Has Wavelight ruined running?
After Cheptegei and Gidey both broke longstanding World Records in October, some have viewed their runs as nothing more than a science experiment akin to Kipchoge’s run in the Ineos 1:59 Challenge. Both runs made use of the emerging wavelight technology, as did Cheptegei’s 5000m WR in Monaco. Wavelight’s 1st international use was in 2018 at the FBK Games in Holland and is growing in popularity.
The concept of a pacing light for viewers has been used in other sports, such as swimming for years, through a graphical overlay. The main difference with wavelight is the light/ pace can be seen physically by both athlete and spectator. The question is are athletes gaining an unfair advantage over their predecessors?
Ultimately athletic performance is affected by physical and mental capabilities. Simply having a light present doesn’t suddenly improve someone’s VO2 max or any other physical metric that we can use to differentiate athletes physiologically. Wavelight’s can assist through ensuring a more evenly paced race, thereby taking the unreliability of pacemakers out of the equation. The effect of pacemakers appears to be psychological, with one study reporting that during a 5k run athletes perceived they had run faster and easier with a second athlete present. There were no significant differences between elapsed time, heart rate and rate of perceived exertion(RPE) scores when running with a second runner, compared to running alone. An athlete’s perception of effort can influence performance. If an athlete perceives their effort to be easier than it is, they are more likely to be able to maintain that level of effort.
A key distinction in the way athletes process sensations of perceived pain and discomfort is to focus either on their own internal sensations (e.g. breathing), termed association, or by diverting attention away from their discomfort, termed dissociation. It has been shown that at lower speeds dissociative thoughts are more prevalent, while at higher speeds athletes reported greater use of associative coping. Many athletes habitually use dissociative strategies early in the race, and during training, with associative strategies used later in the race. The introduction of pacing lights creates an additional dissociative stimulus, useful early on as a way of ensuring pace is correct. The brain uses a central regulator to judge pace. This regulator learns very quickly, for example people who use a GPS watch are more likely to be able to hit specified paces on feel alone once the watch has been taken away. What we have seen in these recent WRs is an athlete locking into a pace early on behind a pacemaker and then maintaining that pace once the pacemaker drops out, before kicking on when the finish is in striking distance. Therefore, the benefit of wavelight is to the pacemaker. Matt Baxter was a pacemaker at the Highgate night of 1000m PBs, which used wavelight, and afterwards said it made his life significantly easier. Whereas Cheptegei said he didn’t notice the lights at all during his WR attempts, possibly because he was ahead of them when it mattered.
Overall wavelights add an easy way for spectators to see what’s going on and acts as an assistance to the pacemakers that are present, hopefully allowing them all to be as reliable as Bram Som.