Super Spikes? Raised Expectations? A Look At How The NCAA & American Distance Running Record Books Have Been Rewritten in Just 4 Years
By Jonathan Gault
March 2, 2023
It feels as if every week in 2023, some sort of distance running record is getting smashed. Through the first two months of the year, we’ve seen five collegiate records (women’s mile, 3,000 & DMR, men’s 3,000 & DMR), four American records (men’s mile, 3,000, & 5,000, women’s 3,000), and even a world record (men’s 3,000).
Though perhaps you’re used to it by now. Last year featured American indoor records in the men’s and women’s 5,000 meters and a collegiate record in the men’s 3,000. Since January 1, 2020, every major US indoor distance record (men’s and women’s 800, mile, 3,000, 5,000) has been broken at least once.
One of the main reasons for the flurry of fast times is obvious: the ability of athletes to race in carbon-plated, foam-packed super spikes, which is something my boss Robert Johnson wrote about almost two years ago. We saw the same thing happen in the marathon a few years earlier. One super shoes hit the roads in 2016, the marathon record books were quickly rewritten. Nine of the top 10 men’s marathon times in history (and eight of the top 10 women’s times) have been run in super shoes. Now it’s happening in track as super spikes have become widely adopted, particularly over the last two years.
But, as is usually the case with these things, there’s more than one factor at play. Racing in super spikes helps, of course, but athletes in 2023 also get to train in super shoes and super spikes, which enables them to run faster in practice and recover more quickly between sessions. Stack a couple of years of that training on top of each other and you get something like what we’re seeing in 2023.
“Definitely there’s been a shift in the amount of volume that I think that they can do, probably on a weekly schedule but also during the actual workouts,” says the On Athletics Club’s Dathan Ritzenhein, who has coached Yared Nuguse and Alicia Monson to American records this year. “Their bodies aren’t destroyed the same way. Back 15 years ago, if I was doing a workout in spikes, you’d be walking gingerly for days. Now you can walk away feeling pretty good.”
“When you look at other endurances sports, they often do 70-90% of their volume at threshold pace,” says Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith, whose men’s squad set the NCAA record in the distance medley relay on February 17. “And in running, we do 10-15%, probably. The limiting factor has always been, when we try to do more than that, people get hurt…I think maybe some of these training shoes are now allowing us to do a little bit more volume at a higher intensity than we’ve done in the past.”
Princeton coach Jason Vigilante, who coached NCAA champions such as Leo Manzano and Robby Andrews at Texas and Virginia, says his workouts haven’t changed much since super shoes entered the equation. But compared to five years ago, his athletes are able to run faster splits at the same effort, and their legs feel better the next day.
“I haven’t said, okay now we’re just going to do something faster,” Vigilante says. “It just turns out to be faster.”
Ritzenhein also thinks there has been a shift in mindset among elite distance runners. Part of that, he believes, is due to the changes to the World Championship and Olympic qualifying systems. There are now two ways to qualify: either hit the super tough qualifying standard, or rack up enough world ranking points to get in that way. What is the best way to earn world ranking points? Running fast in big races.
Professional athletes are, by necessity, selective with their racing schedules. Distance athletes can only go hard so many times in a season. So when they do compete, athletes, coaches, and meet directors try to optimize as many aspects of the race as possible toward speed. Another OAC athlete, Josette Norris, was considering racing the mile at the Last Chance Indoor Qualifier at Boston University last weekend, but the field was not strong and the pacing was not lined up. Ritzenhein opted not to send her — it didn’t make sense to compete if she was not going to run fast.
“There’s a focus on running fast in a lot of races now,” Ritzenhein says. “Not that there wasn’t before, but I think records and things like that were set up more sparingly before. Now, you get races set up with the intention of running fast. So whether it’s having pacers or pace lights and faster products and footwear, a lot of that has come to a head…The shoes definitely matter. I think the shift in mindset matters more.”
Many of the fast times have been run on the same track: the banked oval at BU, which has hosted two NCAA records in the 3,000 and three American records in the 5,000 meters in the past two years. This year, 26 of the 32 athletes who qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 5,000 (81%) got their qualifier at BU. Fifty-two men ran a sub-4:00 mile at BU on just one day this year (February 11).
All those fast times have placed the BU track at the center of a chicken-and-egg debate. Do athletes run fast because BU is the fastest track in the country? Or is BU the fastest track in the country because that is where the best athletes try to run fast?
There is an actual, scientific argument for why the BU track has become a distance runner’s paradise. The wooden base creates a bouncier surface and returns more energy than a typical steel base indoor track. The turns feature asymmetrical banks, creating a more gradual descent out of the turn. And the 18-degree bank angle is particularly suited to fast mile races.
(Former BU coach Pete Schuder elaborated on this subject in this LetsRun messageboard thread from 2019).
Some joke that the BU track is short. (It’s not). Smith recalls when people made the same joke about Stanford University’s outdoor track. That track wasn’t short either, but, like Boston University, it had a natural advantage — good, consistent weather — that, when paired with strong pacemaking and top athletes trying to run as fast as possible, produced special times.
“People started believing you had to go to Stanford, and they believed when you did go to Stanford, you would run fast,” Smith says. “So you’d go to Stanford, and you’d run fast.”
Smith recalls that, a decade ago, if you were a college athlete targeting a fast indoor time, you had to run at the Dempsey — the University of Washington’s 307-meter track. Now, even UW athletes will fly out to Boston to chase fast times.
“The Washington track hasn’t changed, the BU track hasn’t changed, but the perceptions have changed,” Smith says.
And then there is the inevitable forward march of time. In general, the top marks in every event improve from one generation to the next. With every new record, the next crop of athletes set their sights just a little bit higher. Smith acknowledges that multiple factors have contributed to the explosion of fast times, from better shoes to a bevy of sixth-year “COVID seniors” at the collegiate level benefiting from an extra year of eligibility. But he believes many people underrate the power of the mind. If you create new expectations and give athletes the tools to meet them (good conditions and pacemaking), amazing things can happen.
“The biggest thing is mindset, expectations,” Smith says.
There aren’t many secrets in collegiate running in 2023. Many athletes at top programs log their training on Strava, so it’s easier to keep up with what other schools are doing. Vigilante says there is a “hold-my-beer” aspect to collegiate running these days — if someone runs fast at Arkansas on Friday, athletes competing at Notre Dame the next day are going to see that and try to go even faster. But the breakthrough in footwear technology, Vigilante says, remains “the foundational piece.”
“Nobody in their right mind would run the biggest race on their calendar in the old shoes now,” Vigilante says. “That’s what I would say to people who say, oh it’s not the shoes.”
Whatever the reason, the record books and qualifying lists in 2023 are unrecognizable compared to where we were barely three years ago. Intuitively, you may have suspected this already. But it’s even crazier when you actually look at the data.
There’s been a huge jump in what it takes to make NCAAs
In general, it gets a little bit harder every year to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships. Some years, certain events are especially deep or especially shallow, but the general trend is toward faster times. Recently, however, athletes have had to run a lot faster to qualify. I looked at qualifying times for five recent NCAA Indoor meets, each separated by three years, to see how times have changed over time. Here’s how it looked.
Note: “Change” refers to the difference from the previous year examined — so the change from 2011 to 2014, or from 2014 to 2017
Men’s NCAA qualifying times, 2011-23
Women’s NCAA qualifying times, 2011-23
From 2011 through 2020, the general trend was toward faster times, but there was some variation. On average, men’s times were actually slower in 2014 compared to 2011. Looking at all the three-year gaps from 2011 to 2020, there were only two events out of 30 where the qualifying time was more than 1% faster than three years earlier.
The jumps from 2020 to 2023, meanwhile, were enormous. Every single event was significantly harder to qualify for in 2023 than 2020, some by massive margins. Nine of the 10 events had a qualifying time more than 1% faster than three years earlier, and the average drop was 1.36% on the men’s side and 1.79% on the women’s side — more than double the biggest improvement in any other three-year period.
Times that barely made NCAAs in 2023 would have been among the top seeds in 2020
2019-20 is a good year to demonstrate the major differences the new shoe technology has wrought. In 2019-20, few, if any, NCAA runners were racing in superspikes. Some schools had them in 2020-21, but that was a strange year with a cross country season unfolding concurrently. By 2021-22, superspikes were ubiquitous.
Below are the season’s bests of the last man/relay team qualified in each distance event at the 2023 NCAA Indoor Championships. Just three years ago, all five of those marks would have been worth a top-four seed; now they’re barely good enough to qualify for the meet.
|Event||Performance||2020 seed||2023 seed|
Go back to 2019 — just four years ago — and the #1 seed in the 5,000 was Tyler Day at 13:31.36. That time wouldn’t even have qualified for NCAAs in 2023. It’s a similar story in 2018, where the #1 seeds in the 3,000 and 5,000 were Justyn Knight (7:45.86) and Mike Tate (13:37.33). Neither of those times would have made the meet this year.
The changes aren’t quite as stark on the women’s side:
|Event||Performance||2020 seed||2023 seed|
The DMR has gone mad
No event has undergone more change in the last four years than the distance medley relay. On January 1, 2020, the NCAA record in the men’s DMR had stood for almost 12 years and belonged to the 2008 Texas squad featuring NCAA champions Jacob Hernandez and Leo Manzano. Their time? 9:25.97.
Oregon broke that record by running 9:24.52 on January 31, 2020, and the record has subsequently been broken twice more — by Oregon again in 2021 (9:19.42), and most recently by Oklahoma State on February 17, 2023 (9:16.40).
Texas’ 9:25.97 wouldn’t have come close to qualifying for NCAAs this year — 9:22.74 was the last time in. Guess where 9:25.97 ranks on the all-time performance list now?
That’s right. A time that stood as an NCAA record for more than a decade has been bettered 39 times in the last four seasons.
On the women’s side, eight of the nine fastest DMR times in history have been run in 2023.
Vigilante, who coached that 2008 Texas team, believes the superspikes are worth roughly 7-8 seconds in a DMR.
“I’m just shooting from the hip here,” Vigilante says. “In my mind, it’s 3-4 seconds for a mile. It’s 1.5 seconds for 800. And for 1200, it’s probably 2-2.5 seconds that you can subtract.”
And in the men’s DMR specifically, teams have changed their approach. In previous years, schools might try to grab a DMR qualifier at the same meet where their athletes were also running individual events. But the event has become so competitive that schools can no longer afford to run a “good” early-season time and remain confident that it will hold up as a qualifier. Now the move is to run your best team, fresh, in a fast DMR the weekend before the conference meet.
That approach is borne out by the results. In 2022, the top 15 men’s DMR times all came from the weekend before the conference meet. In 2023, the top 17 men’s DMR times were all from that same weekend.
“The focus and attention on that event has gone up big-time recently,” says Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith. “Teams are selling out to run fast DMRs and we’ve all centralized on one weekend.”
Top five NCAA men’s DMR times in history
|9:16.40||2023 Oklahoma State||2/17/23|
|9:19.99||2023 North Carolina||2/18/23|
Top five NCAA women’s DMR times in history
Since the start of 2020, almost every NCAA and American indoor distance record has been broken
I compiled a list of the top 5 all-time NCAA and American marks in four indoor events: the 800, mile, 3,000, and 5,000. That’s 16 events in total, since there are separate lists for men and women and pros and collegians. The findings: since the start of 2020, the American/collegiate indoor record has been broken in 13 of those 16 events. The only pre-2020 records that still remain: Jenny Simpson‘s NCAA record in the 5,000 (15:01.70 from 2009), Paul Ereng‘s NCAA record in the 800 (1:44.84 from 1989), and Lawi Lalang‘s NCAA record in the 5,000 (13:08.28). The other 13 have all been broken in just the last four years — including every American record from 800 through 5,000 on both the men’s and women’s side.
Below, the top-5 lists for each event, with post-2020 times highlighted in bold.
|1:45.24||Brandon Miller||Texas A&M||2/26/22|
|1:45.27||Devin Dixon||Texas A&M||1/26/19|
|3:50.46||Anass Essayi||South Carolina||2/10/23|
|7:36.42||Drew Bosley||Northern Arizona||1/27/23|
|7:38.13||Yared Nuguse||Notre Dame||2/12/22|
|13:09.30||Adriaan Wildschutt||Florida State||2/12/22|
|13:11.80||Alex Maier||Oklahoma State||12/3/22|
|1:58.40||Athing Mu||Texas A&M||2/27/21|
|2:00.69||Jazmine Fray||Texas A&M||2/11/17|
|4:24.26||Katelyn Tuohy||NC State||1/28/23|
|4:26.55||Elle St. Pierre||New Hampshire||2/9/18|
|4:27.18||Leah Falland||Michigan State||3/14/15|
|4:27.19||Sally Kipyego||Texas Tech||2/28/09|
|8:35.20||Katelyn Tuohy||NC State||2/11/23|
|15:14.71||Weini Kelati||New Mexico||12/7/19|
|1:58.92||Suzy Favor Hamilton||2/7/99|
|4:16.85||Elle St. Pierre||2/8/20|
|4:20.5||Mary Decker Slaney||2/19/82|
Jonathan Gault, a high school All-American at 5,000m and cross country and track & field captain at Dartmouth, is one of the premier track & field writers of his generation. He has won numerous journalism awards including the NCAA Jim McKay Scholarship. He resides in Boston, Massachusetts, and is known for his daily analysis, in-depth profiles, historical pieces, and love of the Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club. You can follow him @jgault13 or email him.
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