Technological Innovations in Track and Field

Let’s face it, the new swimming suits have helped demolish world records at a record pace (no pun intended).

Ross and Jonathan from the Science of Sport quoted the average age of a swimming world record for men was 13 months and 8 months for women.  That’s a World Record every year!

By comparison, the average age of Track and Field World Record was 8 years 11 months for men and 14 years 9 months for women.


With a lot of women world records out of reach (honestly, who’s going to break Flo-Jo’s 10.49?), it’s no wonder the pole vault gathers so much attention.  Pamela Jelimo is creating a new interest in the women’s 800 meters as she appears to be the only one capable of breaking the world record.

The problem is the average Track and Field audience only wants to see world records or Usain Bolt, just like the high scoring offence of American Football and Basketball.  They want to see action!  Hockey and Baseball has gained more popularity with the increase number of scoring (whether by rule changes or performance enhancing drugs)

That’s why Soccer (or Football to the rest of the world) will never take off in North America, David Beckem or no David Beckem.

What has been done to help Track and Field World Records? 

Let’s take a quick look.

Changes in Track and Field… for Better or Worse

FAT timing – this made times slower as you have to add 0.24 to a hand time

Javelin – made shorter, thus throwers are chasing a ghost record.  Eventually, they will catch up, and then what?  Shorten it again to a toothpick?

Harder Tracks – Tracks are harder (and faster) with the Atlanta 1996 Olympics being one of the hardest  tracks known at the time.  The track no longer exists as it was torn down to become the current baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves.

ClothingSpikes are lighter and stronger, and the new Nike Swift Suit speed suits help cut air resistance.

Starting Blocks – sensors to detect reaction times faster than 0.100 are disqualified, speakers are installed to ensure a fair start (or use a silent gun), and the high blocks that prevent your heel from giving a calf stretch reflex.  We’ve come a long way with starting blocks.

Hammer Throw – eventually, we’ll need to contest this event outside the main stadium, or someone will get seriously hurt!  You might as well as the Javelin to it.

10,000 meter Track – Water stations have been added during hot ambient temperatures. 

Steeplechase – spectators like to watch the water jump for all the splashes, but now some of the Kenyans and Ethiopians are hurdling the water jump to stay dry!  That’s 12 feet of clearance!  Amazing leg strength, if you ask me.

Lane 9 – since 8 athletes advance to the Finals in major meets, it is not uncommon to see Lanes 2 through 9 being used.  This helps with a greater curvature and thus a faster time.  Nobody likes Lane 1 for the 200m.  I’ll take Lane 8 any day for a 200 meters.

Shot Put – the change from glide to spin seems to help, and is becoming more popular, but the current WR still used the old technique.  Check out the shot put world record form the Complete Videos of Track and Field World Records.

Pole Vault – Materials have changed over the years to provide a slingshot effect.

High Jump – Brill Bend.  Fosbury Flop.  1968.  Enough said.

Foam Mattress – No doubt, the High Jump and Pole Vault both benefited with a safer landing area.  And yes, Dick Fosbury started flopping into a sand pit head first!  He landed on his shoulders, and rolled.

Did I miss any?

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • Hello Jimson,

    One change that you haven’t mentioned which could be a very important factor with having the most potential impact for improving records is in the realm of coaching. Only you and your fellow peers can answer that question. What are the major technological innovations that have been implemented with respect to coaching aides in training track and field athletes? Does anything stand out as a drastic change in the way modern coaching techniques are applied to the world of sprinting as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago?

    P.S. Thanks to having read your many posts for the past year and 1/2, I thoroughly enjoyed watching with a different perspective and focus the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships this past weekend. Three things stood out from the final results I read online:

    1. From the Kansas City Star:

    Texas A&M won the men’s title without a single individual champion the entire week! This speaks volumes for those who encourage team spirit, comradery and participation when most consider track and field events individual accomplishments.

    2. The Texas A&M men and women pulled off a rare double, sweeping the team titles.

    Now here is the point where fact is stranger than fiction: The only other school to win men’s and women’s championships in the same year was LSU in 1989 and 1990. The common thread is Aggies coach Pat Henry, who guided all three efforts. Almost a 20 year gap between the sweeps! Outstanding.

    3. And Finally from the Waco Tribune:

    Baylor’s incredible run of 42 consecutive victories and five straight NCAA 4×400-meter relay national championships ended Saturday afternoon as the Bears finished third in the NCAA outdoor meet at Arkansas’ McDonnell Field.

    The Bears clocked their fastest time of the season at 3 minutes, 1.12 seconds, but it wasn’t fast enough to catch new champ Florida State. The Seminoles’ time of 2:59.99 was just .4 off the NCAA record.

    Texas A&M finished second in the 4×400 to claim the men’s team championship, sweeping the men’s and women’s team national titles for the Aggies.

    Congratulations to Baylor for their amazing streak, now broken.

  • @Fred – Good points raised!

    My thoughts:

    1) As much as Track and Field is Individual (except the relays), it still is a team sport, and every point counts (like a decathlon). The Texas men’s team proved that point. The 4x400m was great to watch.

    3) It just goes to show you that it is harder to stay number 1, than to get to number 1. Being number 1 (like Baylor), EVERYONE is gunning for you. Still, 3:01 is nothing to apologize about.

    Not to worry, Baylor will be back next year.