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Can A Shoe Make You Run Faster? Nike’s Controversial Vaporfly Escapes Olympic Ban

January 29, 2020
girl running across london bridge

A shoe that makes you run faster sounds too good to be true. Surely it’s hard work and grit that get you moving quicker? Well, yes, but as we move ever-closer to that coveted sub-2 hour marathon, more will be done to shave milliseconds off run times. Nike’s Vaporfly shoe technology is no exception, but how does it work, and should it be allowed?

Of the 36 podium positions in 2019’s marathon majors, athletes were wearing the Nike Vaporfly in 31 of those, with the official marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge wearing them when he ran a 2:01:39 race in Berlin, with newly-crowned women’s WR holder Brigid Kosgei also wearing them for her 2:14:04 run. You can’t help but think that these highlighter-hued running shoes must have some sort of power given all of these accolades, and some in athletics feel they are classed as an unfair advantage in the sport. With the current World Athletics rule stating that shoes “must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage”, are Nike and their athletes breaking the rules, or is this just evolution of the sport? Let’s take a closer look.

Image from Nike

How running shoes work

When we run, a large force is produced when your foot hits the ground – whether that’s your heel, mid- or forefoot hitting first – which slows you down in the first part of ground contact (the “stance” phase) then propels you forward during the latter part. Your foot also rolls inwards (pronates) during the first half of the stance phase to help decelerate, rotating outwardly (supinating) to assist with acceleration in the second half of the phase. Generally, the cushioning of a running shoe will increase energy absorption at the heel and may also increase stability in the foot to control pronation and supination.

However, these two features tend to be at odds. The more cushioning you have, the more energy gets absorbed, and the more energy you need to use to propel yourself forward – plus more cushioning tends to weigh more. A less cushioned, stiffer-midsoled shoe will have better energy transfer from heel to toe, but you lose that soft, comfortable feeling of a more cushioned shoe.

How the Nike Vaporfly works

The Vaporfly is different to your usual running shoe with its embedded carbon-fibre plate plus the midsole thickness and material.

The carbon-fibre plate is frequently used in racing spikes and reduces running economy by 1%, acting as a lever which means the ankle doesn’t have to work as hard. The midsole is made from a light, resilient material that has shown to return 87% of energy, compared to the adidas Adios shoe’s 76% and Nike’s own Zoom Streak at 66%. Despite the high midsole, it’s lighter than its shoe-peers (184g with a heel height of 31mm as opposed to the Streak’s 181g at a heel height of 23mm) plus the extra height gives a reduced energy cost of running!

Image from Nike

Should the shoe be banned at the the Olympics?

It’s expected that the World Athletics (previously the IAAF) will announce that the Vaporfly will not be banned for Tokyo 2020 – however, there will be a ban on any brand new technology to be used in running until after the Olympics has passed. After this time a comprehensive report is due to be undertaken to find out just how advantageous this type of shoe is, along with competitor brands’ shoes, with a likely conclusion being that brands will have to present a prototype to the governing body before being allowed to be worn in a race.

Essentially it’s up to World Athletics what they do or don’t allow in the sport, but personally I feel this is a progression in technology and will mean that other shoe manufacturers will increase their R&D and follow suit. It’s exciting! Nike love a bit of controversy, especially in an Olympic year, so in a way it’s a shame that we won’t get to see what they were undoubtedly cooking up to debut for the road race thanks to the WA’s technology ban. I don’t think it takes anything away from how incredible the athletes are and every aspect of the sport will heat up in the continued race for a sub-2 hour marathon.

What does this all mean to the casual runner?

The Vaporfly are said to improve a person’s running economy by 4-5%, which might translate as 60-90 seconds for an elite marathon runner, but this elite marathon runner has still put years upon years of hard work with a team of professionals around them looking after their training, sleep, nutrition, stress – everything! Unless we are full time athletes, the majority of us don’t have that luxury, and are unlikely to be competing as the top 1% of athletes.

Still, we all want to get better and smash PBs. Do we need these shoes to do that? I had to chuckle at this recent newspaper article:

Getting an hour PB in a marathon is an incredible achievement! I am taking nothing away from what Andrew has done here, but it’s unfair to say it’s down to his shoes. More than likely he trained hard and smart, as well as looking after his health during that time, and that’s as much as many of us with demanding jobs, fulfilling family and busy social lives can expect of ourselves.

If you have a spare £240 to spend on your running shoes then buy them, but don’t expect them to do all the work. Graft hard, then if you feel you’ve reached a ceiling and you want to try the shoes for an extra boost, go for it!

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Sarah fitness blog Manchester

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Welcome to That Squat Bot, established 2013! I'm Sarah, a fitness professional based in Manchester, UK.

I love feeling strong and lifting heavy, but I also love trying different types of movement and using my fitness to adventure outside of the gym. I'm also a massive Marvel nerd!

Find out more about me here.

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Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of my employer.

Occasionally I get sent products for review or work with brands on a mutually beneficial basis; this will be made clear in the post and will have an asterisk (*) next to any gifted items. My opinion is honest and will never be bought. Read the full disclosure policy here.

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