Are Runners Getting Faster, Faster?

Kevin Draper and Francesca Paris

The highlight of the track and field world championships, which wrapped up in Eugene, Ore., on Sunday, was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin’s shattering her own world record, and the rest of the field, in the 400-meter hurdles. It was a record set in dominant fashion, the type of performance fans watch sports for but rarely actually get to see.

World-class runners compete on two different planes simultaneously. They are trying to beat one another, but they are also chasing ghosts and trying to run faster than anyone ever has before.

We are in what some have referred to as a golden age of people running fast, with records across the spectrum being broken, and more people than ever — from elite professionals down to high schoolers — running times that would have previously been unheard-of.

One small example: At last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Rai Benjamin of the United States ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, which was faster than any man had run before. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Karsten Warholm of Norway, in the lane next to him, had finished 0.23 of a second faster, setting a world record that still stands.

The records are falling largely from a combination of better training and technique as well as, perhaps most important, the accelerating use of high-performance sneakers across disciplines.

Data from World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, on official meets show more world records were set last year than in any year since 2008. (It should be noted that very few official meets were held in 2020.) If one more world record is set in 2022, it would mark the most world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.

Yet there are still interesting variations, especially at the top of the sport, where records are falling fastest.

Running world records set each year

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