The Illusion of Progress in Sports Technology

A few years ago, I spent a week cycling through the Italian and French Alps with a deluxe tour group whose selling point was a pre- and post-ride dose of electric brain stimulation. Protocols were based on what the Bahrain Merida cycling team was trying at the time, zapping neurons to enhance performance and recovery. I wanted to know whether the technology worked, but I was also wrestling with a more nebulous question: Would reaching each day’s summit a few minutes sooner actually make my trip better?

If I was one of the Bahrain Merida riders in that summer’s Tour de France, the answer would be obvious. Winning races is a lot more fun than the alternative. But any competitive edge is short-lived. “Once an effective technology gets adopted in a sport, it becomes tyrannical,” Thomas Murray, a philosopher who studies the ethics of sport, told me after the trip. “You have to use it.” What, then, would be the point of electric brain stimulation if everyone else had it, too? You’d be right back where you started—until the next hot performance booster emerged and the cycle began again.

This, in a nutshell, is the Red Queen effect. The idea originated in evolutionary biology, in a 1973 paper by Leigh Van Valen about competition among species, and its name comes from a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” the Red Queen tells Alice. If rabbits get faster, foxes follow suit; if some redwoods grow to 300 feet tall, they all have to. And according to a paper by anthropologist Thomas Hyland Eriksen, published last year in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, this is the logic that increasingly colors our relationship with performance.

Eriksen is Norwegian, so he starts with cross-country skiing: the shift from wooden to fiberglass skis, the constant improvements in wax technology, the quantum leap when Bill Koch popularized skate-skiing technique in the 1980s, and so on. The treadmill spins on a societal level, too: teams try to outspend their league rivals chasing a finite talent pool; sports get faster and louder as they compete for our attention; nations lavish the latest tech on their Olympic athletes in pursuit of an edge that never lasts. For example, the Vikersund ski-jumping hill, in Eriksen’s native Norway, has been repeatedly upgraded over the decades to maintain bragging rights over its chief rival, Planica, in Slovenia. The two countries keep pouring more resources into building bigger hills to produce longer jumps, even if that doesn’t necessarily result in better competition—and, Eriksen notes, “even if it means the Slovene state may have to relinquish some services for their elderly or schoolchildren.”

You can tell that Eriksen is a bit skeptical about the Olympic logic of faster, higher, stronger. I am, too—to my surprise. I started writing about sports science more than 15 years ago, eagerly searching for new technologies, training methods, supplements, and gear to make me faster. As the years passed, I got a little more jaded about each supposed new breakthrough—hype often surges ahead of reality, after all—but remained fundamentally committed to the all-important goal of incremental self-improvement. Something changed in the past few years, though. I think it was the shoes.

If rabbits get faster, foxes follow suit; if some redwoods grow to 300 feet tall, they all have to.

Following marathon running and track and field of late has been a bizarre experience, and I’m not talking about the pandemic. For both men and women, nine of the ten fastest marathons in history have been run since the 2016 introduction of the Nike Vaporfly—the first of a new generation of shoes with embedded carbon-fiber plates, which have been shown to reduce the energy required to sustain a given pace. On the track, too, shoes have improved and times have dropped. Ten high school boys ran sub-four-minute miles between 1964 and 2017; five (and counting) have done it this year alone. It’s exciting to watch so many records fall—until it’s not anymore. “It’s like a massive bowl of ice cream,” University of Michigan biomechanics researcher Geoff Burns told an Irish journalist. “It’s awesome right now, but I suspect it will make us feel like shit in the long run.”

What surprised me most, however, was how popular the Vaporfly and its competitors have proven to be among recreational runners. The distinctive thick-soled shoes have become pervasive at big road races, and not just at the front of the pack. Like brain stimulation for cyclists, spending $250 in hopes of slicing a couple minutes off your marathon time might make sense for aspiring pros, but it seems less compelling for the rest of us—unless you’re measuring yourself against external benchmarks. If you’re chasing a Boston qualifier, two minutes could be the difference between agony and ecstasy. But if everyone is pursuing the same edge, the Red Queen effect kicks in. Boston qualifying times got five minutes faster across the board in 2020.

If nothing else, watching all this play out has forced me to reflect on what I’m trying to get from my own training and racing. I’ve never bought a pair of carbon-plated shoes, but I did get a review pair of Vaporflys back in 2017. They sat moldering in my closet for a few years, because as an aging solipsist I figured the highest form of competition was against my previous self. Using an external aid to get faster seemed no different—or at least no more meaningful as an accomplishment—than taking a shortcut on the course. Then I noticed that all my training partners were wearing next-gen shoes, even for workouts. I also noticed that, despite my efforts to ward off the effects of time, I was getting slower. Now I pull my ancient review pair out of the closet whenever I race.

Is there any escape from the Red Queen? “Well, the short answer is no, I don’t think so,” Eriksen told me when I emailed to ask his advice. “The desire to excel and the competitive drive fueling sport activities will always get the upper hand in the end, with a few notable exceptions.” Just as redwoods can’t agree to stop growing when they reach 100 feet, would-be Boston qualifiers are unlikely to reach any global agreement to abstain from advanced shoe technologies. Eriksen does see a role for sports rule makers to set the parameters of innovation. But he doesn’t believe they’ll ever succeed in shutting the treadmill off, and we probably wouldn’t want them to. What they can do is keep it from spinning too fast. Think Nascar rather than Formula One—or consider the example of Olympic sailing, in which competitors in the Laser class are issued identical boats when they arrive at the regatta.

For most of us, the battle with the Red Queen is personal. Some routes to running 2 percent faster will impart a real sense of accomplishment, a feeling that you’re better than you were before. Others will leave you in the same place you started, even if the numbers on the clock have changed. The dividing line is probably different for everyone, but here’s my suggestion: if it comes in a bottle, requires batteries, or is protected by a portfolio of patents, treat it with caution—and if you abstain, brace yourself for some powerful FOMO. Unlike trees seeking sunlight, Eriksen concludes, “we humans have a choice, and here lie our privilege and our damnation.”

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