The illusion of progress in sports technology


A few years ago, I spent a week cycling in the Italian and French Alps with a luxury tour group, and their selling point was electrical brain stimulation before and after the ride. The protocol was based on an approach the Bahrain Merida Cycling Team was trying at the time, shocking neurons to improve performance and recovery.I’m wondering if this technique works, but I’m also grappling with a more obscure question: Does getting to the top a few minutes earlier each day really allow me to travel? better one?

If I were one of the Bahrain-Merida riders at the Tour de France that summer, the answer would be obvious. Winning games is more fun than other games. But any competitive advantage is short-lived. “Once an effective technique is adopted in a sport, it becomes tyrannical,” Thomas Murray, a philosopher who studies sports ethics, told me after the trip. “you Have to use it. So what’s the point if everyone else has computer stimulation too? You’re back where you started – until the next hot performance booster comes along and the cycle starts again.

In short, this is the red queen effect.The idea originated in evolutionary biology, and takes its name from a scene by Lewis Carroll in a 1973 paper by Leigh Van Valen on competition among species Through the mirror: “Now, here, you see, you need to do everything you can to stay in the same place,” the Red Queen told Alice. If the rabbit runs faster, the fox will follow; if some redwoods grow to 300 feet tall, they all have to.According to a paper published last year in the journal anthropologist Thomas Hyland Eriksen Frontiers of sport and active living, This is the logic that increasingly affects our relationship with performance.

Eriksen is Norwegian, so he started with cross-country skiing: the transition from wooden skis to fiberglass skis, the continuous improvement of wax technology, the huge leap Bill Koch made when he popularized snowboarding in the 1980s and many more. The treadmill is also spinning on a societal level: teams try to outsmart their league rivals chasing a limited talent pool; sports are getting louder as they compete for our attention; nations provide Olympic athletes with state-of-the-art technology to pursue A timeless advantage. For example, the Vikersund ski jumping hill in Eriksson’s native Norway has been escalated over the past few decades to maintain its bragging rights to Slovenia’s main rival, Planica. Both countries continue to invest more resources in building bigger hills to produce longer jumps, even if that doesn’t necessarily lead to better competition — and, Erickson notes, “even if it means Slovenia may Had to give up some services for the elderly or school children.”

You can tell that Erickson is a little skeptical of the faster, higher, stronger Olympic logic. Me too – to my surprise. I started writing about exercise science more than 15 years ago, eagerly looking for new techniques, training methods, supplements and gear to make me faster. As the years passed, I grew more tired of each so-called new breakthrough—hype often outweighs reality, after all—but still fundamentally committed to the overriding goal of incremental self-improvement. However, some changes have occurred in the past few years. I think it’s shoes.

If the rabbit runs faster, the fox will follow; if some redwoods grow to 300 feet tall, they all have to.

Running marathons and track and field has been a weird experience lately, and I’m not talking about this pandemic. Since the launch of the Nike Vaporfly in 2016, 9 of the 10 fastest marathons in history have been completed for both men and women – the first of a new generation of shoes embedded with carbon fiber panels that have been shown to reduce the required Energy maintains a given velocity. On the track, the shoes have also improved and the times have dropped. Between 1964 and 2017, 10 high school boys ran a distance of less than 4 minutes; this year alone there are five (and counting). It’s exciting to see so many records drop – until no more. “It’s like a big bowl of ice cream,” University of Michigan biomechanics researcher Jeff Burns told an Irish reporter. “It’s great now, but I doubt it will make us feel bad in the long run.”

What surprised me the most, however, is how popular the Vaporfly and its competitors have proven to be among recreational runners. Unique platform shoes are becoming ubiquitous in big road races, not just at the front. Like a cyclist’s brain stimulation, spending $250 hoping to shave a few minutes off a marathon might make sense for aspiring professionals, but doesn’t seem very appealing to the rest of us — unless you measure yourself against external benchmarks. If you’re chasing the Boston qualifiers, two minutes can be the difference between pain and ecstasy. But if everyone pursues the same strengths, then the red queen effect comes into play. Boston’s qualifying time has sped up by 5 minutes across the board in 2020.

If nothing else, watching all these games has forced me to reflect on what I’m trying to get out of my own training and games. I’ve never bought a pair of carbon-plated shoes, but I did get a Vaporflys review in 2017. They took shape in my wardrobe for a few years because, as an aging solipsist, I thought the highest form of competition was against my former self. Using outside help to get up to speed doesn’t seem to be any different from taking shortcuts in a course — or at least as an achievement that doesn’t make more sense. Then I noticed that all of my training buddies were wearing next-gen shoes, even while working out. I also noticed that despite my efforts to avoid the effects of time, I was getting slower and slower. Now, whenever I play, I pull my old reviews out of the closet.

Is there a way to escape from the Red Queen? “Well, the short answer is no, I don’t think so,” Erickson told me when I asked for his advice via email. “The desire for excellence and the competitive drive that drives physical activity will always prevail in the end, with some notable exceptions.” Just as redwoods can’t agree to stop growing at 100 feet, potential Boston qualifiers also It is unlikely that any global agreement will be reached to abandon advanced shoemaking technology. Erickson does see a role for sporting rule-makers in setting the parameters of innovation. But he doesn’t believe they’ll successfully shut down the treadmill, which we probably don’t want them to do. All they can do is keep it from spinning too fast. Think NASCAR instead of Formula 1 — or think the example of the Olympic Regatta, where laser-class entrants get the same boat when they arrive at the regatta.

For most of us, the fight with the Red Queen is personal. Some routes that are 2% faster give a real sense of accomplishment, a feeling that you are better than you were before. Even if the numbers on the clock change, others will leave you where you started. Everyone’s dividing line may be different, but my advice is: if it’s in a bottle, needs a battery, or is protected by a patent portfolio, be careful – if you abstain, do it for some strong FOMO Prepare. Unlike trees that seek sunlight, Erickson concluded, “We humans have choices, and that’s our privilege and our curse.”

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