Tag Archives: Vaporfly

Are super shoes distorting history?

Athletics chiefs are under pressure to outlaw controversial ‘super-shoes’ after the sport’s top scientist admitted the rules governing them need to be revamped.

Olympic records are expected to tumble at Tokyo 2020, with competitors using hi-tech footwear that has led to record books being rewritten at an astonishing rate.

Usain Bolt last week joined the outcry against the governing body for permitting the shoe technology, with the sprint legend describing the situation as ‘laughable’.

Bermon suggested that the current regulations, which simply limit the depth of the sole and the number of hi-tech stiff ‘plates’ within it, are not sophisticated enough.

Figures within World Athletics have previously avoided giving any indication as to whether the rules will need to be changed once a moratorium on doing so ends after the Games. ‘After the moratorium we will very likely have new rules governing these shoes,’ said Bermon. ‘In the longer term, we will probably have new rules based on different characteristics other than a simple measurement.

‘It seems what is mediating the highest performance-enhancing effect is likely the stiff plate. Regulating this would mean — and this is something we are likely going to move — just regulating on measuring the shoes and the number of plates is not enough. We should move to a system that is based on energy return.’

Elite road running has been transformed since Nike released its VaporFly shoe four years ago, with athletes producing a slew of remarkable performances.

They included the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge breaking the fabled two-hour marathon barrier wearing a pair, while his compatriot Brigid Kosgei beat Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old marathon world record by 81 seconds a day later.

The introduction of track spikes using similar technology has had a similarly transformative effect and will be widely used in Tokyo. Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei set world records over 5,000m and 10,000m wearing a pair, while in June Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce clocked 10.63 seconds in the 100m, second only to Florence Griffith-Joyner.

Fraser-Pryce last week argued that too much signifance has been assigned to the shoe, saying: ‘You can give the spike to everyone in the world and it doesn’t mean they will run the same time as you or even better. It requires work.’

But Bolt believes they are unfairly enhancing performance, saying: ‘It’s weird and unfair for a lot of athletes because I know that in the past shoe companies actually tried and the governing body said ‘No, you can’t change the spikes’, so to know that now they are actually doing it, it’s laughable.’

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce argued that too much significance has been assigned to the shoe

Scientists are uncertain why the shoes bestow such enormous benefits but it is understood the key technology is the stiff plate, often made of carbon, and the ultra-light, springy foam.

Along with an upper in the road shoe that is more curved than previous designs, it is felt that these qualities significantly reduce the amount of energy the runner expends.

World Athletics has capped the depth of the sole at 40mm to limit the effect of the foam and insisted on a maximum of one plate per shoe. Critics have said those rules do not go far enough. Especially when some athletes find much less benefit from the shoes compared to others and some enjoy no improvement at all. The reasons for that phenomenon has also so far baffled the scientists.

‘The same shoe gives you a massive variability among different athletes — even greater than 10 per cent [improvement in performance] in some cases,’ says Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who sits on the science and medical commission of the International Olympic Committee.

‘How you respond to the shoe can determine if you’re going to be an Olympian or watch it on TV. You know who is going to win and who can qualify [for the Games]. Athletes have qualified because they had access to a super shoe. And many who were not running in these shoes didn’t qualify.’

Pitsiladis compares the shoes to a form of ‘technological doping’ and wants the regulations to be changed so that the shoes cannot determine the outcome of a race.

‘One solution is to minimise the stack [sole] height, while allowing the shoe companies to innovate in a smaller area, minimising the impact of any performance-enhancing mechanisms such as the carbon-fibre plate,’ he says.

‘Let the best companies come up with half a per cent [improvement in performance], say, or one per cent. But not a situation where you have improvements in running economy of even greater than seven per cent.’

Experts fear that the working group World Athletics has put together to advise the ruling body on the regulations post-Tokyo will not go far enough, especially when representatives of six sports brands are sitting on it.

‘The moratorium was also because we had to discuss with the manufacturers,’ said Bermon. ‘It’s very important that you respect the manufacturers. They have spent a lot of time and money designing these shoes. We have to take decisions that do not put them into difficult economic circumstances.’

The working group also includes representatives from the governing body itself, its athletes commission, the ‘sporting goods industry’ and a scientist. World Athletics said: ‘The group is examining the research around shoe technology in order to set parameters, with the aim of achieving the right balance between innovation, competitive advantage, universality and availability.’

Thomas Baines – National 800m runner – I tried the shoes for size, and flew!

I raced in the Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes for the first time on Saturday and broke my 800metres personal best by more than a second.

I reached 600m and thought ‘Wow, I have a lot left in the tank’. I felt like I saved more energy with each contact with the ground.

They are so springy. I put my foot down and felt a burst of energy, a lovely bounce, when I came up. They really work with you, you get a spring up and it is a lot more efficient, as it absorbs the energy when you go down and pushes you back up, so you fatigue less.

National 800 metre runner Thomas Baines raced in the Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes

You just don’t have to work as hard so it is helping with the basic biomechanics of running. It allows you to get a longer stride without putting any extra effort in. It is not that the spikes make you run quicker, just that you have so much more left at the end. That’s the key.

I finished in 1min 49.6sec at the Loughborough Grand Prix, which is 1.1sec off my previous best. I was second behind a 1500m European junior champion also wearing the spikes.

My aim now is to get to GB under-23 level, to compete at the European Championships. If I can keep improving the spikes will definitely help too. I trained in the Vaporfly trainers on a 10km run last week.

Running at an easy pace I would normally be clocking 4min 40sec pace per kilometre. Putting in the same amount of effort, I got a few kilometres in, glanced at my watch and was ‘Oh my God!’ I’m running 4.20 per kilometre. It felt very easy. The same route took two minutes quicker in the end.

You can see why the professionals are using them. You can see the difference they make in the times. In 2019 there were two runners who ran under 1min 45sec. This season already there are six, with Elliot Giles now No4 on the UK all-time list behind Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, with Oliver Dustin No6.

We haven’t had these sort of times run before from so many in the same season. It is making a big difference but at the Olympics all the elite athletes will be wearing spikes that use this technology, so it is a fair test.

Nike’s lightning shoes

Do you know the most remarkable thing about Nike’s £200 Vaporfly Elite trainers? They actually live up to the hype.

When the shoe was launched last year, Nike insisted it improved running economy by an average of 4% – a claim so astounding that it caused many sports scientists’ eyebrows to rise in scepticism, loosely aping the company’s swoosh logo.

However last week, the New York Times, having analysed 495,000 marathon and half-marathon times since 2014 using data from Strava, reached a similar conclusion. Runners who wore Vaporflys, which have a controversial carbon-fibre plate in their soles, did indeed run 3-4% quicker on average than similar runners wearing other shoes, and around 1% faster than those using the next speediest shoe.

Your first instinct might be to rush out and buy a pair – especially as a separate study in the journal Sports Medicine on elite athletes estimated that the shoes could take six minutes off a three-hour marathoner’s time. Good luck with that. The shoes appear to be almost permanently sold out, and often go for double their retail price on eBay.

A more pressing task is to ask whether the shoes – and other forms of cutting-edge technology – go too far. Do they, in effect, turn what is supposed to be a level playing field in one that more resembles the slope of the Eiger?

A case can be made that the Vaporflys have already created at least one major sliding-doors moment in elite sport. Roger Pielke Jnr, the director of the sports governance centre at the University of Colorado Boulder, notes that in the 2016 US Olympic marathon trials, Kara Goucher finished in fourth – missing out on the plane to Rio by just one place. Yet the winner, Amy Cragg, along with the third-placed runner, Shalane Flanagan, were both wearing early prototypes of the Vaporflys, which he believes could have made all the difference to the result.

“It is highly likely that Goucher is the first known athlete to miss the Olympics due to shoe technology,” says Pielke. “The mean improvement of Nike Vaporfly for women and fastest runners is around 2%. Put Goucher into Vaporflys in the 2016 US marathon trials, and she gets a spot if they improve her performance by only 0.7%.”

The kicker? If Goucher had not left the Nike Oregon Project after raising concerns about its use of TUEs and thyroid medication, she may indeed have been wearing those shoes.

So where should we draw the line? On the one hand you cannot blame companies for striving to break new ground. They have profits to chase, consumers to satisfy, competitors breathing down their neck. We want these products, too. Only the most masochistic of runners attempts marathons in bare feet or old‑school trainers.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body, also insists that Nike’s game-changing shoe meets all its requirements and “does not require any special inspection or approval”. Yet elite competition also requires a semblance of fairness. At some point the IAAF will have to rule on the permissible amount of energy return allowed from cushioning materials and whether carbon‑fibre devices in midsoles should be banned.

Such discussions stretch beyond track and field. In 2009, the sports governing body of swimming, Fina, banned the LZR Racer swimsuit because it was said to reduce skin friction drag by 24%. Yet in other sports the rules appear a little looser. Take British Cycling’s skinsuits, which they have used at Olympic Games since 2008 and are said to improve performance by up to 7%. That is a colossal advantage – yet the UCI has ruled they are legal.

Some inside the system concede that it would take other nations vast sums to replicate such technology. Elite competition is about winning, they point out, and if the rules permit the skinsuits what is the problem? Similar technology was also used to help Team GB win three skeleton medals in Pyeongchang – much to the delight of the nation.

Yet it is only natural to also feel a bit queasy about this, because it means that a cyclist from a smaller nation has almost no chance of an Olympic medal in a track sprint. While they will wear an off-the-peg skinsuit, British cyclists will have been 3D-laser scanned before being provided with suits made with cutting-edge materials, including polyurethane derivatives.

Those suits will, crucially, contain near-invisible “trips” that disrupt the flow of air and create a turbulence effect that reduces the amount of wind resistance acting on the body.

All this can get very thorny. At London 2012, most supported the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius being allowed to race wearing carbon fibre limbs– even though respected sports scientists, such as Ross Tucker, were pointing out that it enabled him to use 20% less force than able-bodied athletes to run at the same speeds.

When I spoke to someone who uses the Vaporfly Elites they raved about them providing more “bounce and forward momentum” and said they also helped them go faster for longer. “Oddly you feel them most when standing still or walking in them,” they said. “They tip you forward slightly so it’s like you are always just about to ‘take off’ at speed.”

But now we know how well the shoes work, is it time to power down their afterburners?