The super shoes that changed athletics

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When the marathon runners assemble at Heroes’ Square in Budapest next weekend for the start of the 42-kilometre race at the world athletics championships, all will be wearing a variation of shoe that has revolutionised the most elemental of sports, running.

These are not the light thin-soled trainers traditionally favoured by long-distance runners. (In 1960, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in no shoes at all.)

Eliud Kipchoge wore an iteration of the Vaporfly shoes when he ran the first sub-two hour marathon in Vienna in 2019.

The impact of the so-called super shoes over the past seven years in middle- and long-distance running has been likened to the change from wooden tennis racquets to graphite, or from wood to aluminium bats in baseball. “The change in shoes is the most profound technological advance in athletics since the move to synthetic tracks,” said former Age journalist and veteran athletics writer Len Johnson.

The revolution started in 2016 when Nike launched a new running shoe called the VaporFly. It sounded like a Marvel character and, with iridescent colours and a big chunky sole, looked a little clownish.

Abebe Bikila

A carbon plate in the sole for support and, most importantly, a special foam in the heel are designed to roll runners onto their toes, taking the stress off their calves, meaning they save energy, leading to faster times.

In the multibillion-dollar shoe industry there is reason for cynicism about gimmicky new shoes, but the results have backed up the marketing.

After Nike introduced their new shoe technology in 2016, their athletes dominated the marathon. Eight of the 12 fastest men’s or women’s marathons in history were run in an 18-month period soon after the shoes were launched. In 2019, Nike athletes occupied 31 of the 36 podium places in the six major marathons.

According to Runners Tribe, nine of the top 10 fastest marathon times (at courses that authorities recognise as eligible for a record) have been run in the past five years. In women’s marathons, nine of the 10 fastest times have been clocked since 2017.

The watershed moment came in 2019 when Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon champion, wearing a new incarnation of the Vaporflys, broke the marathon record and became the first person to run a marathon in less than two hours.

Non-Nike athletes began wearing the shoes to keep up in the foot race while their own companies feverishly worked to catch up in the shoes arms race. Now all the big manufacturers have designed their own versions.

At this year’s Boston marathon, athletes wearing the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 3 claimed the top four places in the men’s race. In the women’s race the relative newcomer to shoes, Swiss brand ON, had Kenyan Hellen Obiri take first place. It’s become a race within a race for the shoe companies to claim the best new tech.

For the Tokyo Olympics marathon, organisers had a target of 80 runners in each of the men’s and women’s events and set qualifying times accordingly, but through a combination of the faster times in the shoes and the extra year of qualifying due to COVID, 106 men and 88 women qualified to start in Sapporo.

To qualify for the marathon at next year’s Paris Olympics, male runners will have to meet an entry standard of two hours, eight minutes and 10 seconds for the 42-kilometre race. That’s three minutes and 20 seconds quicker than the entry standard for the Tokyo Games. For women, the entry standard is two minutes, 40 seconds quicker than for Tokyo, at 2:26.50.

Track athletes – not marathoners – have a 15-month window left to break records in the high-tech shoes before new World Athletics rules take effect. The maximum amount of foam in the heel will be cut in half from 40 millimetres to 20mm for track athletes from November next year, after Paris 2024.

Eliud Kipchoge approaches the finish line after running 1:159 in a marathon in 2019, with his pacemakers celebrating behind. Credit: Press Association

The improvements are not all down to shoes, but they are a big part of the change.

Australian Craig Mottram, world championship bronze medallist over 5000 metres and now a coach employed by ON, said the foam under the heel was more important than the carbon plates in the sole, which acted as a stabiliser.

“The two main benefits of the new technology shoes are they improve performance – you run faster – but they also aid in recovery, so athletes are able to train more frequently with less risk of injury.”

Initially, the focus was on marathons, but now the technology is having an impact in all track and field events, with the heel rebound helpful in hurdles and sprints, too.

2012 London Olympic competing 2012 London Olympic Games London Olympic Stadium LondonAustralian Craig Mottram in the mens 5000m race. wednesday 8th August 2012Photo by Brendan EspositoCredit: Brendan Esposito

But different rules apply to different events and some athletes have been caught out. Long jumpers, for instance, are not allowed to wear the new middle-distance running shoes because they have more heel foam than spikes and World Athletics say they offer too much spring.

Mottram said the next stage at the elite level was for shoes specifically created for certain courses.

“ON have got a shoe coming up for Paris next year designed specifically for that course. The actual Paris marathon course in the second half has more elevation gained and lost than the Boston and New York marathons combined, so it will be very hilly. You could then design a shoe for that course with benefits running up and down hills,” Mottram said.

For comparison, there have been stages in the Tour de France where riders change bikes mid-stage because they move from a long flat section to a long hill climb. Riders happily sacrifice a few seconds changing bikes for the minutes potentially gained by the bike more suitable for hills.

“I don’t know if it gets to that stage with changing shoes mid-race,” Mottram said.

The obvious parallel to be drawn with other Olympic sports is with the so-called super suits that were outlawed in swimming from 2010. Two years earlier at the Beijing Olympics, at the height of the super suit era, 25 world records were broken in a week.

World Athletics accepts there is a similar performance benefit from the shoes as with the swimsuits but a senior World Athletics source, with knowledge of shoe regulations but unauthorised to speak publicly, said there was also a significant difference from a health and safety perspective that authorities considered. The new shoes better protect an athlete’s body as they pound out the kilometres in training and competing – in some cases they help correct a running stride, and so protect against injury. That is vastly different to a swimmer in a pool in a skintight suit.

When the new shoes first came in, World Athletics regulated to ensure all athletes had access to the latest technology, so that athletes from poorer countries were not disadvantaged. To do this, they instituted the critical change of bringing the shoe companies inside the tent.

Frustrated at spending tens of millions of dollars designing new shoes only to risk them being outlawed by World Athletics for competition (there are many shoes deemed illegal for different events), the shoe companies agreed to participate in the regulatory process, so they could offer their input.

In 2020 World Athletics approved Vaporflys being worn at the Tokyo Olympics. The rules on shoe technology state that no shoe could have a sole of thicker than 40mm in the heel, and not more than one plate in the midsole. The world body also banned prototype runners in competition, so any shoe had to be available in shops for several months before they could be worn in competition.

World Athletics reached an agreement with the companies that there be a three-year lag period before any further changes to regulations were brought in. That allowed the multinational companies to factor change into their production processes.

On December 22, 2021, World Athletics further reduced the size of the foam in the heel to no more than 20mm thickness for all track events, to come into effect next year. For the road events – the marathon and the walks – the 40mm limit will remain.

Simultaneously, there have been other technological advances that have led to better times in middle-distance running in particular, with new track lighting offering a significant advantage. Flashing wave lights on the inside rail of the track are set to specific paces for the athletes and remove the need for runners to set the pace in the opening lap or laps of a race.

The lights are not yet used at world championships or Olympic level.

Athletics Australia’s middle-distance coach Nic Bideau saida combination of shoes, the new wave lights and improvements in training methods had helped deliver faster times.

“Shoe technology has had an impact no doubt about it – they can run faster and recover faster. It’s obvious it makes people run faster. Eight guys ran under three minutes, 30 seconds in one race in Oslo [in the 1500m at the Diamond league meet in June].”

He doubted that World Athletics would try to outlaw improvements in shoe technology.

“If you sell cars, and you say, ‘I have one that goes faster, is more economical and lasts longer than other cars’, why would you want to buy the other one?

“Nike seemed to be ahead of the game now everyone has their own versions, so all athletes have access to the shoes. It’s only an issue if some athletes can’t access [the latest technology].

“We are not racing against history, we are competing against the guys next to you.”

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