The Running Shoe Arms Race: An Athlete Perspective

The governing body of athletics has made its much anticipated ruling in relation to the escalating “war’ between brands relating to questionable technology in running shoes.

The big question I have is: what do the actual athletes think?

Before I try to answer this thorny question, lets take a look at how this all came about, and why World Athletics felt it necessary to step in.

The guts of the new ruling states:

  • From 30 April 2020, any shoe must have been available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market (online or in-store) for a period of four months before it can be used in competition.
  • The sole must be no thicker than 40mm.
  • The shoe must not contain more than one rigid embedded plate or blade (of any material) that runs either the full length or only part of the length of the shoe

For a fabulous read of what this all means, check out Robbe Reddinger’s thoughts at Believe in the Run.. absolutely bang on!

Of course ALL of this has been precipitated by a little cottage company no-one has heard of that goes by the name Nike.

In 2017, Nike release a shoe for public consumption called the Nike Vaporfly4%, and it made what many considered to be an outrageous claim, that this shoe was 4% more efficient than any other.

Lots of people immediately interpreted (incorrectly) that this meant this shoe would make you 4% FASTER.

So, if your PB in the marathon was 3:01:00, you would magically run a 2;54.76 just by donning the Vaporfly’s.

Wow!

But, at this point, the vast majority, me included, looked at this with deep scepticism, and thought it was another wonderful example of Nike’s peerless marketing prowess.

However..things very rapidly changed..

The word soon got out that maybe there WAS something special about these shoes.

Then research started to trickle out. Good research from really good researchers like Rodger Kram and  Wouter Hoogkamer, followed by NCAA steeplechase champ and US Olympian Shalaya Kipp,who is now a PhD candidate in Exercise Physiology at the University of British Columbia. She was part of the study published in November 2017 that actually gave the Vaporflys their 4% name as the scientists behind that study found that they boosted running economy by 2-6%.

The trickle became a steady stream, and all the data agreed.

The Nike shoe delivered an average of 4 percent improved running economy over Nike’s previous fastest marathon shoe, the Nike Zoom Streak 6… which for a marathon runner, is massive.

Nike then pulled off one of the greatest marketing ploys of all time, an orchestrated attempt to have a man run under 2 hours for the marathon distance.

This was widely assumed, and reported, as being almost an impossible task that was unlikely to occur within the next 30 years, if ever.

All sorts of physiological data were generated and trotted out, and social media went nuts.

The project was called Breaking2 and it took place onon the circuit of the National Autodrome , in Monza , in Italy .

Three athletes were chosen to attempt this feat including the brilliant Kenyan, Eluid Kipchoge.

He ran 42.2 km  in 2  h  0  min  25  s

 

This was 2 minutes 22 seconds faster than the existing World marathon record, about the equivalent of landing a man on Mars.

But this performance was not approved by the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) as a new world record because the attempt did not take place within the framework of an official competition, that it is part of a record attempt, and that it took place on a closed circuit. In addition, Kipchoge was able to benefit from the help of pacers and was preceded by a vehicle from which he was able to benefit from drafting.

None of this mattered a hoot, and the world officially went mad over the Nike Vaporfly/NEXT%. They were virtually impossible to purchase, and pretty much any elite who wanted a chance at glory got hold of a pair by any means possible.

Shalaya Kipp watched the Vaporfly4% prototypes at the US Olympic Marathon trials  in 2016 knowing the Nike athletes had a huge advantage.

I remember knowing when we watched the [US] Olympic [Marathon] Trials that the shoe was [worth] about a 4% savings…I was training with Kara Goucher at the time and she had just signed with Skechers and I kind of remember thinking that if that hadn’t happened and she had stayed with Nike, she’d be making a third Olympic team but she’s running for wrong company right now.”

She now calls the Nike shoes, “mechanical doping“!

She now believes the new shoes kept her training partner Kara Goucher off the 2016 Olympic team.

Goucher had left Nike in 2014 (and, as we later discovered this was largely because of Alberto Salazar and what was going on inside the murky depths of Nike’s now infamous “Oregon Project), and competed in Sketchers running shoes.

She was 2 minutes and 4 seconds slower than the eventual winner of the trials, Amy Cragg, and missed the cut for Rio.

What if Goucher had been in the Vaporfly shoes like her competitors?

It is impossible to know for sure, but we can make some estimates. Ross Tucker, a respected sport scientist from South Africa has pondered this and other questions related to the Nike super shoes at length.

He has called the Vaporfly 4% “the shoe that broke running,” and suggests that if the shoe provides a 4% benefit to running economy, then it might offer a 2.7% performance benefit to an elite athlete.

A 2% improvement in Goucher’s 2016 qualifying time would have had her finish in 2:27:27, good enough for first place. Even a 1% improvement would have brought her to Rio.

The behemoth rolled on, and by the start of 2018, everyone was in the “magic” footwear!

If we take a look at these images, on the left is the start of the London Marathon in 2016, and on the right is the same race in 2018.

In 2016, there were no Vaporflys

Two years later all but 2 of the lead pack wore Nike Vaporfly’s

 

Eluid Kipchoge won the 2018 London Marathon in Nike Vaporfly 4% (well not really, they were undoubtedly a special prototype and a portent of things to come!), and 5 month’s later in Berlin smashed the world record with an astonishing time of 2:01:32

At the recent Hakone Ekiden 84% of the 210 runners wore the Vaporfly….

At the Hakone Ekiden in 2017 only 17% of the runners wore Nike.

Things then began to rapidly escalate.

On April 25th 2019 Nike released the next iteration, the ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%, just in time for the London Marathon.

The race, with admirable predictability, was won by Eluid Kipchoge, in the NEXT % (well not really, by this time they were almost certainly a prototype of the even better shoe, the AlphaFly!!) in time of 2 h 2 min 37.. blindingly fast for London!

By this time, Nike had announced it was taking another attempt at its own moonshot, breaking the 2 hour marathon barrier, and that this project, sponsored by a British industrial and manufacturing company called Ineos would take place on October 12th in Vienna, Austria.

Once again, Eluid Kipchoge was the anointed one (although in fairness the breaking 2 project was a race between 3 runners, which Kipchoge won).

For the Ineos 159 challenge, Kipchoge racde alone, apart from forty-one pacemakers, who rotated twice each lap and ran in a “K” formation rather than the diamond formation chosen for the previous attempt. Each lap of the course featured two 4.3-kilometre (2.7-mile) out-and-back stretches of Hauptallee with the turning points coming at the Lusthaus and Praterstern roundabouts at either end of the avenue, in the Prater park. The entire route inclines only 2.4 metres (7.9 feet). Spectators were present for the attempt in contrast to Monza, which Kipchoge himself acknowledged was an important stimulus.

To say NOTHING was left to chance would be an understatement, including the shoe he wore, a radical new prototype version of the Vaporfly with a new name

The Alpafly

We do not know for sure what was in this shoe.. but rumours of triple plates (which seem validated by the patent drawings), huge stack heights, and highly secretive foams abounded.

 

We shall never know.. it was a prototype, but what we do know is that Kipchoge ran that day almost 2 seconds faster than his world record, and smashed the sub 2 hour barrier to cross the line in 1:59:40.2

Houston we DO NOT have a problem!

By now, there was LOT of chatter about what these shoes were doing to the sport of running, and a LOT of discussion that the shoe was diminishing the effort of the athlete and tarnishing the sport.

They were being called “cheat shoes”, “footwear EPO” (after Erythropoietin (EPO) which is a glycoprotein hormone produced by the interstitial fibroblasts in the kidney that signal for erythropoiesis in bone marrow. The increased activity of a Hemocytoblast (RBC stem cell) allows the blood to have a greater carrying capacity for oxygen. EPO was first developed to counteract the effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer patients.[3] EPO also stimulates increased wound healing. Because of its physiological side effects, particularly increased hematocrit, EPO has become a drug with abuse potential by professional and amateur athletes and is banned by the World Anti doping Agency).

And.. the athletes who were sponsored by non Nike brands, were not only starting to take notice, but to find a voice.

So this is where our story really starts.

I have documented Kara Goucher’s experience, she went on record recently saying..

“Honestly, I felt devastated. I felt like something I had worked so hard for had been stolen from me, similar to how I felt when I learned people ahead of me were doping. I could handle not being good enough to make our team, but learning that a propulsion device in a shoe might have kept me out was just devastating.”

But what about some more recent examples?

Shalaya Kipp overall is very pleased with World Athletics’ new shoe regulations

“I guess the thing I was most excited to see was that no prototypes can be used in subsequent competitions [after April 30, 2020,] and that the product needs to be on the market for at least four months. That really made me happy… Putting that four months in there, I liked that a lot…”

And she makes a reference to what many have forgotten about this argument whilst pointing the finger at Nike..

everyone is running in prototypes – we’ve got to remember that…

Amen to that, and there has been NOTHING to stop other brands from competing with Nike.. it is just that.. they haven’t!

Kipp is a competitive elite runner, hoping to make her second Olympics come the Marathon trials on June 19th.

But she is also focusing on the science of footwear, so her perspective is important and crosses many borders..

“The fun scientist in me doesn’t want to limit innovation too much. I think it’s great that someone wanted to go out with a waffle iron and start creating their own shoes. I don’t want to put too many limits [on innovation]. What I do want to see is that the athletes aren’t getting the butt end of that. [I want it to be fair] for all of them. I’m happy with the limitations that came out. I wouldn’t have added anything.”

OK.. sounds reasonable, but Robbe Reddinger from Believe in the Run has the following to say..

“All this to say, there is no level to this playing field, at least not in the short term. The World Athletics “ban” is simply some pre-Tokyo window dressing to quell the dissent of those dissatisfied with Nike’s advanced technologies.

None of this changes the fact that Nike is king shit of shoe island, for now and for the foreseeable future, fairness and bans be damned.”

 

He goes on to observe

“today’s World Athletics ruling gives Nike a huge advantage over its competitors for years to come, which is this– sponsored athletes from other companies will no longer be able to race in prototype shoes, which is the only way of closing the gap with the AlphaFly in competition.”

 

Errm.. yup.. that is pretty much EXACTLY the way I read it too, what was designed to presumably slap Nike down, has undoubtedly got the champagne corks popping in Beaverton!

Shalaya Kipp thinks other shoe companies will catch up with Nike and that the playing field will be level “within a year or two.”

I think it is probably more like a decade because Nike WILL have a production AlphaFly legally ready for the Tokyo Olympics, and it will have been working on projects that are at least 2-3 years in the future.

They are so far ahead the rest of the pack is gonna be panting behind for some years to come.

Perhaps we can close this off with some very recent thoughts from a runner who for 11 years has been loyal to another brand, but now cannot escape the fact that he has been disadvantaged by NOT wearing the Nike super shoes.

Reid Coolsaet , is a Canadian runner that competes in the marathon. He participated in two Olympic marathons , during the Olympic Games in 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro

Recently, he put his thoughts down in relation to the Nike shoes, and why he feels compelled to change brands from New Balance, with whom he has been a sponsored athlete since 2008, to Nike, simply because he feels he cannot be competitive without the Nike product.

“As you know the Nike Vaporfly has changed the face of marathoning. You can look at the World Records, Area Records, WWM podiums, Olympic qualifiers… and you can see the shift in performances. A few years ago I wasn’t so sure about the hype. In 2018 I started to realize that the Vaporflys were helping some athletes.

And then in 2019 it was blatantly obvious that the Vaporflys are on another level.”

He then goes on to make his convictions ever clearer saying if you are not using the Nike racing shoes…

you’re bringing a knife to a gun fight.

So.. it IS complicated, and there is a clear and present dilemma for athletes who want to compete on a level playing field.

Right now, if you want to be at the pointy end of the peleton, that playing field must include running in any of the Nike Vaporly4%/NEXT%/AlphaFly variants.

And a big part of me recoils from this, but a bigger part of me wants to see where this goes.

I am a shoe geek, researcher and innovator, and this stuff is what I breathe.

Brooks have skin in the game with the soon to be released Hyperion pro.. it should give Nike a bit of a shake, so I say bring it on..I can’t wait.

And I have to believe my old company ASICS will have something pretty cool up their sleeve in time for an Olympics on their home turf.. Tokyo.

As for Hoka, Saucony and New Balance.. well c’mon guys.. show us what you’ve got!

For an outstanding look at the detailed history of the Nike ‘super shoes”, and a very balanced perspective of what it means, check out this piece by revered footwear journalist Amby Burfoot..

 

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