Why are we Seeing Crazy Fast Times?
Over the past week we have seen the women's 10,000m world record broken twice, with the mark being lowered from 29:17 to 29:06 initially by Siffan Hassan and then to 29:01 by Letesenbet Gidey. The women's 5000m world record was broken last year, as was both the men's 5000m and 10000m. This means that within 10 months, both the men's and women's 5,000m and 10,000m world records have been broken.
But it’s not just world records being broken. Fast times seem to be normalised. So far in the men’s 5000m in 2021, eleven athletes have run below 13-minutes. In 2017, three men achieved this standard and in 2016, only four men ran sub 13-minutes. You need to go back almost 10 years to find a season in which more men broke the 13-minute barrier than this current season (and this season’s still not finished). It’s a similar story in the men's 10,000m alongside the women’s 5,000m and 10,000m and it appears faster times are becoming normal across the board. So why is this?
Time to train and recover
With all the negatives regarding COVID, for athletes of any level it’s meant arguably more time to focus on training and potentially more importantly, recovery. For elite athletes this may mean fewer sponsorship obligations and less travel. For everyone else this may mean working from home and fewer social gatherings meaning it may be a little easier to get out for a long run at the weekend. As a result with most of the world being shut down, has the amount of time available to us lead to increased focus on running, training and recovery, leading to greater performances?
International travel was largely minimised in 2020 and has only been opening up a little in 2021. Lots of runners from America did not travel to Europe for a summer track season in 2020 and the same can be said for Australia's best athletes too. A recent article found that airline travel can negatively impact athletic performance through disruption to the body’s natural circadian rhythm and negative effect on oxygen saturation. It showed that travel across multiple time zones affected performance more when compared to travel over just one. The clearest example of teams and athletes limiting travel was the Bowerman squad who set up many intra-squad meets, which leads to the next point; time-trials.
The Bowerman squad’s ability to create their own meets allowed them to control many external variables that otherwise may be left to chance. Many ran personal best times, for example over 5,000m, Moh Ahmed ran 12:47, Shelby Houlihan ran an American record of 14:23 and Lopez Lomong broke 13:00 minutes for the first time in his career. Many recent fast races have been engineered to see fast times rather than racing with whole meets put on for record attempts.
In past years there have undoubtedly been races with the purpose being for athletes to run super quick times. However have we seen more of these over the past 18 months with both the men's and women's 5,000m world records being broken in these types of races as well as the men's 10,000m.
An Olympic Year with No Olympics
So this particular point can only apply to 2020 however with every elite runner preparing for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, which subsequently got postponed the emphasis may have changed from becoming race smart and savvy to simply running fast times. To win big races you often have to be the fastest but race tactics are often just as important.
Kipchoge’s slowest ever marathon was at the Rio Olympics where he ran 2:08 for the gold medal and in the 1500m, the 3:50 winning time for Matthew Centrowitz would have placed him outside the top 120 times by a British runner that year. Race tactics mean a lot, so in a year with no silverware available, did the emphasis shift to simply running fast times?
If one person runs fast, others will follow
Is it simply a case of ‘if you can do it, I can do it better’. Success breeds success therefore if one person achieves a fast time the rest of the field must also raise their game to compete. For almost 10 years the magical 4-minute mile barrier was left at 4:01 but on the 6th of May 1954 Sir Roger Banister broke the 4 minute mile running 3:59.4. Just 6 weeks after this illustrious mark was broken an Austrailian called John Landy lowered it to 3:58 with others also running a sub 4-minute mile that same year.
So if one or more people have raised the standard, has this lead to everyone else believing they can reach that same level too?
Since Eliud Kipchoge fell 25 seconds short of breaking the 2-hour marathon barrier at Monza in 2017, the running world has been dominated by one topic – Shoes. Nike has been dominating the shoe game and has caused a mini-revolution. When the original ‘super shoe’ was released it was claimed to make athletes 4% more efficient giving it the name; the vaporfly 4%. So they first arrived on the roads and then the track, with the Nike dragonfly. However, the carbon plate within the road shoes is nothing new. Adidas first put a carbon propulsion plate into a racing shoe in the early 2000’s but it never caught on.
Sceptics will claim these shoes and spikes are the answer to all fast times but technological advancements have always played a role in the development of fast times. From the introduction of synthetic tracks, the easy availability of GPS watches and heart rate data to increase training specificity or even the advancement in sports nutrition such as Maurten gels.
More recently wave-light technology has been seen in elite level running, which is an electronic pacemaker that is built into the track for athletes to follow. Both the 5000m and 10,000m world records were aided by the technology however the technology was unavailable in the 2019 Doha world championships which saw some very fast times indeed. The recent 5000m at the Florence diamond league where the European record was broken also did not contain these wavelights.
So, technology deserves a mention, even though it plays a natural progression in the evolution of running times.
How much faster do all of these factors make athletes? It’s essentially impossible to know.