Ok, all of us jumpers or jump coaches have heard the notion that raised runways are better. It's one of those things that you really never thought about too hard, you just nodded your head and agreed... it must be something to do with the springiness.
That notion and the question of: "if it really did give an advantage" led us down an interesting road to figure it out once and for all - are raised runways for horizontal jumps actually better than ground-level ones?
Step 1. Consult an expert. For us that meant googling the best physics programs in the country and cold calling one of their distinguished professors.
Here is where things get super technical. After quite a few back & forth emails with Dr. Bob Jacobsen it became apparent that this answer wasn't going to be a yes or no.
And before you go questioning his credentials, Dr. Jacobsen is a professor of particle physics at UC Berkley after getting degrees from M.I.T. and Stanford. Between those stints he spent time working at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. So yeah, when it comes to physics he knows what he is talking about.
So down the rabbit hole we went. Specifically what we wanted to garner from him was - was there an actual scientific advantage to using this jumping apparatus opposed to a ground-level option. This meant ignoring any immeasurable benefits such as mental ones.
He was quick to respond - "If the raised surface really did have more "spring" (in the sense that it could store energy from the runner's impact and return it with upward motion), _and_ if the runner's motion was able to harness that, then it would make for a faster/stronger take off."
Problem solved! But then he shot off this next line of text - "On the point about "able to harness that": What really matters is whether the runner's mass is pushed up more. If the leg muscles, tendons, etc are _already_ pushing as much as they can, then pushing more on the feet won't help; that'll just cause the leg to compress (or not extend as much, more likely). So if you're legs are _already_ pushing as hard as they can, the spring won't help."
Yep, that last line got us confused as well...
So we pried deeper. We asked if that was related to the feeling if you jump on an elevator when it goes up to your floor. We also sought clarification on harnessing potential motion into actually jumping higher/further.
"Think about the example of a trampoline: Clearly, you get more altitude by storing (on the jump in/down) energy, then harnessing it on the way up. But the trampoline pushes for a long distance with a (comparatively) lower force. Getting hit hard enough on the bottom of your feet probably just causes your legs to buckle. The case of a jumper taking off is probably somewhere in between. The end of an elevator ride [though] is a somewhat special case, as you're comparing your position to that of the elevator. That relative motion makes it a bit trickier. But the same ideas apply."
Though his very scientific talk made our head spin, he was nice enough to put it into laymen talk - "I think the thing you can say is that, at the level of elite athletes, even tiny differences can matter, and there may well be tiny differences here."
Step 2. Consult a company that sells these products. For us that meant reaching out to vsathletics.com who sell raised jumping and vaulting systems.
Here things were much more concise. When asked the same question this was the answer we received - "Not necessarily any advantage other than portability".
Of course portability is great to have indoors but their answer left the door wide-open to speculation.
Step 3. Analyze some data. For this we created an all-time performance list for VA long jumpers and VA long jumpers at Rector Field house which has a raised runway.
After mulling over the information, without forming any formal spreadsheet or diving thousands of athletes deep, a pattern started to emerge. On the guys' side it was clear that roughly 75% of the elite guys' personal bests in the long jump were at Rector Field-house while very few if any elite girls' personal bests were there.
That leads us to believe that it is much more of a mental thing than anything else. It makes perfect sense too considering the Virginia Tech Premier meet has historically been the standard bearer in the state for elite competition.
Conclusion: It seems like the age-old chicken or the egg argument and how you always get a chicken out of the equation. That seems to be the outcome here as well.
So maybe raised runways do provide a slight competitive edge, let's call it a small fraction of an inch for argument sake. The perceived benefit though is much greater and that draws more competition to jump at meets with raised runways which in turn makes the competition much better. Following those two premises that then makes jumpers compete better and jump further, especially amongst elite athletes who step up most when they need to.
In sum, great competition or a mental edge is way more beneficial to a jumper. Sometimes, just sometimes, utilizing a little edge to your advantage creates an environment that begets more talent and then becomes great for personal records.