not taken any measures at this time. The Kipchoge prototype has not yet been used in official competition. It has a higher midsole height and more carbon fiber plates than previous models of the same brand.
The athletic regulations clearly describe the objectives that footwear must meet: protection, stability and firm adhesion on the ground. He does not speak at all of the help in the drive to run faster. In addition, he says that sports should not be manufactured in a way that gives unfair help or advantage. If there is evidence that the shoes do not conform to the regulation or the spirit of the same, they may be subject to study and prohibited.
From the scientific community, it has been proposed to limit the height of the midsole as a possible strategy to control the drive assistance provided by the latest models and prototypes of footwear. It was already done in his day with the jump in height and length. On the other hand, this limitation would not totally limit the future development of technological advances in materials and footwear architectures (with a reduced midsole height, yes).