Jul 20, 2022 - Sports

Track enters new "super spikes" era

Spikes
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

High-tech track spikes like those being worn at this week's World Athletics Championships have ushered in an era of blazing fast middle-distance runners (800-10,000 meters).

How it works: These "super spikes" — introduced by Nike in 2019 and adopted more widely in 2021 — improve runners' efficiency with a combination of cushiony foam and rigid carbon-fiber plates in the sole.

  • Ultra-light foam bounces back to its original shape after every step, returning roughly 85% of the runners' energy used to compress it.
  • The rigid plates keep runners on their toes rather than allowing for the more natural, but less efficient, heel-to-toe stride.
Note: COVID-19 led to fewer events in 2020. Data: Independent study of World Athletics data; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios
Note: COVID-19 led to fewer events in 2020. Data: Independent study of World Athletics data; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

By the numbers: In 2015, 72 men ran the outdoor 800m in under 1 minute, 46 seconds, per analysis by former World Athletics officer Peter Thompson. In 2021, 109 men did it, an increase of 51%.

  • Thompson found similar increases in elite times achieved across the 1500m (45%), 5000m (34%) and 10,000m (73%). Women's numbers were more of the same.
  • The men's and women's 5000 and 10,000 meter marks have all been set since 2020, among others, and there's been a tremendous surge in sub-four-minute miles, per WSJ (subscription).

The backdrop: We've been here before.

  • Swimming records fell en masse in the late-aughts after the introduction of high-tech suits, which were banned in 2010.
  • Nike's Vaporfly shoes upended marathoning a few years ago. Rather than ban them, World Athletics imposed regulations to ensure all athletes had access to the technology, which led to competing models.

The bottom line: Track stars are faster than ever, and their success can, at least partially, be explained by Spike Lee in the iconic Air Jordan commercial: "It's gotta be the shoes."

Go deeper