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The Great Running-Shoe Debate

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As the race times came in over the weekend from the London Marathon, it has become evident that in modern times, world records in athletic events are ripe for the taking. Ethiopia’s Sisay Lemma won the London Marathon last weekend with a blisteringly quick pace, coming in at 2:04.01. This was the sixth fastest time someone has ever completed the race in.  

On the surface, this seems great. Spectators surely would like to see faster and faster times, athletes pushing themselves to the very limit, right at the edge of human capability. However, there are sceptics to these ever-quickening marathon records. 

In a similar vein to the fact that football fans are still not pleased with the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR): now running faces it’s battle with technology. 

For decades, long distance runners had two things on their mind: their shoes had to be lightweight, and they had to be thin. It makes sense – long distance runners want to be as light as possible so that that they carry less weight. A third factor has now emerged for runners to bear in mind, and Nike have been at the forefront. The third factor concerns energy return. If your shoes preserve the vital energy, so desperately needed in long-distance running, then ordinary shoes, where energy is lost through the road become obsolete. Long-distance runners crave this technology. A running shoe with high levels of energy return allow the runner to conserve more energy as more is transferred back into the runner, thus providing the feeling that athlete is being propelled forward by their shoes. This is game-changing technology for marathon runners and shoes that don’t provide their users with this energy return simply will be phased out of use. 

However, as with all advantages in sport, there must be a limit to how far you can push an idea. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) have very vague guidance on this. The rules currently state that runners’ shoes must not give an unfair advantage and perhaps more importantly, be “reasonably available to all”. Those athletes not under multi-million-pound sponsorship contracts, simply do have the facilities to use such advanced shoe technology. One may call this an unfair advantage for those that can afford the technology, yet the rules are so vague that little can be done to rectify this. 

Nike’s shoes in question are called Vaporfly. These shoes have transformed the marathon game and records have tumbled since their introduction to the sport. Published scientific journals have concluded that marathon times, using the Vaporfly shoes, could be reduced by up to 3%. In a race that lasts over 2 hours, 3% shaves a significant amount off race times. These shoes contain a brand-new foam, slotted into the midsole which provides an energy return up to 30% more than standard marathon shoes. Not only that, the Vaporfly’s include a carbon fibre plate which dramatically increases athletic performance. The carbon fibre plate adds comfortability as well as improved performance. It is well known that carbon fibre is a highly lightweight material and this combined with its energy returning properties create an incredibly sought after running shoe.  

Eliud Kipchoge, widely regarded as the best marathon runner of his generation thrust this debate into the mainstream in the Autumn of 2019 in the INEOS sponsored 1:59 Challenge in Austria, specifically designed for Kipchoge to be the first man to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon. He gladly obliged and ran the 26-mile race in an incredible 1 hour 59 minute 40 second time. An outstanding feat that no man had achieved before. Shortly after the completion of the race, controversy ensued. Kipchoge was of course wearing Nike’s Vaporfly running shoes and people, undoubtedly staggered at the speed of his running, became highly suspicious of the technology of his shoes. One cannot blame them though, a sub-2-hour marathon is a freakish sort of human athletic achievement, a record that doesn’t really have any parallel, it is that impressive. Many argue that even with the shoes Kipchoge was wearing, no other human on earth could have run that fast for that long.  

Athletics has been riddled with shame and controversy throughout its professional life. Corruption scandals, along with the endless drug problems the sport has faced, the last thing athletics needs now is a fresh argument over technological advances. Yet, for the long-term future of a sport we all love, one cannot simply sweep this under the carpet. Perhaps it is time that performance-enhancing technology is viewed in the same light as the more well-known performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps there comes a point where technological advances have to stop to satisfy the fairness of competition. We all want to see runners going faster and faster, but if there are people out there who can gain an unfair advantage through the use of technology then perhaps the world of athletics has a bigger problem on their hands than they would like to admit.  

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