Old School vs Modern Day: How Far We’ve Come

In the early and mid 1900’s, a human breaking four minutes in a mile was a radical concept.  It was thought that it was physically impossible for a human to accomplish this feat; Roger Bannister thought differently. On May 6th, 1954 on the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, Roger Bannister became the first man to break four minutes in the mile, finishing in 3:59.4.

I bring this up because in class today we talked about ergogenic aids in athletics. In track and field, mechanical aids have definitely helped in the development of faster times in the track events. Shoes, apparel, and even the track itself have been engineered to optimize performance. For example, in the 1950’s, track spikes were made out of heavy leather and were fairly bulky (picture below). Today, track spikes are much more light weight. One of the most commonly used distance spikes are the Nike Victory’s (picture shown below). A pair of size 11 spikes weigh only 4 ounces per shoe. While I don’t know the exact weight of the running spike from the 1950’s, I am very confident that they are significantly heavier. Running apparel has not changed quite as much as shoes, but racing clothes today are more light weight and breathable. Finally, one of the biggest factors in improved performance on the track is due to the track itself. In the 1950’s, most tracks were grass or gravel and cinder. In modern times, most tracks are made of polyurethanes and rubber. This combination makes for a firm, yet slightly elastic surface, generating fast times. Like the 1950’s, metal spikes can be worn on the modern track surface without tearing it up. Finally, some indoor tracks are banked, providing an easier turn for athletes running at high speeds, which improves their times.

This past weekend, a huge indoor track meet was held at Boston University. The meet was an invitational where unattached athletes could enter if fast enough. One of the athletes that competed was the London Olympic 10k silver medalist, Galen Rupp. In the race, Rupp was looking to break the American World Record in the indoor mile (Bernard Lagat currently holds the record at 3:49.89). Rupp wore his lightweight apparel and state of the art spikes on what is considered to be one of the fastest indoor tracks in the nation. This track is banked and firm yet incredibly elastic. The race also featured former Bangor High School, University of Maine, and current Oklahoma Sooner, Riley Masters (although the camera was only focusing on Rupp and he was running so fast that Riley wasn’t even in the picture. Still really cool though!). The race took off with Rupp tucked behind two guys pacing him though the race. The two guys led him through the first ¾ mile just about on pace before letting him take on the last 400 meters alone. The entire facility was raucous, all cheering Rupp on as he chased history. Rupp ended up crossing the line in 3:50.92, just about a second away from the record.

I bring this up because it is interesting to see how ergogenic aids have helped in athletics. Close to 60 years ago, Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier for the first time in history. Fast forwarding to modern times, Galen Rupp just ran roughly 9 seconds faster than a time considered impossible to reach just 60 short years ago. As any runner knows, cutting down time in a race gets exponentially more difficult as performance increases. So while 9 seconds might not seem like a lot of time to the average person, it is huge in an event like the mile.  Though I believe that training and preparation for distance running has improved over the years, I believe that the main generator of these faster times is because of the ergonomic aids such as the track surfaces, apparel, and track spikes.

It would be very interesting if Roger Bannister could magically be in his prime running form and if he ran the indoor mile using modern day technology. I’m not confident that he could beat Rupp, but I do believe that his times would be much faster than his 3:59.4 back in the 1950’s. What do you think his time would be?

Obviously this scenario is impossible. Maybe the more sensible solution would be to have Galen Rupp lace up some old school leather spikes and give the unbanked, gravel track a run.


santeeshoe        Unknown


You can probably guess which shoe is modern and which is from the 1950’s.


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2 Responses to Old School vs Modern Day: How Far We’ve Come

  1. ugogal says:

    Bannister, as you know, was a medical student at the time, and knew a whole lot about physiology. I think this helped him immensely on his quest. Today I think he would be right in the mix with those top guys if he were at his peak. (maybe he’d even have a few tricks up his sleeve…)

  2. striva says:

    Wow, this was such a comprehensive summary! Thanks so much! It is so amazing to see how far technology has come in pervading our fitness lives. I have realized how much I take for granted seemingly practical, mundane things like sneakers!!

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