The NCAA Data Is In: The Super Spike Effect Is Real, Starting In The 1500

by Robert Johnson
May 10, 2021

A couple weeks ago, after four BYU women ran under 4:15 and four BYU men ran under 3:38 for 1500, I once again thought, "It sure seems like people are running faster in 2021 than a normal NCAA year."

Of course, it makes sense if you are a believer in the super spike technology -- as I am -- as this is the first year that super spike technology has been widespread at the NCAA level.

Then it hit me. "The NCAA descending order list will be the perfect way to see if super spikes are helping distance runners run faster."

So I decided to compare the NCAA's 50th-best mark from this year to 2019 and see if the data confirmed what my gut was telling me about the super spikes.

Comparison of 50th-Fastest NCAA Times in 2019 and 2021
Men 2019 2021 Difference Percent %
800 1:48.91 1:48.96 0.05 slower 0.05%
1500 3:44.42 3:41.60 2.82 faster 1.26%
Steeple 8:53.85 8:51.65 2.20 faster 0.41%
5000 13:54.26 13:45.66 8.60 faster 1.03%
10k 29:13.35 29:03.90 9.45 faster 0.54%
Women
800 2:05.88 2:05.83 0.05 faster 0.04%
1500 4:18.67 4:16.73 1.94 faster 0.75%
Steeple 10:20.93 10:14.05 6.88 faster 1.11%
5000 16:04.82 15:58.76 6.06 faster 0.63%
10k 33:55.58 34:25.35 29.77 slower 1.46%

To me, that table is a clear indication that the super spikes work, starting in the 1500.

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By Robert Johnson
May 10, 2021

A couple weeks ago, after four BYU women ran under 4:15 and four BYU men ran under 3:38 for 1500, I once again thought, “It sure seems like people are running faster in 2021 than a normal NCAA year.”

Of course, it makes sense if you are a believer in the super spike technology — as I am — as this is the first year that super spike technology has been widespread at the NCAA level.

Article continues below player

Then it hit me. “The NCAA descending order list will be the perfect way to see if super spikes are helping distance runners run faster.”

So I decided to compare the NCAA’s 50th-best mark from this year to 2019 and see if the data confirmed what my gut was telling me about the super spikes.

Comparison of 50th-Fastest NCAA Times in 2019 and 2021
Men 2019 2021 Difference  Percent difference 
800 1:48.91 1:48.96 0.05 slower 0.05%
1500 3:44.42 3:41.60 2.82 faster 1.26%
Steeple 8:53.85 8:51.65 2.20 faster 0.41%
5000 13:54.26 13:45.66 8.60 faster 1.03%
10k 29:13.35 29:03.90 9.45 faster 0.54%
Women
800 2:05.88 2:05.83 0.05 faster 0.04%
1500 4:18.67 4:16.73 1.94 faster 0.75%
Steeple 10:20.93 10:14.05 6.88 faster 1.11%
5000 16:04.82 15:58.76 6.06 faster 0.63%
10k 33:55.58 34:25.35 29.77 slower 1.46%

To me, that table is a clear indication that the super spikes work, starting in the 1500.

Without super spike technology, one would expect the times to be slower in 2021 than 2019 as a) the NCAA qualifying window isn’t even closed yet; b) many teams are limited to regional competition; and c) a bunch of schools like the Ivy League aren’t even competing.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “But, it’s a COVID-19 year. The guys and gals are just super focused, aren’t partying, etc.”

Stop, before you make a fool of yourself. If that was true, the sprinters would also be running faster in 2021 than in 2019, but that’s not the case.

In fact, if I compare the current NCAA sprint times to the 2019 times, this year’s times are indeed slower overall — just as one would predict.

Comparison of 50th Fastest NCAA Time in 2019 and 2021
Men 2019 2021 Difference Percent difference 
100 10.29 10.30 .01 slower 0.10%
200 20.75 20.72 .03 faster 0.14%
400 46.30 46.47 .17 slower 0.37%
Women
100 11.41 11.41 same 0.00%
200 23.28 23.35 .07 slower 0.30%
400 53.10 53.12 .02 slower 0.04%

So super spikes don’t exist for the sprinting events and those times haven’t improved. Super spikes do exist in the mid-d and distance events and their usage is widespread and the times have improved significantly in those events starting in the 1500.

I know what some of you are thinking. “What about the 10,000 times?” Yes, the times for 10,000 aren’t nearly as fast as one might think for the men and are actually way slower for the women. That doesn’t dissuade me in the least. It makes sense that the 10,000 numbers are off, particularly for the women, for the following reasons:

1) Many runners don’t run the 10,000 until the conference championship which are yet to take place for the big conferences. This is particularly true on the women’s side as they are used to only racing 5-6k in XC.
2) For NCAA qualifying purposes, the biggest casualty of the pandemic has been the Mt. SAC/Stanford 10,000s.
3) Many of the big time-trial 10,000s are historically run early in the season, which didn’t work well in 2021 for the top distance runners as they had to run NCAA XC on March 15.
4) Many people just run the 10,000 to get a regional qualifier and don’t go all-out.
5) In 2019, some of the NCAA teams were already wearing super shoes — the Vaporflys, which have now been banned from the track — for 10,000s. In fact, Clayton Young won the NCAA title that year in the now-banned (for the track) shoes.

Hopefully, my stats have convinced you that the super spikes’ impact on the sport is real. Remember, shoe executives at some companies like Brooks and On are now letting their athletes race in rival companies’ spikes, so it’s pretty obvious the impact is real.

Two parting observations.

1. Nick Willis’ estimate of the super spikes helping 1 second per 600 seems to be a pretty good estimate, but…

That first table totally supports the assertion that Nick Willis made way back in early January when he first did a time trial in super spikes — he felt it helped him two seconds for a 1200.

The men’s numbers above very much support Willis’ estimate of one second per 600m as that would project to 2.5 seconds for the 1500 and 8.33 for the 5000 and the actual numbers are 2.82 and 8.60.

While the data backs up Willis’ tweet, biomechanist and shoe expert Geoff Burns, who sometimes runs with Willis, warned me against assuming too much from Willis’ tweet.

I’d be very cautious about generalizing a mechanical observation from Nick Willis to other runners, especially about the spikes. Most keen observers would know that Willis has a very unique relationship with the ground—I’m not sure his heels have ever met it! That’s important with the spikes, because there’s a larger volume of that beneficial foam under the heel. There’s some thought that the shoes confer a greater benefit to heel strikers for that reason (the first Colorado study had some data to point towards this). While most elite level mid-d (and even elite 5/10 guys) are predominantly forefoot/midfoot strikers, many high-level NCAA guys across the distances are rearfoot strikers, and may benefit a bit more, and there’s likely proportionally more of them racing the longer races (5/10).  However, Willis is also uniquely talented in understanding himself and his condition, so I would put confidence in his estimation for how the spikes affect him, I’d just be cautious in extrapolating it to everyone else.

Plus from a scientific standpoint, Burns said it doesn’t make sense that the impact of the shoes would be a consistent amount per a set distance.

I’d hesitate on making a simple X seconds per Y distance comparison for a few reasons:

1 – The benefit is likely going to change depending on the speed at which the athlete is running. If the spikes are improving their aerobic efficiency, the translation of efficiency gains to actual speed gains decreases the faster and faster you run due primarily to increases in air resistance (drag forces are proportional to speed squared) and a little bit to a nonlinear increase in oxygen uptake (think back to the conversation with Shalaya Kipp – it was her modeling that laid this out nicely). So if an athlete gets a 3% economy benefit from the spike, they might see a 2% speed increase at 5:00/mi, but 1.8% at 4:00/mi. Not huge, but something to consider at high level. Also, it should be noted that that’s just aerobic efficiency – all these races are at speeds above the aerobic threshold, so how they affect the efficiency of the athletes in that domain is a bit of an unknown.

2 – The other benefit of the spikes that may not lend themselves to a X seconds per Y distance is the notion that they may confer an advantage in mechanical “protection” from the muscular trauma. A 10K in spikes beats your legs up pretty bad, and that trauma affects you in the race whether you notice it or not. Obviously the time magnitudes aren’t what they are on the roads, where the higher stack and harder roads make it more obvious, but the maintenance of mechanical patterns when metabolically whacked is definitely beneficial, and it probably plays a bigger hand the longer the race. That same experience likely plays out in the shorter races—I suspect the piano man that shows up in the last 200m of an 800m isn’t quite as cruel in the spikes—but again, it probably serves a bigger performance benefit in the long races.

2. It’s interesting that the shoes may not help much at all in the 800.

Looking at the NCAA data, the #50 NCAA time is almost unchanged from 2019 to 2021 — on the women’s side, it is only .05 faster this year, and on the men’s side, it’s actually .05 slower. Of course, that makes some sense from a logical standpoint as the 800 as a bit of a hybrid event — halfway between sprinting and distance events. But I wonder what the scientists would say about it.


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