A few years ago, I spent a week cycling through the Italian and French Alps with a luxury tour group whose selling point was a pre- and post-ride dose of electrical brain stimulation. The protocols were based on what the Bahrain cycling team at Merida were trying at the time, by firing neurons to boost performance and recovery. I wanted to know if the technology was working or not, but I was also grappling with a more ambiguous question: Will I get to the top each day a few minutes earlier to make my trip better?
If you were a Merida rider in Bahrain at the Tour de France that summer, the answer would be obvious. Winning races is more fun than the alternative. But any competitive advantage will not last long. “Once effective technology is adopted in sports, it becomes a tyrant,” Thomas Murray, a philosopher who studies the ethics of sports, told me after the trip. “You are You have to use.” So, what’s the point of electrical brain stimulation if others have it, too? You’ll be back where you started — until the next performance booster appears and the cycle begins again.
This, in short, is the effect of the Red Queen. The idea originated in evolutionary biology, In a 1973 paper by Leigh Van Valen about competition between genres, and its name comes from a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking glass: “Now, here, you see, it takes everything you can do, to stay in the same place,” the Red Queen said to Alice. If rabbits become faster, then foxes follow suit; If some redwoods grow to 300 feet, they all should. According to a paper by anthropologist Thomas Hyland Eriksen, Posted last year in the magazine boundaries in sports and active life, This is the logic that increasingly colors our relationship with performance.
Eriksen is Norwegian, so he started with cross-country skiing: the shift from wooden skis to fiberglass skis, continuous improvements in wax technology, the quantum leap when Bill Koch popularized snowboarding technology in the 1980s, etc. The treadmill spins at a societal level, too: teams try to outspend their league rivals chasing a limited pool of talent; Sports get faster and louder as they compete for our attention; Countries are lavishing the latest technology on their Olympic athletes in pursuit of an advantage that never lasts. For example, the ski jump hill Vikersund, in Eriksen’s native Norway, has been repeatedly upgraded over decades to maintain bragging rights over its main competitor, Planica, in Slovenia. Countries continue to pour more resources into building bigger mounds to produce taller jumps, even if that doesn’t necessarily result in better competition—even if that means the Slovenian state may have to give up some services for seniors or schoolchildren, notes Eriksen.
You could tell that Eriksen is a bit skeptical about the fastest, loudest and most powerful Olympic logic. Me too – to my surprise. I started writing about sports science over 15 years ago, eagerly searching for new technologies, training methods, supplements, and equipment that make me faster. As the years went by, I became more and more stressful about each supposed new breakthrough—the hype often preceded the reality, after all—but I remained fundamentally committed to the all-important goal of progressive self-improvement. But something has changed in the past few years. I think it was the shoe.
If rabbits become faster, then foxes follow suit; If some redwoods grow to 300 feet, they all should.
Following a marathon, track and field event lately has been a strange experience, and I’m not talking about a pandemic. For both men and women, nine of the ten fastest marathons in history have been run since the 2016 Nike Vaporfly – the first of a new generation of shoes with carbon-fiber panels, which have been shown to reduce the energy required to maintain a certain pace. On the track, too, the shoes improved and times went down. Ten high school boys ran less than four minutes between 1964 and 2017; Five (and counting) did it this year alone. It’s exciting to watch so many records fall out – until it’s no longer the case. “It’s like a giant bowl of ice cream,” said University of Michigan biomechanics researcher Jeff Burns. He told an Irish journalist. “It’s cool now, but I think it’s going to make us feel shit in the long run.”
However, what surprised me the most was how popular the Vaporfly and its competitors have proven to be among recreational runners. Distinctive boots with thick soles have become commonplace in the big road races, and not just in the front of the pack. Like brain stimulation for cyclists, spending $250 hoping to carve out a few minutes of your marathon time might make sense for aspiring pros, but it sounds less compelling to us—unless you’re measuring yourself against external benchmarks. If you’re chasing a Boston qualifier, two minutes could be the difference between pain and ecstasy. But if everyone is following the same edge, the effect of the Red Queen begins. The Boston qualifiers had five minutes faster across the board in 2020.
If nothing else, watching all this play has forced me to think about what I’m trying to get from my workouts and races. I’ve never bought a pair of carbon-coated boots, but I got a review pair of Vaporflys back in 2017. They’ve sat in my closet for a few years, because as an aging bum, I’ve discovered that the highest form of competition was against my former self. Using an external utility to get faster seems no different – or at least no more important as an achievement – than taking a shortcut in the course. Then I noticed that all of my training partners were wearing next-generation shoes, even for workouts. I also noticed that despite my efforts to fend off the effects of time, I was slowing down. Now I pull my old review pair out of the closet when I’m racing.
Is there an escape from the Red Queen? “Well, the short answer is no, I don’t think so,” Eriksen told me when I emailed asking for his advice. “The desire to excel and the competitive drive that fuels athletic activities will always have the upper hand in the end, with some notable exceptions.” Just as redwoods cannot agree to stop growing when they reach 100 feet in height, the Boston Qualifiers are unlikely to reach any global agreement to abstain from advanced shoe technologies. Eriksen sees a role for mathematical rule-makers in setting standards for innovation. But he doesn’t think they’ll ever succeed in shutting down the treadmill, and we probably don’t want them to. What they can do is prevent it from spinning too fast. Think NASCAR instead of Formula 1 – or think of an example Olympic sailingwhere competitors in the Laser class receive identical boats upon arrival at the Regatta.
For most of us, the fight with the Red Queen is a personal one. Some ways to run 2 percent faster will give you a real sense of accomplishment, feeling better than you were before. Others will leave you in the same place you started, even if the numbers change around the clock. 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 bunch of patents, handle it with caution—and if you abstain, prepare for some fright. Unlike trees that seek sunlight, Eriksen concludes: “We humans have a choice, and herein lies our privilege and our curse.”
#illusion #progress #sports #technology