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  Performance: The Race Goes to the Swift      

The desire to improve the human body’s performance in sports is a catalyst for new inventions. In America, interest in the sport of running took off after the first Boston Marathon in 1897. Then, as now, runners used technology to stay competitive.

Photograph of Nike shoe on running track
Excerpts from Nike promotional film, ca. 1979.

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Running Shoes

Early running shoes were a lot like street shoes. Leather uppers and rubber soles made the shoes heavy and stiff. The modern running shoe took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, when running enthusiasts at shoe companies started experimenting with improved designs. For example, in 1977, Nike founder Bill Bowerman filed for a patent for his “waffle” sole, invented to provide greater traction, stability, and cushioning.


Image of Spalding catalog   Photograph of Nike running shoes
Click to enlarge imageSpalding catalog, 1923

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  Click to enlarge imageNike running shoes with patented waffle sole, about 1979.

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Nutritional Supplements

Athletes have always tried to improve performance by taking supplements. Iron was believed to build muscle and increase strength. Caffeine has replaced strychnine as an energy booster. Today, steroids are widely used to improve endurance. The effects of steroids and other drugs are cause for concern and regulation.

Until recently, athletes avoided drinking fluids during exercise because it can cause cramps and nausea. In 1965, researchers at the University of Florida School of Medicine invented the first sports drink, Gatorade, for the Gators football team. It's designed to replace electrolytes and maintain blood sugar, improving strength and endurance.

Photograph of iron supplement bottle, strychnine bottle, and PowerGel package   Photograph of Gatorade can
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Iron supplement, 1906-08
Strychnine, around 1889
PowerGel, 2003

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  Click to enlarge imageGatorade container, 1969


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Monitoring Devices

Running at a pace of about 80 percent of your maximum heart rate makes the heart stronger and more efficient, and helps muscles pull more oxygen from the blood. A monitor can be used to target a heart-rate zone during training, ultimately improving the runner's pace.

In the future, runners may wear shirts like this "Smart Shirt" prototype. In addition to heart rate, the shirt monitors EKG, respiration, body temperature, and other vital signs.

Photograph of Polar heart-rate monitor wristwatch and chest band   Photograph of Smart Shirt prototype
Click to enlarge image Polar heart-rate monitor wristwatch with chest band, about 2002.

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  Click to enlarge imageSmart Shirt prototype monitoring device, 1996.

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